By Julie Nichols

The summer of 2020 brought disappointments to the live music world for performers and audience alike, as artists cancelled shows and venues closed. Through the warmer months, musicians, performers and visual artists adapted to outdoor venues to keep Lincoln’s scene alive. Locals and visitors alike hope to see 2021 bring back the vibrant festivals that make Lincoln a destination for music and art lovers.


Always held each July, 2021 marks the 47th anniversary of Zoofest, a week-long festival starting with club shows and moving to the street for two days of non-stop live music. Zoofest showcases national acts like Mavis Staples, Booker T and the MGs and Los Lobos, as well as the new blues generation represented by Nikki Hill, Heather Newman and Selwyn Birchwood. Local powerhouse bands like Josh Hoyer and Soul Colossal, Big Daddy Caleb and the Chargers, Heather Newman, and the Sebastian Lane Band, the Zoo Bar has retained its status as a beacon of the midwestern music scene.   

The Zoo Bar, a Lincoln institution with a storied history, has managed to weather the storm, and carefully re-opened for live shows with limited capacity, creating a virtual tip jar for staff and selling mixed drinks and merchandise. Current owner Pete Watters is determined to hold tight to this cherished Lincoln institution.

Original owner Larry Boehmer, then a college student, booked the first show in 1973. The Zoo quickly grew into a pick-up gig venue for some of the greatest blues luminaries to grace stages in Chicago, Nashville, Memphis and Austin. Among the many greats to play this tiny club include Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor, Albert King, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Son Seals, Jay McShann, Charlie Musselwhite, Candye Kane, James Harmon, Lil’ Ed, Luther Allison, Billy Bacon, Jimmy Vaughn and Lincoln’s own legendary Chicago transplant, Magic Slim and the Teardrops. The Zoo Bar was Slim’s first time playing at a white bar in a white town far from his stomping grounds of Chicago’s South Side. He liked it enough to move his family to Lincoln.

For long-time patrons of the bar, the weeklong bash that moves onto the street for the weekend is a lot like a great big family reunion—with much better music. 

In the heart of downtown Lincoln at 146 N.14th Street, this legendary bar has offered live entertainment seven nights a week for decades, and expanded its focus to include comedy, jazz, and DJ dance nights. The 2020 festival is tentatively set for July 10-11. Follow the schedule at zoobar.com or on Zoo Bar Fan Club on Facebook.

Lincoln Arts Festival

The annual Lincoln Arts Festival—long held at SouthPointe Pavilions in south Lincoln—moved downtown in 2019, joining several other downtown mainstays.

This September event now schedules with the Lincoln Calling music festival as well as forming many partnerships with other art-related organizations.

An outdoor fair, Streets Alive! promotes active and healthy living and offers families a two-mile traffic-free path for play and activities.

Lincoln Children’s Museum’s Creative Zone and the nearby Nebraska History Museum’s Creative Zone offers activities for kids and families.

The Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts showcases student films and interactive art activities, and Lincoln High’s Arts and Humanities focus program displays student work, and live music and dance performances light up the courtyard at Tower Square.

Moving the Arts Festival downtown has offered more space for artists, music, performances and interactive art activities on four blocks near Tower Square, P and Q Streets at 13th and 14th and Centennial Mall.

See more information at artscene.org/events/lincoln-arts-festival.

Jazz in June

Each Tuesday, Jazz in June gives jazz afficionados top-notch music on the grounds behind Sheldon Art Museum, 12th and R streets on University of Nebraska’s city campus. Lawn chairs and blankets are welcome as the series hopes to return live performances in 2021. Shows start at 7:00 p.m., and the Jazz in June Market begins at 5:00 p.m., featuring a variety of food and drink, locally-produced food, and artisan wares. 

The concerts are free, but suggested donations help support this long-running Lincoln tradition.

Find information on the 2021 schedule at jazzinjune.com.

Meadowlark Music Festival

Called “the Festival to Watch” by Chamber Music America, Meadowlark Music Festival offers an unconventional summer chamber music experience featuring world class-performers. If you’ve never heard a string quartet play Radiohead or Appalachian folk music paired with African percussion, this series ventures out of the classical mold.

Meadowlark presents world-class musicians in comfortable and unusual venues at a fraction of the cost of larger concert settings. Venues change with each concert, and are often outdoors with food trucks and drinks, often aligned to musical themes.

Past artists include Daedalus String Quartet, Pablo Aslan Quintet, Anthony Molinaro, Australian Guitar Duo, Quartetto Gelato, Marina Pacowski, Marco Albonetti, Francois Rambath, Mimmi Fullmer, Metalesm5, Ellen Jewett, Sybarite5, and Howard Levy’s Brazilian Fantasy.

Look for this festival in July. Tickets are subsidized to allow access for all. Children under 16 free. For this year’s schedule see meadowlarkmusicfestival.org

Czech Festival at the Pla Mor Ballroom

For over fifty years, Lincoln’s annual Czech Festival has been held in May, hosted at the historic Pla Mor Ballroom at 6600 West O St. 

This all-day free event features Czech vendors, heritage demonstrations, choir performances, accordion jams and traditional polka dancing. The festival is sponsored by Nebraska Czechs of Lincoln. See more at lincolnczechs.org.


Like many U.S. cities, Lincoln holds an annual Juneteenth celebration. For 40 years the Clyde Malone Community Center has sponsored this commemoration of June 19th, 1865, the day the last slaves in the U.S. were freed, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. This light-hearted family-friendly event is held in mid-June, most recently at the F Street Community Center, 13th and F Street. Enjoy delicious food, dancing, rap contests, a community health fair and plenty of children’s activities. For information: lincoln.org.

Star City Pride Festival

Although 2020 brought changes to Pride, this festival promotes and celebrates equality for the LGBTQIA community in Lincoln and across Nebraska. Held at Pinnacle Bank Arena and outside in the Festival Lot, this two-day event includes food vendors, music and performing arts, dancing, featured speakers, and a kids’ zone from 2:00 to 7:00 p.m. with fun activities for youth. For information, see Starcitypride.org

Stransky Park Music Series

Each year Lincoln’s sole community radio station, KZUM, sponsors free outdoor concerts at Stransky Park on 17th and Harrison, running from late May through early August each Thursday at 7:00 p.m. Featuring a variety of blues, jazz, swing, country, Latino sounds and indie-pop, the series draws locals year after year. Kid and dog-friendly, KZUM has added featured food trucks and art activities. Bring a lawn chair or blanket and enjoy a soft summer night. 

Although cancelled for health safety in 2020, Stransky Music Series intends to return in 2021 for its 17th season. More info: kzum.org

Lincoln Calling

Now in its 17th year, Lincoln Calling’s mash-up music fest pairs local bands with national acts over four days at eight venues, featuring nearly 100 bands. To adapt to community health safety, the 2020 festival turned to free live-stream through online registration. This intense music experience is scheduled for September each year. Past lineups have included Satchel Grande, Waxahatchee, Emily Bass, Hammersaw, Japanese Breakfast, Darkwood, Twinsmith and A Ferocious Jungle Cat.

Lincoln Calling’s mission has increasingly focused on diverse genres and under-represented groups, encompassing BIPOC, women, LGBTQIA individuals, and disability communities. Lincoln Calling also provides educational community programming in civic engagement, sustainability, innovation and entrepreneurship, aimed at current local needs, chosen with an eye to equity. For more on Lincoln Calling’s programming for 2021, see LincolnCalling.com  

Lincoln Exposed

Marking its 15th anniversary last year, Lincoln Exposed showcases the amazing spectrum of local talent and the strong bonds of Lincoln’s music community. From its beginning in a single venue with 20 bands, Lincoln Exposed has exploded into a relentless four-day festival with over a hundred performances in more than five venues.

Combining veteran bands like Charlie Burton and Or What?, FREAKABOUT, Shithook, Domestica, The Killigans, Universe Contest, and Jack Hotel with up-and comers-like Death Cow, The Fey, Big Daddy Caleb and the Chargers, Miss Taken, and The Credentials. Lincoln Exposed unites and celebrates musicians of all ages in this energetic festival. Audiences can hop venues to sample a buffet of music for every taste. Blues and bluegrass, metal, pop-punk, rock, Latin fusion, and folk Americana acts light up stages from 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. for four intense nights of entertainment. Day passes are $8-10 and festival passes are a bargain at $25. 

Host venues include Duffy’s Tavern, 1867, Zoo Bar, Bodega’s Alley, and the Bourbon Theatre, all within walking distance in downtown Lincoln. Venues are restricted to 21+ except the Bourbon Theatre at 18+. For info: downtownlincoln.org, or visit Lincoln Exposed on Facebook. 

Lux Art Center’s Art Safari

A presence in Lincoln’s University Place neighborhood for 45 years, the Lux quickly adapted to the shifting public health scenario in 2020. With the demand for its quality year-round classes for youth and adults, Lux moved into on-line instruction, video tutorials, and later introduced private in-person lessons with health safety protocols. Lux also provided 400 free art supply kits over the 2020 summer. 

With the impact of the pandemic on indoor gallery shows, Lux leaders hatched a plan for a massive outdoor installation project, and Art Safari was born. With natural themes—Underwater, Cave, Forest—a parking lot became a drive-through/walk-through immersive art experience created by 20 artists, and drew nearly 1,500 visitors and their families over two weeks. Due to its immense popularity, Lux has every intention of bringing Art Safari back as an annual event.

For information on Art Safari and other events, visit luxcenter.org

Art in the Garden

Lincoln’s Sunken Gardens, located on the southwest corner of 27th and D streets, hosts an annual Art in the Garden festival each September. More than 50 artists from the Noyes Art Gallery mount work among the garden’s spectacular plantings.

The broad variety of paintings, sculptures, photographs, pottery, stained glass, furniture, clothing, and are available for purchase. A portion of the proceeds supports the Sunken Gardens. Admission is free. Learn more at noyesartgallery.com

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *