Lincoln Watering Hole Serves Legendary Blues Gigs
By John Beechem
There’s a little known secret on the Midwest blues circuit: the best tour stop outside of Chicago is a hole in the wall in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Thanks to the Zoo Bar, which fills the air outside 14th and P with live music every night, famous blues men like Magic Slim, Otis Clay and Albert Collins have long made Lincoln a priority tour stop.
“It all started during the disco movement, when fans of blues, jazz and rock seemed to have disappeared,” said co-owner Pete Watters. “Larry Boehmer—the guy who owned the Zoo Bar until 1999—was one of the only guys in the Midwest promoting blues music at that time, and word got around with national blues acts that this place in Lincoln has a great little scene.”
It all started with one man and a bunch of really good jukebox songs.
Growing up in a small town in southeast Nebraska, Larry Boehmer somehow managed to get radio station KAAY out of Little Rock, Ark. He came to love the deep south, 12-bar musical ballads known as the blues, but by the time he became an art student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, disco dancers seemed to have taken over campus.
Boehmer did what any crusading music lover would do: he formed a crowd of music aficionados, and set out to cultivate an artist “scene” in Lincoln.
In 1971 he approached the owner of the new bar North 14th with an idea: if the bar let him pick songs on the jukebox, Boehmer would get his friends to frequent the place and buy drinks.
The arrangement worked beautifully, and soon Boehmer was putting on live shows at the Zoo Bar. In 1974, Boehmer managed to book Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Luther Allison, and soon live acts were coming every night. Allison, a Motown records signee, told Chicago blues legend Magic Slim about his great experience with the music lovers at the Zoo, and the Grenada, Miss. native was so excited that he came to make his first ever performance in a “white” club outside of Chicago.
Following the arrival of the Magic Slim, other top acts from around the region began coming to Lincoln, and the reputation spread. In 1994, Magic Slim decided that he liked Lincoln so much that he permanently moved to the star city. He still plays at the Zoo Bar and is frequently accompanied by his son Shawn “Lil Slim” Holt on guitar.
“Whether it’s rock, jazz, folk or reggae—artists love the feel of a small venue with a real appreciation for music.” The long, narrow room doesn’t leave any space for a pinball machine or pool tables, but Zoo Bar fans say that the poster-lined, intimate interior makes for the perfect acoustics.
“Best show I ever saw at the Zoo Bar was Lucky Peterson,” said Zoo Bar patron Trevor Bassen, a Lincoln small business owner and dog trainer. “Hearing one of the modern masters play blues, soul, R&B, gospel and rock inside a tiny club here in Lincoln was awesome, and the general makeup of the people at the Zoo always contains some characters.”
In addition to friendly locals, visitors to the Zoo Bar will find live music every night and cold Nebraska-brewed beer on draft. Every Wednesday is “Hump day Wednesday,” featuring six o’clock shows, often with nationally known blues acts.
The national prominence of the surprisingly small club raises the question: Will the Zoo Bar expand?
“We had a sister club in Kansas City called the Grand Emporium, and expanded it, but it lost some of the vibe,” said Watters. “It’s hard making a go at it at this size as it is, and besides, musicians just love the atmosphere so much.”
The coming year boasts plenty of great shows, with an outdoor festival, Black Joe Louis and the Honey Bears, and the Royal Southern Brotherhood, who Watters said are his personal favorites.
“We’ve got some of the younger guys playing the blues and some of the guys doing it for thirty years,” said Watters. “Whether it’s our house band Monday night or an electric Chicago-style blues act—if live music’s your thing and you’re in Lincoln for the night, the Zoo’s the place to be.”