Happy Dog Co-Owner's Sudden Death Shocks Local Music Community


In 2008, Sean Kilbane and Sean Watterson bought the Happy Dog, a westside bar and concert venue, with the hopes of turning it into a go-to place to hear local music. During the time they’ve owned it, they’ve succeeded. Bands play for the door and are treated fairly. Both local and national acts have developed a true affinity for the club. Both Kilbane and Watterson book the bands that perform at the club, but Kilbane, 43, who died last night when he fell down a set of stairs at the club, was the one who was most connected to the local bands. His death is a tremendous loss.

Last year when Scene was putting together a cover story package on the local music scene, we reached out to Kilbane to participate. We asked him to answer a series of questions about the local music scene. His thoughtful, encouraging answers said plenty about his personality.

When asked to recount some of his favorite concerts, he recalled seeing the local rock act the Revelers at the Phantasy in the early ’90s. He also had fond memories of seeing local alt-country act Rosavelt play at the Grog Shop in the '90s, and talked about how much he liked local bands Herzog, Little Bighorn and Dead Sweaters, whom he had recently booked at the Happy Dog. “That was a one of the best local lineups we have had or may ever and the bands did not disappoint.” If you go to his Facebook site, you can read his posts about local concerts and see just how much enthusiasm he had for the local scene. R.A. Washington, one of the city's pricklier local musicians, wrote this about Kilbane's death: "Grace. Sean Kilbane personified the word. No one was more graceful, more unassuming, and kind than him. Rest in Power sweet man."

Singer-songwriter Brent Kirby who works as a solo act and plays with local bands the Jack Fords and New Soft Shoe (a Gram Parsons' tribute act that holds down a monthly residency at the Happy Dog) remembers Kilbane as a "thoughtful, wonderful guy." "When the Jack fords needed a place to rehearse, he let us rehearse in the basement of the Happy Dog," he says. "When I wanted to start a Gram Parsons night, which at the time seemed like stretch, he told me to do it. When I asked him about booking some openers for the New Soft Shoe, he told me it was my show, and trusted me with whomever I thought would be good, and gave a little extra for the opening act." Kilbane even introduced Kirby to guitar player Andy Leach shortly after Leach moved to town, helping him recruit a sideman for the New Soft Shoe as well as for the backing band for his solo project.

"That's who he was — a connector and a supporter," Kirby adds. "He had a scrapper mentality, more than once I saw him throw rude people twice his size out of the dog, and didn't back down a bit. He worked every day at the happy dog for almost 2 years straight when it first got going. He was so determined and hard working. I remember when he told me he finally took a day off, we toasted on that a few times. I could keep going. He will be missed. I wish I had known him even better."

Singer-songwriter Chris Allen was friends with Kilbane since high school. "We bonded over our love of rock 'n' roll bands like the Replacements, Big Star, Dinasour Jr. and Huskur Du. Our teacher Dan Rourke made us mix tapes of bands we needed to hear with great titles on the tapes. It was the first time every heard Tom Waits, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Mice. We went on to form, with our friend Chris Kanuck, an after school group called the Coup Club at St. Ignatius. The only room they would let us have was an old photography dark room on the 6th floor, thus the Coup Club. We hauled the records up there and kids could come up and rent out the albums and buy TDK cassettes to tape them. But we'd sit up there for hours after school listening to all those records over and over again. It was the only school activity either of us listed in our year books. When I found out the news [of his death], the only think I could think to do was put on 'The Ballad of El Goodo' by Big Star. We saw Alex Chilton at Peabody's Down Under and we always considered it one of the greatest shows we ever saw. It was one of the last things we ever talked about."

“Go have some fun, live and grow along the way” — the advice Kilbane gave to up-and-coming local acts — says much about the extent to which he supported the local scene and provided a welcomed dose of enthusiasm for life in general. He'll truly be missed.

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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