The state of the Nebraska music scene is reflected in the adjoining list of the Top 20 bands of 2013 along with the 29 others that comprise “the rest.”
We usually limit “the rest” to just 15 bands, but when it came time to pull the list together this year, we couldn’t stop — or better yet — couldn’t see a reason to. The sheer number of quality new bands has never been higher, but where are they coming from? Didn’t the Nebraska music scene peak sometime in the mid-2000s?
It was New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell who came up with the concept of “the tipping point” — in culture, business and society it’s the moment of critical mass, the boiling point, the cresting of the hill that only builds momentum.
Benson reached its tipping point this year, and now we’re seeing an avalanche of new bars and booze joints opening along one of the city’s oldest corridors. While we’re all busy patting ourselves on the back about this new Barley District’s economic boom, remember how it all began. First there was Mick’s Music & Bar, then there was The Waiting Room in 2007. While Mick’s closed in 2008 (and became another music venue called The Sydney) The Waiting Room flourished.
It wasn’t alone. The same year The Waiting Room opened its doors, so did The Slowdown located in Omaha’s North Downtown district, acknowledged as one of the best music venues in the Midwest (perhaps topped only by The Waiting Room itself).
Meanwhile, one of the city’s favorite dive-bar hangouts, O’Leaver’s, quietly built a reputation as an adult playground for the city’s finest garage and noise-rock bands as well as a convenient tour stop for young indie bands crossing the country. This year O’Leaver’s gained heightened legitimacy when three members of national indie rock band Cursive bought the joint, along with long-time bartender and musician Chris Machmuller.
Add to those live music venues The Barley Street Tavern, Pageturners, PS Collective, the aforementioned Sydney, The Side Door, House of Loom, newcomer the Sweatshop Gallery, as well as all those Lincoln music venues — the legendary Zoo Bar, Duffy’s, Knickerbockers, The Bourbon Theater and the just-opened Vega, and you’ve got a whole helluva lot of stages to fill.
Talk about your tipping points.
Back in the mid-2000s the local music scene was driven by the national attention shed on Saddle Creek Records bands Bright Eyes, Cursive and The Faint. While members of those bands are still touring, today it’s this proliferation of music venues that provides the scene’s life blood.
The classic model of success insisted bands make a record then hit the road looking for fame, fortune and a record deal (if they didn’t have one already). The new model still involves making a record (or more likely, a collection of mp3 files), but today more and more bands are content playing around Omaha and Lincoln rather than spending time and money introducing themselves to new audiences outside the state. Getting a record deal has become more of a dream than a necessity.
Of the 49 bands listed only 15 have played shows outside of Nebraska and only half of those have done extensive touring outside the state. The other 34 seem content gigging weekly, bi-weekly or monthly in this ever-growing Nebraska venue-sphere. Out-of-state music fans are now forced to discover the bulk of Nebraska talent via the Internet, which can be like finding a diamond digging through a mountain of coal.
Have the majority of local musicians given up on the dream of making a living solely playing music? Or are they content merely sharing their musical visions with friends, family and acquaintances on weekends and the occasional week night, while making a living at a non-music-related 9-to-5?
The answer lies with those 49 bands and the rest of the musicians who make up the Nebraska music community, whose numbers will only continue to grow. ,
The Top 20
by Chris Aponick
Conor Oberst is back to spewing political vitriol with his punk-minded act Desaparecidos, having taken the act on a few short tours and some festival dates. Meanwhile, new material keeps cropping up as well, in the form of limited edition vinyl singles. While the orignal incarnation focused on our millenial suburban malaise, Oberst and his cohorts have widened their gaze to America’s seemingly backwards and backwater views against immigration reform, among other issues. Righteous indignation still suits Oberst.
Icky Blossoms are currently charting the course for their second album, but their continued progression of live shows continues to prove that Icky Blossoms is evolving into its own addictive dance-rock identity. Formed by the trio of Sarah Bohling, Derek Pressnall and Nik Fackler, Icky Blossoms have tapped into a vibe that brings their own outsider-weirdo art kid vibe straight on to the dancefloor. The grooves are deep even when the band’s sound ventures off to find its next psychedelic pop head trip.
Shawn Foree spent the last few years presenting what was essentially the leather end of his long-running act Digital Leather. Now Foree has grown the line-up to include two keyboardists, injecting plenty of digital anxiety to his melding of synth-pop and pissed-off garage punk. The result is the Arizona expatriate now boasts Omaha’s best rhythm section coupled with a new creative partnership, as Foree has found new keyboardist Todd Fink to be a new songwriting foil. It’s that new addition that’s finally taking the band from O’Leaver’s favorites to citywide notice.
Lincoln’s Universe Contest is a spastic indie rock band that has been threatening to break out into a full-scale indie music phenomenon for the last year. The question is more when will it happen rather than if it will. The band perfects theatricality in their live sets, while still delivering melodic precision. Modest Mouse is the usual comparison thrown Universe Contest’s way but there’s elements of the last decade’s best, messy indie pop acts in here. If you’re already inclined to liking acts like Tapes N Tapes or the Dismemberment Plan, you’ll find lots to like in Universe Contest.
The Faint proved that just regrouping would be enough to cement their status as one of the city’s biggest local draws. Now the band has to take the next big step of releasing new material. The questions are many as the band decides what to do with material that they have recorded during the last year or so. How will they release these new songs? Who will release these new songs? Will the band release music by themselves? Is Saddle Creek Records back in the picture after The Faint self-released their previous effort, 2008’s Fasciinatiion? And just how will the band’s new music sound after they downsized due to the departure of Joel Petersen?
Tim Kasher’s year was highlighted by his second solo album, Adult Film, and capped off by a three show residency with his main act, Cursive, at local venue The Waiting Room Lounge. The Cursive project is slated to result in a live record for the long-running Saddle Creek Records band. Meanwhile, Adult Film is basically Kasher’s songwriting tics played straight and it ultimately ends up serving as a summary of his strengths. By paring down the production on Adult Film, a songwriting master emerges.
Brad Hoshaw is that familiar friendly face at the end of a Benson bar, but his songwriting voice tells stories that sometimes lean darker. Murder ballads crop up in set lists next to drinking songs. Hoshaw’s Americana/folk rock songs place characters in a small-town world, while Hoshaw’s skill places him in the upper echelon of this city’s songwriters. Expect a new album by Hoshaw and his backing band, the Seven Deadlies, in 2014, after Hoshaw successfully raised funds to pay for the album on the Kickstarter crowdfunding website.
Matt Whipkey’s biggest year as an Omaha performer came thanks to a double-length album songwriting endeavor tied to Omaha’s faded icon of an amusement park, Peony Park. The resulting album, Penny Park: Omaha, NE: Summer 1989, filters memories of the park through the fictitious character of Penny Park, a summer girl of every guy’s dreams. Meanwhile, a portion of the songs see Whipkey dropping the guitar for synths and sequencers, giving his Heartland bar rock an appropriately dated spin and casting his songs in a new, welcoming light.
Shawn Holt & the Teardrops
Shawn Holt pays a fitting tribute to his father Magic Slim, who passed away in February 2013, by taking the helm of the Teardrops this year. The band convened for a studio album, out on blues label Blind Pig Records, that encompasses the stripped-down, raw take on Chicago blues that was Magic Slim’s signature sound. Holt had already proved his acumen as a guitarist and band leader. Holt’s long been his own man, but by teaming up with his father’s own seasoned band, Lil’ Slim pays honor to his father’s iconic legacy.
Kris Lager Band
The Kris Lager Band have become one of Omaha’s most popular bands, thanks to superb musicianship that seems to grab handfuls of multiple genres. The band combines blues and funk-rock together and delivers them with the seasoning of a jam band. Kris Lager leads the band with a feel-good vibe, while his cohorts play with a skillful and energetic verve. The band’s last studio release, 2012’s Swagadocious, pulled the band’s sound in a more soulful direction. Meanwhile the band continues to regularly tour, increasing their presence across the Midwest.
Jeremy Holan leads an Americana folk band that plays as if they’ve packed the gospel revival tent and the Rapture is nigh. The sound is a rough, loose and dirty take on country rock. It’s somewhere between rockabilly, punk rock and country. Holan takes on the preacher role, preaching in snake pits and whiskey roadhouses, while his band sounds somewhere between the Reverend Horton Heat and Hank Williams III. By sounding like scum incapable of holy redemption, Travelling Mercies actually capture the true sound of American country music.
The Maynabirds boil down to singular creative force of Laura Burhenn. As leader, songwriter and singer of the Mynabirds, her distinctive mix of sultry indie-pop, 60s R&B girl group swing and a little political folk-rock venom congeals into a solid ball of sound. At her best, Burhenn reimagines Dusty Springfield as played by Kathleen Hanna -- just capable of being sonically beautiful as she is of being fierce. Her two Saddle Creek Records albums show her learning just how both sides of her songwriting work.
Noah’s Ark Was A Spaceship
Through several line-up additions and subtractions, Noah’s Ark Was a Spaceship is back to what they should be -- a power trio. Andrew Gustafson, Rick Black and John Svatos fit together pretty well, as their last album You Need You bears out. The band has done an expert job in finding a modern text on their fuzzed-out nods to early ’90s alternative icons like Dinosaur Jr. and the Pixies In fact, there are times when the band’s knack for earworm melodies makes them sound like acts like the Posies or even Teenage Fanclub.
Luke Polipnick Trio
Luke Polipnick has already planted firm roots in Omaha’s indie music scene, thanks to his accomplished guitar playing and his restlessly creative, experimental streak. What makes his acceptance in Omaha’s indie culture all the more surprising is Polipnick is primarly a jazz musician. But it’s his avant garde streak that has earned him fans and brought him to play alongside Omaha musicians like Dereck Higgins. His 2013 release Episodes is a jazz record that has appeal to jazz fans and open-minded indie record buyers alike.
Satchel Grande is a funk-jazz-rock superpower, with a plus-sized line-up and a well-groomed singer in Chris Klemmensen. Satchel Grande knows how to throw a party, having recently split its 11-piece line-up for a battle of the bands showcase where each half played opening sets before convening at the end to put the party rock over the top. The band draws a crowd even when it doesn’t do anything special. Horns, keys and thick, ass-shaking grooves keep dancefloors filled, as Satchel Grande funks up yacht rock in a bold new image.
Omaha’s hip-hop scene has always seemed to lack the mainstream visibility that indie, hard rock and metal bands have enjoyed in Omaha. That may all change, thanks to Conchance and a host of his friends. Using east Omaha studio Make Believe as the home base, Conchance is bridging the gap between hip-hop and the city’s indie music fans. Conchance both holds his own when it comes to vocal delivery and the lyrics he writes. Conchance is elevating both his own music and the state of hip-hop in the city too.
Simon Joyner seems to be on a new creative roll, plugging in with a backing band of emerging Omaha musicians roughly half his age. After working on 2012’s Ghosts with his new troupe, Joyner recorded a split album Shrimper Records’ Dennis Callaci called New Secrets. Joyner still unfolds lyrical layers of slow-burn folk songs but he seems refreshed these days. Joyner is nothing less than a songwriting master in Omaha, though now he is eager to let his youthful band mates twist and turn his songs into newer, noisier shapes.
Emphatic have emerged once again in an updated form, this time with former Fuel vocalist Toryn Green replacing former singer Patrick Wilson. Founding member and main songwriter Justin McCain leads the creative direction fully now and the band’s 2013 album, Another Life, features McCain and his band mates self-producing their album. The modern hard rock band has moved on from Atlantic Records to major label subsidiary Epochal Artists. Another Life finds Emphatic refining their sound, making their sound perfectly suited for modern rock radio playlists.
Eli Mardock may have just stumbled upon the best new way to get your music into the ears of the modern listener. He’s licensed songs off his releases to x-art.com, an erotic video site. Those songs have since exploded with thousands of downloads and YouTube views of the PG-rated versions of the videos. The former Eagle Seagull has evolved his layered, atmospheric shoegaze pop since that band dissolved. Mardock plays with his wife Carrie, making his solo records more of a family affair.
Yuppies evolved quickly from their lo-fi pop beginnings, increasingly finding a harder edge and an off-kilter, angry, verbose take on wiry, breathless post-punk. Singer Jack Begley’s songwriting in particular grew by leaps and bounds, as he found a songwriting voice somewhere the Fall’s Mark E. Smith and Jim Carroll. While Omaha took Yuppies for granted, New York label Dull Tools snatched the band up and released Yuppies’ self-titled LP earlier this year. Yuppies continue to keep their spirit uncompromised, preferring house shows to the city’s more commercial stages.
Rock Paper Dynamite
Places We Slept
Electric Chamber Music
See Through Dresses
Underwater Dream Machine
All Young Girls Are Machine Guns
So So Sailors
Josh Hoyer & the Shadow Boxers
Honey Boy Turner
One Eye White
The Big Deep
John Klemmensen & The Party
Max Fischer & James Brown
We Be Lions