If you attended one of the Vagabond’s events during this year’s Winter Music Conference in late March, you might have noticed that at times the music sounded almost nostalgic, with some of the DJs peppering their sets with classic tracks that in retrospect were rife with sentimental meaning.
There was good reason. Those DJs were in the loop on what the public – and even the staff – didn’t know: This would be the final Conference for the Vagabond.
After six years, and amid recent rampant rumors, the popular Miami nightspot is officially closing its doors, effective today (Thursday, April 24, 2014).
“It’s with a heavy heart that I’m announcing that the time has come to bid farewell to The Vagabond,” says Carmel Ophir, the club’s heart, soul and co-owner, along with Rodney Mayo and British superstar DJ John Digweed. “It’s been a little over six years, and this chapter is coming to a close. That doesn’t mean that the book is over, but this particular chapter is.”
Unlike many other South Florida clubs that simply crashed and burned, the Vagabond’s demise is strictly for personal reasons – Ophir has been dealing with family health issues, and can no longer put in the effort necessary to keep the club operating at a level that lives up to his standards.
“There’s been a need for more assistance for my parents, and I have chosen to be there, basically,” he says. “I absolutely love everything that is and was The Vagabond, as a club and as an atmosphere. I adore the incredible staff and everyone that came with it, most importantly the audience and the patrons.
“But, you know, I love my family more. You gotta do the right thing.”
The physical building located at 30 NE 14th Street in Downtown Miami is sold and will become a new venue with a new name.
“We are selling it, so I will leave the venue for the future operators to describe and disclose,” Ophir said. “But it is sold, and there will be new operators with a new venue and a new name.”
Ophir, who left the restaurant world in New York in 1990, has had his finger on the pulse of Miami nightlife for more than two decades, bringing a refreshing rock ‘n’ roll spirit to a city often preoccupied with velvet ropes and VIP tables. His unique stamp marks late, great clubs including Groove Jet and crobar, and still-thriving weekly events such as Back Door Bamby and The Church.
But The Vagabond holds a special place in his heart, as it took a massive leap of faith for Ophir to invest in – and actively help develop – a rundown area that lacked the easy glamour of South Beach. The venue quickly became a bright spot for Miami’s fledgling indie scene, attracting locals including Rachel Goodrich, the Jacuzzi Boys and Deaf Poets, in addition to national DJs such as Little Louie Vega and Tedd Patterson.
“It’s been an incredible ride,” he says. “The artists and DJs who have played there over time have felt that they were at home there, and it just seemed to matter a little bit more on the soul and substance level, whenever they would play.”
The Vagabond was the site of the final performance of legendary Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles, known as “The Godfather of House Music,” an artist so beloved that President Obama, a Windy City man himself, was moved to write a sympathy letter in response to Knuckles’ death on March 31 from diabetes-related complications.
Remembering Knuckles, Ophir said, “We all knew about this affliction that he had, and it was very difficult for him to travel, so whenever he came it was very special. It was an effort. But he was always such a professional and never complained. He came to do a job, and when we’d say, “Hey Frankie, how are you doing?” he’d say, “I’m here, aren’t I? Then everything is ju-ust fine.” [Laughs] That was Frankie.”
Ophir cites the club’s April 5 tribute concert to Knuckles as not only a Vagabond highlight, but also one that ranks high on his all-time personal list.
“It was probably one of the best nights I’ve ever experienced, because it was layered with a whole lot of different meaning,” he says. “David Morales was the headlining DJ, Richard Vasquez opened, and it was one gathering where everybody was one – unified, singing and dancing and crying and laughing. It felt like the crowd was six inches off the ground. And it was a testament to the amazingness of the person, character, artist and producer that was Frankie Knuckles. The outpouring that came from his passing to the experience on the dance floor was something that is very difficult to describe unless you were there.”
Co-owner John Digweed, who played The Doors anthem “The End” to close out his final set at the Vagabond during WMC, was so fond of performing there that he recorded the performance and is releasing it as part of his “Live In…” compilation CD series. The three-disc “Live In Miami” set, subtitled “Last Night at the Vagabond,” drops May 26. (Click here to listen to a sample of the set.)
From Digweed’s liner notes:
“One venue that has been very close to my heart for the last 6 years has been The Vagabond. Tucked away in Downtown Miami, off the beaten path and bordering the historic “Harlem of the South” of Overtown, it was discovered by my longtime Miami clubbing partner and nightlife visionary, Carmel Ophir. He turned this empty, dilapidated space into the best-kept secret off of South Beach. A bohemia. No VIP, because everyone was a VIP. So non-traditional for Miami, with a family-and-friends atmosphere … The Vagabond was the go-to destination for free-spirits searching out an original clubbing experience without the drama that comes with it. I can honestly say that some of my best clubbing nights have taken place in this intimate and magical room.”
And from Ophir’s liner notes:
“The Vagabond was built for everyone and no one. A house for music lovers, a place for friends, for a community with a shared audible vision. … Perhaps what stands out most is that John Digweed vested in the ‘locals’ and had the faith to support a venue in a neighborhood that was neglected and forgotten. The Vagabond burst on the scene, an unwashed phenomenon … And with this CD release, becomes a loving tribute to the place we all called home. Thank you, Miami.”