Damon Gallagher is embattled. That's not an unusual state for the local venue owner, as anyone who knows him well can attest. But it was especially apparent last week, when Gallagher tore down the sign from his Jack London District club, Vitus, packed up his belongings, and left the premises with most of his staff in tow. The location is now home to Vitus' predecessor, Duke's R&B, whose owner, Mike Ahmadi, had an arrangement with Gallagher allowing him to hold a cabaret permit there, while Ahmadi's company, Pacific Brokerage Inc., held the liquor license. Gallagher says he made the decision to leave after a dispute with the management of Duke's R&B.
Within 48 hours of shuttering his business, Gallagher conceived the next iteration of Vitus as a roving enterprise. He made phone calls and fired off emails to his peers in the downtown nightlife scene. A self-described "dick," Gallagher is also a canny politician. Tattooed and brawny, with the carriage of a boxer, he cuts a striking figure. On a Friday afternoon he waltzed into Cafe Van Kleef and knew everyone who walked by — from the former mayoral candidate to the hipster girl to the barflies on their way in for a 2 p.m. drink. Everyone asked how Vitus was going and got a compressed version of the saga.
"Yeah man, everyone's either relocated or waiting for Vitus to start its booking operation," Gallagher said about the bands that were booked at the venue. He'd already moved several smaller shows to The Night Light, which just opened a venue upstairs to its bar; Cafe Van Kleef; and Gallagher's other club, Disco Volante. A few days prior he also arranged a deal with Geoffrey Pete to books shows at his club, Geoffrey's Inner Circle, which just reopened. Pete, who has operated live music venues for decades in downtown Oakland, hired Gallagher as a subcontractor, allowing him to book shows on Friday nights at Geoffrey's under the moniker Vitus. They'll test out the partnership on Friday, August 3, with a show featuring the 26-piece Extra Action Marching Band.
If all goes according to plan, this new phase of Vitus could actually be salutary for Gallagher's brand. Part of what hindered the original club was its location, according to Gallagher. He and his former partner, Jesse Branstetter, chose the location at 201 Broadway with the idea that the Jack London area would quickly become a "destination location" for restaurants and nightlife, but it didn't quite pan out that way. Their original deal with Duke's listed Gallagher as "agent and property owner" on the club's cabaret permit, although its liquor license still belonged to Pacific Brokerage Inc., a company run by Ahmadi, who declined to comment for this article.
Up until recently, Gallagher had planned to invest in the property, with the hope of eventually owning the deed to a club. (He's also one-fourth of the ownership team at Disco Volante.) A few weeks ago, Ahmadi filed a fictitious business statement to officially change the club's name from Duke's R&B to Vitus. It's unclear if Ahmadi will try to run the venue under the name Vitus, but if he does, it could result in a legal dispute between the two business owners. Gallagher is currently in the process of trademarking the name as a booking company, and says he owns the domain name for Vitus' website. He believes Ahmadi would have a hard time trying to commandeer it.
"It would be ridiculous, because he'd have to use Duke's R&B website and Facebook account under the name Vitus," Gallagher said. "It would cost him tens of thousands of dollars. He doesn't even have the sign."
Tensions between Gallagher and Duke's R&B's management had actually been stewing for months, according to Gallagher. But to outside observers, it appears to have happened precipitously. Gallagher says he'd cleared his rig from the venue by Tuesday, July 24. "I left them with a shell," he said triumphantly, dangling a hand-rolled cigarette from the corner of his lip.
As of July 25, Duke's was open for business, but only as a 175-capacity bar. Contrary to Gallagher's description, it wasn't exactly a shell. But it showed no intention of being the trendy, rock-oriented "gastropub" that Gallagher had initially envisioned.
Pete, who shuttered his own club in 2009 after a contentious battle with Oakland police — who wanted him to pay overtime fees for cops to patrol the area around his club — remains cautiously optimistic about his new deal with Vitus. "We'll take each booking as it comes," he said. Nevertheless, he's agreed to hold several large shows that were originally scheduled at Vitus, including a celebration for the queens of Carnaval and a fundraiser for Barbara Boxer, in addition to the Extra Action show. And he has a generally favorable impression of Gallagher, who installed a PA system last week, plus the estimated "300 lighting requirements" demanded for the Extra Action show. "I used to have that much energy at one time in my life," Pete said.
For the time being, Gallagher is pleased. A former warehouse dweller and founder of the Ghost Town Gallery in West Oakland, he's become a virtual personification of the nightlife renaissance in downtown Oakland. At Vitus, he booked 25 shows a month, hosted pinball tournaments, and launched a promising comedy night. He's got enough connections in the entertainment industry to be a successful booker, although he'd like to eventually resurrect Vitus in brick-and-mortar form.
"I'm really looking for a turnkey situation," Gallagher said, explaining that the hold-up for most fledgling clubs is securing the liquor license. Thus far, he's assessed two potential sites. A new Vitus could rise from the ashes any day now.