The rumors have been flying around about <a href-http://thereverb.net”>The Reverb</a>, and they’re beginning to get pretty credible. People had already got to talking when the owners opened up a second bar, Spicoli’s, in a Waterloo location notorious for being the home of a long string of short-lived bars (Crazy Suckers, Broosters, et al) interspersed with periods of vacancy. Now they’ve begun having some of their shows there as well. No official word yet, so this could be totally off-base, but from the looks and sounds of things, they’re closing up shop at The Reverb after this month. You’ll note that the show calendar on the web site ends at about that point.
People are really worried about this. It’s kind of like 2000 all over again, when Stebs was closing and there was no other live music venue in the area, apart from sporadic instances when some bar would give it a try for a couple months and then give it up. For a few years, the local music scene carried on in basements and rented spaces until The Reverb came along. One of the most legendary of these rentable spaces, the Island Park Beach House a.k.a. “The Boat House,” however, was done in at the hand of the floods earlier this year. Indeed, the end of an era.
It’s different this time, of course, because The Reverb’s proprietors have a plan B; they’ve already opened up a new place. There’s a lot of negative talk, though: sound guys bitch that the room’s acoustics are terrible, and I can corroborate this based on when I saw The Mittens play at Crazy Suckers a few years ago. Some folks seem to think they’re going to start just putting on mainly cover bands and karaoke nights; they already have a regular karaoke night on Thursdays. I’m not especially worried about that: for one thing, I enjoy karaoke, and if I can send my business Cody’s way while I’m at it, so much the better.
But more importantly, I know a little bit about these guys and where their motivation is at. I was there when The Reverb first opened up, I had some chats with Cody when they were still working on the place and hadn’t opened for business yet. In most cases, a venue gets going when there’s already a bar, and then at some point the proprietors get interested in the idea of putting on some live music. The Reverb, on the other hand, was meant as a music venue from the beginning; Cody and Rob specifically got into the business because they love original independent music and wanted to open a venue. I don’t feel like they’re going to give that up just because they change locations. And a look at the Spicoli’s MySpace page shows a bunch of the area’s better-drawing original acts in their top friends, if that counts for anything.
Next thing is, if Spicoli’s doesn’t put on three or four bands almost every night of the week, I don’t think that’s a problem. First, let’s reflect on how remarkable it is that the Reverb did that in the first place. Very few venues in a smaller market like Waterloo/Cedar Falls, and indeed not nearly all of them in larger towns either, try to do that. Let’s acknowledge how many of the local bands they put on were either: terrible, and probably shouldn’t have been let out of the basement yet; or, weren’t really putting the work in to promote their shit – and thus in either case, drew almost nobody. And as for the good bands, recall how many of them ended up playing there like every other week, which would eventually kill their draw because everyone in town had just seen them. Overall, it was awesome that The Reverb tried to have live music almost every night, and I applaud them for trying, but they kind of had to reach pretty hard to do so. So if there’s no longer an easy venue for any random half-assed group of kids to play at, I think this will end up being better for the overall quality and variety of local music. The competition for shows will push everyone to work harder, play tighter, and get more creative with both their music and where they play it at.
Which brings to my mind something else. The “official” rock club(s) in town is far from the only place bands can play at, you know. The underground/DIY scene in Waterloo/Cedar Falls right now is going strong, livelier than it’s been in recent years. People have already started to realize in the past couple years that they can’t just rely on one local business to singlehandedly hold up local live music, something we should have learned after Stebs, and are putting on basement shows and renting out spaces again. Check out what these guys have got going on. That facet of any live music scene is vital, and is going to matter more and more as things change, not just locally with the change in venues, but nationally with changes in the music business and conditions in the economy.
People worry and complain, but really, most of us in eastern Iowa have no idea how good we have it. If you ever want to gain some perspective on your local scene, do a little traveling. I know, I’m probably going to be telling stories from the tour I was just on until you’re sick of hearing about it, but here’s an example from that experience: The Soundpony had just been voted in one of those “the best whatever in town” articles in a local entertainment paper as Tulsa’s best venue for original music, in an issue that had just come out when we got there. The night we played there, they had no other acts booked, no locals or anything. The PA was one of those little 6-channel amp boxes pretty much suitable for vocals only, and there was no sound man at the venue or anyone else to help run it: bands had to puzzle it out and fend for themselves, and some of the mic cables lying around didn’t even work. So basically, their sound system was comparable to that of The Fallout Shelter in its heyday. And yet, it was actually a pretty decent show overall. The facilities situation was not atypical, either: Austin and New Orleans had pretty comparable setups, and in all of those cases these were fairly established venues in their areas for low-level touring bands, and then even those didn’t have bands every night (a quick glance at Soundpony’s calendar reveals some shows a whole week apart), and when they did it was pretty unusual to have three acts on one night. This sort of thing was pretty normal – what we have here is actually unusual compared to much of the country. Overall on the tour, the Midwest had the best-set-up venues and the best local bands on the bills, and the Midwest towns also seemed to have the most local bands per capita, if you count out Nashville and New Orleans as statistical outliers for obvious reasons.
So what I’m getting at here, fellow Cedar Valley musicians, is that this is not the end of the world. There are big changes coming, but live music in our area is in no danger of dying off. It never really is in any town of sufficient size, even if it has to go (sometimes literally) underground. It’s not up to The Reverb or any other single institution to keep the scene alive for you, so quit your bitching and do what you gotta do.
That said, if indeed The Reverb has decided to essentially relocate, and expand their entertainment focus a little to include food and karaoke and drink specials, then I fully support them. I can totally understand their reasons, and I actually think it’s a good move. Downtown Cedar Falls isn’t like it was when The Reverb moved in. It’s gotten all upscale and turned into a big snob scene up there. I’ve seen it coming since the new owners took over the Black Hawk Hotel and fixed it up and moved all the mental patients out. This same thing happens over and over in cities all over the country whenever some neighborhood gets designated as a “cultural district.”
See, usually the reason the neighborhood got all cultural in the first place is because a bunch of artists moved there because it was cheap on account of being kind of run-down and economically depressed. When I lived in a spacious $250/mo 1-bedroom apartment downtown, this was definitely the case: it was the tail-end of the mall era when downtowns nationwide were struggling. The parking lot between Main and State in the 100 block was all crumble and gravel and potholes and had several non-running cars as seemingly permanent fixtures. I used to steal toilet paper from the Black Hawk. The neighborhood bars were favored by bikers, and not these fancy-pants bourgeois weekenders with their clean new Harley t-shirts and flashy paint jobs either, I’m talking about the real deal. The neighborhood was full of freaky young artist and rock musician types and crusty old hippies, and most of the time anyone you saw on the street lived pretty nearby.
But once word gets out that a neighborhood has a colorful nightlife and a bunch of freaky creative arty types hanging around, it gradually starts to gather interest and visitors from other parts of town. The Reverb itself actually had a fair amount to do with this by drawing people to visit downtown. And what happens once this builds to a certain point and the streets get pretty bustling is that pretty soon all the fauxhemians want to move in, and they start opening up all sorts of boutiquey little businesses and fixing up all the buildings, and the state and local government start funneling all sorts of tax revenues into prettying the place up because they now decide it’s important to local culture, the property values go up, therefore the rents go up, and all the artists that made the neighborhood so cultural to begin with can’t afford to live there anymore so they move. Then the cycle repeats itself with whatever other cheap neighborhood the artists start congregating in, and around and around, decade after decade.
So this may well be exactly what’s happened to The Reverb: The Reverb itself, as well as many of its regular patrons, can’t afford to locate there any more. I’ve already been observing a slow but steady trickle of rockers and artist types out of CF and into Waterloo the past couple years. Folks who used to hang out at The Reverb a lot don’t do so quite as much now because it’s a longer drive for them. A move to Spicoli’s would actually relocate the bar/venue closer to where their likely patrons are increasingly found.
Such a move would be just another step in the Cedar Valley rock scene’s gradual march eastward: first its center moved from College Hill to downtown CF, and now it’s moving into Waterloo. Personally, I think Waterloo is a more rock and roll town anyway, and for decades it’s been a rock and roll town sorely lacking a rock venue. So perhaps this is finally being rectified. I’ll point out that the DIY house-show scene already seems to have moved more into Waterloo.
So is Waterloo a good place to live, drink, and rock? Leah was on some web forum recently where someone had posted that they were considering different places in Iowa to live in and were interested in Waterloo or Cedar Falls, but had got the impression that Waterloo has a bit of a bad reputation, and wanted to hear from some Iowans what they thought. Some replies were to the effect that Waterloo’s reputation is deserved, that it’s a crime-infested shithole. Personally, I don’t get it, and neither does Leah, and we both grew up here. Waterloo is a perfectly fine town, and from my experience no more dangerous than other cities of comparable size nationwide. The problem is that this reputation comes from the impressions of a bunch of other Iowans, and most of Iowa is very rural. So no surprise if a bunch of hicks who’ve never been to a real city think Waterloo is a rough place. Does Waterloo have a lot of crime? Sure, compared to a cornfield. The other thing Waterloo has an unusual amount of for Iowa that these folks aren’t used to is black people. Oooooooh, scaaaaaaary.
There’s also long been this little Waterloo/CF dichotomy going on, and I got to thinking about it a little recently. I think it can be looked at in terms of the old town/gown thing, or compared-and-contrasted with, say, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. On the one hand you have Waterloo: blue-collar, factories, domestic beer, classic rock, blacks and hispanics; on the other hand, you’ve got Cedar Falls, a small college town where much of the permanent residents are university types for whom “diversity” is a political slogan rather than an unremarkable daily experience, others are management types who usually work at large companies in Waterloo (maybe because Cedar Falls NIMBYs are so hostile to anyone building anything large like an office building near them), and the rest are students who will have moved on to some other town after graduation.
Independent rock music sits curiously suspended between these two worlds. The aesthetic is not exactly high-class, and doesn’t usually want to be (Vampire Weekend and other such poofs notwithstanding, because they suck anyway), but a considerable amount of its customer base is students, and both students and rockers like to drink, so rock venues tend to thrive in college towns. Rock music is technically art though, and frequently associated with political and social stuff and a certain level of 60s/70s nostalgia that the college liberal-arts-and-humanities crowd are sympathetic to, but usually in its modern form they fail to fully understand or enjoy it. It’s also loud, dirty, ugly, and associated with graffitti and cigarette smoke and broken urinals. It’s not like jazz – more like what jazz used to be before the academics domesticated it, something they’re now working on doing with “blues.”
Anyway, what I see happening in the Cedar Valley is that Cedar Falls has been taken over by economic and social forces rather unconducive to rocking the fuck out, and thus original rock music is moving into Waterloo, bringing its artier qualities, its dabblings in intellectual hobbies and microbrews, its culture, along with it; and Cedar Falls, increasingly under the influence of people who can’t abide the sight and sound of dirtball rockers, is going to turn into a boring little elitist bedroom community for a while. Welcome, Spicoli’s, and thanks for coming to the party.