ALLAIRE NUSS, HOST: Alright, that should probably be good.
LUKE BELKNAP, GUEST: Do you think it’s gonna be windy? Here, maybe I’ll like block it, like this.
ALLAIRE: Yeah, that could probably help.
ALLAIRE AS NARRATION: This is Luke Belknap. We’re sitting on some church steps, drinking Smokey Row dark roasts and looking out over Cottage Grove Ave in Des Moines, Iowa. Luke is thin with a wispy mustache and a shaved head with bleached roots. They’re wearing black skinny jeans and fumbling for a Juul pod in their black peacoat pockets.
NARRATION: Luke’s here to tell me about Vaudeville Mews, the first, and – as of now – the only live music venue in Des Moines to close due to the on-going pandemic. They used to run the soundbooth there.
ALLAIRE: And so what would you say made Mews different from other venues in Des Moines?
LUKE: It just seemed like the most accepting of any kind of weirdo that would come in. That’s what kinda set it apart for me…
NARRATION: From Urban Plains at Drake University, this…is Dead Moines: an audible case study of live music in Iowa’s capital. I’m your host, Allaire Nuss.
LUKE: It was just super accepting and didn’t try to be something that it wasn’t either.
LUKE: It was like, it was a dive bar and we all knew it was a dive bar. The sound system wasn’t the greatest but thing in the world, but if you worked it right, it sounded pretty f***ing good. People would have a good time at the shows.
NARRATION: It’s true. Mews was a cramped, damp little watering hole wedged in Court Ave downtown. And it was deeply beloved by local musicians, many of whom booked their first ever gig in the 230 cap space.
LUKE: Yeah, we would book f***ing anybody. Like if you felt like you could put on a show and get people in, we were willing to give you a shot. Even if you horribly failed the first time, we would still let you do it the second time because people need to be able to fail at making music or performing or anything in order to ever succeed.
NARRATION: Luke was one of those acts. They started their music career in a twee ukelele group at age 11. The other two members also went on to work at Mews. What’s more, having booked gigs there helped Luke gain credibility as they joined other bands and continued performing in Des Moines. The same is true for countless other local musicians. Many of them have Mews to thank for their initial exposure.
LUKE: I don’t know what I would have done without that, because if the point of entry was at the point that it is now with all the venues here, at a young age I wouldn’t have been able to just start getting shows at any of the venues we have now.
NARRATION: But when Mews closed in October of 2020, that communal hub, that arena of acceptance, was gone.
LUKE: For me, that was, like, the last place in the world that I could truly call home, that had always been there and that I could always come back to. Like, the place where I grew up as a kid, I don’t even know who lives there now. My parents got divorced, and they went separate ways and neither of their places are that comfortable for me. I’ve got places that I’ve lived that are my home, but the Mews was the last place, like, that was my home. That’s where I grew up and everything. So, I was absolutely f***ing devastated when it shut down.
NARRATION: To understand the significance of a place like Mews closing, we’ll have to go back to the 90s when Des Moines’ music scene really took shape. You see, Des Moines isn’t your typical Midwest music scene. Sure, it’s right on the crosshairs of Interstates 80 and 35, connecting culture hubs like Chicago or Minneapolis with modest scenes like Omaha and Kansas City. But despite it’s prime location, live music in Des Moines has historically been behind the curve…
JEFF INMAN, GUEST: We called it “Dead” Moines, and we weren’t the only ones, both in college and in my early journalistic career.
NARRATION: Did you catch that? “DEAD” Moines… D-E-A-D, because back in the 90s, there wasn’t much to do here. That’s Jeff Inman by the way, one of Des Moines’ original music critics. He started his writing career covering arts and entertainment for CityView here in town. He later went on to write for likes of Rolling Stone and Billboard. He’s been cursed out by Liam Gallager AND Courtney Love. Basically, he knows what he’s talking about…
ALLAIRE: Big-name bands were still coming through Des Moines, it wasn’t like a dead zone?
JEFF: Yes and no. We had an amplified version of the same problem that we have now, which is we are at the nexus of two interstates, but nobody stops here. And so you get regional touring acts – or people that were just beginning to break or starting to break – if you were lucky. Or you would get arena rock or arena country. There was no middle ground. And I think that’s why, part of the reason why it became known as “Dead” Moines. The other part was that there weren’t a lot of clubs in the area that had live music. There were other ones, but the main ones were Hairy Mary’s, The Safari, People’s, and The Maintenance Shop.
NARRATION: These clubs met the need that couldn’t be matchedby larger venues like the Civic Center or Vetern’s Memorial Auditorium (which, by the way, is now a part of the Wells Fargo Arena). The clubs brought in up-and-coming alternative artists just before they became sensations. Take The Smashing Pumpkins for example. They played the Maintenance Shop in ‘91 before their breakout record “Siamese Dream” hurdled them into the mainstream two years later… After that, they didn’t return to Iowa for the rest of the nineties. And they weren’t the only ones…
JEFF: It wasn’t consistent enough that you felt like you could miss anything because if you did, you never knew if they were gonna come back ever again.
NARRATION: Here’s another example: the year is 1993. Blind Melon’s music video for their hit single “No Rain” was airing on MTV round the clock, which back then was basically the height of stardom. Later that year, their North American tour had a show booked at Hairy Mary’s in Des Moines, and well…
JEFF: Blind Melon was supposed to play there but then showed up, saw the size of the venue, and drove off. So they infamously, quickly printed up a bunch of “F*** Blind Melon” stickers and handed them out to everybody who had a ticket. And I had that sticker on my guitar for years. [LAUGHS]
NARRATION: Sure, it was a jerk move. But they had just been certified multi-platinum. Hairy Mary’s was capped at around 300…. Can you blame them?
NARRATION: So, here lies one of Des Moines’ central problems: If a band had outgrown bar gigs but couldn’t sell out a stadium, there weren’t viable places to book them. So, they’d skip over us, opt to perform in, say, Omaha instead. But there was another factor that was limiting the live music scene…
JEFF: You know, if you are a touring band that’s hitting 200 seat or 250 seat clubs, you are relying on people who either just show up to the bar, or you need some way to get the word out. And back in 94, 95, 96, there wasn’t an internet in the way that we know it now. And so the only way to get the word out about you as a band was to get reviews or get coverage in local press, or get on the radio.
NARRATION: Bingo. The radio.
JEFF: You know, a radio station at the time would really only include two or three songs per week. Often times those were taken up by whatever record labels were pushing. So, if Pearl Jam has a new single, you’re going to play Pearl Jam. You’re not going to play House of Large Sizes from Cedar Falls.
NARRATION: But, there was a near-universal loophole to the issue of artist exposure: College Radio.
LEE KONFRST, GUEST: College radio was a big deal in the 90s, I mean that’s how so many alternative artists got their start.
NARRATION: This is Lee Konfrst, college Radio veteran of KDRK at Drake University. His career would extend beyond the basement of Meredith, but we’ll get to that later…
LEE: We really made an effort at Drake to bring in some of these up-and-coming alternative acts as we called them back then. I mean there was live music, but there wasn’t much of a scene. And so through Drake, we had the opportunity to bring people in because we developed those relationships with the music industry.
NARRATION: Lee’s favorite example? Dave Matthews of the Dave Matthews Band. In 1994, Dave was in Des Moines for – you guessed it – a small gig at Hairy Mary’s. Lee had been playing his EP at KDRK, so they invited him to their studio….
LEE: My GM worked with the record company and said “Hey, can we have Dave come into Drake and perform for us? Maybe a couple songs?” “Absolutely, let’s make that happen.” So we bring him in and before he played he was like, “I’m gonna play a new tune for you, I just finished this last night, I wrote it last night,” or something like that. It’s called “What Would You Say,” and it was one of his breakout songs, right. So we were, like, this was probably the first time he’s performed this live in front of anybody else, right? And so we had it recorded, and we used some of the recordings at KDRK, and it was like “Here’s a KDRK exclusive, it’s Tripping Billies by Dave Matthews Band.” And my GM taped over the tape.
ALLAIRE: That’s horrible!
LEE: And so we have none of that, I think, I said Tripping Billies, that was the only thing that was saved was the audio performance of Tripping Billies. Otherwise, we have nothing from that. So, we only have these good stories to tell. Nobody believes that it actually happened.
ALLAIRE: That song, which is actually called “So Much to Say,” won the Dave Matthews Band a Grammy in 1996. Yet another example of small beginnings for big artists, right here in Des Moines.
LEE: And I’m not saying a lot of people listened to KDRK, they didn’t. But, it provided an opportunity for somebody like Dave Matthews to come to Des Moines. We wouldn’t have done that, probably, without a college radio station that was able to call the record label and to work with the local venue and kinda develop those relationships so we could bring in some bands and acts like that. You know, otherwise you were stuck in the corporate model, you know, the record companies and the big radio stations working together to kind of corner the market. Cities like Des Moines were neglected because there weren’t enough people here to really make it commercially viable for them to come out. And I think college radio was pretty important in the 80s and 90s to change that.
NARRATION: But Lee’s radio career didn’t end in college. By 1995, he was an on-air personality radio at 107(DOT)5, Des Moines’ alternative station.
ALLAIRE: And so you kind of talk about The Dot as a turning point in Des Moines, what did…
LEE: …I love you saying “The Dot,” that’s awesome. Okay, keep going.
ALLAIRE: [LAUGHS] Has it been a minute since you’ve heard someone say “The Dot?”
LEE: Yeah, absolutely.
NARRATION: But yes, The Dot did change the radio game in Des Moines. According to Lee, local radio in the first half of the nineties was mostly dated pop songs or classic rock. Some stations would play new hits, but rarely anything with a hard edge like grunge. But after The Dot started pushing the envelope, the others followed suit.
LEE: You know, they started playing some of the new music, and I’m not saying they weren’t playing that before, but we really market Des Moines as a viable music city.
NARRATION:Lots of radio stations, including The Dot, began hosting their own live music festivals in an effort to bring big names to Des Moines. And it worked!
LEE: We would have been one of those forgotten communities. You know, nobody was going to stop on their way from Chicago to Omaha. But we are a destination, and we can prove we have the people, the music lovers, here that are going to come out to live shows.
NARRATION: Still, Lee knows that Des Moines’ music scene isn’t perfect today, even if it’s made great progress.
LEE: I think we’re still trying to figure it out. I was very hesitant myself to settle and establish in Des Moines because I really missed the live music scene being in the suburbs of Chicago. It’s like, I could go anywhere at any time and see a fantastic band. And I knew it was never going to be quite like that in Des Moines.
JEFF: I think the larger problem with live music here was there wasn’t a music culture here in the same way that music towns have it. If you live in Austin, if you live in Nashville, if you live in LA, if you live in New York, if you live in Chicago, Minneapolis, these places, you just go to a venue because you know and trust the venue.
JEFF: The difference between now and 1995 – oh my god, 25 years ago…
ALLAIRE: I’m 22.
JEFF: Oh my god, I’m talking about a time when you weren’t even alive!
JEFF: So, the difference between then and now is that we do have those lower, mid-level venues that at least bring the kind of acts that we didn’t get in the mid 90s. You know, Hoyt Sherman doesn’t have the most diverse bookings, but it’s all things that we would never have gotten otherwise. You know, there’s no way that there’s another venue in town that would have had Grace Potter and the Flaming Lips, and Dennis D. Young of Styx. Things that wouldn’t have been in Des Moines before. But, the audiences wouldn’t always be there because, to get the bands that people wanted, they would often – like we do now – have to book them on Monday and Tuesday nights because – and I hate to put it this way – they won’t waste a weekend here if they can play a bigger venue somewhere else.
JEFF: Des Moines still struggles to attract a really diverse group of artists to town and consistently pull an audience for those artists. There’s certain things that certain promoters know that sell, and we get those, but the special occasion shows, I’m afraid we’re going to have even fewer of those with a couple of our smaller venues either closing or really struggling.
NARRATION: Case in point: Vaudeville Mews, the venue we spoke with Luke about at the beginning of the podcast. It’s places like Mews that helped define our music scene – local culture hubs that both brought bands to town and gave local artists a chance. But now with the pandemic, all of that progress is at risk.
NARRATION: Still, it’s not as if all of the issues in the 90s ever totally went away. Even after diversifying local radio, implementing new festivals, and opening mid-sized venues, Des Moines still has a similar problem to what we faced 30 years ago. So, where do we go from here? We’ll explore that question and more… on the next episode of “Dead” Moines.
NARRATION: Dead Moines is written and produced by me, Allaire Nuss. Special thanks to Anthony Arroyo, Katy Hull, and Rachel James.