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Culture comes above ground in Rochester
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Owners of the Love Ugly Cabaret say they want to provide a focus for alternative cultural life in Rochester. (MPR photo/Laurel Druley)
A Rochester artist has made it his mission to unearth the underground culture in his city. And so far he's been pretty successful.

Rochester, Minn. — Rochester's not high on the list of wild, bohemian cities. But that may be changing.

An unassuming storefront in downtown Rochester is home to a popular new venue for emerging artists. It's called the Love Ugly Cabaret.

Inside Love Ugly is anything but subtle. Once a hole-in-the-wall bar, it's got a fresh coat of paint and a whole new attitude. One wall doubles as a screen for avant-garde films and a backdrop for a stage. Local artists' work is displayed on every other spare wall. A red light hangs over the bar painted florescent green. The house band pumps out some sloppy but upbeat jazz. The band needs practice but the audience doesn't seem to mind. Cabaret owner Mike Savage suggests it's all part of loving the ugly and supporting artists for having the guts to try.

"It may be an ugly performance but we love it anyway," Savage says. "The word love ugly itself came to me a long time ago. When things are bad or things aren't working out, when things are ugly we've got to love that too. That's a part of life and a part of our experience and we don't know if we're going to get more of that."

Savage's business partner Eric Donaldson wasn't so sure about the name.

"It's been an odd name to deal with as a bar," he says. "I remember talking to Mike: 'I know it's got a ring to it but do we really want to call it that?' 'Yeah that's the name it's got. It's got to be the Love Ugly.' So it grew on me. I had a friend call me and ask 'so when is that bar of yours opening up, the butt-ugly?' No, Love Ugly."

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Image Mike Savage

Savage is usually seen wearing a black beret . But he actually wears several hats. On this particular night he's sound guy, poet, entertainer and MC.

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen welcome to the Love Ugly cabaret." Savage warms up the crowd.

Savage is a self-described "punk rock revolutionary kind of guy." He says the Love Ugly started out as an informal poetry reading series in an old Rochester warehouse. When regular audiences grew to more than 50 people, Savage saw a desire for something bigger. He watched many locals make weekly treks to Minneapolis for their culture fix. He and Eric Donaldson recognize the talent and potential is here and saw a business opportunity.

"Living in Rochester for a long time you often hear people complain about the lack of nightlife. 'Rochester sucks. There's nothing to do here,'" Donaldson says.

"I'm kind of a do-it-your-selfer. And that's what I like about Mike too. He's making something happen here. And this is bringing it all above ground now. It used to be this cool underground thing and now there's a lot more hoops to jump through fire code and otherwise. But (we're) bringing it all above ground and giving local artists a venue to express themselves."

There are other organizations in Rochester trying to shake things up. The Vertigo Theater Factory hopes to use Love Ugly as an occasional venue. And when it opens across the street the Board to Death skate park hopes to share customers.

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Image The Love Ugly houseband

At one point or another most of the people behind all of these endeavors have thought about giving up and moving to a bigger city. Savage says he's tried La Crosse, Minneapolis and Madison but he prefers to be a pioneer in Rochester.

"A lot of the talent in Minneapolis isn't born from Minneapolis. It's born from Rochester or Mantorville or Byron or Winona," Savage says. "Dennis Hopper is from Kansas and John Coltrane is from Missouri and Miles Davis is from Ohio. The list goes on of how many awesome musicians influenced American culture come from the midwest and small towns so why not a small town itself influence culture?"

Savage has made a point of looking for that small town talent and encouraging it to appear at Love Ugly.

Brianne Bilyeu read a few poems on a recent open mic night:

"My taste buds drip off into my tea and leaving reality far behind
On sugar lips that chap and blister with my kiss
Or is it his that demands my time and bores my mind leaving me
And happy to be there but wishing I was elsewhere
I laugh at myself two steps behind as always..."

During the day Bilyeu is a clinical technologist at Mayo. She appreciates what Love Ugly has brought to Rochester.

"I'm one of the people who makes a mass exodus to the Twin Cities, Minneapolis, the Uptown area every weekend," Bilyeu says. "(Love Ugly) has that feel of a laid back coffee house a really liberal place you can go in Rochester. It has a different feel than most places in Rochester. Rochester before Love Ugly Rochester was just a lot of sports bars not a lot of places where people could just come and be themselves."

Club owner Mike Savage says it's not actually Rochester's fault.

"So many people complain 'Oh it's Rochester' like there's some evil emperor on top of the Plummer Building trying to keep anything good from happening in Rochester," Savage says. "I just don't think anyone has really done anything. A lot of people with good ideas like any small town they go to Minneapolis or go to LA and they do it there."

As if to prove his point, Mike Savage takes to the stage with his house band.

The Love Ugly house band will perform Saturday night along with Velveteen, an alternative rock band. On December 7th the juke joint swing sounds of Wayne "The Train" Hancock can be heard at the Love Ugly.

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