by Andrew Norman
The bearded longhairs in Carhartt, hipster femme fatales, punks, folks, hippies, metalheads, and a man in a boys' pair of lederhosen ― accented by a Rollie Fingers mustache ― rolled over hills and lurched around turns sitting on benches, the floor and each other in an old red school bus. Along with coolers full of Pabst, a drum kit, accordion and tuba, about 30 of us barreled down narrow dirt roads to the Czech capital of the United States
I'm sitting on this bus a couple weeks after meeting Brian Brazier from Bolzen Beer Band
― a polka band from Lincoln ― during $2.50 margarita night at La Mexicana. He told me about this moving party whose destination was his band's headlining show at the Fox Hole Tavern in Wilber, Neb. The idea of "invading" and holding a concert at a small-town bar was right up my alley. The point wasn't to make the bands money ― they didn't get paid. It was to share a quintessential Nebraska experience with friends, and to stomp, clap, shout and drink Wilber a new fox hole.
But first, a stop at the Kramer Bar & Grill in Kramer, Neb., where we make a sort of flash-mob appearance while families eat their chicken fried steaks and mushburgers. I cozy up to the bar, eat a pickled egg out of a shot glass, drink a Milwaukee's Best and meet some of my fellow passengers while the Bolzen trio ― Brazier, David Socha and Ciara Searight ― stands between tables playing polka and folk standards and yelling things in German that I don't understand. At first, the local crowd looks perplexed at the dirndl- and lederhosen-clad spectacle. But before my beer is gone, they're singing along to, "In heaven, there is no beer, that's why we're drinkin' it here ..."
In German it's something like "Im himmel, gibt's kein bier."
Socha, the ringleader of this mobile debauchery (and former drummer for thrash bands Axes to the Sky
and Soup of the Damned
), soon directs us to finish our drinks and he tells the bar's patrons to meet us in Wilber.
About 30 minutes later, our bus stops and we file out onto the main street of Wilber, where each year in August up to 50,000 people ― 70,000 if Budweiser brings its Clydesdales, Fox Hole Tavern owner Dan Warren tells me ― come to celebrate
this colorful, ethnic heritage with music, dancing, car shows, queen-naming, tractor pulls, bingo, and clothing and quilt displays. This year is the 50th annual event, and I plan to be there ― Clydesdales or no.
Lincoln band Dean the Bible
is setting up on the red, cement floor of the bar when I walk in. The first thing I notice are two stuffed foxes ― one tipping back a beer ― above the bar, flanking a painting of a wolf in the moonlight. A shuffleboard table is to my right, near a display case that holds yellowed newspaper articles explaining how a man had shot to death a couple in this very bar in the early 1950s. The giant head of a moose hangs from the wall behind me.
This is my kind of place.
In addition to the bus crowd, there are about a dozen other people in the bar, including Lincoln folk singer Orion Walsh
, who walks by holding some sort of deodorizer in a spray gun. He hit a skunk on the way here, he says, and is headed outside to try and mask the smell in his car.
Dean the Bible ― acoustic guitar, washtub bass and Dave Rabe pounding mallets into an old suitcase ― keeps the bus crowd moving with a set of country, folk, garage rock songs about truck driving on meth, scratching nuts and getting drunk that feels particularly at home in a bar with picnic table-style seating.
Walsh, with girlfriend ― and fellow singer-songwriter ― Amy Schmidt
on banjo, and Brazier playing along on tuba, doesn't have any problem, either, getting people on their feet. The music is what we came here to see, after all.
At the bar, I ask a gentleman named Wayne Wilson what he thinks about the bands. The music isn't exactly his thing.
"But it must not be too bad. I'm still here," he says. Wilson is a musician himself. He plays the lap steel and Dobro, and has opened for bands like Dr. Hook
and Lorrie Morgan
. About 14 months ago, however, he had a stroke and lost most mobility of his left hand. It still doesn't do what he wants it to do, but some dexterity has come back. He hasn't played since. I hope I can hear him play someday.
I don't know where it came from, but the next thing I know I'm handed a giant glass boot from which to drink a heady beer to scattered shouts of "däs boot!" I barely hand it off when a woman ― presumably from Wilber ― reaches past me to grab a can of Diet Coke.
"I'm weak," she says. I assume she saw me drinking intoxicants from a glass the size of my torso and feels insecure about her own consumption.
"Well, I'm chasing seven shots down with it," she says.
It's that kind of night.
On the "stage," Bolzen Beer Band starts their set with a choreographed dance-clap jig thing while singing in German "Pump Up the Jam" by Technotronic. Then they grab their instruments and play sing-along polka songs that have just about everyone in the bar dancing, hopping, shouting, clapping, stomping and fist-pumping until almost 2 a.m.
Back on the bus, exhausted, I lay my head on the cold glass window and close my eyes for the hour-long ride home on country roads. The tuba, accordion and singing don't cease until we pull to a stop at Socha's house in Lincoln.
Nor should they.
"Ziggy zaggy, ziggy zaggy, oi oi oi!"