If you are an Eastern Nebraska blues fan, chances are that Lincoln’s Zoo Bar had something to do with your discovery of the music. Even if you’ve never made it to the club. If you went to blues shows at Omaha’s old Howard Street Tavern or Kansas City’s Grand Emporium, you felt the impact of the Zoo Bar as promoters networked to book touring acts. And some blues fans turned what we’d now call local influencers, for lack of a better term, including longtime former Omaha bar owner and music promoter Terry O’Halloran and myself in my role as a roots music journalist, learning a lot about the blues, real-deal, soul-driven blues, by attending shows at the little club at 136 N. 14th St. in the state capital. Luther Allison was the first national act to play there, in 1974, on the strength of a contract drawn on a paper sack. The late Larry Boehmer, who first brought live blues music to the Zoo Bar and became the sole owner in 1977, was always proud to tell that story. Since then, as I’ve documented in past years of anniversary coverage, James Harman wrote a song about the Zoo, Chicago blues great Magic Slim moved his family to Lincoln because of his relationship with the Zoo and his friendship with Boehmer. The great Dave Alvin called the Zoo “the Carnegie Hall of the Blues” in an archival Hoodoo interview. Boehmer, Harman, Slim and many artists and community members are gone now, but at the Zoo Bar the tradition of first-class blues and roots music still burns bright. For more about the history, check out zoobar.com/about-the-zoo. Festival-caliber artists like Alvin, Tommy Castro, Curtis Salgado and other top artists still make it a point to play the small but mighty venue, though they can certainly fill larger area halls. New artists on the national scene still clamor for a slot on the schedule. The bar survived COVID shutdowns with the help of a loyal family of regulars that stepped up to support the club with a Zoo Bar +Plus membership program on Patreon.
Fast-forward to 2022 and the bar, under the leadership of Pete Watters, is commemorating 49 years as a blues venue. To celebrate, the music takes to the streets Friday, July 8, and Saturday, July 9, for ZOOFEST. The annual street festival has been happening for about half the bar’s lifetime.
Staged in front of the bar on 14th Street between O and P streets, the event has advance tickets for $35 per day or $60 for a weekend pass. See ticketweb.com. Daily admission is $40 at the gate. Kids under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. The schedule Friday, July 8, presents The Bel Airs (5 p.m.), Melody Trucks Band (7 p.m.), Bobby Rush (9 p.m.) and Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal (11 p.m.). On Saturday, July 9, see Big Daddy Caleb & The Chargers (3 p.m.), Dale Watson (5 p.m.), the Phantom Blues Band with Curtis Salgado (7 p.m.), Booker T. Jones (9 p.m.). The exciting Cuban sounds of Andy William & The Nebraska All-Stars end the festival with an 11 p.m. dance party.
Playing With Fire
Playing With Fire, Omaha’s long-running free blues series organized by promoter Jeff Davis, is back at Turner Park at Midtown Crossing on Friday, July 15, and Saturday, July 16. Friday, July 15, features the U.S. debut of the Netherlands’ Twelve Bar Blues Band along with Ghost Town Blues Band and Rex Granite Band featuring Sarah Benck. Saturday, July 16, Mike Zito Big Band takes the spotlight, along with another performance from Twelve Bar Blues Band and a set from Levi Platero Band. Music begins about 5:30. Find details at facebook.com/playingwithfireomaha and playingwithfireomaha.net.
Davis’ other concert series, Music for the City, brings a free show celebrating Canadian blues artists to the Dam Bar & Grill on Miller’s Landing at the River City Star on Saturday, July 23. Featured are David Gogo, Paul Reddick and Monkey Junk & Friends. See musicforthecity.net. Music starts at 4:30 with BluesEd band Blue Sunday.
Catch the stellar jump-blues and swingin’ guitar sounds of Doug Deming & The Jewel Tones at The B. Bar on Friday, July 15, 9 p.m. Deming has worked with artists from Kim Wilson to Lazy Lester and Alberta Adams.
Chris Isaak teams with Lyle Lovett & His Large Band to play the Holland Performing Arts Center on Friday, July 22, 8 p.m.
The Sunday Roadhouse concert series heats up at the end of July starting with Austin’s Sunny Sweeney on Sunday, July 24, 5 p.m., at Reverb Lounge. Iconic Austin singer-songwriter James McMurtry returns for a show at Waiting Room on Tuesday, July 26, 7:30 p.m. The Tex-Mex meets New Orleans musical gumbo of The Iguanas rocks Waiting Room on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 7:30 p.m. Find all the details at sundayroadhouse.com.