Smile Politely

Champaign’s once active music venues are dead

As you look at the title of this piece, you might react with: “But there is live music in Champaign — I saw a show at [insert venue name here] recently.”

That’s correct. There are venues where you can see live music. However, there are no consistently active music venues in Champaign. There are venues, but there is no active talent buyer promoting shows weekly. And that is really all that matters.

For years and years, there have been consistent options to see live music in active venues in Champaign. At least fifty plus, by our estimation. However, in 2018, for whatever reason, the scene is officially dead.

Let’s do a rundown, shall we?

There’s the City Center, but that’s more of an event space that hosts a wide variety of engagements, corporate gatherings, weddings, and could probably do a funeral, as well. Yes, they do concerts. It’s an awfully big room (1,000 capacity). But they don’t regularly host shows, with developing artists, emerging touring bands, or locals. There’s the Virginia Theatre (1,500 capacity), which mostly hosts legacy touring acts like ZZ Top and and REO Speedwagon (which is totally OK, by the way), but those performances are few and far between. Same goes for State Farm Center (15,000 capacity), but they never really were. Props, though, to the acts they’ve hosted in the past year — Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Foo Fighters being the stand outs.

Since Mike N Molly’s shuttered after the Highdive (pictured above), and the Accord after that — there’s simply no true-to-form music venue that is churning out shows each week and weekend with enough live original music to be described as a venue. Cowboy Monkey isn’t consistently booking live music anymore. 51 Main is hosting a lot of performing arts and drag, which is awesome, with some live music here and there. Memphis on Main has a stage, but generally hosts a lot of cover bands, along with weekly karaoke, and the like. There is no Institute 4 Creativity anymore hosting DIY or experimental shows. The Velvet Elvis is dearly missed. The Brass Rail hosts shows on occasion, but rarely. You can put Clark Bar in that column as well, although, it’s nice to see any place sponsor a post that showcases its upcoming schedule. Kudos, y’all.

Again, we’re if we are talking about a full calendar of shows week in and week out with nationally and regionally touring acts, it just doesn’t exist anymore.

Downtown Champaign has developed, for better or worse, and plays host to a lot of bars and restaurants. In the early 1990s, the area was mostly a dead zone, save for a few early trailblazers. The Blind Pig used to be where Cowboy Monkey now exists, hosting tons of live music week in and week out. Radio Maria taught the city what New American cuisine looked like for the first time. Cafe Kopi flecked the main drag with a touch of Europe. Things eventually started to shift when CMT opened Jupiter’s on Main Street two decades ago, and when Gypsy was putting on the most exciting parties in decades around the corner. The Highdive opened after that, and then Cowboy Monkey breathed new life into what was once The Blind Pig, and Ward Gollings brought in act after act after act, all worthy of attention, but with some bangers to prove it: Queens of the Stone Age, KRS-One, The White Stripes, Modest Mouse, The Shins, Superchunk, Sleater-Kinney, Yo La Tengo, and The Flaming Lips all played Downtown between 1999-2002.

Photo from Fans of Mabel’s Facebook page.

Music venues in Campustown (like Mabel’s, pictured here)? We gotta reach too far back to waste time on that history, in this particular piece, but it’s worth noting John Isberg’s forthcoming documentary is going to show a great number of people about that heyday’s importance, both locally, and nationally, if you can believe it.

A strong, and supportive arts and culture community has centrally located venues with promoters who can earn a living, however modest, promoting live music. At least, that is the way it had been. And that is the way it was when the two publishers of this magazine were operating The Accord. Truth, honest to our parents, is that The Accord was actually working. And it was a showcase to us that the concept of a live music venue is not impossible, but rather, very viable. They just didn’t have the capacity to manage it and chose to pursue Smile Politely and PYGMALION, and leave club promoting to special occasions.

In Urbana, it’s different. It’s not quite what we’d all want, but you have a few spaces that are still booking live music, each week as their main form of entertainment, most notably at The Canopy Club. We have high hopes for the new front office, and believe that it will continue to be an amazing show space for generations of musicians to come. Krannert Center for the Performing Arts programs music as often as they can afford, and do so with as much intention as any other venue in its company.

Krannert Center’s Tryon Festival Theatre, photo from Krannert Center.

The Iron Post has a consistent schedule of acts that fill the calendar, and Marten Stromberg has expanded Paul Wirth’s repertoire nicely. The back patio shows last summer were some of the most fun and ambitious around. Booking touring acts would be the next step, and we’re hopeful that happens. Blackbird is hosting shows weekly, but oftentimes it is happy hour jazz jams, or DJs, that sort of thing. Boomerang’s has a lot of live music, too, but mostly cover acts and open jam sessions (which are super fun, by the way). The Rose Bowl, The Independent Media Center, Channing-Murray, Red Herring, hell, the Illinois Disciples Foundation — all of them are great rooms, but carry no promoter.

There’s good news though! There are more than a handful of house venues that are active across C-U: Blips and Chitz, Ghost Planet, Casa de Sasha, and Audible Meats, to name a few. Others that we aren’t even aware of, because, that’s how it should be. Those venues are underground for a reason, and should remain that way and actively promoting DIY shows. Any good scene has house parties on the ready. So, that makes us a good scene, still. Three cheers for those folks. They bring in more out of town acts than any other venue, collectively.

Blips and Chitz, photo by Veronica Mullen.

Plus, we have a wealth of local talent. There are no less than twenty original acts that we can recommend in an instant. Go ahead, ask us, we’d love to tell you about it.

But those bands lack a home. A space for them to mature, to make mistakes, and to earn some stripes. Our locals need a nest, and at the moment, there simply isn’t one available to them.

So, what comes next? It’s hard to say, but this community is actively seeking its next true talent buyer, whether it knows it or not. Hopefully, it’s someone with an eye for multiculturalism and diversity, who understands how to nurture and build a scene. Ideally, it’s someone in our own backyard, right here and now.

At times it’s hard to feel optimistic about that prospect, but we are.

History repeating itself, and all that…

Smile Politely’s Editorial Board is comprised of Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Seth Fein.

Top photo from Mike N Molly’s Instagram page.

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