When he travels, Zach Schmieder tells people that Omaha is not something to sleep on. “As someone who books shows and runs a bar for a living, I don’t have to like all the bands that I hear,” Schmieder said. “But I would say nine out of ten times that I hear a band play in Omaha, it blows me away.”
BFF (formerly known as Benson First Fridays) started as a community grassroots effort and has been steadily growing since it became a nonprofit. Around 2015, BFF took over management of the Sweatshop building, renamed it Petshop, and resurrected the Sweatfest music festival under a new name.
Schmieder co-founded Petfest as a BFF volunteer and has been the lead booking agent since its inception. He prides himself on the festival’s wide range of genres.
“Petfest is definitely a group effort,” Schmieder said. “When you’re in it, and you’re there in the crowd, watching one band after the other, it’s a wild ride … Petfest completely embodies what Omaha is.”
Schmieder said this year is set to be the most extravagant festival yet. “I think this year is my Sistine Chapel,” he said, laughing. He asked the band Hide (Chicago) if it would want to play “this gnarly festival in Omaha” – and it said yes. Another out-of-town act is Amulets (Portland). All the same, Schmieder tries to focus on local musicians, including some returning from previous years, such as No Thanks, Universe Contest, and DJ Crabrangucci.
Chalis Bristol, known by night as DJ Crabrangucci, was hunting for unique sounds on MySpace in the early 2000s, accumulating sounds from Japanese rock, South American funk, French rap, and more — then curating a vibe through mixed CDs for her friends. “I had a thirst for a worldly experience that I wasn’t getting in Omaha … a way of broadening my horizons,” she said.
When she got out of high school, she started going to raves and dance parties. DJs would ask her what she was listening to. “I was giving these dudes a bunch of music for them to play, so I was like, maybe I should be DJing,” Bristol said.
Since those early days, Bristol has taken the city by storm. She has performed at Maha Music Festival, Omaha Summer Arts Festival, Benson First Fridays, and College World Series events at the Slowdown.
Music is Bristol’s love language. “Ultimately,” she said, “DJing is a vehicle for what I love to do — sharing music.”
Another local artist performing at this year’s Petfest is David Nance. He grew up in Grand Island playing in a marching band and singing in choir. Now, in the last few years, he’s done everything from lo-fi home recordings to sessions at ARC Studios.
Nance returned from LA a few years ago to be with his family in Nebraska after his sister died. “That’s when I started doing music,” he said. “Something about the impermanence of life. You can die anytime. You gotta make it count.”
He loves the free-spirited nature of Omaha music. “How Omaha is influenced by society … there’s kind of a lag with what happens here. It’s kind of a good thing. You don’t have to be trendy. People get into different things because they’re not cutting edge, and in that way, it becomes cutting edge.”
Nance will be joined by his band on the outdoor stage, including Omaha legend Dereck Higgins.
BFF also contributed to the establishment of Benson as a Creative District through the Nebraska Arts Council. Creative placemaking efforts are a way of formalizing the presence of arts and cultural activities as a step toward urban revitalization. In some instances, this process has exacerbated gentrification — but given community involvement and the input of residents, it can be a great benefit to a neighborhood.
Alex Jochim, co-founder and executive director of BFF, moved to Benson in 2009, and the neighborhood was already bursting with creative energy. BFF amplified that community through First Friday events. Now its title as a recognized Creative District will allow BFF to access state funding for programs and events.
Jochim is not concerned about gentrification reaching Benson. “The neighborhood is so supportive,” he said. “The way we combat that is continuing to work with the community that exists here.” He looks forward to watching BFF and Petfest grow with this new recognition. “I’m just super excited to continue what we’ve been doing for a decade and make it bigger and better,” he said.
“It’s a for us, by us kind of thing,” DJ Crabrangucci said about Petfest. “It’s a festival run by people in Omaha that are very passionate about music and arts in the community.”
Petfest is Saturday, Aug. 13, at Petshop in Benson. Tickets are $30 in advance and $35 the day of the show.