'Hobo' finds new home: Local music icon plays different venue after BJ's closure

Posted: Tuesday, July 06, 2010

On a stage in the corner of the Riverside House in Soldotna, "Hobo" Jim Varsos plays against a backdrop of the Kenai River.

Photo By Brielle Schaeffer
Photo By Brielle Schaeffer
Hobo Jim plays a show at his new home on the Kenai Peninsula -- the Riverside House in Soldotna.

This is a new venue for Hobo Jim, the legendary Alaskan singer/songwriter, who for 25 years hung his hat just acorss the Sterling Highway at BJ's Lounge.

"It's a beautiful view," says Hobo Jim. "The river is really conducive to my show."

Connie Thompson, general manger of the Riverside, said that Hobo Jim was looking for a new home after BJ's closed earlier this year.

"He said he'd really like to play here this summer and I said, 'We'd really love to have you,'" she said.

The Riverside's dance floor, which is usually crowded on weekend nights with the bar's "after 10 party" crowd, is set up with tables and chairs for the audience of elderly tourists, a few locals and a couple of boisterous young folks.

"We're like the youngest people here," says Tasha Thompson, 23, of Sterling. "That's just because older people know good music."

The Riverside is a popular place among youngsters but not until much later in the evening. At Hobo Jim's show from 8 to 11 p.m. on Saturday, the middle-aged male regulars lined the bar.

"These have been my oldest crowds in Soldotna," Hobo Jim says. He has consistently younger crowds in Seward and Wasilla, the young adults who learned his "Iditarod Trail Song" in elementary school.

"I go see Hobo every chance I get," said Scott Judah of Soldotna. "I think most people don't realize how lucky they are we have Hobo Jim playing in town. He's great talent."

Like any performer, Hobo Jim thrives on the energy his audience gives back to him in singing, dancing, foot stomping and hand claps.

"The key to my show is having half my crowd locals and half visitors so the tourists can learn how to party from the locals," he says.

Or at least take a cue and party with him.

After some of Hobo Jim's signature witty stage banter, he starts to yodel with abandon, stomping his right foot and clutching his heart. The pulsing energy can be felt throughout the room. But that's about as crazy it's going to get on this night.

Judy McMillan, Hobo's friend from Wasilla, said that a recent show in Seward got so wild Hobo shocked himself while getting on top of the bar to play a tune.

"He's a lot more tame than when I saw him last summer," said Emily Watkins, 22, of Virginia, adding that he was dancing on tables when she saw him before. "It was also later in the night."

"Will you tell my friends from Minnesota about your status as a singer in Alaska?" yells one local fan from the crowd.

"Sure. I am the last singer in Alaska," says Hobo Jim teasingly.

"I've been signing on the Kenai Peninsula for almost 40 years. I started out when I was 3," he says in another joke.

But then, in all seriousness, Hobo answered the question.

"It was about 20 years ago that the governor and the state of Alaska gave me the highest honor and made me balladeer for the sate of Alaska," he says.

With his well-known tunes about backwoods living, mining and fishing, Hobo Jim is "as much Alaska as Alaska is," said friend Ron Rust of Kenai.

"He makes Alaskans proud to be Alaskan," he said.

"I like that most of his songs are about Alaska," said Tina Hamby of Nikiski. "He's our Hobo Jim."

She misses BJ's Lounge though, mainly for sentimental reasons.

"That's the first place I ever seen him at," she said.

At that point, Hobo Jim slowed it down and played "Patches," a song about his friend's horse that died. One lady in the audience was brought to tears.

"That was a cheery little ditty, wouldn't it?" Hobo Jim asks the audience. "A lot of songs I have, they're not cheery but they're real songs."

Regardless of where he's at, Hobo Jim still represents something real to sourdoughs and cheechakos alike: a Last Frontier that's now only history to the younger generation.

Hobo Jim plays at the Riverside House in Soldotna every Friday and Saturday night throughout the summer from 8 to 11 p.m.

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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