On Aug. 18, Ke$ha hit Pershing Center, playing the first of what will likely be 12 Lincoln concerts that will end with the just-announced Elton John show on Nov. 23 at the Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Discounting the Nebraska State Fair’s yearly 10 nights of Bob Devaney Sports Center shows that ended in the early 2000s, that’s the biggest run of major concerts in Lincoln ever.
“We’ve had some runs at Pershing but you can’t compare it,” said SMG Pinnacle Bank Arena general manager Tom Lorenz. “It’s like talking about what’s going on at Duffy’s or at the Bourbon. It’s a whole different thing.”
Add the summer’s Pinewood Bowl shows to the 2,000-plus attendance indoor shows and Lincoln’s concert offerings become even more impressive.
Then there’s the Bourbon Theatre’s upcoming shows by, among others, The Psychedelic Furs, Jonny Lang, Black Joe Lewis, Dizzy Wright, Needtobreathe, New Found Glory, Shooter Jennings and Explosions in the Sky.
Add a couple concerts set for the Rococo Theatre -- Iron and Wine and Zappa Plays Zappa -- and the regular run of shows at the Zoo Bar, Duffy’s Tavern and Knickerbockers and it’s impossible not to conclude that Lincoln’s music scene has never been bigger or better.
How did it happen?
It didn’t start with the new arena. It began years ago in the clubs and has been building.
“You can’t suddenly turn on the spigots and get people out,” Lorenz said. “You have to get people out seeing live music. We’ve been doing some things at Pershing. But in the last couple years, the Bourbon and ZooFest have really set the table for all this other stuff to happen. The two years at Pinewood really got people’s attention. People have been going out and enjoying it. And that’s coming together at all the venues.”
For the Bourbon Theatre’s Jeremiah Moore, the growth of the local music scene began in 2007 when he opened Box Awesome, a small, now closed club at 8th and O streets.
“It reflects the mentality we started with back in the Box days,” Moore said. “We put up fliers for Knickerbockers and Duffy’s shows and anywhere else. Our thought was the more people are going out for music, maybe someday they’ll come to our place. ... We’ve been able to expand and start doing more and more stuff, from more obscure stuff like Beat Antique to smaller shows to electronica and country.”
Offering that variety of music is another key, said Moore, who turned the old State Theater into the Bourbon Theatre in 2009.
“In this part of the country, I don’t think (there’s another venue that offers a wider variety of music),” Moore said. “The reason we did this is I appreciate music. I like playing it but I’m not sure I was very good at it. But I appreciate it. I like to listen to a wide variety of music, and we’ve been able to do that.
“We’re not a big enough market to be just, say, a rock club. We’d wear out people if we did just one genre. The great thing is when you see the crossover. When you see the guys who go to hip-hop shows going to a bluegrass show, it’s pretty interesting.”
Building the scene and Bourbon, however, hasn't just been about bringing in bands and having shows. The Bourbon Theatre, and every other music venue, including the arena, is a business.
"Everyone thinks it's fun and games, but it's a business," Moore said. "It can be as much work as a construction company and just as stressful as doing therapy. The credit goes to Leah, my wife. She does a whole lot of behind the scenes work to hold this thing together. She has to figure out how it's going to work and make it happen. That's a major part of it."
A new venue will be added to the Lincoln scene in October when Vega opens on Canopy Street in the Haymarket.
“We’re not getting in to push anybody out of the way,” said Vega co-owner Eli Mardock. “There’s room for Lincoln to grow and accommodate another venue of our size.”
That size will be about 400 people, smaller than the Bourbon, but larger than the Zoo and Duffy’s. In addition to touring artists, Vega also will book local bands, the other key to the Lincoln music explosion.
“It’s kind of a cool thing right now,” Mardock said of the band scene. “Lincoln is kind of on a roll right now. It seems like UNL is becoming a little less Joe College and more into music and other things like that. The student body is a little more interested in music. Hand in hand with that is all the local bands -- Universe Contest, Halfwit, UUVVWWZ, more than I can list. We have some awesome bands. It creates the culture of people who support live music.”
Like the offerings in the clubs and arenas, Lincoln’s scene and sound has become increasingly varied over the last decade.
“I always thought the Lincoln sound was always roots and blues and something like Her Flyaway Manner, kind of hard rock,” said Mardock, who just released his first solo album on Paper Garden Records and fronted Eagle*Seagull. “Back in the day, Eagle*Seagull sounded like a very weird band in the Lincoln scene. Universe Contest is kind of like that now. But there’s such a variety of bands now, there’s not really a Lincoln sound.”
The Pinnacle Bank Arena has been an out-of-the-box hit. Four of its six announced shows -- Michael Buble, Jason Aldean, The Eagles and Pink -- are sold out or nearly so. John’s concert quickly will join that list.
With at least one more concert yet to be announced, the arena will host seven shows in its first three months of operation.
“This is probably a little bit better than we thought it would be,” Lorenz said. “It’s encouraging we can continue to look at shows because everything has sold so strongly. We’re not looking at shows that are half sold out. We’re looking at sellouts or virtually sold out ...
“It just shows the people who said 'if shows come, nobody will come.' They were wrong. People were ready for this kind of entertainment. It’s something that was missing here. There was a demand for top notch entertainment.”
More shows will be set for the arena soon. Some might get scheduled around Nebraska basketball games, others will happen after arena’s sports run, which includes the state high school basketball tournaments in March. The variety will continue.
“We haven’t done urban yet and I’m still getting emails from folks who would like to see a real hard rock show,” Lorenz said. “But for the major touring acts out there, we’ve got a wide variety and we’re not done yet. This is just the first run of shows.
“If you look starting in May until next May, Lincoln’s got a lot of music coming to it. You can do an EDM show like Pretty Lights and Bassnectar at Pershing, a cool show like Widespread Panic at Pinewood Bowl and you can do the classic rock and country shows at Pinnacle. It’s a wide range of opportunity.”
And, Lorenz said, the audience for music in Lincoln has expanded beyond the city limits.
“It’s not just Lincoln,” he said. “It’s the surrounding communities, it’s western Nebraska. A good number of people came to the Pinewood Bowl shows from surrounding states and communities. It’s the same with the arena. It’s not just Lincoln feeding off Lincoln.”
That’s further evidence of the growth of the Lincoln scene, which shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.