After Quiet Stretch, Thriving Bloomington-Normal Music Scene Makes Some Noise
Michael Klug and Joe Borbely of Bloomington’s Jack Dupp & the Empty Bottles say they have seen both the drought and the resurgence of the central Illinois Music scene. Klug said "it’s about time."
“The music scene was non-existent forever it seemed like,” said Klug, referring to the pre-2011 scene. “Of course, there (were) always a couple bands playing here, a couple bands playing there. But there was never anybody at any shows. Ever.”
Any idea what the catalyst might have been?
“In my view? It’s the Castle,” said Borbely.
Many in the Twin Cities share that view of the decades-shuttered movie theater reconditioned to a live music venue, including those who view the scene through a wider age lens. Edwin Pierce is one example.
“The Castle Theatre has been instrumental in bringing live music to the area, good live music,” said Pierce, who has lived in Bloomington-Normal since 1977 when he arrived from California to attend Illinois State University. Forty years later, he’s an elder statesman on the scene. Musically, he’s probably best known as one of two guitarists in the 80s/90s Twin Cities rock band The Something Brothers that toured incessantly.
Pierce had a slightly different take on whether that translates to “resurgence.”
“And that seems to bring people out and makes it seem like the music scene is better," he said.
"The music scene has not necessarily been revived, it has always been here. It is just more visible now."
Chris Golwitzer is a local musician and promoter of small shows, including those at Firehouse Pizza in Normal during this decade.
“The music scene has not necessarily been revived. It’s always been here. It’s just more visible now,” said Golwitzer, whose new venue in downtown Bloomington is scheduled to open soon. More on that later.
“It used to be if a small, popular band came, they would play maybe in a rec room at ISU. No place bigger than the size of Six Strings. Now there’s a big room available, so the size of band that can come is much bigger,” countered Golwitzer.
So among those paying attention to live music in town, one thing is unanimous: The Castle Theatre has been a boon to seeing good national touring acts on a regular basis.
But is the scene rejuvenated? The consensus seems to be “yes,” but there is nuance as Pierce and Golwitzer hint. That nuance tends to break down along age lines and the era “resurgence” is being compared with.
Jan Lancaster takes a shot at the wayback machine. She has owned The Bistro in downtown Bloomington for nearly 25 years, and recalls the 1980s and 90s as vibrant times for the Bloomington-Normal music scene.
“We would always be out every night, and there would be live music, even early in the week,” said Lancaster. “Now you can’t find any bands Sunday through Wednesday. It really starts concentrating Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. But in the 80s and 90s, you could go see live music nearly every night of the week.”
Bloomington native Terri Lantz emphatically agrees with Lancaster. In the 80s, if there was live music in town, she was there, and remembers a “happening” music scene.
"There were definitely more places for live music in the 80s than today. They may not have something every night, but you could find something every night. There was always somewhere to go,” said Lantz.
Scotty’s was one of the popular 80s haunts, as was Mosey’s, The Pub, CII East, McLean County Bar, Stan’s, The Lazy J and the Metropole, among others. Lancaster remembers when Robert Buford took over a side of his mother’s restaurant called Suzi’s.
“And that became kind of known for the blues and jazz scene,” said Lancaster. "Across the street, Daddio’s wasn’t there yet, but eventually we had Country Nights there. Killarney’s was there at that time. Almost everyone along the street had some sort of live music going.”
The bands playing regularly at that time included Something Brothers and Pork & the Havana Ducks. There was also Mojo Stew, The Mechanics and Timothy P & the Rural Route 3. There was Aztec Neighbors, Hanover Fist, Captain Rat & the Blind Rivits and Kool Ray & the Polaroids to name just a few.
Vibrancy Continues Into The 1990s
Bloomington’s Morgan Schulte immersed herself into the music scene in the mid-90s. She’s a special education teacher by day and co-promotes music with the Castle Theatre nights and weekends through Gabriel Events. She remembers a lively music scene in the 90s.
“We had Lizards’ Lounge - everybody went there. They’d pay a $5 cover to get in. Then they’d hop over to JuJu’s and listen to live music there for $5. Then they’d head over to Daddio’s and pop $5 at the door and head in there. That’s what everybody did and every place was packed,” recalled Schulte.
Some of the bands you could see included The Spelunkers, featuring the Something Brothers rhythm section of Tommy O’Donnell, Jon Ganser and Clay Thompson. Public Display of Funk, Marc Boon’s Hip Pocket, Full Size Jimmy and Bottle of Justus, which formed on the ISU campus late in the decade, were also club regulars.
“And there were tons of house parties in basements,” said Edward David Anderson, who like Pierce, landed in Normal to attend ISU. He and Cody Diekhoff (aka “Chicago Farmer”) are considered by many to be the heartbeat of the Bloomington-Normal music scene today.
“There was also The Galery, the Stadium, Shanigan’s, Rocky’s and Spanky’s … they all had live music. All those places did. That was really a vibrant little thing over there when I first got here in the mid-90s.”
Some of Doug Lantz’s fondest memories of live music were of the Pub Crawl in downtown Bloomington in the 1990s. He and his wife Terri Lantz owned and operated Rosie’s Pub in downtown Bloomington from 1996 through 2001. He said he was one of seven bar owners that comprised and worked on the Pub Crawl created by Lancaster and Grand Café owner Gary Lundberg in 1993.
“In the early days, one weekend we had, estimated, 8,000 people came to downtown Bloomington to do what was then called the 'Jazz and Blues Pub Crawl,'" said Lantz.
"We brought in jazz and blues people from all over the country,” said Lancaster. “It was one of those where you started at a location, and each location overlapped an hour so you actually walked from each venue to another.”
“They got to see what downtown Bloomington had to offer,” said Lantz.” I think that’s when the Pub Crawl was at its absolute heydays.”
He also said the 90s in general was great for live music. “I remember fondly Scotti’s was going on. There were places in Normal if I wanted to drive up. Spanky’s, Lizards' Lounge in downtown Bloomington … The Galery in Normal.”
Schulte added the Lacrosse House on the ISU campus as one that hosted smaller shows regularly and agreed live music in the Twin Cities was booming at the time.
“And then I don’t know what happened,” said Schulte.
“About 2001 is when the music scene, locally … just fell off the map.”
DJs Crash The Scene
Lancaster, the Bistro owner, saw the trend coming as early as 1996.
“After Daddio’s opened, I mean, he continued to do a live music scene,” said Lancaster. “But as far as the other bars and the little bars, it got where they all just put in a DJ."
Golwitzer, the musician and new club owner, said though DJs were prevalent in the clubs, live music didn’t go away. It just went underground, or got smaller.
“Quite literally meaning it’s in houses, garages and basements,” explained Golwitzer. “When the Galery (in then-downtown Normal) closed, it was one of the last bastions for bands that didn’t do covers. Lizards' Lounge was in downtown Bloomington, but that became Paulie’s. That catered to underground music. A few other bars did have underground music, but for the most part, you lost access to stages, per se.”
"I will never, ever have karaoke."
There was another scourge working against live music, one that didn’t sit well at all with Doug and Terri Lantz when they owned Rosie’s Pub through the early 2000s: karaoke. It led Doug Lantz to implement one unbreakable rule for the pub.
“I will never, ever have karaoke,” declared Lantz. “And I didn’t. People would go on that karaoke trail. That’s what we’d call it. It was not good for the music scene, and quite frankly, it wasn’t good for the bars.”
“Not to be rude, but it was a bar’s worst nightmare in a sense,” added Terri Lantz. “You might get a lot of people in the door, but they’re just drinking water and soda. They're only there for the karaoke performance."
By all accounts, DJs and karaoke contributed to a rough 2000s for live music in Bloomington-Normal. Edwin Piece of The Something Brothers fame thinks the 2009 state smoking ban also had an effect.
“There was a fall-off on customers, and I think the DUI ... I don’t mean to bitch about the police, 'cause they’re just doing their job, but they were handing out a lot of DUIs. And I think a lot of people were afraid to go downtown (Bloomington) because of that,” said Pierce.
So what brought the live music scene back from the death grip of DJs and karaoke?
“I think it was just time," said Lancaster. “I think everybody got kind of sick of that electronic DJ sound.”
Reigniting The Fire: The Castle Theatre
"The Castle kind of put the fuel on the fire and really blew it up."
Delevan native and now Bloomington resident Cody Diekhoff agrees with many that The Castle Theatre reignited “the fire in the local music scene.” But he sensed something in the water even before the old theater reopened in February of 2011.
“It seemed like we had a little slow burn happening and The Castle kind of put the fuel on the fire and really blew it up,” said Diekhoff.
Diekhoff performs his original folk/rock as Chicago Farmer. He said the strong national lineup regularly booked by The Castle inspires local musicians to up their game.
“You have to have something to you to play The Castle,” said Diekhoff. “I think it demands quality. It inspires people to go home and write and play better songs and to keep better rhythm. It inspires people to make their music the best quality they can so they can play the same stage."
Rick Valentin and Rose Marshack are relatively new to Bloomington-Normal, having moved from Champaign-Urbana. They met in the 1980s while students at the University of Illinois, where they formed the punk-rock outfit Poster Children. The band recorded on major labels and toured the country extensively in the 90s. They’ve seen a number of scenes over the years and agree a vibrant music scene needs a mid-level club like The Castle Theatre.
“But then also a smaller scene, where they can play to 10 or 50 people and a local band can open up,” said Valentin, who along with his wife Marshack is a professor in the Arts Technology program at ISU.
“That kind of club is missing right now,” added Marshack.
“So I think Firehouse Pizza (uptown Normal) kind of had that for a while in this town. That’s one I was really excited about. But that went away, and now Golwitzer is going to be opening up a club that’s kind of on that scale,” said Valentin, referring to Golwitzer’s Nightshop, tentatively scheduled to open in December.
When completed, Golwitzer said “Nightshop” will have a state of the art sound system and the ability to accommodate 200 music fans.
“The success of The Castle absolutely opens the door for us to open this kind of place and try to bring in great talent that fits this room,” said Golwitzer.
For example, it’s not always economical for The Castle to book a show they know won’t fill the room.
"Built To Spill played The Castle a few years ago, and it was incredible. Now I know Built To Spill will play here, so I’m going to try to get them here. But another thing that enables us to open this up: all the places I like in Champaign are closing. There’s an ebb and flow, and right now it’s absolutely Bloomington’s time," said Golwitzer.
Marshack agrees, and said the scene has caught the attention of those outside the Twin Cities, to the benefit of other businesses. Friends in Champaign-Urbana are now texting her for places to eat when they drive over for a show at The Castle.
“I’ll be like, ‘OK, what are these amazing restaurants in downtown Bloomington? Where should we tell them to eat?’” said Marshack. “Also, ‘You need to stop by the 8-bit Game Arcade too.’ There are more places for them to go, ‘I’m going to have to go to that show because there’s this amazing restaurant and arcade I need to stop at.’”
Golwitzer is hearing similar sentiments from the restaurants themselves. They’re telling him his new club will bring more people to downtown Bloomington, which will spill onto their business.
Edward & Cody
"Ed and Cody took this town kicking and screaming against their will and made a scene out of nothing."
There is wide agreement that electricity has been crackling through the scene since the 2011 opening of The Castle. But Michael Klug and Joe Borbely of Jack Dupp & the Empty Bottles say part of that electricity has been generated by Cody Diekhoff and Edward David Anderson.
“I feel like Ed and Cody took this town kicking and screaming against their will and made a scene out of nothing,” said Klug. “I feel like their personalities, like that they’re such genuinely good people … made the scene."
"There’s a great group of people who go to a lot of shows,” added Borbely.
“It’s true,” Klug chimed in. “And it’s because of those guys and their bands.”
“I knew I liked those guys,” laughed Diekhoff. “Now that’s really humbling.”
What are they getting at? He thinks it’s because he and Anderson didn’t give up on the Bloomington-Normal music scene.
“We both really do like Bloomington-Normal,” continued Diekhoff. “There have been some really talented people that have left, and you can’t blame them for seeing what else is out there. But for reasons of life, we’re both still here."
The now 20-year Twin City resident Anderson agrees and adds that he now feels like a mentor.
“I just vividly remember being the younger guy looking for guidance. And it’s kind of fun that I’ve picked up a few things over the years to pass along. It feels good,” said Anderson.
That collaborative spirit is something Marshack and Valentin have noticed since moving to Bloomington. But Marshack says it permeates the entire scene. She said she now ribs her Champaign-Urbana friends about the great record stores in Bloomington-Normal, such as Reverberation Vinyl, North Street Records and Waiting Room Records.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Seth Fein is also a longtime Champaign-Urbana resident. He’s noticed the resurgence of the Bloomington-Normal music scene.
“I’m cheering for Bloomington-Normal,” said Fein.
The founder of Champaign-Urbana’s wildly successful Pygmalion Festival believes the next step to Bloomington truly becoming a vibrant music town is to produce nationally touring artists with household names outside Central Illinois.
“That’s what defines a scene more than anything,” said Fein. “The venues set the stage. The record shops and late-night parties are ancillary to the idea there’s a core of musicians singularly focused. They may work as baristas or whatever. But that is secondary to their primary role as musicians in a singular band.”
Pokey LaFarge is arguably the only native son or daughter with that national name recognition right now, but even he more closely aligns with St. Louis than his hometown of Normal.
Despite that, Chris Golwitzer said Bloomington-Normal has other positive attributes when considering its musical vibrancy, including proximity to major cities including Chicago and St. Louis. He said bands benefit from the logistics of shorter drive times and expenses getting to the next stop.
“If they’re playing a bigger market, people will still come from that market to see them two days in a row,” said Golwitzer, adding proximity to nearby similar-sized towns can also be factored. “If a show happens at The Castle Theatre in Bloomington, a third of the crowd will be from Springfield, Peoria or Champaign,”
Though comparing live music eras is about as subjective as comparing sports eras, all agree the scene has bounced back from the musical depression of the 2000s and that the Castle Theatre is the game-changer when comparing eras. Bloomington’s Doug Lantz speaks for many when he says he’s excited about live music today in Bloomington-Normal.
“I can compare it to when it was at a very high level in the late 80s when I came to town, and the 90s. I can go almost anywhere and hear live music now, and I share that with my children," said Lantz.
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