Having made the turnoff to I-35 near Des Moines, we decided to stop in Story City, Iowa, to grab some grub before the drive to Minneapolis. The DQ was quietly busy for a Tuesday lunch rush. A table filled with giggling high school girls ate french fries surrounded by a small cadre of older folks who’d made the trip into town in their Ford F-Whatevers.
A chili dog and a turtle Blizzard later and we were back on the road, knowing we’d hit the Twin Cities with time to spare before the 9 p.m. showtime.
These days, road trips like this have become common for indie music fans who are finding themselves driving to Kansas City, Chicago, Des Moines, Denver or the Twin Cities to see the bands that once made Omaha a required tour stop, but for whatever reasons now skip our fair city.
For you young readers who weren’t around in the glory days, a quick history lesson: Twenty or so years ago — in the aughts era of this century — Omaha was, for a brief moment, the center of the indie music world. No, really, I’m not kidding. Every national music magazine, along with a handful of non-music publications such as Newsweek and Time, wrote glowing feature stories about our city’s indie music scene. Or as Jenny Lewis’ LA band Rilo Kiley put it on the title track of their 2002 album, “The Execution of All Things”:
Someone come quickly, this place was built for moving out
Leave behind buildings, the city planners got mapped out
Bring with you history and make your hard-earned feast
Then we’ll go to Omaha to work and exploit the booming music scene
A big part of the attention was due to Saddle Creek Records, our little hometown indie label that released album after album of hits from Bright Eyes, The Faint, Cursive and Rilo Kiley. But there was more to it than that. Like indie music pied pipers, a small handful of eager, young local promoters hustled to bring the country’s best indie bands to Omaha for rock shows. First it was the Saddle Creek Records guys — Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel — and then the 1% Productions folks — Marc Leibowitz, Jim Johnson and their crew.
Ground zero was Sokol Underground, a basement venue tucked under the South Omaha music hall/gymnasium Sokol Auditorium. Every week, some of the nation’s best indie bands played at Sokol Underground. Acts such as Arcade Fire, Interpol, Built to Spill and Death Cab for Cutie got their starts playing for a few hundred slackers in that smoke-filled bunker.
By 2007, those young music promoters hungered for more and opened venues of their own. The Slowdown, run by the Saddle Creek Records guys, and The Waiting Room, run by 1%, opened their doors and funneled all those Sokol Underground shows to their shiny new stages. It was indie music heaven, with touring indie bands playing almost nightly through the end of the aughts and into the early 20-teens.
But things changed quickly. Technology in the form of streaming media ate the music industry, and while major artists continued to flourish, small indie bands suddenly had to figure out a new way to make money now that no one was buying records at that time. The pandemic pushed our indie scene further over the cliff, and the last shove was when a generation of music fans that had gone to shows at Sokol Underground grew up, had families and quit listening to music.
The irony is that today, Omaha has more music venues than ever, including two new 3,000-capacity music halls — Steelhouse Omaha downtown and The Astro music hall/amphitheater, which opens this month in La Vista. And while they no doubt will pull in all kinds of pop, country, metal and comedy acts, these huge facilities serve no purpose for the kind of Indie band Hello Mary on stage at 7th St. Entry in Minneapolis in July.young indie bands that made Omaha famous 20 years ago — bands that draw only a few hundred rather than a few thousand concertgoers.
It’s not all bad news for indie music lovers. The annual Maha Festival still books terrific indie acts — this year is no exception, with indie royalty Big Thief, The Beths, Alvvays and Turnstile among the lineup. The Outlandia Festival, in its second year, has booked legacy indie acts Modest Mouse and The Faint. And Reverb Lounge, The Waiting Room, Slowdown and The Sydney still host the occasional indie show — but they are few and far between.
Today, a vast majority of modern indie bands — the bands currently dominating college radio charts — no longer consider Omaha when booking tours. Have they simply forgotten about us, or are promoters and venue owners unwilling to take a chance on them for fear of losing money? For answers, more research is needed.
In the meantime, the only solution for indie fans: If the bands aren’t coming to you, go to the bands.
The drive time to Minneapolis ended up being about six hours due to gnarly construction just outside the Twin Cities. That night we saw breakthrough acts Blondshell and opener Hello Mary at 7th St. Entry — the small club adjacent to First Avenue, the venue Prince made famous. It was a hot, crowded, sold-out show from two bands that are selling out small rooms throughout the country, the kind of show our city used to be known for. After 25 years, we’ve come full circle and Omaha’s indie music scene is back underground, again.
Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at email@example.com.