Great Taste, Less Lame

Wednesday night at Ray's Downtown. A 50-something guitarist alone on the bandstand idly strokes the strings between numbers as a handful of barflies down cheap drinks. Slow night. In fact, the club exhibits a barely detectable pulse, despite the dozen or so patrons who have dragged themselves away from the television to what veteran nightcrawlers will tell you is West Palm Beach's best-kept secret. But the little bar at 519 Clematis St., with more than a decade of music and revelry under its belt, is on life support.

Jonathan Jablonski sips his drink from a red plastic cup as he recalls the long, slow decline on Clematis Street, once the town's preeminent nightlife destination. Five years ago, clublife raged like wildfires on California hillsides, nightspots packed in crowds, and the street thrummed with the energy of a yuppified take on downtown Austin or New Orleans. But the city's politicians took a dim view of the festivities. Jablonski remembers Mayor Joel Daves, who lived a block from Clematis, starting the crackdown with noise-ordinance violations and increased police presence.

When Lois Frankel replaced Daves in 2002, Jablonski relates, "we figured she couldn't possibly be any worse." That presumption turned out to be incorrect. While Daves was thought of as an out-of-touch stick-in-the-mud, Clematis business owners view Frankel as an outright enemy of the city's nightlife.

Tonight, the 500 block of Clematis is dark and nearly deserted, save for a loud, drunken trio who occasionally make bold but harmless incursions into Ray's at odd intervals. "Yeah, they're regulars," winks Jablonski.

Shouting several decibels over what's required to be heard, a thin, disheveled man staggers to the bar. "Barmaid! Hey, barmaid!," he shouts, drawing in a sharp breath that puffs out his scrawny chest. "I luuuhh you! Do you hear me? I said I luuuhhhhhh yooooooooo!!!" When his slurred bellow clearly startles her, he dials his volume down slightly. "Barmaid! Lissen t' me! You're beautiful!" She blushes but, not wanting to add any encouragement, frowns and looks away. The huge beads that hang around her neck and accentuate her busty, brunet appeal are like a shiny fishing lure, and the drunken man can't help himself. "Young lady, young lady!" he hollers, rapping a bony fist on the bar.

Finally, he stumbles back outside. He passes singer/guitarist Joey George, who's onstage grinding the Beatles' "Lady Madonna" into a 12-bar blues, adding a good amount of raw grit.

It's not often that a blues act takes the storefront-window stage at Ray's Downtown Blues. Owner Ray Carbone knocked the Blues off the name a few years back (though it still adorns its sign) in an effort to broaden his base and stave off the slow starvation that had already consumed many a Clematis Street hangout. He alienated some of his old mainstays when he started allowing all-ages punk shows a few years ago, he says, but that was a necessity. "I've done everything you could possibly do," he says.

Now, after almost a year of not paying rent, Ray's is hanging onto its stake of Clematis Street with the grip of a stranded ice climber, unable to climb higher or rappel back down. "No, it's not all right," Carbone remarks testily when asked about the club's condition. "We're fighting to stay alive. But I gotta think it's gonna turn around."

With the steamroller of development crawling down Clematis, Ray's legacy is on shaky ground. Despite its dingy, unassuming interior, the club has acted as a midwife during the birth of several nationally prominent acts like Dashboard Confessional and Sum 41. Its proprietor, unusually tenacious, has remained aboard during circumstances that would force most into the arms of bankruptcy. Even as the waves of momentum lap away at its foundation, Carbone refuses to succumb. In the past couple of years, his grip has slipped, but he hangs on, mostly because he understands just how much will be lost if he doesn't.

From space, the rapid transformation of downtown West Palm Beach must look like massive geologic upheavals over untold millennia condensed down to a few years. Blocks of older, rundown properties near the city's core have vanished through the fast-acting erosion of the wrecking ball. In their place, towering condominium buildings wearing chainlink skirts silently await new residents. As this glacier of change slices through downtown, Ray's noisily readies for rebirth or destruction.

The momentum of West Palm Beach is decidedly upscale, and Ray's has always exemplified a genuine dirty-floor funkiness.

"You can call it what you want" is how Carbone likes to describe his namesake establishment. "You can call it comfortable. Seedy. You can call it... beyond relaxed. That's the way my room is. It's an old-time regular bar, and you're gonna get old-time regular prices. Three dollars for a Bud, probably the cheapest on the street."

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton