The Sail Inn: An Oral History of a Tempe Music Landmark
Sail Inn owner with the late Chico Chism.
Courtesy of Gina Lombardi
When Gina Lombardi opened the Sail Inn in 1990, neither she nor her business partners were certain the Tempe bar would last. It did, and then some.
Admittedly, it was a risky venture. A kitschy, nautical-themed neighborhood joint, complete with fish art and employees in captain's hats, located along a lonely stretch of road far from the hullabaloo of Mill Avenue near the bottom of the dry Salt River. A half-dozen others had tried and subsequently failed to catch on years before Sail Inn launched, and it, too, could've easily run aground.
It didn't, thanks to the never-say-die-attitude of Lombardi and co-owners Ed and Bill Whitman, all veterans of the Tempe bar biz. Through the years, the Sail developed a word-of-mouth following among diehard Tempe drinkers and, particularly, local musicians.
Lombardi transformed the Sail into a local music destination, bringing in bands and performers from day one and treating them like family. And they've kept coming back over the decades, whether it was artists from the early '90s blues boom or bands from Mill's storied jangle-pop heyday to current Tempe tastemakers.
Sail Inn became a staple of Tempe's music landscape with an identity and culture all its own. A refuge for rockers, artists, and weirdos alike, it also was a haven for hippies, who came in droves for Sunday afternoon sessions with local Deadhead band The Noodles, which ran, more or less, for 17 years.
See also: 20 Favorite Concerts at The Sail Inn
The Sail Inn's history during the past 24 years has many twists and turns, including its death and subsequent rebirth, and contains memorable tales of great gigs, strange antics, and drunken bliss. Sadly, it all comes to an end this weekend when Sail Inn closes its doors.
In March, Lombardi announced that Sail Inn had been purchased by local developer Laveen Investment and would be demolished to make way for a new location of The Lodge, a restaurant in Scottsdale. The announcement bummed out its loyal regulars and the local musicians who considered it their second home.
They'll simultaneously celebrate and mourn the Sail and its 24-year-plus legacy during a three-day Farewell Festival from Friday, June 27, to Sunday, June 29, at the bar. While Lombardi will embark to Cactus Jack's in Ahwatukee, where she'll continue to book bands and carry on Sail Inn's legacy, regulars bemoan the loss of the beloved Tempe bar and music venue.
(Editor's note: Some quotes have been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.)
The Sail Inn (circa 1990) and its first sign.
Courtesy of Gina Lombardi
Gina Lombardi, owner: I'd been bartending at the old 6 East over on Mill for years when I'd started looking for a bar of my own. And I found this bar, Last Chance Lounge, but so did Ed Whitman, my boss at the 6 East, and his brother Bill. So instead of fighting them for it, we all became partners.
Ed Whitman, former Sail Inn co-owner: Yeah, because I had the clout. [Laughs] Lombardi: It'd changed hands many times before we bought it. For years, it was the Hut. Then it was Victor's Oasis and, like, six other things. People kept trying and failing with the place. It was risky, but a friend told me it'd be a good bar because the land would be worth some money someday.
Whitman: We thought, "Just don't fail."
Lombardi: We knew eventually Tempe Town Lake would come through, which was why it became The Sail Inn. When we bought it, there was nothing around us but dirt. Our street used to go straight to the river bottom. I'd ride my horse from Papago Stables right to the bar.
Gavin Rutledge, former Casey Moore's co-owner: Sail Inn used to be in the middle of nowhere. None of those apartments and condos were around.
Lombardi: We put a lot into the place. I said, "Let's have a volleyball court and horseshoe pits out back." Ed was like a father. I'd get him excited about an idea; he'd make it happen, like with the music.
Whitman: Gina really wanted music.
Lombardi: I was always into booking bands at 6 East, and we started music from the beginning here. At our grand opening, there was Chico Chism and Colleen Callahan. We put a sailboat outside and lit it up with white lights. The bands that started with me were mostly all blues, like Big Pete [Pearson] and Hoodoo Kings.
Mario Moreno, guitarist, Hoodoo Kings: We were like regulars there and played like once a month. The blues were really hot and heavy around town at the time, and it was the thing to do.
Some of The Sail Inn's regulars in its early years.
Courtesy of Gina Lombardi
Mansaray Blue-Pony, artist/blues musician: Bob called me right after Gina had opened and said, "There's a new club and she's hiring bands. Go talk to her." When I first played there, Kati Ingino and Claire Griese from Sistah Blue played bass and drums.
Corritore: Back then, people drank a lot more, and I remember some really fun-loving, loose crowds there and they were all about the music and dancing.
Blue-Pony: Some of the old regulars, we'd get pretty crazy. Mostly, we'd just get drunk and dance, since there was always danceable music going on.
Rutledge: We called it the "Sail Inn, stagger out," because people got hammered there back then. Gina put on the best events. They'd set up a track in the parking lot and have motorized barstool races, which you probably couldn't do these days 'cause you'd get a DUI.
Lombardi: We used to do crazy stuff. Halloween parties were always huge and the toga party was something we did every year. We had volleyball and used to play against Long Wong's, 6 East, and Casey's.
Blue-Pony: Sometimes we'd all sit around out back with our shirts off and smoke weed and drink kamikazes.
Vince Ramirez, drummer, Flathead: There wasn't much around there, so people could go outside and do whatever they wanted without worrying about a cop rolling up.
Blue-Pony: It was a casual and free-spirited place. The people there have always been open-minded to any kind of music, and I'd try a lot of experimental things. Gina has always been up for everything.
Lombardi: After a little while, the blues weren't as big as a draw as it used to be. So the music evolved all the time.
Whitman: We've tried everything. But rock has been good to us over the years.
Ramirez: [Flathead] started playing the Sail in '93, and I remember there wasn't a P.A., so you'd bring your own. I'd tie down my drums or put a piece of concrete in front since the stage inside would bounce. It was very rickety and over the course of a song, the drums bounced away.
The first stage at The Sail Inn.
Courtesy of Gina Lombardi
Chris Hansen Orf, guitarist, Zen Lunatics: Back then, Tempe had the whole supposed "next Seattle" thing, with Gin Blossoms and everyone. There were bars up and down Mill to play, but Sail Inn was different. You couldn't just stumble in, like Long Wong's or Balboa Cafe, you kinda had to seek it out.
Lombardi: I'd go around to other bars, look at bands, and if I liked them, I'd talk to them and ask if they wanted to play The Sail Inn. We booked about the same popular bands as was everyone else.
Orf: Sail Inn wasn't a see-and-be-seen place like Mill, just a friendly place. It was a favorite place of [late Gin Blossoms guitarist] Doug Hopkins to drink during the day. He and Lawrence [Zubia] would go in all the time.
Lawrence Zubia, guitarist, Chimeras/Pistoleros: It was kind of like a little refuge. Doug and I used to get off Mill and go day-drinking at Sail Inn. We'd hide out on hot summer days or come in and drink before rehearsals. Occasionally we'd play there with the Chimeras.
The Noodles perform their final Sunday chuch session at The Sail Inn.
Music kept evolving at The Sail Inn. In 1997, local Grateful Dead tribute the Noodles began their now-legendary Sunday afternoon sessions.
John Reuter, guitarist, The Noodles: I came in one Sunday and said, "Look, you've got six guys passed out in front of a half-pitcher of beer on Sundays. Would you mind if we came in on a Sunday afternoons from 3 to 7?" Gina said, "Let's give it a try."
Lombardi: The only thing, in the history of The Sail Inn, that's worked religiously, has been having the Noodles on Sunday afternoon. We call it "church."
Rutledge: It's always had a big mix of people. All ages, literally, from families to 21-year-old girls spinning around to guys in their 90s wearing a tie-dye trying to dance on their walkers.
Reuter: We'd bring in our own P.A., and I eventually talked Gina into buying mine. She realized that if she was going to make this place work, she was going to have to invest in a P.A. and a salaried sound guy.
Reuter: A lot of the more [Mill Avenue] bands were gone by the time we started in '97, and the Sail evolved more into of a hippie, reggae, jammy, and bluegrass scene.
Mikel Lander, guitarist, Sugar Thieves: [The late] David Biederman began promoting with Intelligroove around then and was booking a lot of bands or bigger acts, whether it's bringing Delta Nove or bands like Umphrey's McGee back in the day.
Lombardi: We got this label as the "hippie bar," but we've had so much more than that.
The good times didn't last. By the mid-Aughts, development on Mill Avenue and in downtown Tempe had exploded. Sail Inn's owners kept getting offers from developers. In late 2005, they decided to sell the property.
Lombardi: We knew the property was going to be valuable when we bought it. Then, after Tempe Town Lake came in, the property definitely upped in the value. My partners wanted to be done. I didn't, but they were older and ready to retire.
The sign for Trax, which took over The Sail Inn's property for less than two years.
Whitman: I had two heart attacks when I was running this place. And I just got outta the stress business.
Lombardi: So we sold it to [Joseph Lewis]. I took my third and merged with The Loft over on Mill. And, obviously, they changed the Sail Inn into another bar, Trax.
Walt Richardson, singer-songwriter: I'd never come into Sail Inn much but really got a chance to know Gina at the Loft and played there.
Lombardi: People followed me over to the Loft. The Noodles began playing Sundays right away. And I met some fabulous new bands just because we were on Mill Avenue, like Black Carl, who never played Sail Inn in the first stretch. It was great for a while, but my partners had different ideas than I did. I brought all of the music -- we were doing very well, but they wanted more of a [nightclub], so I got out and started looking again.
Fortunately for Lombardi, Trax had bombed a year earlier and was vacant. She reopened Sail Inn in early 2009 with a little help from some friends.
Lombardi: It was a wreck. The windows were busted out, the doors were boarded over, and someone had stolen all the TVs. So I talked to the new owners and just leased it back.
Reuter: Once I found out that Gina got the place back, I called her and asked to start the Sundays again. Lombardi: I put out the word, "Hey, does anybody want to come help?" and all these people came out. We built a new [indoor stage] and a green room. Ken Kareta helped me design the new sound system. Everybody was jazzed to come back. They all missed the outdoor stage and helped me fixed the place up. I started calling bands, getting on the calendar.
Richardson: When Sail Inn picked back up, I started going in there quite a bit and sitting in with some of the bands.
Lombardi: Dry River Yacht Club came in shortly thereafter, and then I started learning about new bands like Banana Gun and Japhy's [Descent].
Henri Benard, drummer, Dry River Yacht Club: Our first CD release party was there, and we put together this two-stage carnival. That was one of our best shows there. I think that Dry River did something that blew the fucking lid off Tempe that nobody had seen yet. After that, it felt like it became this standard for local bands.
Business was booming, but Sail Inn was on borrowed time. Last year, the property owners informed Lombardi they weren't renewing the lease.
Lombardi: We'd been leasing from the same developers that bought us years ago. So we try setting up a meeting to talk about renewing, and they said, "You know, we got an offer on the table. If it goes through, the place is sold." And the offer did go through. I talked to the new developers, Laveen Investment, about when they were going to start making this the Lodge. It was going to be a bit, so I asked, "Can we continue to lease from you?" And we decided to go until the end of June.
Benard: My heart just broke when I heard it was closing.
Moreno: It's a crying shame. Sail Inn's one the last great old rotten drinking holes in Tempe. Benard: The Sail Inn space has been utilized so properly by the Tempe scene. It's a staple. I don't know what some bands are gonna do now.
Lombardi: I have no regrets. I'm not mad. You have to roll with it. I've had a really good run and I love the Sail Inn and always will. But it's mainly about the people, when it really comes down to it.
The Sail Inn's Farewell Festival will take place from Friday, June 27, to Sunday, June 29. The lineup is as follows:
Friday, June 27, 5 p.m. Mr. Eastwood Mojo Farmers Endoplasmic Love Me Nots SPAFFORD Sara Robinson & The Midnight Special
Saturday, June 28 Booya Shawn Johnson & The Foundation Los Guys Banana Gun Japhys Descent Dry River Yacht Club Jared & The Mill Black Carl Hot Birds & The Chili Sauce Strange Young Things
Sunday, June 29 Robby Roberson Quartet Decker Noodles Grave Danger The Relief Crew Sugar Thieves Walt Richardson Future Loves Past Xtra Ticket
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