Let’s start with what’s new. The newly opened jazz club, The Jewell, in the Capitol District. The vision and efforts of Omaha transplant Brian McKenna are bringing world-class jazz artists to Omaha and giving some of our fine local talent that has been gigging at places like Jambo Cat in Dundee a new place to play.
If there’s a through line to the roots-music scene in the last 25 years, it’s that personal passion like McKenna’s is critical to even a possibility of success. Lincoln’s Zoo Bar, with a through line of commitment to talent and community, was originally envisioned by the late Larry Boehmer and is now under the direction of Pete Watters, who has spent more than half his life involved with the club.
It takes that kind of in-it-for-the-long-haul dedication to get through slow nights and keep believing in the music and the musicians while reminding the community that it needs to keep showing up to support the scene.
Running a successful music venue is work, and just adding a band isn’t going to increase the bottom line. As a matter of fact, most local musicians are making about the same amount of money playing local shows that they did 25 years ago. If there is one thing I could change, it would be that. And make no mistake, we have some substantial, national-quality original roots music in Omaha and Lincoln. If you read my column regularly, you know who I like and hopefully you have your own favorites. If you pay attention to the scene, you know local artists are hitting touring circuits across the country and even touring Europe, tirelessly rocking clubs with their original, Nebraska-born roots music.
The market has been recognized with six prestigious Keeping the Blues Alive (KBA) awards from the Blues Foundation in Memphis. Beginning with one of the Zoo Bar’s founders and longtime music booker, Larry Boehmer, followed by PS Blues radio show host Rick Galusha, Omaha promoter and then-BSO President Terry O’Halloran, and myself for my Reader column, along with other writing and work in the roots community. Other KBA recognition has gone to KZUM community radio in Lincoln for its large blocks of blues programming and, most recently, the Blues Society of Omaha (BSO) and its BluesEd youth performance development program. BluesEd alum are making their mark as young professional musicians, too.
But with all that recognition, the last club presenting the long-running weekly blues series that began with O’Halloran, The 21st Saloon (no longer under O’Halloran’s ownership), gave the blues a successful home but couldn’t make a go of it the other nights of the week. Continuation of the series led the Blues Society of Omaha to take on booking and paying the touring bands. In a partnership with Chrome Lounge, the BSO has persevered to keep the highly popular 6-9 p.m. Thursday shows going.
KIOS radio show Blues in the Afternoon with Mike Jacobs also has a consistent hand in showcasing new releases by national artists. Dean Dobmeier and Gary Grobeck went from fans to promoters when they established their moveable Sunday Roadhouse concert series, bringing roots artists they had traveled to see to the Omaha metro.
Retired Omaha businessman turned blues promoter Jeff Davis also deserves thanks for his Playing with Fire free blues music series begun in 2004. Davis’ passion leads him to bring in artists we might not otherwise see in Omaha, and his commitment to keeping the music free for all has been a guiding principle of his events. Now in partnership with Midtown Crossing, Davis has two shows coming this summer. Benson entrepreneur Amy Ryan has consistently offered local artists a venue with the PS Collective and now with The B Side of the Benson Theatre. Her long-range passion for the Theatre restoration and the role she sees it playing in the artistic community include performance opportunities and artist development. Kate Dussault’s subscription-based Hi-Fi House is also quietly but doggedly working to encourage the vitality of the local music scene.
Small clubs and venues like Barley Street Tavern, Harney Street Tavern, The Down Under, The Corner Bar in Fremont, Havana Garage, Reverb Lounge, The Waiting Room and Slowdown in Omaha present local artists along with popular touring acts. So do a host of venues in Lincoln’s downtown district from the Zoo Bar to Duffy’s and the Bourbon Theatre. Multi-venue events like Lincoln Calling and Lincoln Exposed and the OEAA Showcases help spotlight local talent for new audiences. Recent additions like The B. Bar, The Omaha Lounge, Love’s Jazz & Art Center and Growler USA are presenting local and sometimes regional talent.
Venues we’ve lost since The Reader began publication include the original Howard Street Tavern, the genre-spanning bookings of the Ranch Bowl and its visionary Matt Markel, the long-running McKenna’s Blues, Booze & BBQ at 74th & Pacific, Trovato’s in Dundee and Mick’s in Benson. The Music Box and Sharky’s at the same 77th & Cass location also consistently booked blues and roots music. Peony Park closed in 1994 but brought outstanding shows to the metro. The original Anchor Inn also played host to great roots shows through the years.
The Hive’s first location offered great blues jams, and live music was in the mix in the early days of the venue’s relocation to the Old Market. Terry O’Halloran’s venues from the original 18th Amendment to Paddy Murphy’s, Shag and the multiple operations at 96th & L played a decisive role in keeping blues music playing in the metro, leading him to receive a Music Ambassador Award from the OEAAs. The Jones Street Brewery also picked up great blues bookings for a while as the Howard Street Tavern’s blues bookings declined. Please note: If your current or past venue isn’t mentioned, don’t take it personally. This sort of recap is always about broad brush strokes and can’t encompass all the historic or present details.
I remember attending a Gary Clark Jr. show at Sokol Hall a few years back and being surprised at the number of young people in the standing-room only crowd for this Austin musician playing pretty straight-up traditional blues. A lot of the kind of stuff you’d hear from a traditional blues band at a Chrome Thursday show or at the Zoo Bar. How do we introduce those people to the opportunities to see local and touring artists on a nightly basis in the metro and help grow the fan base? I wish I had the answer. The first challenge for us as fans is to support the scene, buy tickets, buy artist merchandise, financially support what you value. Introduce someone else, especially someone younger, to the music you love.