by Andrew Norman
Long before Fred Armisen played President Barack Obama on “Saturday Night Live,” he played drums at Lincoln's Le Cafe Shake. The coffee shop/all-ages venue (now Bodega's Alley) hosted the future comedian on Nov. 30, 1994 — five days before his 27th birthday.
Dressed in a white polo, he pounded out the beats and sang backup for Trenchmouth, his spazzy, no-wave punk band from Chicago. A typical touring musician, Armisen urged the crowd to buy the band's stickers — and he was apparently quite impressed by Lincoln's Opium Taylor.
Don't believe me? Watch for yourself below.
Trenchmouth is one of a few-dozen local and national bands whose full live sets are available on Omahan Joel Gibson's Vimeo page. The video series provides a window into an interesting period in Nebraska punk and hardcore, when bands like Cap'n Jazz (featuring members of The Promise Ring and Joan of Arc) played house shows, legendary punks The Queers incited circle pits in coffee shops, and hardcore band Sick Of It All floorpunched and two-stepped the Royal Grove.
Having missed this entire period of local music, I find these videos illuminating — like time capsules. I can understand why people talk so fondly about the Cog Factory and Capitol Bar in Omaha. I can watch NOFX play “Linoleum” from their brand-new album, Punk in Drublic, back before Fat Mike really was fat. And I can see for myself that Mercy Rule's live show has somehow retained every bit of its energy after 16 years.
Want more? There are full sets from Avail, Bikini Kill, Helmet, Archers of Loaf, Face to Face and Swing Kids and more, plus videos from cities Gibson's bands Armatron and As Good as Dead played.
After being tipped off by a friend, who'd seen these videos floating around Facebook, I contacted Gibson to ask a few questions about how he became the purveyor of a goldmine. He explained, in his own words:
“Back in '93 or so, my good friend Mike Garber was heavily into recording audio of live shows. He had a tape machine on a shoulder strap he would take to shows and record bands' entire sets. He had a master list of all the recordings he had made. These recordings then served as a currency of sorts used for trading with an entire network of other recorders. They would choose sets off of each other's lists and trade cassettes through the mail.
“I thought it was a pretty cool hobby and became aware of a similar trading network that existed for live video. In the summer of 1994 I bought a consumer-grade Sony handheld 8mm camcorder (ccd-tr65) and began filming shows — filming every show possible, I might add. Some of these videos I have I never would have gone to the show if it were not to film it. So as far as presenting my videos I'm not sure that I ever intended to. I was kind of obsessed with trading for a while and the better master copies I had, the more trading power.
“I continued doing this for a couple of years. I moved from Lincoln to Omaha in March of 1995. I think that move and also mechanical problems I started to have with the camera after filming several hundred hours of video contributed to me quitting filming every show I went to. During this time, I stashed a small cardboard box containing all my master tapes into a closet, where it sat for a long, long time. I always knew, I guess, one day, in some form or another, they would be relevant. Years later, Facebook presented the perfect platform for sharing them, and that's what I'm doing today.”
“My favorite of all the videos I shot is Man Is The Bastard at Koo's Cafe in Santa Ana, Calif. My band, As Good As Dead, was on a 'West Coast tour' playing some shows, and we actually opened for MITB and Assuck that night. MITB was pretty much my favorite band at the time, so that was a pretty awesome night. Playing a show while on tour, opening for your heroes, and catching the whole thing on video? Good one.”
“The music scene during the mid '90s in Lincoln was pretty crazy. I'm sure it still is and has evolved or whatever. But that was about the time that Lincoln (and Omaha, or Nebraska in general) started getting attention as being a legit part of the national music scene. Other bands would come through town all the time and talk about how awesome Lincoln was, or how lucky we were that we had this or that. People started comparing Lincoln to Seattle. The side of Lincoln that I saw was a very close knit 'scene' that regularly attended small, intimate shows. And those people are primarily the people that I hope watch these videos and say, 'Holy shit, look how skinny I was!' or 'Whoa, I totally forgot about that!'”
“Sure, I still go to shows. I have kids now, so I'm not out going to shows two or three nights a week like back then, but I still make it out some — I'll admit, mostly to support bands that my friends play in. I do not regularly shoot video, however.”
Left in the vault
“I think there are around 50 videos altogether. I haven't exactly counted but I think I still have 10 or 15 to go. Some may be repeats, like, maybe a band would play Cog Factory in Omaha and then the next night play in Lincoln. There are a few of those. Same band, different sets.”
While Gibson won't take credit for foreseeing this material's worth at the time, he deserves thanks for documenting, preserving and presenting it. I hope his work inspires more people to dig into their video cabinets, storage boxes and attics and digitize Nebraska's rich musical history.
I often catch people shooting video at concerts, but rarely see the footage presented online — that used to bug me. Now, I'm starting to think there's something cool about letting the video gather a little dust before brushing it off to showing to the world. It allows context to build around the stories.
You never know, maybe a drummer playing The Slowdown tonight will be the next President of the United States.
Andrew Norman directs and edits Hear Nebraska. He'll be covering Nebraska bands and filing dispatches from this year's SXSW Music Festival this week. Email story ideas, hate messages and love notes to firstname.lastname@example.org.