Hot for the blues? Lincoln's Zoo Bar delivers

PhotoThe Zoo Bar is the go-to place for live music in downtown Lincoln, Neb.

Story and photos by Rachael Ruybalid, News Net Nebraska

Walking into the Zoo Bar in downtown Lincoln, an aura of history and the blues creeps up on you. Whether it’s the well-worn, wooden floorboards, the much-handled beer spigots, the wall covered in fliers advertising shows past or the tiny, creaky stage in the back, one can almost see Magic Slim or Luther Allison tuning up their guitars and getting ready to jam.

Styled after the popular Chicago blues clubs, the Zoo Bar has been keeping live music alive and well in Lincoln, Neb. for almost 37 years. While some may be surprised to hear the gritty Chicago blues coming from a club in the middle of farm country, the Zoo Bar has been a stop for many a local and national band.

Owner Pete Watters has no desire to make the bar into anything other than a live music venue. It’s about music and people, not about pool, he said.

“We’re not the kind of place where you can throw up some TVs, serve some wings and call ourselves a sports bar,” Watters said. “Musicians appreciate the fact that we’re dedicated just to music…we don’t have pool tables or anything else.”

It all started in the early 70s’ when Larry Boehmer and some of his artsy college-student friends use to hang at a lounge downtown. At the time it was just a bar with a shuffleboard table in the back. Boehmer told the bar owner that if he let Boehmer select some songs to put in the jukebox, he’d get more young people to come in. It worked and the boss eventually let Boehmer book a band to do a live show. Boehmer bought the bar in 1973 and live music has been happening there ever since.

Watters said his love for the Zoo Bar started way back before he became a part owner 10 or 11 years ago. He first started coming to shows at the Zoo Bar as a college student, then started pouring drinks for it in 1986 when he needed some extra cash. After graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he told Boehmer that he was leaving.

“When I tried to leave, he (Boehmer) told me, ‘why don’t I leave and why don’t you stay.’” Watters said.

Blues Hall of Famer Allison, was the first major artist the Zoo Bar landed. He was in town from Chicago doing a show at the student union on UNL’s campus when Boehmer found a way to sneak into his dressing room.

“He (Boehmer) told him (Allison) that he had a little bar down the street and would he come play at it the next night,” Watters said. “Somehow they ended up drinking a six-pack together in the dressing room and then writing up a contract on the sack the six-pack came in.”

When Allison returned to Chicago, he raved to his fellow musicians about this little bar in Lincoln with a rocking blues scene. More and more Chicago artists began finding out about it and wanting to play there, Watters said. The Zoo Bar was the first white club that Magic Slim played at outside of Chicago.

It was good because live music was really hurting at that time, Watters said. Disco had just blown up the music scene and people wanted their music coming from a machine instead of right in front of them.

PhotoBlues great Janiva Magness performs with members of her band.

Since its introduction onto the music scene, the Zoo Bar does its best to have a show every night of the week.

“We do music every night of the week to help artists travel from place to place,” Watters said.

While national and regional bands are the norm at the Zoo Bar, local flavor is brought in often. It’s better if there’s a strong contingent of local bands, Watters said.

“We rely on a strong local scene…Lincoln actually has some bands that are really good,” he said.

Born and raised in Lincoln, Allen Schrieber has been a regular at the Zoo Bar for almost 32 years.

“Where else can you see great shows in Lincoln?” he said. “When you stop to think about it, you can’t see people who’ve won Grammys in this intimate of a space.”

Schrieber’s favorite part of the Zoo Bar is the sense of family the club holds. In addition to the club being passed down through the family, many of the patrons who’ve been going there for years are now bringing their children in.

“It’s multigenerational…I bring my kids here,” Schrieber said.

For Schrieber’s 17-year-old son’s birthday, he brought him to the Zoo Bar to see rising blues star, John Nemeth.

Back in the day when Watters was a student coming for drinks and music, his favorite part about the club was the meshing of age groups.

“When I turned of age, I loved this place not just for the music but because of all the different age groups that were in here,” he said.

Kelsey Worley, a recent college graduate, accidently discovered the Zoo Bar one night while out with some friends. On their way back to the car, they went in to use the bathrooms but ended up staying till closing time.

“The band was really great and we ended up staying all night and dancing,” Worley said. “When we heard the music we were like ‘hell yea!”’

While he wants to keep the meshing of age groups alive, Watters said that’s not as common anymore. More and more, he’s seeing the young people come in for certain nights and bands and the older crowd in for others. Both age groups come together for the older, classic bands though, Watters said.

PhotoA wall covered in fliers from shows past boasts the names of big-shot blues artists and small-town bands.

Staying relevant in a constantly changing downtown scene can be a struggle for the Zoo Bar. Being in a college town, things are constantly changing and changing fast, he said.

“You just have to stick to your guns—stick to what you do and when there’re storms, just ride them out,” Watters said.

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