Photograph by Steven Higgs
Travers Marks, left, is a musician and venue owner who doesn’t believe the local music is suffering. He says it’s a “fountain of youth” that is always self-regenerating, irrespective of any clubs closing. His restaurant, Max’s Place, on Seventh between College and Walnut, features live music most nights. He’s show here with the Zion Stripes.
A dreamy, chromatic self-portrait painted by local outsider artist Maurice Marks leaps off the wall from which it hangs in Max's Place at 109 West Seventh St. The arresting, self-satirizing image of a middle-aged, half man-half jester - whose single eye occupying most of his forehead smiles lazily back at the viewer - captures the same casual, unique and playful atmosphere Max's has come to be known for since opening in late 2004.
Max's owner and local musician, Travers Marks, also son of aforementioned artist Maurice, found time during a recent Tuesday mid-afternoon lull to chat about the epic adventures of planting and growing a business in Bloomington, and about his views on the local music scene and where he sees his own restaurant/live music venue on that ever-metamorphosing map.
A father of two who spent his own early childhood in a rural Brown County commune, Needmore, Marks gives his young daughters much credit for the actual inception of Max's Place. The Gen-Xer with a biting, robust sense of humor that seems somewhat at odds with his 1960s-style bohemian appearance explains that when his youngest became hooked on the New York-style pizza pies served up at the now-defunct Lake Monroe business, Max's Pizza, he experienced a Eureka moment.
Having already dabbled in entrepreneurship with his own tie-dye t-shirt business, Marks explains, "I had all these connections from being in the music scene and from putting on Otter Reggae Fest and other events in Needmore. I also had a ton of food service experience, and I told Neil Riley, the guy who ran Max's Pizza, 'Let's go to town, you run the kitchen, and I'll run the rest.'"
Indeed, Marks did go to town, and a while later, when he and his other daughter were driving around Bloomington scouting possible locations for his business, it was his youngster who spotted the former McDaniel Furniture store on Seventh Street between Walnut and College with a "for lease" sign in front.
Business was erratic at first, and Marks readily admits that he "made a lot of mistakes along the way," nearly throwing in the towel a time or two. But like the excellent dough that sets Max's pizza apart from others in town, the restaurant has found a recipe that works.
Though known to many as primarily a great place to catch shows, Max's Place is also home to some of the best food for its price in the area, open for lunch and dinner most days. The menu is extensive, catering to both extremes of the dietary spectrum - vegan "cheese" pizza and calzones right alongside traditional meat and dairy-loaded strombolis that would make the Godfather break out in pirouettes.
Several specialty pizzas are available - all baked to perfection in an authentic brick oven - including Marks' own sinful creation called The Crossroads, which entails red sauce, spinach, dried tomatoes, pine nuts, roasted garlic and ricotta, along with a range of salads and sandwiches.
The beer selection runs deep and diverse as well. And "keeping everything at a reasonable price" is what Marks calls advertising without an advertising budget.
Max's Place has also established itself as one of a handful of live music venues filling the vacancy left by Second Story's noisy departure last fall. Boasting an excellent sound system, a newly built stage and a wide open space in which all ages are invited, unless designated otherwise, Max's offers a uniquely intimate musical experience between artist and listener, not unlike that found many a night at Second Story.
A musician himself, handling guitar and vocals for his band Zion Crossroads - whose hodgepodge sound he characterizes as "dreadneck" - Marks' own opinions about the current local music scene stand in refreshing contrast with chatter trickling out of the peanut gallery, which holds that the scene is barely slumping along.
"The Bloomington music scene is a fountain of youth; it's continuous," he asserts. "There are like 350 bands in this town still making music and playing out. I think some people are just getting a little older and bitter that their little group isn't right there in the center.
"A lot has been said about the closing of Second Story and how tragic it is for the Bloomington music scene. With the opening of Max's and the Art Hospital, and the migration of booking agent Josh Johnson over to Uncle Fester's, I think people are mistaken."
Irrespective of the area's musical climate, Max's Place has become a major player. Local and touring bands are booked most weekends, and the club's Wednesday night open mic is quickly securing a reputation as one of the area's best.
Sign-up time for open mic is 5 p.m., and performances typically run from 7:40 to 10:40, with each performer allotted 20 minutes.
"We've had a little poetry and even stand-up comedy, but mostly music," Marks says.
"We also now have a core group of open mic regulars," he adds, citing local singer/songwriter Paris, country blues picker extraordinaire Mark Galup and a multi-instrumentalist one-man show who goes straightforwardly enough by That Guy, as emerging superstars in Max's open mic sphere.
Still, Marks admits that because he is stretched personally and professionally in so many directions, Max's is being "underutilized" in terms of its capacity as a music venue.
"I have lots of Thursday night openings and lots of late-night show openings," he says. "As the father of two, a restaurant owner and booking agent, I can't possibly fill all the slots. I've gotten some help from Josh Johnson and Mark Tschida (formerly of Second Story, currently with Waldron Arts Center) here and there, but I would welcome any additional help I can get."
Marks is stoked about several upcoming shows that he has booked in spite of his manic schedule, including The White Lightning Boys on June 9, an anti-I-69 benefit on June 16 and his own Zion Crossroads along with TV Mike.
"We've got a lot of great shows beyond that coming up," he says. "Check out our calendar and come on out."
Lori Canada can be reached at .