Dead Moines: Where We Are Now

As the pandemic wore on, many music venues in Des Moines stayed closed. But other spaces opened their doors after our new world started to mimic the one we left behind. And the most active venue in Des Moines – which, given the sparse booking options and reduced capacity, is kind of like being the tallest dwarf – is Woolys.

Guests: Luke Belknap, Dick Prall, Tiffany, Luke

Assistant Editor: Katy Hull

Photo: Anthony Arroyo

Graphic: Rachel James

Transcription

ALLAIRE NUSS, HOST: And so, lockdown first started in March. What was the general reaction from the staff?

LUKE BELKNAP, GUEST: We were a little hopeful that it would just be a couple months or something.

ALLAIRE: Yeah

LUKE: We didn’t really know what was going to happen. I worked…. [FADE]

ALLAIRE, AS NARRATION: This is Luke Belknap. We spoke with them in episode 1 about their time working at and growing up with Vaudeville Mews, the first and – as of now – the only live music venue in Des Moines to close because of COVID. 

LUKE: We really didn’t know what was going to happen. I worked the sound for the last show. That was right when it started to become big news about COVID-19. So we were just like oh shit, okay, I guess we’re going to do the show.

ALLAIRE: Yeah.

LUKE: I had hydrogen peroxide and I was wiping down the microphones between everybody. And we didn’t really know exactly what we were doing. Back then there wasn’t a ton of information about masks or anything out at that point. I remember at one point this guy was on stage, and he was like “why are all of yall standing so far away from each other? This COVID shit isn’t real!”

ALLAIRE: Oh my god.

LUKE: And then there was just kind of a big “ugh”…

ALLAIRE: [LAUGHS]

LUKE: …over the audience. 

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: But then after that night, more and more news was coming out, and we just sort of realized oh fuck, we can’t do this. Especially not at a place like the Mews with how small it is. You can’t just have shows in there. So, we just decided to postpone all of the shows that we already did have booked at that point for a hopefully later date. And then those postponing did  become cancellations and so on and so forth. 

ALLAIRE: Do you remember at what point for the staff you guys started actually really getting worried about if Mews could make it?

LUKE: We… There really wasn’t a whole lot of communication about that. It was kind of the elephant in the room that nobody really wanted to talk about. 

ALLAIRE: Yeah.

NARRATION: The pandemic has been destructive to all live music spaces everywhere. But in the United States, many restrictions didn’t last long. And in Iowa, most didn’t happen at all. Republican Governor Kim Reynolds never instated a lockdown order, which gave local businesses a choice: stay open or close indefinitely, which meant potentially closing for good. And Mews, well, they decided to stay closed, and they paid the price for it. 

LUKE: We had all been asked, all of the employees, we had all been asked and we were all unanimous. We went with our morals and with the fucking science of the whole thing. That If we opened up, there’s pretty much a 100% chance people would be getting COVID from coming to our place. And if it doesn’t kill them they might spread it to somebody else and it kills them or something. And we just weren’t willing to have even the possibility of that. We care more about the people of Des Moines staying alive and being able to enjoy culture and have a good time than we do supplying the culture, you know.  

NARRATION: As the pandemic wore on, many venues in town stayed closed just like Mews. But other spaces opened their doors after our new world started to mimic the one we’d left behind. Restaurants started serving guests, airports became more populated, and concerts started existing again. And the most active venue in Des Moines – which, given the sparse booking options and reduced capacity, is kind of like being the tallest dwarf – was Woolys. 

NARRATION: The formerly 800 cap space in the East Village started to book the occasional cover band or local act – hardly anyone was touring. Granted, they did update their safety protocol: sanitizing stations, limited, space-out seating, and a mask mandate…when you enter the building. All bets are off if you buy a drink, which they don’t discourage. Venues make most of their profits at the bar, not at the ticket booth, and that income is even more essential given their grim financial situation. So, the reality of live music in a pandemic – especially in the winter and early spring when it’s too cold to host outside – is that shows gather groups of often unmasked people indoors. And that doesn’t sit right with Luke, especially after Mews closed for good in October to avoid spreading COVID in the community. 

LUKE: Fucking upsetting, really upsetting. At first, it was like, why are y’all doing this when we had to shut down? But then after a little while, I kind of got over that and now I’m just fucking mad. It’s like, why are y’all just doing this period? 

[MUSIC FADES IN]

LUKE: They’re making life harder for the rest of us in the city by doing this, and they’re making it harder for the music scene to come back in a strong and healthy way. Sure, maybe they’ll be able to survive with their venue longer, but I think that’ll be the detriment to the rest of the music community.

[MUSIC]

NARRATION: Last week, we learned about where the Des Moines music scene is headed. Today, we’re taking a look at where we are right now. At this odd liminal space we’ve existed in for the better part of a year, where some people and places attempt to be business as usual, but with the ongoing pandemic, our world is anything but.

NARRATION: For our third and final episode of Dead Moines, I’m taking you inside Wooly’s to try and understand the reality of live music persisting during the pandemic, of what brings people out to shows and what the whole affair looks like, feels like, for everyone involved. I arrived with a concern of what’s at stake, at risk, when the show goes on, but I left also considering the inverse: what’s at stake if it doesn’t?

[MUSIC FADES OUT]

NARRATION: It’s March 6th, 2021, a Friday night in Des Moines, almost one full year since everything changed. I just bought a ticket at Woolys to see my first concert since COVID hit. And as someone who used to mark local AND out-of-state shows in my school planner in case I happened to be bored on any given day, this is a huge milestone. But once I look around, I wonder if it may have come too soon…

NARRATION: Let me set the scene for you.

[MUSIC]

NARRATION: Wooly’s is essentially one, big, dark room. The stage is straight ahead with an ample bar taking up most of the left side and raised, wooden booths running along the right. There’s usually empty space carved out front and center for a GA crowd, but now it’s full of high-top tables and barstools – a way to keep patrons distanced. And tonight, there are people at those tables. It’s not a large crowd, but it’s more people than I expected, maybe thirty or so, give or take. But despite the signs stating masks are required, most people besides the staff…aren’t wearing them. At least not while seated. They take them off to drink and chat, but some mask up when they move about the venue. 

NARRATION: The overhead lights are dim enough to inspire a subtle ambiance, which contrasts with the well-lit bar, catching your eye and inviting you to buy a drink. A pre-show playlist softly loops acoustic staples like “Ophelia” by The Lumineers, or Zeppelin’s “That’s The way” which, by the way, is my favorite song of theirs. 

ALLAIRE: Aye, wonwonwon. [SINGING] Kissing tiny flowers…

NARRATION: Anyway, TV screens hover along the perimeter, running ads for upcoming shows, mostly cover bands, but, there are a few Fall dates with recognizable touring acts like Tech N9ne and the Airborne Toxic Event. It’s tentative…but it’s hopeful. Kinda like the scene here tonight. 

NARRATION: Honestly, I’m anxious. I haven’t been in a setting like this, one with unmasked people, in a long time. So, I’m wearing three masks like a protective rosary and sitting alone at a table in the back. But, I’m here on a mission to learn from the patrons and the artists about what this moment means for them. About what brought them here and why. After scoping out the crowd, I set my sights on two millennial-age women laughing like they’re old friends. And they are! And they’re down to chat. Though the more talkative one, Tiffany, can tell I’m nervous… 

TIFFANY, GUEST: Do it, I know it’s hard to just ask, so I’m all in. 

ALLAIRE: So, I don’t have a slip for you guys.

TIFFANY: Okay.

ALLAIRE: So, could you just hold this near you like that?

TIFFANY: Just hold it?

ALLAIRE: Yeah. And what brought you to the show today?

TIFFANY: I was coming to visit my friend in town, and I’m from somewhere else, so we’re just hanging out. We were looking to see what was going on tonight. 

ALLAIRE: Have you been to concerts recently?

TIFFANY: Sorry, I’m having a hard time hearing you.

ALLAIRE: Oh, you’re okay. Have you been going to concerts recently?

TIFFANY: No, thank you.

ALLAIRE: No? How long has it been since you saw a live show?

TIFFANY: Oh gosh, I haven’t been to a live show in over a year, so I’m just excited to see live music again. 

ALLAIRE: This is your first one?

TIFFANY: Yeah.

ALLAIRE: Cool. And where are you from?

TIFFANY: I’m from Omaha, yeah.

ALLAIRE: And Omaha has a decent live music scene. 

TIFFANY: They do, but there hasn’t been anything going on there right now. So, it’s been really, really hard. The places are open but not for shows, so not for live music. They’re slowly starting to do it again but it’s really slow right now.

ALLAIRE: Yeah. Well thank you so much.

TIFFANY: Of course.

NARRATION: After I thanked Tiffany and retreated to my table, the music faded, the lights dimmed, and the show began.

[GUITAR STRUMMING]

TREVOR SENSOR, ON STAGE: Good evening. 

[GUITAR AND SINGING]

NARRATION: This is Trevor Sensor, the opening act this evening. He’s a singer/songwriter from a rust belt sector of Illinois. He moved to Iowa for college then…stuck around, became one of our local acts. I saw Trevor live once before while I was a bartender at xBk, the venue Tobi Parks opened in Dogtown just six months before the pandemic hit. He was actually the first act to ever play there. He broke us in. And tonight, he’s doing it again. 

[TREVOR SINGING]

NARRATION: Trevor is fit, with a black fitted t-shirt over his barrel chest, perched on a stool with an uncanny confidence. He has ferocious, curly hair that he brushes with his fingers between tuning his guitar and swigging his beer. And, Trevor’s voice is…also ferocious. It pulls you in, filling this large, hollow hall like there’s only room for him in it. But up on that dark stage, lit by just a lone spotlight, it’s like he is the only one there. 

NARRATION: While Trevor sang his jarring, jagged musings, the crowd was silent in the best way, the kind that means everyone is listening. Really listening. ….that is, until the latter half of his set…

[LAUGHTER DURING THE SET]

NARRATION: That’s Tiffany, my only interview of the night so far. She’s likely a little tipsy by now and finds her friend absolutely hilarious. But, though annoying, it’s also… kind of nice? Kind of – dare I say – normal? 

[APPLAUSE]

TREVOR: Thank you for coming out. It’s nice to see people out and around again out here in the East Village tonight.

[WOO FROM THE CROWD]

TREVOR: So thank you again. My name is Trevor Sensor, again.

[WOO FROM THR CROWD]

TREVOR: Yeah, so thanks for coming out. Feel free to say hi, I’ll be there. My brother is getting married in a couple of months so I’m hanging out with him tonight. So, congrats.

[APPLAUSE]

TREVOR: June 19th, right? Yeah, yeah.

NARRATION: Once Trevor’s set is done, I’m back on the prowl, walking up to strangers, asking them how they like the show and what brought them out tonight. One person was especially eager to talk: Luke – different from one who worked at Mews, of course. Luke loves the Des Moines music scene, he’s a musician himself. 

LUKE, GUEST: Oh, I’m just a huge fan of live music. 

ALLAIRE: Yeah.

LUKE: Oh, I think that it’s…oh my gosh there’s so much to say.

ALLAIRE: What’s it like to sit here and take in live music, especially with everything going on? How does that just make you feel personally?

LUKE: It’s so refreshing to sit next to a friend, and I mean just the energy to get out of the house, you know, when everybody’s been so… it’s been a really tough year. So, to get out and to see people chatting, you can tell people are close. And it’s just so… the things that we took for granted at one point, getting to actually witness people enjoying that is a real, true pleasure for me. Actually, I think I’m speaking for a lot of people that are going through that right now.

ALLAIRE: Have you been going to concerts kind of here and there in the last few months?

LUKE: No, it’s been… I’ve been very isolated and getting out has been so refreshing. 

ALLAIRE: Is this your first concert in awhile then?

LUKE: Yes, a long while.

ALLAIRE: Yeah? How long has it been since you’ve seen live music?

LUKE: I mean I couldn’t give you a real date. Over a year?

ALLAIRE: Wow.

LUKE: Yeah, over a year, wow. 

ALLAIRE: Okay, nice.

NARRATION: Lots of people told me this was their first time seeing live music since COVID hit. But, I wondered if maybe they were intimidated by some random girl with multiples masks and a microphone asking – on the record – about their pandemic activities. So each time I approached someone new, I made sure to preface that this wasn’t “gotcha” journalism. I told them the truth: I’m making this podcast because I care about live music in Des Moines and I want to understand what it looks like right now. After hearing that, most of them opened up, spoke candidly. And when I told Luke about my podcast, he actually…thanked me?

LUKE: I saw live music was playing and I was like you know what, I’m going to go.

ALLAIRE: Yeah. So it’s been an overall positive night for you?

LUKE: Oh yeah, I love Woolys. And I love Sam Summers, I love what he’s doing for the community. Hinterland, and just everything he’s doing for this type of scene, this type of culture, so.

ALLAIRE: It’s seems like a lot of Des Moines’ live music has been persisting by Sam booking shows. 

LUKE: Sam Summers is going to be a huge part of Iowa. 

ALLAIRE: Yeah.

LUKE: I think that he’s putting us on the map in regards to what he’s doing for music. We get to listen to this man’s experience, which is a human experience, and if there’s a venue where that can be showcased, and we get to spend money and it helps the economy? I think it’s a great way just to bring people together and have a really quality experience. 

ALLAIRE: Do you think that’s especially valuable right now with everything going on?

LUKE: Absolutely, yes.

ALLAIRE: Why is that?

LUKE: Because I can’t help but think that with everything that’s going on, people are divided. So I think that even if you’re wearing masks to be in a room where we can share in these human experiences together is fundamentally a part of the human experience, and it’s just so important. So, I’m all about live music.

ALLAIRE: Great, yeah.

NARRATION: This is of course one point of view on a very complicated, controversial issue. 

[MUSIC STARTS]

NARRATION: For many people, like Luke from Mews, the safety measures aren’t enough since there’s still a risk of spreading the virus. They’re frustrated with Woolys for opening during COVID, and moreover, they’re angry with Sam Summers, the owner of Woolys and the guy THIS Luke just expressed so much admiration for. We talked about him last episode – Sam owns a whole mass of venues in Iowa and neighboring states. His critics say it’s irresponsible and dangerous to host shows, while other people, like THIS Luke and many other people I spoke with at Woolys, see staying open as necessary life-support for the longevity of our local music scene. They’re happy to be at a show, sure, but they also think it’s important to keep creative spaces open because of the ongoing pandemic, not despite the pandemic.

NARRATION: After talking to a few more people, the filler playlist music (that’s been SO prominent in my interview soundbites) starts to fade. The hall darkens once again. It’s time for the headliner, another local staple, Dickie. 

DICKIE, BAND: Hi, how are you doing tonight? Better, yeah.

[SINGING]

NARRATION: Dickie is led by Dick Prall, lead singer/songwriter and the band’s namesake. Billy Barton backs Dick’s guitar with drums and other instrumentals. Their style could be called ambient alternative, rock music imbedded with nostalgic feeling. Think adjacent to The National or better yet, Wilco – they’ve collaborated with the Chicago stronghold multiple times. 

[LIVE MUSIC PICKS UP]

TIFFANY: Yeah, that’s the stuff. 

[DICKIE SINGING]

NARRATION: You can feel the bass in your chest, building in tempo and intensity. The neon lights move with their sound, shifting with the bridges, choruses, resolutions. 

NARRATION: And the crowd is into it, they’re responsive, vocal about their pleasure in being there. One guy stands up and strums along on an air guitar like it’s his favorite song. Hell, maybe it is. The girls sitting with him mouth all the lyrics, swaying their shoulders, closing their eyes. They look happy to be here. Tiffany stands and dances with her friend, glasses raised. Two other women stand up to dance. Even with the high-top tables spaced apart, they seem….communal, experiencing this all a collective. It’s like life is happening again. It’s overwhelming. 

[DICKIE SINGING]

NARRATION: Halfway through the set, I finally cave and buy a $9 pint of beer, just like old times, though I sip it through a straw under my masks. I thought getting a drink would make me feel more normal, like one of them in the crowd, but the carbonated hops through my plastic straw just reinforce this new reality of live music in a pandemic. We’re not shoulder-to-shoulder in a pit, we’re sprawled, splintered. Together not physically… but.. in another way entirely.  

NARRATION: Seeing live music with COVID looming is like an Uncanny Valley. It looks like a show, it sounds like a show, but despite the magic of hearing live music again, something is… off. There’s still an intangible distance to the whole affair. It’s like gazing at something precious behind glass and wishing you could reach out and touch it. It’s not the same as it once was, but it’s pretty damn close. 

[SONG ENDS, AUDIENCE APPLAUDS]

NARRATION: After Dickie’s set, AND their encore, the night had come to a close. The air has that post-show buzz where people are just…happy… gathering at the merch table or finishing their last drink. Speaking of which… that beer I sipped through a straw, well, by this next interview, id had a couple… but so had everyone else. We were collectively loose, either from the drinks or the joy.. or both. 

NARRATION: I wanted to see if the artists felt it too. If they were inspired by the evening or reminded that things aren’t the same. From the crowd, or rather, from my table in back, I felt both simultaneously. But I wanted to know what it was like for them to take the stage after not performing for so long, and before things are truly… back to normal. 

ALLAIRE: This is super ammeter, I’m literally a student trying to figure out how to do the thing.

DICK PRALL, GUEST: No worries.

ALLAIRE: But, you guys said you hadn’t really played a concert in forever so this was your first time.

DICK: It’s been awhile. 

NARRATION: This is Dick Prall, frontman of Dickie. I lingered for a bit to catch him alone, once he was done greeting familiar faces, helping at the merch table, and generally wrapping up the evening. He’s tuckered out, it is past midnight, but he’s happy to talk with me. 

ALLAIRE: What’s it like to be on an actual stage?

DICK: Fantastic, awesome, great feeling. I mean, this is a great stage, this is a great venue. So, just, it felt like home. A little rusty, I know I was, so I mean we rehearsed it a lot, but you know getting in front of folks kind of changes the game for you. Getting the lights it’s like “oh my god this is actually happening.” So no, it was great, it was fantastic. 

ALLAIRE: Yeah, because I checked your guys’ website and saw you aren’t actually on a tour tour, and then of course you live in Des Moines. 

DICK: Right.

ALLAIRE: But what made you feel like… because you said you turned down a show earlier, that this show maybe you felt better about doing it?

DICK: Why do we feel better about it?

ALLAIRE: Yeah.

DICK: I think people are being more responsible. I think the folks who… the supporters that we have are more cognisant of what’s going on. I mean, we’re not a party band, we’re not like, you know, everybody just weird and crazy blah blah blah. I felt the audience was going to be responsible, we felt Woolys was responsible and we’re doing our part. Let’s see what happens, and I was very happy with tonight. I think it went well in that regard. 

ALLAIRE: What made you happy about tonight then?

DICK: [LAUGHS] A, there were people here. B, they listened and didn’t just leave when we started, that’s always a thing.

ALLAIRE: Yeah.

DICK: And I guess just doing it. Being able to work with a venue, the sound people are great here and the staff has been great, and it just felt like home again. 

[MUSIC]

NARRATION: I spent so much of my reporting learning from the people who are the face of live music in Des Moines: its booking managers and journalists, big-city transplants and life-long midwesterners. But in this, our final episode, I learned from the everyman fans that came out to a show, the people who, that night, held a microcosm of this city’s creative sphere in their palms. But there’s more of you who hold it in different ways, with your own boundaries and capabilities.

NARRATION: To those of you on the other side of the aisle, who don’t think it’s safe for live music to return or aren’t ready to go to a show, you have played an essential role in the same sphere. You’ve propelled the scene forward already. Des Moines has grown as a viable city for live music in the Midwest because you willed it to. You turned out for shows, festivals, bar gigs, and everything in between. You celebrated local artists and proved to big-name acts that we’re worth stopping for. That Des Moines is no longer “dead.” At least not music-wise… 

NARRATION: Iowa was hit especially hard by COVID. Our state has been wrought with illness and death, isolation and controversy. And we’ve lost places just as we’ve lost people. We all saw what happened to Vaudeville Mews – they believed staying closed was the right thing to do, even when it meant they could never come back. The 230 cap venue that had always existed to support the local music community ended up closing to protect the greater community. And the hole they left in our scene is gapping. They’re deeply missed. 

NARRATION: It took nearly three decades for Des Moines to evolve into all it is today: a festival hub, a millennial destination, and most importantly, a blank creative canvas. Across all my interviews, I kept hearing the same thing. Des Moines is a place where you can make things happen, where if you have an idea for a creative project: a radio show, an artists non-profit, or even a podcast about all of the above, odds are, you’ll be among the first to do it. And you’ll have a sea of support from people who want to see it happen. That originality, that willing community, is something sterling and brilliant in our city. 

NARRATION: Our scene is far from perfect, and it’s still taking shape, but one thing is for sure: We’ve come a long way… since “Dead” Moines.

[THEME PLAYS]

NARRATION: Dead Moines was written and produced by me, Allaire Nuss. Our graphic was designed by Rachel James. Photos and tech support by Anthony Arroyo. Assistant editing by Katy Hull. Special thanks to all of our incredible sources for their knowledge, insights, and openness. And a very special thank you to Jeff Inman for his support and his sarcasm. If you live in Des Moines and enjoyed this podcast, I’m graduating in May and I am looking for a job… wink wink. 

NARRATION: This has been an Urban Plains production at Drake University. All my love and more.

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“Dead” Moines: How We Got Here

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.