Ranch Bowl Reunites at The Waiting Room | Concert Preview

[Editor's note: This feature previews Saturday's Ranch Bowl reunion concert at The Waiting Room. The show starts at 6 p.m., and cover is $8. Noizewave, Clever, The Beat Seekers, M.O. Caiaus and more are slated to play.]

Zach Hennings remembers hanging out with NOFX, but he’d rather not publish that story.

He remembers when his hip-hop outfit, Noizewave, opened for Vanilla Ice, years after “Ice Ice Baby” faded into the haze of the early ‘90s. He remembers longtime Ranch Bowl owner Matt Markel asking bands to run errands around the venue for him: “He didn’t give a shit if they were famous or not famous.”

He remembers Kottonmouth Kings, Slightly Stoopid, Green Day, the Funk Junkies. He remembers working there for years, hanging around with friends and seeing hundreds of bands.

But when Hennings thinks of Ranch Bowl, he first remembers a cold metal ladder on a frigid winter day.

“I remember changing that marquee in February, getting up on that ladder when it was iced over,” says Hennings of his time working at Ranch Bowl during the early 2000s.

“You’ve got that suction cup that doesn’t work and you’re changing the letters of the band. One-by-one those letters would fall because they were frozen, so you’d have this real famous band and their name would just crumble from the marquee.”

Although Hennings’ group is now mostly defunct, they frequented the Ranch Bowl when he worked there. Noizewave will play again at the Ranch Bowl Reunion Show at The Waiting Room on Saturday night, joining other local acts whose members came of age at Omaha’s longtime dingy rock venue, bands such as The Beat Seekers, Clever and M.O. Caiaus.

Ranch Bowl is perhaps best known for its role as a staple music venue of Omaha, before Conor Oberst made the city famous for folk rock with a few Bright Eyes albums between 2002 and 2005, before Slowdown and The Waiting Room opened in 2007 and spotlighted Omaha’s live touring indie music scene. In its time, the venue hosted the likes of Pearl Jam, Cheap Trick, Green Day, 311, Joan Jett, L.L. Cool J, Red Hot Chili Peppers and dozens more acts of equal notoriety.

Ranch Bowl played home to three bars and a bowling alley on top of its performance stages. According to Keith Fertwagner, vocalist/guitarist for The Beat Seekers, it functioned as a “megaplex” for people in the contemporary music scene to kill time, whether there were shows or not.

In early 2005, after two years under new management, it was announced that Ranch Bowl, having fallen into disrepair, would close permanently. Speculation from the time wonders if the new ownership ever intended to improve the property. Wal-Mart announced that they were looking to develop a new store in the venue’s place. Local forum posts from 2005 are a time capsule of Ranch Bowl fans opening up about their sadness for the loss of the venue and their hatred for Wal-Mart moving into its place. Most have a very personal reason for their Ranch Bowl affection.

“I'm listening to Pomeroy and being reminded about all the amazing times I had here in undergrad,” wrote a Yelp user on Ranch Bowl’s page in 2010. “I can’t believe they trashed it for a Wal-Mart, this was an Omaha landmark.”

By the time Slowdown opened, a new generation of music fans flocked to concerts, people who were maybe too young to ever experience exactly what Ranch Bowl offered. The venue, which had been a landmark and home base to local and touring musicians for years, quietly receded into the tales of local music veterans, and was relegated to the Omaha memories of artists like Ben Kweller and Chris Shiflett (Foo Fighters).

To those who gained local music consciousness after Ranch Bowl’s demise, it may only ever be the name of some venue that used to stand where that Wal-Mart on 72nd Street is now.

But to many who hung around Ranch Bowl, played at Ranch Bowl, it was much more significant. And so was its closing.

“There weren’t all these new outlets like Shamrocks, The Waiting Room, Slowdown, stuff like that. There weren’t all these places to play,” Hennings says. “It kind of cut out a lot of opportunity for bands.”

The early 2000s, Ranch Bowl’s final years, predate the proliferation of iTunes and online music in general. Bands that maybe rose and fell with Ranch Bowl never really had the opportunity for internet-immortality the way a band from even 2006 may have, unless it was in retrospect. There was certainly no #RanchBowl.

Without social media, promoting shows required much more legwork.

“People actually went to Homer’s to buy CDs,” Hennings says. “So I would go to the head shops and record stores and stuff and hang posters for Ranch Bowl shows.”

But according to Fertwagner, it resulted in a sort of camaraderie among those who attended Ranch Bowl shows.

“We played with bands that were completely different from us and it worked,” says Fertwagner, whose band at the time, the Fonzarellis, were Ranch Bowl regulars. “People were very open-minded.”

For him, that’s a large part of what Ranch Bowl represented.

“It was really kind of known as a place you could go whether there was show going on or not and just hang out,” he says.

“It was a place where everyone could come, like the juggalos and the punk rock kids, with their Operation Ivy and Bad Brains buttons,” Hennings says. “Everybody could go bowl and eat french fries. Not everybody liked every kind of music, but everybody respected each other.”

Hennings describes it as a “melting pot,” an asset that Fertwagner sees as missing from Omaha’s present live music scene.

“If Omaha had something like (Ranch Bowl) still, that would be great,” he says. “We’ve got some great clubs, but it’s not the same. Kids don’t congregate.”

Venues come and go, yet eulogies for the Cog Factory are more difficult to find than they are for Ranch Bowl. Hennings and Fertwagner both say affection for Ranch Bowl has to do with the fact that while Omaha has several music venues of varying sizes, none have quite been able to replace exactly what Ranch Bowl was.

In 2008, an ordinance was passed in Omaha requiring concert attendees 17 years old and younger to have a notarized parental permission slip for shows at certain venues. Fertwagner says he sees the measure as helping to “kill the vibe” in the current young music community that Ranch Bowl helped cultivate.

“I’d much rather play to a room full of kids than a bunch of 30-year-olds that are there to have a drink and socialize. Kids are fans,” he says. “Back then you’d have people that were there to drink and a lot of kids. You can’t really find that anymore anywhere that I know of.”

Hennings says he thinks some genres may have struggled to find a new home after Ranch Bowl closed.

“Maybe it’s the taste of fans, the ticket sales or maybe the scenes themselves have changed,” he says. “A venue void was filled, but a genre void wasn’t.”

The reunion show’s lineup pays homage to Ranch Bowl’s eclectic approach to the music community. Noizewave’s most popular tracks, such as “Lunchbox Benny,” play much like 2003 party hip-hop, while the Beat Seekers punch an Avenged Sevenfold take on pop-punk. But as Hennings and Fertwagner both made clear, it’s about the atmosphere, not precisely the music.

Hennings says he stills sees people from his Ranch Bowl days once in awhile, but never all of them in the same place.

“A lot of people have said, ‘We’ll see you at the Ranch Bowl thing this week,’” he says. “It’s sort of like a family reunion, minus the mashed potatoes.”

Jacob Zlomke is an editorial intern at Hear Nebraska. He wants to hear stories and see photos from Ranch Bowl. Reach him at jacobz@hearnebraska.org.