Please keep your shoes on and if you’re going out to smoke, leave your drinks inside.
“Hey man, how’s it goin’?”
“Cool, cool. Hey, um, I’m, like, twenty man. Is there any way I can get outside for a cigarette? I’ll only be a few minutes.”
“Sorry man. Once minors leave, they can’t come back in.”
A new smoking ordinance has recently gone into affect in Omaha. All smoking in public venues is now prohibited which has forced all those who want to huff down a quick “heater” to go outside. This is all fine unless you’re under twenty one. If you’re still a minor, thanks to a separate regulation, once you leave any music establishment that serves alcohol you can’t get back in. This is a giant pain in the ass for those who are old enough to smoke but not old enough to drink.
“Is there, like, a back room you can duck me into?”
“No man, I’m sorry. You’re shit outta luck. There’s nothing I can do for ya.”
The “twenty year old” hippie slumps to half his height as he shuffles off back toward his friends who are eagerly awaiting the verdict. His body language conveys all and they respond in kind. It’d be funny if it weren’t so pitiful. Pitiful and completely repetitive.
The entertainment tonight is being provided by Polydypsia, a local jam band that is sometimes Galactic, sometimes Charlie Brown, and has song titles like “Funk Goulash” and “Musical Slut”. Upon first experience they seem like any other hippie joint that manages to find their way to a stage. But once you actually start to pay attention to what they’re doing, you soon realize that they’re a very talented bunch of trained jazz musicians. They like to site influence from Miles Davis to Zappa and Parliament Funkadelic. Depending on the night and the band’s mood, you usually get a healthy slathering of both ends of that eclectic spectrum.
Their following is rarely that diverse or unpredictable. I’ve worked security for three Polydypsia shows now and each time has been a repeat of the previous engagement. An hour before start, the Waiting Room is a cavern. Talk begins amongst the staff about a slow night on the horizon and I start to dream a bit about possibly being sent home early. Tonight, it was speculated, could be even slower due to two other fashionable shows happening around town: Son, Ambulance and Jennifer O’Connor at the Slowdown and The Good Life with one Conor Oberst opening just down the block at the Barley Street. Yes, the night was shaping up to be a sluggish one.
Then, as with previous shows, the hippie hive mind was somehow alerted. Swarms of hula-hoops, sun dresses, sandals, cargo shorts, and tie dye shirts bombarded the front door minutes before the band takes the stage. Every time it happens I imagine a single band member walking outside to a waiting hippie, giving him a nod, and a highly sophisticated system of lackadaisical transmission is set in motion. An entire army of hippies is notified through cannabis smoke signals and carrier pigeons. Some coordination must be in place because the band never starts at the advertised time and yet, somehow, everyone shows up just as they’re ready to play. Maybe they’re all on the same biological clock, like, large groups of women on their cycle or something. I don’t know but it definitely lends a small amount of validity to Dead Head chemistry.
I say the previously mentioned smoking experience is “pitiful and repetitive” because that interaction is one of only two issues I ever have to deal with at a Polydypsia show; the other problem being proper foot attire, or rather, the lack thereof. Hippies hate wearing their shoes/sandals. In a bar where every single alcoholic beverage is served in some form of glass, you’d think they’d be a bit more concerned about stepping on the many shards scattered about the floor over the course of one night. But god damnit, every time I turn away and come back I’ve got three or four stoners dancing around like hairless lemurs with back spasms and no footwear. So then I’ve got to be the asshole and ruin everybody’s trip by asking them to please keep their Jesus cleats on. It’s a ridiculous position for someone to constantly be in when dealing with adults but apparently the urge for total foot freedom just cannot be denied.
A drunk, fifty-something year old man in a polo shirt and khakis is staring at a young woman seductively dancing on the floor. She’s got a Sierra Nevada in one hand and the side of her sun dress in the other. She’s twirling around and gyrating to the music in a way that’s almost hypnotic. I find myself staring at her for a time too and, in that moment, relate completely to a man twice my age.
It’s a typical July night in Omaha outside. It’s as humid as a rainforest and off to the west periodic lightning flashes between slowly rising storm clouds. The main drag of Benson, Omaha’s cultural epicenter, is populated with bar crawlers, loading band members, and staffers from various bars out on a short smoke break. It’s hard to imagine that a large part of the city is asleep and socially dormant right now. Maple Street, between 62nd and NW Radial Highway, is so alive on a Friday night that it puts its daytime persona to shame. People are spilling out of the Barley, no doubt trying to catch a single note from Oberst in a bar that is retardedly small for the horde he commands. Jake’s, a cigar and Scotch pub, is raucous as usual and the after hours Espana crowd is squawking away on the fringe. It’s a scene that’s taken years to nurture by a small, select group of hard working believers in a large faction of uncompromising artists. True talent in this town used to be hard to find. Then, like every city that finds itself as the next big scene, a great swell of inventiveness seems to coalesce in one spot until you can’t throw a Spin magazine without hitting someone who’s either on his way out of town on tour or just coming back. We’re not the next Austin, nor are we the subsequent Seattle but we are the first Omaha.
Some could argue that this great musical landscape that we now appreciate almost didn’t happen. Two of Omaha’s major venues for local musicians (the Cog Factory and The Ranch Bowl) closed down, leaving only one major location (Sokol Auditorium and Underground) for bands to try and fight their way into. The Civic Auditorium and newly constructed Qwest Center were two gigantic structures reserved for the occasional major acts like Eric Clapton or Celine Dion, so no way could you get a bill there. There were of course other smaller bars around town to gig at but none that embraced the scene and made the act of the night the priority. The pure, amateur performance arena was quickly becoming a lost novelty. Not to mention, as someone who played in a few bands back when the Cog and the Ranch Bowl were still around, it was hard to get people to come to the shows. As great as those venues were, they’d let anyone and everyone play there. So a discriminative standard was never in place and you never developed a regular group of people who would attend simply because they knew there’d be good music, regardless of who was playing. Your typical audience was comprised of friends and family. Exposing yourself to new people was as easy as taking a shit upside down: not very.
Then, the local booking giant 1% Productions opened their own venue: the Waiting Room. Suddenly there was, not only another place to play, but the best sound guy and system in town as well. Also, and perhaps most importantly, the partners of 1% know good music and know the people behind it. So instantly, Omaha had its ground zero for a serious music scene.
Shortly after that, Saddle Creek Records established their own venue (Slowdown) and the quaint tavern the Barley Street served as a smaller compliment to the Waiting Room that stands just a block to its North. It’s lovingly regarded as home by some of Omaha’s finest singer/songwriters and a more intimate location cannot be found.
All of this has combined to serve as the foundation to hold this town’s best and brightest up high enough for the rest of the world to notice. Detection has finally happened it would seem as intrigue from the outside is becoming more and more prevalent. Slowly a few major magazines publish a small write-up about Saddle Creek here and there. Specific musicians like Cursive, The Faint, Tilly and the Wall then start getting national attention, and next thing you know we’ve got a hype machine manufacturer at our collective foyer.
Our door man Jamie lights a cigarette and joins my side.
“Oh..yeah, I was just thinking about the storm rolling in.”
He speaks through an exhale of smoke, “Should be cool.”
“Yeah. It should.”