Randall Plaxa remembers clearly the first band ever to play his club JM Randalls in Williamsburg.
It was As-1, a local jazz-R&B combo. Even after nearly 17 years, Plaxa can even rattle off the band's lineup that night.
Music was never a side dish at his comfortable pub, which as previously reported, closed its doors the first week of January. In Plaxa's mind, it was always the main course.
"I always envisioned JM Randalls as a music venue," he told me recently. "That was always the goal."
A former DJ and avid music fan, Plaxa came to Williamsburg with plenty of experience in presenting and promoting live music. He had helped run Richmond music clubs including Rockitz and previously had worked the East Coast circuit as a club DJ.
"I'm a jazz guy, I'm a blues guy," Plaxa said. "My ideal is Roy Buchanan's on stage and the catfish is coming out of the kitchen at midnight."
For many years, Plaxa succeeded in making that dream a reality. Many big-name acts performed at JM Randalls -- Bob Margolin, Roomful of Blues, Little Charlie & the Nightcats were regulars.
Gradually, though, modern rock 'n' roll sounds started to squeeze in alongside the jazz and blues as the nightclub sought a younger, hard-drinking clientele.
With the approach of Virginia's restaurant smoking ban 2009, Plaxa knew it was time for a change. He opted to refocus nightclub to attract older, more well-heeled customers. He renovated the interior, changed the menu and hired a chef to elevate the kitchen's output above typical pub grub.
Plaxa said that, after the change, his club went from making 75 percent of its money from the bar and 25 percent from the kitchen to the opposite -- 75 percent from the kitchen, 25 from the bar.
"I became a new venue," he said. But the new concept wasn't as financially viable as the old one. "I took it too far," Plaxa said. Eventually, the business was steadily bleeding cash. It didn't help that tourism in Williamsburg was on the decline at the same time. "Pretty soon, you're like, 'I can't make payroll.' But I kept trying to stretch things."
He fought to keep the doors open through the holidays so his 36 employees wouldn't face a bleak Christmas. For New Years Eve, Randalls presented the Michael Clark Band, a longtime local favorite.
"He tore the house down," Plaxa said. "The kitchen put out this incredible spread. It was like our last hurrah. It was a good night for us."
Soon after, it was all over.
Looking back, Plaxa figures he let his emotions get the best of him. "I didn't book bands with my head, I booked with my heart," he said. "I made that mistake in everything. We had 80 bottles on our wine list at one time."
Introducing Williamsburg audiences to bands such as Roomful of Blues was a thrill, he said. "You get a rush and that's why you do it," he said. "All of a sudden, a dollar doesn't make a difference. At the end of the day, though, after everybody goes home, you've still got to pay the bills."
Now, at age 53, Plaxa is looking for a job. "It was quite a ride," he said, thinking back. "I'd like to think we'll be missed."