Column 32: The Border Wars

Category: Blog — @ 12:13 pm July 6, 2005

A few things to add to this week’s column (below): 1) The stage and PA at Shag are first-rate. Apparently local musicians helped design the sound system. Unfortunately the evening I was there a fill-in soundman was behind the knobs and everything sounded a bit muddled. 2) I left toward the tail-end of Anonymous American’s set and headed down to O’Leaver’s to catch The Wilderness and Kite Pilot. While there, I asked musicians from three local bands if they’d play at Shag. All said no for various reasons, including “We prefer playing all-ages clubs” (I’ll buy that, fair enough); “It’s too far away, our fans would never travel that far west,” (um… bullshit) and, “People who go to those clubs aren’t going to ‘get’ what we’re trying to do — they’re not there for music, they’re there to get laid.” Having spent a great deal of time during my college days in the ’80s frequenting Jodhpurs, Brandywines, The Crazy Horse and The Ranch Bowl — 72nd St. meat market bars that featured cover bands — I can attest that this last sentiment could very well be true. Shag does have a meat-market vibe. Time will tell. 3) The Spotlight Lounge (mentioned in the column) is kicking off its original-band series — hosted by local music guru MarQ Manner– tomorrow night, with Icares. It’ll be a tough launch, considering that the Compost and Criteria shows are slated for the same evening, but I doubt that either will eat into MarQ’s draw.

Column 32 — The Border Wars
Which side are you on?
A couple weeks ago I got into a late-night Internet argument with local musician Matt Whipkey (of Anonymous American) about the plusses and minuses of bands playing bars located west of 72nd St. — the proverbial line of demarcation that historically divides Omaha the City with Omaha the Suburbs.

It’s the old cliché: Depending on which side of 72nd you frequent, you either dine at chain restaurants or at small bistros, shop at strip malls or at mom-and-pop retailers, listen to cover bands or dig original music by original artists. Argue all you want if the line should exist, but exist it does. And oh how those who live on either side refuse to cross that imaginary border.

Whipkey had wanted some hype for a gig his band was playing at Shag, a new club at 114th and Dodge (the former Funnybone location). I had to laugh. You want people to take your band seriously when you play west of 72nd? The only thing out in the land of strip malls is cover bands and meat markets.

Whipkey didn’t flinch. Before you go shooting your mouth off, see for yourself, he said, adding that Shag owner Terry O’Halloran is trying something different. Besides, it would be good for me to step outside of my usual indie enclave of O’Leaver’s, Sokol Underground and The 49’r. And, honestly, it ain’t so far away.

He was right. It took only 10 minutes for this proud citizen of Dundee to make his way past the monolithic overpass construction to Shag’s sleepy strip mall with its seemingly endless parking. The lot was so well-lit that I could have driven “the good car” — something that’s not recommended if parking on one of the dim-lit back alleys that surround Sokol Auditorium. Once inside, another oddity — the bar didn’t stink of 100 years of smoke and stale piss. And instead of stark, beer-sign glare, Shag’s tiki-influenced interior glowed with warm, ambient light cast by giant rose-colored ceiling shades. Instead of having to stand all night to watch the bands, I sat in a luxurious (faux) leopard-skin high chair. And talk about innovation: Shag has this gimmick where young women called “waitresses” actually bring you your drinks! Huh?

Performing on this Sunday night along with Anonymous American was local original band The Ointments. Guitarist/frontman Reagan Roeder, bassist Kyle Harvey (an accomplished singer songwriter in his own right) and drummer Landon Hedges (frontman of indie band Little Brazil) pounded out a style of power pop that merged Television, Matthew Sweet with Teenage Fan Club. The West O crowd of more than 100 ate it up, just as they devoured Anonymous American’s Stonesy, twangy, alt-country rock. Both acts were a far cry from your typical cover band.

O’Halloran said Shag’s bread-and-butter is its Thursday-through-Saturday crowd who come to unwind over vodka drinks, music videos and the hope of catching a little opposite-sex action. He indulges himself with live music on Sundays — usually national touring blues bands — but is experimenting with local original acts as long as they’re not too edgy. “Anonymous American is non-offensive, quality music, and is as good as any national touring act,” he said. “Hiring local original bands brings in people who haven’t been to the club yet.” People like me.

Shag’s not alone in this brave, new world. The Spotlight at 120th and Blondo and The Prestige Club at 152nd and West Maple are both straying from the cover-band formula by booking local original acts, trying to fill a void created by the closing of The Ranch Bowl and the long-forgotten Music Box. Could this be the beginning of a Western migration?

O’Halloran is skeptical. Also the operator of Murphy’s Lounge (the old 18th Amendment), he explained that West Omaha’s high rent and high overhead demand the kind of revenue that only cover bands (and their beer-guzzling following) can draw. “In East Omaha, the rents are lower, the overhead’s not as high and having a huge draw isn’t as important.”

And then there’s that crazy 72nd St. border. “The reason why the Saddle Creek guys are opening their club north of downtown is because that’s where their fans are,” he said. “The stigma about east and west of 72nd Street is probably accurate.”

Some clichés, it seems, are hard to shake.

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