Thanks again to Mike Tulis and O’Leaver’s for hosting Urgh! A Music War last night. The turnout was good (over 50?), and it was fun to see which bands got the biggest reaction. I think The Cramps won, followed by Gang of Four, Devo and 999 (There were actually people singing along to “Homicide”). My last comment concerning this movie: Someone needs to make Urgh! A Music War II right now (actually, they should have done it a few years ago). Twenty-five years after it was made Urgh! stands as a valuable document of ’80s underground music. The same could be said of a film that documented today’s indie scene. The big diff between then and now, of course, is that a resourceful grassroots film team could make Urgh! II for a fraction of what it must have cost to film Urgh! Come on, all you up-and-coming film makers, get out there and do it.
This week’s column is a talk with legendary Omaha tavern-owner Mark Samuelson about The 49’r and its roll in Omaha’s live music scene. It also includes some old-school talk about The Howard St. Tavern. It’ll be good to see the Niner get back into the swing of hosting more live music.
The 49’r Takes Five
You can’t stop the music at the midtown tavern.Within the past few years, The 49’r has established itself as one of the city’s more important music venues, hosting a few national acts but mostly concentrating on providing a stage for up-and-coming local bands. It’s arguably the best place to see snarling, hard-ass rock and punk from bands like The Monroes, Anonymous American and Race for Titles.So when word leaked out a few weeks ago that The Niner was cutting back on live music, it came as a disappointed both to the bands and the fans of those white-knuckle acts.Rumor and conjecture did abound. Had The 49’r reached the end of the live music business cycle? A cycle that goes something like this: A bar suffers from a lull in business. A few bands that hang around the place ask if they can play some gigs there, and the owner figures why not, it could help drum up some business. More bands are booked and crowds grow like kudzu. Before long, folks start coming out just because they dig the bar, the staff and its jukebox, and before you know it, the live music becomes a nuisance for the regulars who just want to drink in peace. Seeing an opportunity to cut costs, the venue puts an end to the stage show.That theory, in this case, is only partially correct, says Mark Samuelson, owner of The 49’r. During the height of his nightclub business, Samuelson ran four successful Omaha bars simultaneously: The Partners on 42nd and F, the legendary Howard St. Tavern in the Old Market, its “upstairs bar” called The White Rabbit, and the good ol’ 49’r at 49th & Dodge.Today only The Niner remains, which Samuelson still operates along with his other businesses, Aksarben Fixture and Supply, an ATM business and some real estate ventures. The degree in which he operates The Niner, however, has changed. Samuelson says he’s somewhat removed from the bar’s day-to-day operations.“I listen to my help,” he said when asked about the shift in the venue’s live music policy. “I think we got over-saturated, and every band wanted to play here. The staff was hearing that we were doing a little too much music. Now we’re only choosing the best bands that really draw people.”He pointed out that The Niner’s live music policy differs from the way the Howard St. was run. Back then, Samuelson said he started booking new music acts because blues was such a tough sell. And it didn’t take long for the club to become a national tour stop for tomorrow’s superstars.“We had the Smashing Pumpkins come in for a $140 guarantee and two vegetarian pizzas,” he said. “It’s crazy to think about that today.”Unlike the Howard St, The 49’r doesn’t offer guarantees. Instead, bands take home whatever cover charge they can generate. “So if you’re just playing for the door, it doesn’t make sense for the big bands to come here,” he said.There are exceptions, however, such as when the staff wanted to bring in New York Dolls guitarist Sylvain Sylvain. “If they have a good idea, I just stay out of the way,” Samuelson said. So far, it’s worked well.But if anything, The 49r’s biggest draw is its location in the heart of Dundee, or as their matchbooks used to say: “In the middle of everything and no place to park.”“We’re not in the middle anymore. We’re downtown,” Samuelson said, laughing. “We’re so busy because we have so many people who live close to here. The .08 (drinking) law is really hurting a lot of clubs. No one wants to risk it.”Better to tie one on at The Niner and safely stumble home then to get behind the wheel of a car.So does the bar’s already-packed weekends without bands spell the end for The Niner’s live music? Hardly. In fact, Samuelson said the venue will get back into the swing of things later this fall. “It’s gonna pick back up,” he said. “I anticipate doing more than just a couple of shows a month like we’re doing now.”
And really, how could he ever stop? For it was at The 49’r back in the early ’70s that a 15-year-old Samuelson’s own band, Hat Trick, had its first gig. Ironically, the band’s second gig would be at The Howard St. Tavern.
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