You're Never a Stranger at the Beer Mug: Remembering Paul Fiorelli
Local musicians and friends share memory of beloved bar owner
One of Erie's most important supporters of local music has passed away — Paul Fiorelli, at the age of 63. Fiorelli, affectionately known as Paulie, co-owned the Beer Mug, a corner bar that often hosted local independent music acts, with his wife Sandy. They opened in 1981 and about eight years later, they began encouraging local bands to perform. From the outside the building seemed like a normal Erie neighborhood bar on Liberty Street. However this local hangout was actually Erie's answer to CBGB's, a place where punks could run free, freaks could fly their flags, locals could get a cold drink, and artists of all walks of life could perform their music.
When other locations started closing their doors in the late '90s, the Mug rolled into the new millennium as the go-to local music venue. At times these shows were so packed, often shoulder-to-shoulder, that it was easier to exit through the back door where the bands loaded-in and enter through the front door to get a refill on your drink. This year will be nine years since one of Erie's most important independent music venues closed its doors.
Looking back at Fiorelli and the Beer Mug, the number of local bands that graced that small stage in the back of the house is staggering. For 25 years, Rodger Montgomery hosted a jam on Sunday nights. National touring acts like Easy Action, The Jazz Butcher, Cattle Decapitation, and Oneida (just to name a few) found a home at the Mug while they were on tour and needed a stop between Cleveland, Pittsburgh, or Buffalo. The Cattle Decapitation shows were set up by booking agent Alex Harilla who picked them up after a Pittsburgh show was canceled, and due to the size of the venue, attendees were actually able to meet and hang out with the band. This writer recalls talking with the singer Travis Ryan after they performed. He mentioned how much fun it was to play a smaller, jam-packed venue, and that the energy was palpable. This was a sentiment that was repeated by many acts over the years.
Inevitably, before the night was out, Paulie would get up on stage, raise a glass, and sing a few bars along with his favorite bands.
(Photo: Danielle Cotterill)
One of the biggest shows the Beer Mug hosted was the Jazz Butcher/Conspiracy show, which took place on April 16, 2000. Show promoter James Welle reflects on why he chose the Mug for this memorable event, "They had a gig canceled in Jamestown and I had been booking shows at all the bars for the last few years and the Beer Mug was one of my favorites." Welle continues, "Paulie was always fair and if he had an open night would let me take it. Of all the places I would book, Paul treated me and the bands the best. The vibe of the Mug was always special."
This sentiment was echoed by Carlos Rivera who started playing at the Mug in the '90s with his band the Mollies and continued to play hundreds of shows over the years with his bands Mala Sangre, Sonic Medusa, and The Trashed. Rivera said, "Paulie was present as an owner. He was at the shows, he was there for support, and he paid fairly. He ran his bar and bands in an organized way, within a chaotic atmosphere. He was always involved in the mayhem." Rivera continues, "He gave us a venue to express ourselves. He never censored you, or put restrictions on bands. When other Erie bars were not allowing original bands to play, Paulie welcomed us with open arms. All he cared about was that folks were having fun, drinking, and dancing at the Beer Mug."
Paul Fiorelli was always a welcoming and familiar face to those who enjoyed live music at the Beer Mug. He often got on stage before the night was over to voice his admiration for the support of the local music scene and sing a few bars. Fiorelli recently passed away at age 63.
(Photo: Melissa Sullivan Shimek)
Friend and former bartender at the Beer Mug, Melissa Sullivan-Shimek spoke fondly about her time working with Paulie and his sense of humor. She started hanging out at the Mug in the late '80s when they first hosted live music, and recalls playing there with her band T Nougat. She eventually started bartending there in the early 2000s. Sullivan-Shimek recalls, "I especially remember how packed and out of control Pegasus Unicorn shows would get. I always looked forward to Paul jumping in with a band to sing a few lyrics of a Stones song or dancing behind the bar to "Shattered" on the jukebox." Taking the mic and singing "She's So Cold" with Sonic Medusa was inevitable. Rivera concurred, "He would regularly grab the mic to show his admiration for the bands and folks that attended. He'd give a speech and then break out into a classic Sinatra number. He was quite the vocalist. "
The aforementioned Pegasus Unicorn shows in the early 2000s were part of the early Basement Transmissions scene that included local bands like Black Rose Diary, Telefonics, The Trashed, the Killerinas, and Dirt McGurtt on the label's roster. Pegasus Unicorn was one of the biggest local indie bands at the time, at one point having a chance to work with famed industrial musician Martin Atkins. Pegasus Unicorn musician Bob Jensen has since continued the Basement Transmissions label as a successful all-ages music venue in Erie.
Speaking of his time in the band and working with Fiorelli, Jensen said, "I loved Paul so much. He always treated me and the Pegasus Unicorn gang so well. I had my first beer when I turned 21 at the Beer Mug." After Pegasus Unicorn played their first show there Jensen said that Fiorelli took notice and let them set up more shows right away. "My favorite memory of Paulie was actually not at the Mug," Jensen reflects. "He was at a clambake that Pegasus played. Paul was right there in the front singing and he almost felt like a member of the band. Singing and putting his arms around us as we played. He was hugely influential to me personally." This type of behavior is rare in a club owner — to know the songs that local bands were writing, and to be able to sing along.
The attendees of local rock shows at the Beer Mug can attest to their frenetic energy – people were often packed in, shoulder to shoulder, to enjoy their favorite local bands. (Photo: Erin Phillips)
"Morbid" Rob Burke of the local thrash punk band Maniacal Device hosted his annual birthday show at the Beer Mug. He would often book the bar for two straight days and highlight Erie's best punk, metal, and indie bands. Burke began playing the Beer Mug with The Go Go Rays in the '90s and continued on to play there with his bands The Trashed, Sound City Saints, and My Three Scum. The My Three Scum 20th anniversary show was one of those intensely packed nights — the band was being pushed back against the far wall from so many people dancing.
Of all the bands that Burke played with at the Beer Mug, The Trashed were one of Paulie's favorites. Burke said, "He once told the crowd The Trashed was the Erie rock equivalent of the Yankees… high praise from him." The Yankees were Paulie's favorite baseball team, and the bar was filled with sports memorabilia from the Yankees, Browns, Bruins, and Bucks.
After 34 years in the business, Paul and Sandy Fiorelli sold the Beer Mug to Rick Weaver Buick GMC, who demolished the building in 2015 to expand their parking lot. The final weekend of shows at the Mug were packed with old friends and familiar faces gathering one last time to pay homage to a club that meant so much to them.
Carlos Rivera was fortunate enough to play both nights on the closing weekend with Mala Sangre and Sonic Medusa. Rivera recalls, "It was a mix of emotions. I was honored to play both closing nights, but was saddened by the closure of the Mug. After 30 years, hundreds of shows, and all the memories — it was tough."
The Beer Mug proprietor Paul Fiorelli was 63 when he passed away on Dec. 16, 2023 at UPMC Hamot.
Larry Wheaton started going to the Beer Mug in the early 2000s and had the pleasure to play there in the bands The Go Go Rays, Telefonics, and This American Song. He can be reached at email@example.com
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