photo by Shannon Claire
[Editor's note: This column previews ZOOFest, which takes place Friday night starting at 7 p.m. and Saturday from 1 p.m. on into the night. See the full schedule below.]
by Josh Hoyer
Zoo Bar... man, where to begin? In my early 20s, my friends and I were regulars. Multiple nights a week, you could find us sitting at that cinematic red bar or dancing up front. The music is what drew us in. Night after night, the club hosted the best in blues, funk, jazz, rock 'n' roll and country. We were in love with our freedom, expression, good times and most of all, music.
Thinking back, The Zoo Bar shows that top my list are Link Wray, Corey Harris, Luther Allison, Charlie Musselwhite, Ron Levy and his Wild Kingdom, Magic Slim and The Teardrops, multiple night runs of the Hacienda Brothers and Billy Bacon and The Forbidden Pigs, Dave Alvin, Brave Combo, the Bel Airs and as of late Black Joe Lewis, Jason Isbell, Jon Dee Graham, Monophonics and the Stone River Boys. But the list goes on and on.
The thing about these bands is that many of them were new to me. You can’t find this stuff on the radio, TV, pop magazines or in most people’s record collections. This is the roots of American music…much of it overgrown by popular music fed to you by mainstream media. This is the soul of American music, which I found to burn much brighter than any other I had found before. At the Zoo, I received a great musical education, which continues today.
As for musicians that play the club, time after time, you hear that Lincoln is their favorite stop. Not Chicago, not New York, not LA or Seattle or Austin. Lincoln. And The Zoo Bar. For years, artists like Charlie Musselwhite and Luther Allison would only play a handful of shows in the US, and the Zoo was always at the top of the list. The club’s long-lasting friendships with Billy Bacon, Dave Gonzalez and Chris Gaffney have grown and remain, and that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Musicians know the Zoo is a musician’s venue. The owners, Pete Watters and Jeff Boehmer, employees, the fans and myself are all incurable music fanatics who show a deep respect for touring and local bands alike. We want bands to succeed. We want them to feel at home. We want them to have the best possible experience they can with us. And most of all, we are truly thankful for them sharing their talents and ideas with us. It has been a true pleasure to get to know so many musicians from genres all across the board as a talent buyer for the Zoo.
I have made many new friends, and my record collection has grown sizably since taking over some of the booking duties five years ago. I truly love working with almost each and every band that plays the club. There are those bands that don’t respect themselves or the art form and they don’t get invited back. But it must be said, the Zoo is privileged to host any band that plays with heart and takes the time to deliver their best effort to music lovers. The blues and roots music is at our core. However, if you play rock, hip-hop, country, jazz, metal, punk, electronic, polka, folk, Latin, the spoons or a theremin — or anything in between — and you put in the time needed to respect the music and have a message, come see us: We have a spot for you.
Now, the music is only one piece of the puzzle here. As with the bands that play the Zoo, resistant and transcendent of most of the evils of marketing and the illusion of passing fads, the people that gravitate towards the Zoo are also, on the whole, unique and earnest individuals. I don’t call the Zoo a venue. I don’t see it as a bar. It is much more than that. The Zoo Bar is a club. Not an exclusive club, it is always open to new people and new stories: new sounds.
photo by Shannon Claire
But there is a club due that everyone pays: be cool. The Zoo is a social club with many of the “members” coming multiple nights a week. They populate the entire map of age, race, sex, culture, occupation, political stance and religious belief. Unlike many other nightspots, where people tend to look and act the same, the Zoo is thick with diversity. This makes for lots of good, unassuming conversation if you are in the mood for it. On the other hand it’s a perfect spot to get lost in the music and unwind.
When Hear Nebraska asked me to write this column, I thought of a few moments and ideas that best symbolized what The Zoo Bar means to me. First off, I met my wife at the Zoo, and we have gone on to make a beautiful family. I know of a lot of people who met their current, and former, spouses here. Many times I have talked to younger folks with parents that swear they were conceived at the Zoo. I have made long-lasting friends with co-workers and music fans who I am sure I will be close to until I‘m too old to understand what they’re saying. There are regulars that have come weekly since 1973, still having fun, still loving the music. I’ve met people re-visiting Lincoln that were so excited to find the place still open, who often sit and share story after story. For me and many others, I think there is a private wish that when we pass, maybe we too will get a name plate on the bar or have our picture hung on the wall. It’s that kind of place.
The quintessential moments for me, however, have been Doc Mullet’s wake, and founder and guru, Larry Boehmer’s, fundraiser for his cancer treatment. Never have I seen so much heart in one room. The music played by local bands that knew these men intimately, soared throughout the room like a deep and loud prayer. And the music surely was the living bond that held everyone together. It made me weep in joy, and I was not alone. It makes me weep now!
From time to time, I sit at the bar long after closing and just listen to the silence. After 39 years, you can feel the life that lingers, that has not escaped, that continues to push the club forward through trying times. It is a loud and consummate silence. And all those faces on the wall, they know tomorrow will bring more music and more joy and pain and everything in between. Whether it’s a busy night or just the bartender and a few random friends and visitors, there is always heart and soul.
See you at the Zoo.
Josh Hoyer is a Hear Nebraska contributor. Share your thoughts on the Zoo in the comments, and try to make it out to ZOOFest:
ZOOFest is a street festival held between O and P streets on 14th street in beautiful downtown Lincoln, Neb.
There will be food, drinks and (most importantly) live music.
FRIDAY, JULY 13
SATURDAY, JULY 14
11 p.m.: The Good Foot
Tickets - $10 adv., $13 dos. for each day.
Tickets will be available for purchase from The ZOO Bar, O'Rourke's Tavern, Sportscasters, or online at eTix.com.
Stay tuned to our Facebook page or Twitter feed for updates.
For more information, visit www.zoobar.com/zoofest.