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State of the music scene


It is December, and everyone knows what that means: time for “year in review” articles! Most of them will be coming at the end of the month, so we wanted to get ahead of the crowd and talk about the year that was in local music. And boy, was it ever a year. I have been doing this gig since 2011, and this might be the busiest year in Des Moines music that I have seen. From new music to venue changes to big festival news, 2015 gave people plenty to talk about and look back on.

Venue changes

Man, things got scary there for a minute, didn’t they? Raccoon River Brewing Company closed, while Lefty’s opened. Noce will open soon, while Hull closed, then re-opened. Meanwhile, rumors of Gas Lamp’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

The madness started at the tail end of 2014, when JC Wilson announced that stalwart venue House of Bricks was going to be closing its doors… sort of. Shortly thereafter, the city’s oldest bar — The Hull Avenue Tavern — abruptly closed its doors at the beginning of December.

After closing for a few weeks to get a new coat of paint slapped on things, House of Bricks reopened as Streetcar 209 with a focus on a more the dining experience — at the sacrifice of regular music. A few months into 2015, Hull Avenue Tavern would do the same, reopening under the ownership of Resurrection Mary guitarist, Jason Boggs. Hull, however, would keep the music front and center.

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The Bricks/Streetcar identity swap and Hull’s ownership change were not the only pieces of venue news, however, as 2015 also saw the closing of the Raccoon River Brewing Company, and served as the stage for the continuing do-si-do that was El Bait Shop’s complicated relationship with live music.

Originally, El Bait Shop announced it was stopping all live music, only to make an 11th hour announcement that it was keeping Brother Trucker’s First Wednesday shows. Then, two months ago, the bar announced that those, too, were being shown the door, and live music is assumed to be dead at the venue. Until, of course, it isn’t.

Finally, later in the year, Quick Trip announced that they had bought the building at 1501 Grand as a part of its plan to take over the Western Gateway neighborhood with its corporate headquarters. 1501 Grand also happens to be the home of Gas Lamp. But even though no announcements have been made, and it seems as though QT has every intention of honoring Gas Lamp’s lease, people were already gun-shy. Rumors of Gas Lamp’s imminent shuttering soon began to circulate. In short, the first half of 2015 was very hard on the blood pressure of anyone who loves local music in Des Moines.

Brandi Carlile was just one of the nationally known artists to play the inaugural Hinterland Music Festival in St. Charles. Photo by Brenna Norman

Brandi Carlile was just one of the nationally known artists to play the inaugural Hinterland Music Festival in St. Charles. Photo by Brenna Norman

But fear not. For as bad as things seemed in early 2015, the city saw a rebound throughout the rest of the year. The good news started to flow in April when Anne Mathey and Erik Brown took the talents they had honed at House of Bricks and put them to good use by opening Lefty’s Live Music in the Drake University neighborhood of Dogtown. Featuring the best sound in the city, Lefty’s quickly positioned itself as one of the most devoted music venues in town. Vaudeville Mews and Gas Lamp may still book more acts, but with no jukebox, video games or televisions to draw interest away, Lefty’s is about as close as the city gets to a purely music-driven bar.

Finally, 2015 is guaranteed to go out on a high note, as Iowa based jazz singer Max Wellman announced he would be the general manager at a new downtown jazz club called Noce, slated to open on New Year’s Eve. Happy New Year!

Festival madness

From late May until early November, central Iowa shifts into festival mode, and music fans of virtually every stripe can find something to satiate their desires. This year saw a lot of changes, a little bit of redemption and one major addition.

Gross Domestic Product, held in April in three East Village venues, most likely marked the last major event for Streetcar 209, as neither the sound, lighting or available space worked for the festival setting. When the Des Moines Music Coalition (DMMC) held Little BIG Fest last week, Streetcar 209 (as well as another venue, Beechwood Lounge) was nowhere to be seen, with the entire lineup taking place at Wooly’s, save for some special early evening sets at Lefty’s.

In June, Des Moines’ wetter-than-average summer reared its ugly head, and Water Works Park was unmasked as a wildly unpredictable place to host an event. Flooding throughout the park at the end of the month wound up washing out the return of the Riverbank Bash, scheduled for June 27. Festival organizers hoped to relocate but were stymied when the Plan B location wound up flooded as well. Maybe “River Adjacent Bash” is a safer idea moving forward.

The high river would be a recurring problem for Water Works Park (more on that later), and the location’s viability as a reliable host for future large-scale events will be in serious doubt.

Meanwhile, in July, 80/35 was looking for a big rebound. The 2014 edition of the DMMC’s flagship festival certainly wasn’t poorly attended, but there was not a lot of excitement about day-one headliner Conor Oberst, and day-two main attraction Cake was only added to the bill after months of public silence and behind-the-scenes drama. Going into 2015, the DMMC needed a quick announcement and a big win. It accomplished both, announcing Weezer and Wilco as the two headliners in May. The result was the biggest fan turnout in the event’s eight-year history, with an estimated 36,000 people hitting up Western Gateway Park throughout 80/35’s two days.

Western Gateway Park was packed once more just a few weeks later, as the first week of August saw electronic dance music (EDM) festival 515 Alive move in and take over. One of Des Moines’ genuine success stories, 515 Alive has been completely homegrown by local DJs and electronic music lovers. Starting as a single-stage event, the festival has steadily grown over the years, changing location, adding stages and increasing the number of bands involved as it has grown in popularity. This year’s event was the biggest to date, spanning two days and featuring hundreds of artists in front of thousands of fans. While potentially lacking the demographic-spanning mass appeal of 80/35, 515 Alive nonetheless makes a strong argument for being the biggest annual party in the city.

Des Moines metal stalwart Slipknot released a new album, “.5: The Gray Chapter,” in late 2014 and embarked on a world tour shortly thereafter, which continues to this day. The band has yet to play its hometown, however.

September saw the fifth year of the Maximum Ames Music Festival, held exactly where you’d expect a festival with that name to be held. Last year saw the event begin an expansion from relatively small-reaching acts into a more regional-style festival. This year, the event became the third of the year to post record or near-record attendance numbers, as headliners The Mountain Goats and Grandmaster Flash performed for packed crowds. The festival’s organic-feeling pop-up shows also remained a big hit, showcasing great local and regional talent.

The final local festival of the year, the DMMC’s Little BIG Fest, showed a continuation of that event’s evolution. After a couple of years where the event struggled with its own identity, last year saw Little BIG Fest solidify into a premiere roots/jam/Americana festival, anchored by Iowa’s William Elliott Whitmore. Now in its third year in the East Village, the past two Little BIG Fests were held in multiple venues, with Wooly’s and House of Bricks doing most of the heavy lifting. This year, Wooly’s stood alone, as the re-branded Streetcar 209 was left off of the event. Gone, too, was the troublesome third venue, a slot that had been filled alternately by the now defunct Underground, as well as the Beechwood Lounge. This year, Wooly’s was the lone participant in the East Village, hosting a full lineup that included headliner John Fullbright. The only other shows that took place moved all the way up to Lefty’s in Dogtown, where FRO, Adam Bruce and Dan Tedesco performed.

Hello, Hinterland

The middle of August saw a new addition to central Iowa’s already full slate of music festivals, as Wooly’s owner Sam Summers unleashed a new monster on the Iowa music scene: The Hinterland Music Festival.

Hinterland was a passion project for Summers from the very beginning, focusing on music and bands Summers personally enjoyed and hand-picked for the first year of his self-funded event. Standing out among the Des Moines area festivals with its lack of local acts (day one opening act Envy Corp was the only Des Moines band on the bill, and even its connection to the city is increasingly nominal), Hinterland’s first-year lineup featured bands like St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Future Islands, Brandi Carlile and Old Crow Medicine Show.

Originally scheduled to be held in Water Works Park, the wet summer and high river forced Hinterland to relocate at the last minute, instead taking place at the Avenue of the Saints Amphitheater in St. Charles. While a last-second venue change of that magnitude can often sink even an established event, first-year Hinterland was undaunted. Behind a corps of incredibly hard working volunteers and the professional oversight of Summers and On Pitch boss Jill Haverkamp, Hinterland sold an estimated 95 percent of its available tickets, filled its new venue and stamped itself indelibly as a new destination festival for fans and musicians alike.

The combination of Hinterland and St. Charles proved to be a good one: Summers has already announced that the festival will stay south for next year, and expect more big names to be coming to town when the lineup is unveiled next spring.

National act madness

National acts played across central Iowa, including Ani DiFranco in Ames (playing in front of virtually noone), Taylor Swift at Wells Fargo Arena (playing in front of virtually everybody, but bringing no special guest to town with her), and Lyle Lovett at Hoyt Sherman (playing to capacity and with guests).

Just as noticeable, however, were some of the acts that didn’t play the city, including Nickleback — which was forced to cancel its July 14 show when God struck down Chad Kroeger with vocal polyps — and Slipknot, which finds itself in the awkward position of not really have a space that fits the band in its own hometown. Then, of course, there is the saga of the Bone Thugs N Harmony show, which turned into nothing short of a bad joke.

The band was originally scheduled to come to the Val Air Ballroom in August. That show was canceled for undisclosed reasons. Then, the event was rescheduled for Nov. 5 but was moved to 7 Flags Event Center. That show was abruptly canceled. Then it was announced that Bone Thugs would be coming to town to play a show on Nov. 6… at the Val Air Ballroom. However, if you had tickets to the 7 Flags show you were out of luck, as the Val Air show was being put together by a different promoter, and none of the original events tickets would be honored. Eventually, a show did take place at Val Air, and people allegedly even showed up.  Superchief album cover

Surprises and amazing stories filled 2015, and Des Moines’ music scene saw its share of both. Amazing new releases came from local bands like Holy White Hounds, Superchief, Christopher the Conquered, Green Death and Courtney Krause. Peace Love & Stuff broke up, and Sara Routh came home. 515 Alive was huge, 80/35 was bigger, and Hinterland announced its presence with authority. The hardcore members of the local music scene rallied around one of its own to help raise money for Jimi Scribner, and they comforted one another as they said goodbye to Michael “Skully” Gust. Cancer is a son of a bitch.

Holy White Hounds album coverAlready, there is plenty to look ahead to for the coming year: Lineup announcements for all of next year’s festivals, new music from Brother Trucker and Prettygirlhatemachine, and 365 days worth of live music in just about every bar, park, vineyard, cafe and stage in town. We can’t wait. CV

One Comment

  1. APop says:

    Pretty sure it’s Kum & Go that bought property in Western Gateway?

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