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Everybody’s Rockin’ at the Zoo Bar | Venue History

(Editor's note: This story is a reprint of the 35th Anniversary, 2008 story on the history of the Zoo Bar. Copyright B.J. Huchtemann. A version of this story appeared previously in THE READER, copyright 2008, reprinted with permission.)

by B.J. Huchtemann

The worn wooden floors and posters on the walls are saturated with soul. The Zoo Bar is a place where music, history and love mix up to make magic. Start looking closely at the posters. They tell the story. The posters are overlapped, faded and peeling, but still able to serve as a visual history of the last 50 years or so of blues music.

There were shows here by Luther Allison, Magic Slim, Albert Collins, Charlie Musselwhite, James Harman, Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Son Seals,
Robert Cray, Jay McShann, John Hammond and Johnny Reno. Even the casual music fan will recognize at least a few of those names.

More recently, contemporary blues and roots favorites that have packed the club range from Tommy Castro and Kim Wilson, to Curtis Salgado, Tab Benoit, Janiva Magness, Candye Kane, Watermelon Slim and the Workers or the Hacienda Brothers featuring Dave Gonzalez and the late Chris Gaffney. All these great musicians have crossed the old hardwood floor and turned out magical performances on the Zoo Bar stage. There were plenty of shows by less well-known artists too, musicians who still left their mark, whether for a single show or a few tours. This room just seems to bring out the best in those who play here. For a serious music fan, all that heart, sweat and love creates some serious mojo.

Dave Alvin called it the Carnegie Hall of the Blues. Longtime former owner Larry Boehmer summed the magic of the Zoo Bar up this way: “It’s the positive energy that you can feel on a good night, when the band is really cookin’, the crowd is so into it. And it’s the love, I think, between the musicians and the crowd, and it really happens here, you know — partly ‘cause the room is small, and partly ‘cause the place feels right for this kind of music. You know, just the energy is, it’s magical at times.

“The most fun packed into the smallest place of all” – James Harman Southern California bluesman

James Harman often reminds fans that “not every town has a Zoo Bar in it.” And it’s a fact, even places that had longstanding blues clubs have often seen those clubs fold up for one reason or another. Kansas City’s Grand Emporium was patterned after the Zoo and had a good run before closing a few years ago. The Zoo has weathered hard times more than once, both during the days of Larry Boehmer’s ownership and since his son Jeff Boehmer and longtime manager Pete Watters took over in 2000. But in 2008 the Zoo reached another milestone, as it celebrated its 35th anniversary. That makes it two years older than the similarly legendary Antone’s in Austin. 2011 marks the 38th anniversary of the club.

“Oh, it’s a special place. It’s like a second home, you know?” James Harman said in an interview with me and The Reader for the Zoo’s 30th Anniversary. Harman has had an ongoing relationship with the Zoo since his early performances there. “The Zoo is the most fun packed into the smallest place of all. There’s a handful of old Midwest bars like that: tall, thin, narrow rooms with the stamped metal ceiling and the posters on the walls. But the Zoo Bar, it’s really the architect for it all.”

Harman was so smitten with the Zoo that he even wrote a song about it, titled “Everybody’s Rockin’ at the Zoo Bar.” James Harman’s bands were always hugely popular at the Zoo and Harman quickly became part of the Zoo’s extended family of regulars and musicians. Harman has returned for many of the significant Zoo Anniversaries, including the 35th Anniversary celebration. Legendary bluesman Charlie Musselwhite, another international musician with deep ties to the Zoo, was also on hand for the 35th Anniversary.

Harman and his band loved Lincoln so much that they’d set up their tours to see “how many days we could get away with in Lincoln,” Harman remembered. The band would even route back through for a night or two when they weren’t playing a gig. “The whole extended Zoo Bar family became extended James Harman family,” Harman said. “We’d be out on the road…and it would always be countin’ it off to Lincoln.”

“An alley with a roof on it”

Veteran Lincoln drummer Dave Robel has been playing in Lincoln bands since 1965 when he was a teenager. Through the years he has been a part of a number of bands that have played the Zoo, beginning in 1973 with the Megatones. Any serious discussion of the Zoo Bar has two parts to it: one part is the magic of the music onstage, the other part is the connections formed offstage that people time and time again use the word “family” to describe. Robel has been part of both since the beginning.

“I played in the second band to ever play the Zoo Bar: The Megatones. December 15 and 29, 1973,” Robel recalled proudly. The Megatones was one of Charlie Burton’s many bands in which Robel has served as the drummer. The Zoo, Robel laughed, “was basically an alley with a roof on it.” Robel said that prior to taking the name of the Zoo Bar, the little joint at 136 N. 14th St. in Lincoln was known as The Bourbon Lounge. “It was a place for down and out drunks to go,” Robel remembered. “The whole bar scene really hadn’t taken off yet,” Robel explained, in terms of places where local bands could play original music. “If you played in a bar you played cover music,” he said.

“FREE JUKE BOX — CHAMPAGNE 30 CENTS A GLASS”

Larry Boehmer was an extremely important part of this early scene at the Zoo. Boehmer was the person responsible for bringing live music to the bar and he was the sole owner of the club beginning in 1977. In the beginning it was his friends Jim Ludwig, Bill Kennedy and Don Chamberlin who had purchased the bar.

“I’m guessing a little, but I think it was 1972, I probably wondered in here,” Boehmer remembered in a 1998 interview with The Reader for the bar’s 25th anniversary.

”So I came in and checked it out, and it was just a hole in the wall, like it is now,” Boehmer chuckled. “They opened at 8 a.m. in the morning, a lot of garbage men would get off their shifts and come in and drink ‘til noon…it was a very interesting clientele, a real city kind of clientele.”

“But what these three guys were going for was a college crowd, and it wasn’t really happening…So they had a bar that they didn’t know what to do with!”

If you look closely up on the wall just east of where the sound board sits now, you’ll still find hand-stenciled posters from this period, likely lettered by Boehmer himself. “Free Juke Box — Champagne 30 Cents a Glass” were the hooks.

“I approached Jim (Ludwig) and said, let me put a row of songs on the jukebox and I’ll bring people in,” Boehmer recalled. He was working on his MFA in the art department at UNL at the time.

Boehmer had a love affair with the blues that went back to his childhood as a farm boy, when late at night he could pick up blues from AM radio stations in Arkansas on an old tabletop radio. Plenty of people in Boehmer’s age group were similarly interested in old blues music. The 1960s had seen a revival in acoustic folk blues in particular. This was back before the Internet or other electronic media we now take for granted. In his undergrad years, Boehmer said his friends were making “pilgrimages to Chicago, bringing back the real deal…[old vinyl records]. Guys would go to the cities and bring it back, and then we’ d all just sit around and listen, We’ d wear these things out, the Freddie King records in particular, just wear ‘em out.”

Boehmer received his undergrad degree, a BFA in art education; from UNL in 1969. He taught senior high art and elementary art in Crete for two years, and was accepted into UNL’s MFA art program in 1971.

“The grad students would work til 10, 10:30 at night, you know, on painting or sculpture or whatever we were doing, then we’d go out and we’d drink beer and talk about art 'n’stuff.”

 With Boehmer’s urging, the art crowd started moving to the Zoo Bar on a more regular basis. Boehmer continued putting music on the juke box and hanging out at the Zoo himself.

“And I just started bringing people in — I made a point of being here all the time…so if any of my friends came by I’d make sure I was here…and one row turned into two rows, which, within a couple of months, turned into the entire jukebox. There were no bands, but we’d just come in and we’d listen to blues and old rock’n’ roll and stuff.”

During the summer of 1973, Boehmer had booked his friends The Cotton Blues Band into the club. When Robel and Charlie Burton played that December as The Megatones, “We played the short room,” Robel remembered, explaining that the bands originally set up in the space east of the coolers, along the north wall, facing out toward the area where the jukebox now sits.

“We were a six piece, rhythm ‘n’ blues, rockin’ R&B band… we probably sucked in nine different languages,” Robel laughed, “But people liked us.”

Robel remembered he was “shocked beyond belief anybody would listen to this stuff.” He recalled the Megatones’ set list as “relatively obscure covers, a lot of stuff that The Blasters came out with later, similar artists: old black R&B and white rockabilly guys.”

“All of a sudden there was an alternative scene,” Robel said, noting that various players were involved in this new roots scene that blossomed around the Zoo. Larry Boehmer himself was also a musician.

If you mention the Zoo Bar to most any national blues or roots musician, their eyes light up. They’ve either got a story about the Zoo or they’ll tell you that they really wish they could play there. The place is known for being a place where music fans know what’s good and show their appreciation. The crowd is known for taking the musicians it appreciates into its extended family.

Magic Slim Plays the Zoo

The Zoo was the first white club that Magic Slim played, outside of the neighborhood black clubs in his hometown of Chicago according to Larry Boehmer. The booking came thanks to a fortunate connection Larry made with Chicago musician and promoter Bob Riedy. “Bob Riedy turned out to be a hell of a contact,” Boehmer said. “Unbeknownst to me, he was actually booking and actually taking blues to the North side of Chicago for the first time.” Suddenly, the Zoo Bar had a blues scene going that was only rivaled by the hot clubs in Chicago.

From the beginning, national musicians were quick to became part of the Zoo family. Boehmer remembered that Magic Slim first played the Zoo in January of 1975. On the drive home, traveling in two cars, Slim and his band were involved in a multi-car accident due to bad weather conditions. “There were some injuries as well as damaged equipment,” Boehmer recalled. “The Zoo 'family' raised them some dough and they were both surprised and appreciative.” Magic Slim and his band became regular performers at the bar, soon playing week-long stints. Boehmer became godfather to Slim’s son Shawn (AKA Lil’ Slim), and Magic Slim is godfather to Boehmer’s son Jeff, who is now a co-owner of the Zoo. Magic Slim and his Chicago band would play week-long stints at the Zoo and pack the place. In the 1990s, Magic Slim moved his family from Chicago to Lincoln, and he can be found hanging out at the bar when he’s not on tour.

Zoo Bar Favorites

Everyone has had their favorites, but both Boehmer and Robel remembered great blues guitarist Albert Collins fondly. The influential “master of the Telecaster” passed away in 1994. “The first time Albert Collins played,” Robel said, “I was a block and a half away and hear this screaming guitar. I was drawn like a moth to a flame…he just blew me away.”

“I forget, either he called me or an agent called me for him, an’ it was just like, a call from God, ya know?” Boehmer laughed, “here’s my idol, I’ve always wanted the guy to play here, and he was available.”

Albert Collins would play three-day weekends at the Zoo for about 10 years, “until he got really too expensive,” Boehmer said. From about 1978 through 1988, Collins was a regular performer. In addition to being a hero to many musicians, Boehmer remembered that Collins was a “wonderful man. Some of my fondest memories were, after he started to get a little success, and he was able to buy a bus — he was so proud of the bus, HE would drive it, he wouldn’t let anybody else drive it. So we’d be watchin’, here’d come Albert, and he’d have his little hat on and his driving glasses and he’d pull that bus up… he just loved that bus.”

Another great guitarist, Luther Allison, also had a special bond with the Zoo. Allison passed away from cancer in 1997. He was the first national act to play the Zoo, in September, 1974, on the strength of a contract drawn up on the side of a paper sack. Allison’s last gig at the Zoo, in May of 1997, was taped by NET for its now defunct Backstage Pass concert series.

Luther “always played the club,” Boehmer said. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Allison lived in Paris. But Boehmer noted that Allison “when he came back from Paris he only had a limited number of days available, but he would turn down offers in the area for double what I could pay him. Just said, ‘I’ve always played for Larry and I’m always gonna play for Larry.’”

“Luther was great. He was great the first time he played here and he never put on a bad show in all the years he played here, which was, how many? Twenty-four, I guess. Awfully powerful performer.”

“He had the guitar chord that stretched a mile long,” Robel remembered, and did a walk through the audience while playing. “People had never seen that before.” Artists from Magic Slim to Matt “Guitar” Murphy to Billy Bacon & The Forbidden Pigs to the Hacienda Brothers have all made lasting connections with the Zoo “family.” Jeff Boehmer and his wife Eileen reunited the classic Forbidden Pigs line-up of Bacon, Justin Jones and Hot Rod Jerry DeMink to play their Lincoln wedding reception at the Zoo Bar.

Hacienda Brothers frontman Chris Gaffney had an association with the Zoo that went back to his first appearances there to gigs with Billy Bacon and a famous incident during the 25th Anniversary. Gaffney was touring with Bill Kirchen’s band and after a Monday night gig at the Zoo, dropped out of the tour to spend the rest of the week hanging out and partying at the club. When Gaffney died in April of this year from a diagnosis of liver cancer, the bar filled up on a Sunday afternoon to raise money for Gaffney’s family, to the tune of over $3000. Not bad for a club with a 125 person capacity. Robel was one of the Zoo community that became fast friends with Gaffney, even backing him up when he played some solo gigs in the summer of 2007. Robel remembered how in 2005, after being on the road for several weeks in a tour that brought the Hacienda Brothers back to the Zoo for a last-minute 4th of July gig, Gaffney “rolled out of the van saying ‘Man, I just wanna hear some AC/DC or something.’ He’d had enough of country music.”

Hacienda Brothers co-founder Dave Gonzalez (currently bandleader of The Stone River Boys) also has ties to the Zoo that go way back. Boehmer estimated that Gonzalez’s rockabilly band The Paladins first played the Zoo in the early 1980s. It was on their first national tour before they had released any CDs. The Paladins became a hugely popular band at the Zoo. That popularity, along with Chris Gaffney’s ties to the club, meant that the Hacienda Brothers had a built-in audience from the beginning. They packed the bar to capacity every time they played, often playing three or four nights in a row.

Blues legend Charlie Musselwhite is another celebrated bluesman with deep ties to the Boehmers and the Zoo. In the 1980s, Musselwhite would often have Larry Boehmer’s band backing him for regional dates. Halloween was a favorite night for Musselwhite at the Zoo, and he’d often be tasked with handing out treats to the neighborhood kids while Larry was at the bar and Larry’s wife Rosalie took the Boehmer boys, Jeff and Tim, out trick-or-treating. One famous tale Musselwhite told was how he once handed out dental floss to the neighborhood trick-or-treaters. While Boehmer was still the owner of the Zoo, he had a mural of one of Musselwhite’s CD covers painted on one of the walls and had Musselwhite autograph it. The mural is still there, marking an important part of the Zoo’s history. Musselwhite played the Lied Center in the fall of 2007 and was excited to hit the Zoo Bar afterwards. He jammed with Magic Slim onstage that night after plugging the Zoo a few times to the Lied crowd. Current co-owner Pete Watters noted, “somebody like Charlie doesn’t have to [play an event like the Zoo Anniversary] if he doesn’t want to.”

In 2000, Larry Boehmer retired to Eureka Springs, Ark., a move that surprised many. He went there intending to finally work on those paintings he’d never gotten around to during all his years operating the Zoo. Instead he mostly ended up working as a blues musician, most often with Baby Jason Davis and David Watson in a trio they called The Tablerockers. Part of the blues tradition has always been the handing down of the music from one generation to another, who keep the traditions alive while adding their own spin to the music. Likewise the Zoo Bar has been handed down from Larry Boehmer to his oldest son Jeff and Pete Watters, who has worked at the club over half his life. Jeff Boehmer also continues his father’s musical tradition, the younger Boehmer plays bass in The Tijuana Gigolos and joins his longtime friend Lil’ Slim in the Lil’ Slim Blues Band. Dave Robel is the drummer for the Gigolos and other bands. There are easily half a dozen other bands made up of Jeff Boehmer’s friends and peers who represent the current generation of roots musicians. Bands like the Lil’ Slim Blues Band, the Blues Messengers, the Kris Lager Band, the Mezcal Brothers and Son of 76 & The Watchmen reflect the present day vitality of the music. Levi William represents a new generation of blues musicians coming up in the same tradition that the Zoo has long been famous for nurturing.

“Man, we’ re gon’ ta play some blues in here” – Luther Allison, 1973

The first time Luther Allison set foot in the Zoo Bar he proclaimed “Man, we’re gon’ta play some blues in here!” As the official 35th Anniversary celebration approached and this piece was originally prepared for print, co-owner Pete Watters said, “Harman, Musselwhite, the Bel Airs, are guys who built the bar and a big part of the reason why the bar is still there.” He always sees the schedule for the Anniversary as one that “respects the past of the Zoo Bar and also looks at some of the new artists. I want the Zoo to be a vibrant place that respects the past.”

Or, as Charlie Musselwhite said when he before the 35th Anniversary, “The Zoo Bar is one of my all time favorite bars and it’s also one of my all time favorite places to play the blues. It’s just great in every way. I could fill pages of all the good times I’ve had there and all the reasons it’s a great place, but the short version is that the staff and the owners (mainly Larry Boehmer) have always been really nice to the musicians and the patrons are all real blues lovers and all together that makes it a great place to play. It’s always a party there and I never ever had anything even close to a bad experience there and I always looked forward to a few days in Lincoln and hanging out in and playing at The Zoo. It really felt like home. It’s a shame every town doesn’t have a place like the Zoo. What a great world that would be.”

 

B.J. Huchtemann has been writing about local music for more than 20 years. She pens a weekly column for The Reader called Hoodoo, focused primarily on the area's blues and roots music.