I’m back; prelude, Column 91 — The Return of Saddle Creek Bar, postscript; live reviews; M Ward and Oberst tonight…

Category: Blog — @ 12:26 pm September 6, 2006

So I’m back and the hiatus is over and I can tell you that Cape Cod hasn’t changed and I have the sunburn to prove it. Thank you for your patience in my extended absence.

I have a load of catching up to do, and I realize that there’s no way you’re going to read all of this, perhaps the longest blog entry in the history of the Internet, but I have to get this all down now or it’ll never see the light of day. So let’s start off with the column.

By now, you may already have read it in The Reader that came out last Wednesday night. But I’m writing this portion of the blog entry from the seat of my Midwest Airlines leather seat, so I haven’t seen what was published. I do know via e-mail that portions where changed, including the ending, which was deemed too harsh by the publisher, who was probably right. I had no intention of throwing any bombs with the column, and certain comments quoted from Mike Coldewey may have sounded purposely confrontational. They weren’t meant that way; they were merely Coldewey’s way of voicing the facts, his motivation behind the reopening of the club and the competitive nature of the Omaha live music scene. Regardless of publisher John Heaston’s timidity, I’ve included the column in its entirety here, knowing that Coldewey meant no harm in his assessment of the plethora of West Omaha bars.

What didn’t make the column by my own volition was the back story behind the reopening of the Saddle Creek Bar. It’s a story that the editors of The Reader told me had already been told in the paper, so it may be old hat to you. I’d never heard it until Coldewey told me, and in many ways, it’s more interesting then the column that got printed.

To understand the full story, you need to know who Mike Coldewey is and how he comes off in an interview situation. I met him at the bar after I got off work a couple weeks ago. There was no one in the place but a bartender and a couple bar flies cooling their heels, waiting for the happy hour crowd to get started. Coldewey is a wiry guy, a youthful 42 who looks like he could hold his own as a bouncer. He’s a quick talker, articulate, and isn’t afraid to speak his mind even with a guy sitting across from him, typing up every word on a PowerBook.

Coldewey’s story actually starts five or six years ago. He was a regular at the Saddle Creek, where he said he used to get hammered – it was a convenient watering hole since he lived right up the street. “There was this snotty cocktail waitress named Tricia Jameson…” Coldewey didn’t think much of her back then. She was just a waitress that brought him drinks, nothing more.

She worked part-time with the Army National Guard as a medic. It was a job that eventually became full-time and an experience that changed her life. Meanwhile, Coldewey was going through some changes of his own. He opened a restaurant in North Omaha called Mother’s Good Food that consumed his life and forced him to clean up his act. “I quit drinking because you can’t work like that and be fucked up,” he said.

Mother’s quickly garnered a reputation for its well-made Cajun cuisine and became a destination spot for those willing to travel north of Dodge. Many did, including Tricia. “She came into my place as a customer, and she looked better than she ever did slinging drinks,” Coldewey said. “I made her food, and gave her some extra sauce and told he it was complements of the chef. She didn’t have any idea who I was.”

He told her about knowing her from her days at The Saddle Creek, the two quickly became reacquainted and began dating. “We fell in love and we were going to get married,” Coldewey said. But duty to her country got in the way of all that, and on July 14, 2005, Tricia Jameson was killed in Iraq. I didn’t press Coldewey for the details. He said it was all there if I wanted to know, just do a Google search. The story had been covered extensively in the media. I haven’t had the heart to look it up.

Coldewey said Tricia’s death threw him into a downward spiral. He closed Mother’s Good Food because he couldn’t work. His life had come to a standstill. But a funny thing happened at Tricia’s well-attended military funeral. Coldewey ran into the owner of The Saddle Creek Bar — an old friend and Tricia’s old employer. Coldewey said the meeting was strangely serendipitous. “Before then, I had been talking to him on and off for years, asking ‘Do you really want a million dollars for this place?’ There was something going on here that was pushing it my way.”

The owner of the then vacant bar reconsidered Coldewey’s offer. They did the deal over the course of a couple months and the place started operating again a year ago Labor Day as a bar and package drive-thru joint – a business that Coldewey had to learn on his own. It seemed everyone wanted him to reopen Mother’s at the Saddle Creek location, and finally, he decided it was a good idea. Coldewey built a new kitchen in the back of the place, adjoining the old one and opened the restaurant in January. The rest of the story is in the column, below.

Column 91: Back in the Saddle
A new contender in Omaha’s music venue wars
It’d been years since I stepped foot in The Saddle Creek Bar at 1410 No. Saddle Creek Rd. The last time was probably to see the Linoma Mashers back when Dan Prescher was still in the band, maybe eight years ago?

Funny how little things change. When I stepped foot in there again last week, it was as if I’d just left the night before. Sure, there were a couple new walls, and gee, didn’t there used to be booths over there? But despite those changes and the addition of a new kitchen, it was the same old place with that same old stage.

I live only about a mile from the bar and didn’t even know it had reopened until I got an e-mail from a publicist hyping an upcoming gig by pseudo-novelty heavy-metal act, Thor, playing at the Saddle Creek Sept. 9. A day later, I noticed the bar listed on a One Percent Productions flier as the location for an Oh No! Oh My! gig (last) Saturday.

Turns out the Saddle Creek Bar has been back in business for quite a while, with its sights set on becoming a contender in the Omaha music venue wars. So says Mike Coldewey, the bar’s new owner/operator.

You may recognize Coldewey as the owner of Mother’s Good Food, the Cajun place that used to be located in North Omaha just off Calhoun Rd. Coldewey moved the restaurant to the Saddle Creek Bar location, reopening just last January. “It tanked pretty quickly,” he said from across a table while a few regulars drank at the bar.

“In business, it’s all about adapting. I couldn’t adapt quickly enough to keep the restaurant’s head above water. I scotched it in late-April with the intent of following my back-up plan.”

That “back-up plan” calls for turning The Saddle Creek Bar back into a live music venue, even though Coldewey isn’t exactly sure how to do it. “I’m a restaurateur, I don’t know about running a bar and liquor store,” he said. So he moved some tables around, put in dart boards and a few pool tables, and jumped behind the bar.

He also grabbed his toolbox and gave the bar’s massive sound system a once-over. “This is the legendary ‘bad sound system’ that every band dreaded,” Coldewey said, pointing to the massive speakers hanging from either side of the stage. He should know. He played keyboards on the Saddle Creek stage back in the day as a member of cover bands Knucklehead and Safe Haven. “Whoever installed it didn’t know what they were doing. They had thousands of watts of mid-frequency and no bass to offset the midrange. I rewired it all and it works great.”

Now all he needs are the bands. To get booking off the ground, he contacted One Percent Productions, the folks who book almost all the touring indie-rock shows down at Sokol Underground. “I made a deal with (One Percent’s) Marc Leibowitz where they have access to the stage to book acts,” Coldewey said. “When he doesn’t book it, I’ll book it. We can’t afford to not have bands here.”

For Coldewey, the rules of the game are simple. Bands play for the door money. “I’m booking just about anyone as long as they’re open to the way we do business,” he said.

But not just any band is invited. Thrash metal bands are a no-no. Coldewey says their audience skews to an under-21 crowd, and there will be no all-ages shows at Saddle Creek. Hip-hop acts will be chosen very selectively. “I’m into live music, not some guy ripping scratches off while another guy raps. There has to be performers on stage,” he said.

And they better be good. Coldewey has no patience for amateurs. He knows musicianship when he hears it, which is why he won’t book a band until he’s heard their CD or seen them perform on Thursday nights — “audition nights.”

“If I like them, I’ll send them away with a booking for a Friday or Saturday night,” he said, adding that the live music focus will be on weekends; week night shows are by special arrangement only, through promoters.

No, this isn’t going to be your typical indie club. In addition to shows set up by local promoters, Coldewey is booking cover bands (Private Hoserod Sept. 22), blues bands (Copper Blues Band in late September), the legendary Zebra Jam (starting Sept. 10), and even our old friends the Limoma Mashers (back again Sept. 16).

But it’s the bar’s potential for first-rate indie shows that’s so intriguing. Leibowitz said the Saddle Creek should work for shows that are too big for O’Leaver’s but too small for Sokol Underground. ” O’Leaver’s really hasn’t invested anything into being a venue,” Leibowitz said. “It’s hard to book serious touring bands into a venue that has that level of production.”

But despite being a small room with an even smaller PA, O’Leaver’s has managed to make a name for itself as one of the city’s important indie venues. That could change if The Saddle Creek takes off. “I hope it does,” Coldewey said. “I don’t wish them ill, but they’re a music venue doing what I’m doing. O’Leaver’s will always be just one of those bars with ‘the band in the corner.’ We’re offering music on a stage presented with a real sound system.

“What we don’t want to be is The Ozone or Shag or Murphy’s — one of the 10 music bars in town with one of 15 cover bands performing nightly. I want to be above that.”

Like I said earlier, Coldewey doesn’t mince words. It’s nothing personal, but if he thinks you’re an amateur and your band sucks, he’s going to tell you, and apparently has, judging by some of the feedback I heard from people who I talked to before writing the column. There are those who don’t (or won’t) like Coldewey’s cut-and-dried ways. He’s a businessman, not an artist. And though he wants to make the Saddle Creek Bar a special destination spot for live music, he holds no allusions toward “supporting the arts.” It doesn’t matter what praise your band has received, if you can’t draw a crowd, you’re not likely to play the Saddle Creek more than once. And if Coldewey hasn’t heard of you, well, you’re going to have to prove yourself regardless of the press. “We want the bar business, we want people to spend money here,” he said.

“I’m not a concert promoter and I don’t want to be a concert promoter. I don’t have the connections with the media or with the venues. I resent the fact that in the Midwest clubs have to do all the promotions and the bands set up and play and walk away with all the money. If they’re going to be successful, they’re gonna have to try to be successful.”

Coldewey pointed to how live music is handled on the West Coast — where bands have to pay to play, or at least hustle to sell tickets to their shows. He knows that won’t work here, but the last person I heard describe that strategy was The Ranch Bowl’s Matt Markel, and in a lot of ways, Coldewey reminds me of him, though he has no intention of filling Markel’s shoes as a music mogul (that’s Leibowitz territory).

So will Coldewey’s Plan B for the Saddle Creek work? Time will tell. The possibilities are endless. I think Coldewey sees the same potential for that part of Saddle Creek Rd. that the guys from Saddle Creek Records saw when they proposed to build the Slowdown project just west of the Homy Inn three years ago, but were driven away by a neighborhood association that wasn’t going to allow it. Three years later, and that proposed location for Slowdown is the same blighted corner with no development in sight. Coldewey said Slowdown would have never worked there because of the backward-thinking neighbors and business owners, not because it was a bad idea.

Had Slowdown happened, he said, it would have revitalized the entire area. New businesses would have opened all along old Saddle Creek – restaurants and bistros. “This area would have become what Benson would like to become, but never will.” But that’s for another column…

Back to the present…

Actually, I’ve been back in town since Saturday afternoon, which means I had a chance to go to a couple shows last weekend, including that Oh No! Oh My! show at The Saddle Creek Bar, which was a make-or-break event for the venue. The consensus — it was definitely “make” not “break.”

A respectable crowd of around 100 turned out, including some of the scene’s more notorious figures and lots of people connected to that “other Saddle Creek.” Though I’d gotten a gander of the bar when I interviewed Coldewey, the dynamics of the place wasn’t as clear until show night. The Saddle Creek Bar really does have all the accouterments to become a first-class venue, and a comfortable one at that. There’s tons of seating. Directly across from the stage (and the empty dance floor) are dozens and dozens of tables. While across from the bar is high-chair seating along a rail, which extends along the back of the bar where there’s even more seating. The place seems to go on and on. In addition to the tables, people hung out in back by the pool tables and stood along the bar. Capacity of 250? Something like that, yeah… The site-lines from any location were terrific — no metal beams or poles in the way.

Then there’s the sound system. Coldewey indeed tweaked it and the results are impressive. It’s a meaty PA, with two large banks of two-way speakers on either side of the stage and a battery of subs beneath the stage. Coldewey himself runs the sound board and overall it was well-balanced from act to act. I would find out later that there were some problems with the stage monitors (The bands apparently weren’t too pleased about it) and a few other technical difficulties which were unnoticeable to the average beer-drinking patron.

In addition to all the plusses, there are few other minuses worth mentioning. The biggest is probably that dance floor. Regulars of rock shows know that part of the deal is standing in front of the band when they perform. The SCB stage is a good three feet above the dance floor — nice. The problem is that no one was willing to stand on the dance floor during the set, probably because they didn’t want to block the view of everyone sitting at the tables. This result: Too much distance between the band in the crowd — very noticeable when you consider we’re used to having the band practically play in our laps at places like O’Leaver’s and The 49’r. I don’t know how they’ll fix this, maybe move the tables closers to the stage? But if you did, people would likely congregate behind the tables, taking them even further from the bands. This problem, of course, will be alleviated at a show that draws a capacity crowd– which we might see this coming Saturday when Thor takes the SCB stage.

The performers seemed to dig the place. First up was Whispertown 2000, which in this incarnation was essentially a solo performance by frontwoman Morgan Nagler, accompanied a couple times by a drummer (was it Rilo Kiley’s Jason Boesel?). You might remember her from opening for Rilo Kiley at Scottish Rite back in March. Well, she sounded better (maybe because she left her lousy band at home), but seemed just as uncomfortable. At the end of her set, she begged people to dance to a number that included pre-recorded rhythm tracks on an iPod, which improved her sound immeasurably. Sure enough, about a dozen scenesters took the floor and did a sort of indie-dance, which looked as awkward as you can imagine.

Somebody Still Loves You, Boris Yeltsin was next, and though they sounded more polished then when I saw them a few months ago at O’Leaver’s, their music sounded more vanilla, more generic, with a few Wheezer licks thrown in for good measure.

Finally, the headliner, Oh No! Oh My!, and oh my, what a band they were. There’s a well-deserved buzz going around about this Austin, Texas, 6-piece, whose make-up includes numerous keyboards and a trumpet. Clearly, the band was influenced by our old friends The Pixies, but managed to take that sound in their own direction, thanks to the instrumentation. They even got a couple people to dance without having to ask! Their eclectic style and rambunctious stage presence makes them the perfect fit for opening for The Flaming Lips this Thursday in Burlington VT. Yeah, I think you’ll be hearing a lot more from this band in the future.

One more show of note — I went to The Like Young/ Landing on the Moon show at O’Leaver’s Sunday night (I had Monday off, so what the hey?). The Like Young is/was a Chicago-based drum-and-guitar husband-and-wife duo a la The White Stripes, though they sound nothing like them. Instead, frontman/guitarist Joe Ziemba comes off like a young, angry ’70s-era Elvis Costello, complete with punk snarl. They tore into a set of 20-plus songs that lasted well over an hour. It’s a shame that they’re hanging it up after this tour. Turns out that they both have regular jobs that they’ve decided to dedicate themselves to instead of spending the next part of their lives slogging it out on the road. Despite a deal with Polyvinyl, the duo never reached the levels they hoped to reach. Here’s hoping they don’t give up on music altogether. Landing on the Moon sounded as strong as ever, and continues to be one of the fullest-sounding bands out of Omaha these days. Drummer/vocalist Oliver Morgan said the band is working on some new material as they forge ahead with their plan for world domination. As for O’Leaver’s, I talked to a couple of folks who work there, and none of them are terribly concerned about the advent of The Saddle Creek Bar, though it has their clientele directly in its crosshairs. Why should they be? They have 18 shows scheduled for the remainder of September and 16 already lined up for October. If anything, they probably need someone to take a few shows off their hands. Fact is, simply looking at how these venues differ, I don’t see them directly competing with one another.

Which brings us to tonight’s M Ward show at Scottish Rite Hall with Shelley Short and McCarthy Trenching. I have yet to get 100 percent confirmation that the McCarthy Trenching line-up will be an all-star cast that includes Conor Oberst and Maria Taylor. One Percent Productions wouldn’t directly confirm it, but hinted at it in their weekly e-mail “…Dan put together an all-star band for this show. That’s really all I can say about it, but that should be enough…” The venue alone is worth the price of admission. Scottish Rite Hall is an undiscovered gem of a venue in the heart of downtown (here’s what I said about it after the Jenny Lewis show). 8 p.m., $15.

It’s good to be back…

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