With its fabulous new clubs, Omaha is a model for the KC scene

When this cornfed Nebraska girl lived in Lincoln, seeing a good rock show often meant trucking 45 minutes north to Omaha.

Now that Kansas City is my home, I don’t have to drive to Omaha. KC and Lawrence attract enough cool traveling bands to keep my calendar full. But last Wednesday, I made the three-hour trek to O-town for one of those odd tours that isn’t stopping here, Nada Surf and Sea Wolf. I also wanted to see how two scenes — KC and Omaha — compare.

Omaha is, of course, the Midwest’s most indie-rock city — home to Saddle Creek Records, associated bands Cursive, Bright Eyes and the Faint, and legions of leggings-wearing hipsters.

When I frequented Omaha in the early 2000s, most rock shows of note happened at one of three places. My favorite was the (now defunct) Ranch Bowl, where bands rocked out in one room and mulletheads knocked down pins in another. Bigger acts played at Sokol Auditorium, an ancient event hall akin to KC’s Uptown Theater. Sokol Underground, a dungeon below the Sokol main stage, also booked shows regularly. That’s where I first caught Bright Eyes, shortly before the rest of the world started fawning over Conor Oberst and dubbing Omaha “the next Seattle.”

That whole phenomenon was both exciting and a little annoying to Nebraska music fans like me. Suddenly, the scene was under a lot of pressure to live up to the hype. I still don’t think Omaha’s on par with Seattle, but the scene seems healthy. And the success of Saddle Creek Records is part of that.

Last year, the Saddle Creek people opened a kickass rock club in an underdeveloped part of downtown. Esquire magazine named Slowdown its 2008 Club of the Year. Part of a complex that also houses an art-house theater, an Urban Outfitters, some loft apartments and the Saddle Creek headquarters, the 470-capacity music venue was designed to satisfy rockers and their fans. Apparently, bands can pull their vans right into the venue for easy equipment loading. And thanks to a multi-level interior, there’s nary a spot in the house from which you can’t see the stage.

Unfortunately, I hit Slowdown on one of the only nights this month that something musical wasn’t happening, so I had a Stella and chatted with my bartender, a member of bands the Good Life and Neva Dinova. The show I came to town for was at the other new club that sprouted in Omaha last year — The Waiting Room.

Located about as far from Slowdown as Record Bar is from The Brick, The Waiting Room isn’t as posh as Slowdown. Next door to a mortuary in the quaint Benson neighborhood, the club has a vintage feel. A row of pinball machines on the way to the bathrooms made me think of the Replay Lounge in Lawrence. At the entrance, I passed a poster for an upcoming Mac Lethal show and encountered one of The Waiting Room’s owners, a promoter who’s been working the scene for years. He grudgingly let me in for free, even though the list I was supposed to be on was mysteriously absent.

Mark Leibowitz is part of the reason that Omaha’s scene thrives. Through One Percent Productions, he and his partner, Jim Johnson, have brought cool bands to Omaha for a decade. And now, thanks to their club and Slowdown, touring bands and locals have better places to perform in than a bowling alley or a basement.

I’d be lying if I said hanging out in those two sweet new Omaha clubs didn’t make me a little wistful. With El Torreon gone, we could definitely use a new place for all-ages shows. And a venue with a capacity between the Record Bar and the Beaumont Club would be nice.

Slowdown’s undeniably cool vibe, with band dudes behind the bar and a photo booth in the corner, made me think instantly of the Record Bar, our local example of musicians investing back into the scene. The Record Bar was the club everyone in Omaha name-checked when I said I’d come in from KC. Like Slowdown, it’s the kind of place that musicians on tour like to come back to.

Now, if one of our local labels — say, OxBlood Records or Anodyne or Range Life — would blow up and suddenly have the capital to build us a little mecca for music fans.

Get famous, goddamnit!

Categories: Music