Bozeman Bar Beat: Tune Up

Devon Brosnan  |   Thursday Feb. 1st, 2024

Dive underground into a treasured subterranean environment that permeates, liquifies, and mysteriously whispers, “coolness.”

I’m going to tell you one thing and one thing only for this one. Basement bars are always cool.

Listen, every basement bar in every city I’ve been to has been something of an atmospheric, somewhat unforgettable experience, like the memory equivalent of going for a stroll among bewildering tall trees on a moonlight-drenched night. You know what’s interesting about that… that memory and—strangely enough—basement bars appear to share three key traits: moodiness, cinematic lighting, a unique sense of familiarity, and something to lean your body against while you smile at the scene in front of you. Perhaps this comparison may sound a bit romantic, and sure, maybe it is, but I’m tellin’ ya, I’m on to something here!

Take a bar in Edinburgh, Scotland, for example. After descending down a flight of noticeably steep steps inside what feels like an ancient dungeon, you land in a space decorated by someone going for a blend between an upper-class Haunted Mansion and a burlesque-punk rock show. Velvet everything as far as the eye can see, lanterns emitting flames dangerously nearby, and a small stage backdropped by numerous old-school band posters littered over the basement’s brick walls. Accompanied by a solid crowd, the bar really felt as if it quite literally oozed coolness; a thickness to the air was unexpectedly welcomed, bearing an undeniably pungent flavor.

Another bar, this time in New York, lacked any of the visual pizzaz our predecessor possessed. What it did have, however, was an unassuming exterior and the rich sound of smooth, live jazz flowing up the steps. The first stride into the bar following the seemingly 90-degree staircase was quite special: upon sight of the shoddy bar located along the right wall, feelings of unusual comfort lay over you like a blanket, while a jazz band played on a small platform in front of you—reminiscent of where the Beatles used to play back at The Cavern Club in Liverpool. Immediately, it’s obvious that there is nothing like this bar in the world.

There’s a reason I’m taking you on an uninvited, painfully-limited world tour of basement bars. These shrouded underground scenes possess the same prowess and dimensions of that of a 1967 Ford Mustang: they rev your engine, give you something uniquely beautiful to gaze at, and take you on a tour you won’t ever forget. In other words, they are cool. And that’s sorta the point I’m trying to make here. Basement bars are always cool, and what is “cool”? Something distinctive, something provocative, something that naturally radiates an aura of smooth demeanor. It never tries too hard, and is never self-referencing or even self-aware. It just is.

This tradition is carried through in Bozeman’s own iconic basement bar, the Tune Up, located below the Armory Hotel downtown. Walking in, it becomes exceedingly obvious that the bar has something to offer that nothing else in Bozeman can provide, though I bet no one is quite sure what that “something” is; it simply cannot be tracked down and pinpointed, even by the most loyal of customers. But I’m definitely going to give it a try! Perhaps it is the subtle, colorful lighting that drapes the scene; perhaps it’s the bar along the right wall (why is it always the right wall?) that’s consistently inhabited by what looks like to be either (a) Bozeman’s upper, older class of citizens or (b) a group of rambunctious women in their early twenties who accidentally stumbled into the bar on jazz night and decided to stay. Or perhaps it is The Tune Up’s most designated and distinguished feature, the stage, which has been graced by musical acts hailing from all over the country, including Justin Timberlake, who rents the space from time to time to play privately for his friends (among whom, regrettably, I am not included).

Yes, the stage certainly bears its fair share of history. However, the venue’s recent graceful submission to the sands of time is none other than its longest-running tradition to date: Wednesday night jazz. On a beautiful, windy Wednesday night in September of 2022, Eddie Tsuru blessed Bozemanites with a jazzy musical experience at the Tune Up for the very first time, bringing in a group of cheery, talented colleagues with him. Since then, Jazz Night has become a rotating cast of funky collaborators. I would love to name some notables, but that would be a disservice to those I don’t mention, as every single one has equally brought perfectly-timed chokes, flashy notes, and coastin’ floats to the jazzy ropes. What I will do, in lieu of disclosing my favorites, is provide an image below (thanks, Eddie) of every single performer thus far who’s participated in the legendary Jazz Night.

Whatever makes the Tune Up cool, the sunken spot definitely has something to offer to the insanely-impressive catalog of basement bars throughout the world. Not only that, the Tune Up also has something to offer to anyone who can appreciate virtually all genres of live music, from the aforementioned Jazz Night every Wednesday to country and folk artists blowing through on Thursdays. I’ve even seen a spoken word artist perform many moons ago. Did I mention the lounge behind the stage that invites you to sit on its leather couches, play some Jenga or other board game of choice, and hang out with some buddies or flip some pages in a book while the sometimes-fierce, sometimes-relaxing moment plays out around you? That’s a good time, right there.

“Whoa, just a second there, Devon,” you may be saying. “I can appreciate the art of jazz and other genres of music, but that just ain’t my thang, dawg.” I hear you, my presumably young and debatably unlettered friend. I hear you. Did you catch what I just mentioned? If not, I have some good news for you: the joint has an impressive catalog of board games just begging you to sit down and enjoy. No longer will you have to endure the awkward (yet nostalgic) board game nights with the family; no longer will you have to desperately conjure excuses for bailing on your friends for the third time when they—just like your family—run out of actual fun ideas (I’m sorry, board game enthusiasts and introverts) and invite you to yet another board game night. That’s right, now you get to experience the thrills of board-gaming with the comfort of leather couches, the rich taste of professional cocktails, and the welcome company of your friends, old and new. Plus, on top of all that, the atmosphere will be there to ease your troubled mind, taking you to a place lost in time, where imposing, psychedelic-esque paintings of pop culture icons are plastered proudly over the walls, and the aromas of chosen items from a well-curated menu lurk in the air. Just make sure to get there a little early if the music isn’t your cup of tea (we can talk about why you need to change that opinion at a later date).

As the kaleidoscope of my experiences at the Tune Up shine their familiar glow upon the valleys of my memory, I am reminded that the Tune Up—and seemingly all basement bars, for that matter—are not confined by the conventions of other physical, worldly boundaries. They are portals where one dives face first, mouth agape into a realm where the magic of music, camaraderie, libations, and culinary treats transcend all known language, culture, and geography—a testament to the perennial allure of these subterranean haunts. And although it may not be located in Edinburgh, or New York, or Paris, Rome, LA, or whatever renowned city you pick, it is located here in Bozeman—one of the most beautiful places on Earth—and, darn it, is it cool. 

About the Author(s)