Tag Archives: music

Transitorily Yours

May 4, 2017 by
Photography by Amy Lynn Straub

Since we all know millennials are prone to nostalgia and the whole “Netflix’n’chill” bit, I recently watched the series The Get Down.

In the Netflix production, a couple of kids work their way through the economically famished world of New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Set amongst the cultural landscape that later was identified as the roots of hip-hop, the show is a brilliant representation of historical fiction. But unless you have a deep understanding of what was going on in that time period, you may have only picked up on half of the storyline. The stones that were dropped in America’s cultural pond during this era are still rippling all around us today. So let’s dive deeper into a few things.

In episode 3 of The Get Down, there was the citywide blackout. That actually happened. It was in the steamy summer of 1977 during the time of serial killer Son of Sam, when Times Square was filled with prostitutes and drug dealers—when the city was in the midst of bankruptcy and at any time, dozens of buildings were burning in the Bronx.

In the midst of this calamity, one night a flash of lighting caused all of NYC to erupt into darkness. Citizens switched on their reptilian brains and proceeded to vandalize and plunder. Interestingly enough, this is the very situation hip-hop needed.

Why? Before the blackout, only a handful of hip-hop DJs­—such as Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Jazzy Jay—resided in the Bronx. Mixers, turntables, and sound systems were cost-prohibitive. After the blackout, hundreds of new DJs and battle crews popped up across all five boroughs.

This unforeseen tipping point allowed hip-hop to spread throughout the city, and later to become a worldwide phenomenon.

Here’s another cue: In one episode, Jaden Smith’s character “Dizzee” discovered an underground disco club that was brimming with drag queens and Quaaludes.

TV critic Lisa Liebman speculated this scene was portraying David Mancuso’s The Loft and/or Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage.

Heard of these real-life nightclubs? Probably not. That’s because when we think of disco, we often think of Studio 54.

But the only reason why Studio 54 is relevant is because all the rich, famous, and mostly straight white folks went there. It’s the Paris Hilton of legendary nightclubs—famous for being famous. The “real” happened at spots like Nicky Siano’s Gallery, as well as the aforementioned Paradise Garage and Loft.

From alterations, to sound systems, to the founding of the first record pool, to turning unknown records into mega hits in a time when DJs determined what was played on the radio (as opposed to vice versa today), the legacy of these venues created the blueprint for modern nightclubs.

Heavily frequented by the gay, black, and Latino populations, these spots were pioneers of inclusivity. This was a time when being gay meant you often had to project a false image to your family, co-workers, and community.

Could you imagine what it would feel like to hide your identity on a daily basis? Imagine what it would feel like to be an LGBTQ person walking into a club for the first time, seeing like-minded people dancing with wild abandon, and then suddenly realizing you weren’t alone, and you could, perhaps, for the first time in your life, freely express yourself.

For more than a decade, my studies of this time period have been a big source of inspiration for the work I’ve done as a DJ, promoter, and club owner. While this era was set amongst dire economic poverty, it was incredibly rich with cultural breakthroughs—disco, hip hop, emceeing, breakdancing, graffiti, street art, Basquiat, Keith Haring, CBGB, post-punk, and the post-Stonewall sexual liberation movement.

Depending on who you ask, NYC was either a complete shit hole, or it was a totally unique creative and cultural utopia yet to be matched.

When taking that dichotomy into consideration, a larger lesson comes into focus about the role of the human condition. Simply put, struggle breeds the need to find an outlet. When society presents us with a problem, we often turn to culture for the solution. Creativity becomes a form of adaptation and escapism from the bleakness. This process is a beautiful call-and-response that pushes us beyond mediocrity, urging us to collectively create lasting legacies.

So now that we’ve re-contextualized a few things, I suggest you go even deeper and get on YouTube to watch VH1’s documentary NY77: The Coolest Year in Hell. Not only will it flip your perspective on life, but also give new dimension and relevance to The Get Down.

To share your life perspectives—or whatever—with Brent Crampton and Encounter, email millennials@omahapublications.com.

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

Required Listening

April 27, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For years, Chelsea Balzer and Matt Walker ran in the same circles, but somehow didn’t cross paths until Balzer joined the art performance group aetherplough in 2010 and was suddenly thrust into a musical relationship with Walker. Their undeniable compatibility was too much to ignore, and the duo soon formed their own outfit—Vital Organs—a band that fosters Walker’s unquenchable thirst for bold melodies and cinematic qualities, but is danceable at the same time. 

“Back in the day, I was exclusively into hard rock music,” Walker says. “In recent years, I had been dying to write something that made me want to dance.”

Balzer, on the other hand, gravitated toward country artists like Reba McEntire and early LeAnn Rimes because of her father, a loyal country music fan. 

“I would perform for our neighbors and their friends, which I think helped me develop that frontwoman identity from early on,” Balzer says. “But once I hit middle school, I was pretty into Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple, and then soon after I got into stuff like Nine Inch Nails, P.J. Harvey, and The Cure. I’ve always loved vocalists who are brave and provocative—from Christina Aguilera to Zach de la Rocha.” 

Fortunately, Vital Organs isn’t their first endeavor, as aetherplough thoroughly prepared them for what they would do in the future. The collective was built on collaborative creativity and taught them how to compromise.

“It always felt a little like we had no idea what we were doing at the beginning of a project,” Walker says. “As more people threw in their ideas and questions, it would start to take on a life of its own, and suddenly you’re rehearsing a full piece that you all helped bring into being. It was magical.

“I would say our whole philosophy for creating and collaborating is informed by that experience,” he continues. “aetherplough taught us to say, ‘Yes,’ to go all in, to be flexible, and also to listen to each other in a dasdrtist, and I’m so grateful to have been encouraged to play and explore in that community.”

“I personally feel that it taught me to think of all art and performance as ritual that has the power to change its players,” Balzer adds. 

Officially established in 2015, Vital Organs dove right in and pulled from Omaha’s rich musical community, including Make Believe Recordings’ CEO/engineer Rick Carson. The Grammy Award-nominated producer worked on the group’s debut album, The Hysterical Hunger, a decision they didn’t hesitate to make once they fully realized Carson’s “rare combination of expertise, intuition, and top-notch gear.” The album itself gave Balzer and Walker opportunities to explore feminist ideals and the theme of honoring inner desires. 

“We were both going through some real loss, and we needed to rediscover some kind of inner guidance toward true north,” Balzer explains. “For us, that feels like a hunger. We liked the idea of reclaiming the word ‘hysteria,’ which has previously been used as a weapon against women and as a form of gaslighting, but ultimately implies that emotion itself is untrustworthy and that giving yourself over to an experience is dangerous and even insane. We feel that this message is really prevalent in society today and continues to cause harm. We wanted the album to be a way of proclaiming to ourselves and others that we are taking the leap and giving in to that hunger.” 

Drawn to synthesizers and soaring melodies, Vital Organs is actively honing in on its distinctive sound. However, they’re admittedly still trying to figure out how to navigate the rough waters as an indie band. 

“It’s a lot of work and also a lot of head-scratching,” Walker says. “We have been both discouraged and really honored by the process of getting our work ‘out there.’ Some aspects of it are much harder than we anticipated, and yet there are these people who seem to appear from thin air and develop this relationship with your music, and really want to help you succeed. That has been a beautiful experience.”

Vital Organs plans on hitting the road this summer, despite Balzer being in grad school in Boston and Walker busy working at Omaha Children’s Museum. They managed to carve out a few weeks to play some new cities and share the bill with other bands. 

“We know that the music will always mean something different to us than it means to others,” Walker says. “Every song reflects a time in our lives and a message we felt we needed to express. At the same time, we hear the songs and sort of forget that we wrote them. There is a kind of energetic release that comes from finishing songs and letting them exist in the world. It feels simultaneously intimate and mysterious.” 

facebook.com/vitalorgansband

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

 

Pitch Poet

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

She sets up on a bustling Old Market corner. The footpaths jostle with tourists and locals doing their weekend shopping, dining,
and sightseeing.

Jocelyn Muhammad pulls the acoustic guitar slung over her back then slowly strums a chord that rings throughout the heart of the old-timey business district.

She massages sweet melodies from her guitar, but it’s not until the baby-faced, curly-haired 19-year-old songstress adds her silvery vocals that passersby stop to admire her. No one could escape her charm.

“I want to feel the breeze through my hair, through my hair,” she sings. “I want to go somewhere. I want to be someone. I want to fall in love just like everybody else.”

Muhammad’s voice flows freely at her top notes, pleasantly vibrating eardrums. She’s a showstopper—and a guitar-wielding poet of sorts.

A young musician relatively new to Omaha’s music scene, Muhammad’s voice has a textured, lived-in quality. Perhaps that’s her appeal. Caught off guard, spectators pause to hear her old-soul poetic lyrics and heart-on-her-sleeve folkie romantic songs, which are totally unexpected from such a young, jovial person.

Muhammad is a promising singer-songwriter who has already attracted an incredibly large social media following and the attention of the music industry.

A live, buzzworthy video snippet of her song “Just Like Everybody Else” recently went viral to the tune of almost 5 million plays on YouTube, even before the studio version was released in November. The 23-second clip, filmed on a few cellphone cameras, features Muhammad belting out the chorus of her song.

Taken aback, she was surprised her song reached people from as far away as Russia. It was a humbling experience, says the recent Millard South graduate. In fact, one fan wrote a song in
honor of her.

Songwriting is such an intimate practice and the truest form of flattery, she says. “It’s the idea of singing a song that you wrote about someone. The way they make you feel. And you get to put it to a melody and add words.”

Social-media savvy Muhammad stays connected with her fans through her music blog (jocelynmusic.com), YouTube, Snapchat, and Twitter. She documents her musical journey, taking fans along the quirky moments in studio sessions to interviews with the media.

Aside from hearing her from-the-heart work on Old Market street corners, fans catch her at open mic nights around town. She sings a mix of original melodies and covers about love and loss, loneliness and desperation, and pleas to find her soul mate. Under her musical belt, per se, she’s performed at open mic sessions at the legendary Whisky a Go Go in L.A. and the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. She plans to return to L.A. this summer to finish piecing together her first record.

Muhammad got her music start at age 14. Though she participated in school choir, her happenstance of guitar picking came later when she rescued a black Indiana acoustic guitar dubbed “Black Bastard” from the flames of a friend’s bonfire.

She took it home and cleaned it up. She studied her favorite British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran’s likes and dislikes. His musical preferences and tendencies influenced her own.

A friend taught her the fundamentals of guitar strumming—how to play a G on Cadd9 chord. Two weeks later, she wrote her first song, “Burn It Down.”

She couldn’t bottle up her newfound love for songwriting and guitar playing. So, she packed up her guitar and headed for the Old Market.

A few months later, she says she was introduced to Aly Peeler, who, at the time, was in charge of an open mic night for the then-Side Door lounge. Soon after, she met her current manager, Jeff McClain of Midlands Music Group, who offered her a placement in the group’s free mentoring program for budding musicians.

Muhammad is grateful that she has Peeler and McClain as soundboards to help her polish her melodies and lyrics. Still honing her skills, she says she owes Peeler and McClain for helping develop her talent through many lessons and repetitive exercises, which prepared her to perform live.

“I’m not going to let a melody be just a melody,” she says. “It has to be the right one. I’m practicing constantly…working to get better.”

When she’s performing on stage, Muhammad says, “It’s just me. It’s just me there, singing to you. There’s nothing else … no one else. Just me and you. And, I’m singing.”

Muhammad has been nominated three times for Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards’ best singer-songwriter, but has yet to take home the hardware.

“I’m, like, the youngest artist there…so that’s really cool,” she says. “I’m still working on winning though. I’ll get there someday, but it’s cool just to be nominated.” 

jocelynmusic.com

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

Mr. & Mrs. Fink

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The evolution of CLOSENESS was quite literally a matter of the heart—not in a cheesy, romantic musing type of way, but the actual blood-pumping, life-sustaining muscular organ. Husband-wife duo Orenda Fink (Azure Ray) and Todd Fink (The Faint) are the masterminds behind the electro-dream-pop project. The couple say they always wanted to merge musical styles, but they could never quite find the time. Todd was touring in support of The Faint’s last album, Doom Abuse, and Orenda was involved in her solo work. As fate would have it, a frightening medical emergency involving Orenda’s heart temporarily brought everything to a screeching halt. In November 2015, she went under the knife to repair a birth defect that was
originally misdiagnosed.

“I had it my whole life, but never knew how dangerous it was,” Orenda admits. “They couldn’t believe I was still alive [laughs]. With my condition, I had a bunch of extra electrical pathways on my heart that were not supposed to be there. They had to get rid of them.”

“We realized there was no better time to do this,” Todd adds. “If we were going to do it, we had to do it now. After her surgery, everything became more urgent.”

Todd and Orenda have been a unit for more than 15 years, and it just so happens both are incredibly talented musicians in their own right. It was because of this shared love and compassion for one another that Orenda finally took her arrhythmia seriously. 

“I’ve had episodes my whole life,” she says. “A couple of weeks before I was diagnosed, my heart went into an abnormal rhythm. Normally, it would kick back in, but this time it just stayed. I was just so used to it that I was traveling, smoking cigarettes, hanging out with friends—but Todd was like, ‘Um, you need to go to the doctor immediately [laughs].’”

Orenda flew back to Omaha and went straight to the doctor. Two-and-a-half weeks later, the Georgia native was having heart surgery, which was the first time she’d ever had any kind of surgical procedure. What was supposed to be a three-hour event turned into 12 hours, but thankfully she pulled through. 

“Your heart is such an immediate thing—it has to be going,” she says with a hint of sarcasm. “It made us kind of realize how precious and fragile life is, I guess.” 

Back at home, she sunk into a depression, which can be common for heart patients. 

“When you are faced with your own mortality so intensely, you get depressed,” she says. 

Still recuperating in sweatpants and socks, CLOSENESS took its initial steps and Orenda quickly found solace in making music with her husband. 

“We started the band almost immediately,” she says. “It was cathartic. Something about that experience [surgery] made me realize now there were no more excuses not to do it.” 

On March 10, CLOSENESS unveiled its debut EP, Personality Therapy, and had its album release party later that night at Omaha’s beloved hole-in-the wall O’Leaver’s, where Todd and Orenda played to a packed house. Naturally, the Omaha music community came out in droves to support one of their own. Shortly after, the duo hit the road for Austin’s annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival and continued their road trip to New York City, something they’ve wanted to do for years. 

“We’re looking to tour as much as possible,” Todd explains. “It’s part of why we wanted to do a band with just the two of us—to be able to make kind of, like, a vacation out of it, where it’s just the two of us together, and we’re able to drive around in our car. It’s not like working. We don’t have to be away from each other to do what we’re doing. I am really looking forward to that aspect.” 

While traveling with other people has its merits, it also has its challenges. Oftentimes, the vastly different personalities can throw a wrench in the process, but for the Finks, it makes more sense. 

“We’ve been together for so long that our tastes have melded,” she says. “From what we like to do to where we like to eat—we just know each other. That’s one of the hardest parts about being on the road with other people—always having to compromise. This seems like a dream scenario.” 

Being a quintessential “rock-star couple,” however, didn’t always come easy. In the beginning, like all relationships, there were some hiccups, but it was nothing they couldn’t work through. 

“He got in trouble in the beginning years,” she jokes. “Not like cheating or anything, but figuring out what a married man can do—like he couldn’t go skinny-dipping with girls on tour anymore [laughs].”

“I thought the ocean was huge [laughs],” he replies. “You don’t get a manual when you get married. You don’t know exactly where the line is.” 

One big lesson they learned, however, is to not get caught up in the minutiae of everyday life. 

“Pick your battles,” Orenda says. “You have to keep the greatest good of the relationship as the highest priority. Everyone slips on that in any relationship. If you’re in a really intense working relationship together, you’re going to have friction. It’s figuring out how to deal with that friction. You want the outcome to be forgiveness and loving each other. If you slip up, remember that’s the ultimate goal.” 

“Winning an argument really isn’t worth anything,” Todd adds. “The goal isn’t to win. It’s to get back to a place of love.”

facebook.com/closenessmusic

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

The Evolution 
of Pop Music

April 15, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Admittedly, 34-year-old Omaha native Jonathan Tvrdik doesn’t sleep much. Between co-owning Benson’s Krug Park, working as a consultant for his wife Sarah Lorsung Tvrdik’s business Hello Holiday, being a father to 2-year-old son Hugo, directing music videos and commercials, making music, and holding down a day job as both the executive creative director at Phenomblue and head of product design at Rova, there’s not a lot of room for much else. It’s a path he can trace back to childhood.

“When I was a little kid, I played by myself and was always building things,” Tvrdik recalls. “I’m an adult version of that kid who is constantly making new project—like a band, bar, new app, or music video. I’ve always been a goal-oriented person with lots of irons in the fire.”

Ironically, that’s where the inspiration behind the name of Tvrdik’s upcoming solo album came from. Titled Irons, it’s a project over two years in the making and one that took careful crafting with the help of longtime friend and drummer for The Faint Clark Baechle. Busting at the seams with heavy themes of introspection and emotional growth, Irons illustrates a tumultuous period in Tvrdik’s life.

“For better or for worse, that’s where I’ve always been—busy,” he says. “I don’t even know what that has created in me—like who am I as a person? I’ve always been a workhorse, but who am I really? Each song dissects a different thing I am doing or interested in, or a certain vice I have as a result of all the stuff I am working with. It’s a very self-analytical sort of record.”

Beginning with “Something Better” and culminating with “Star Stick,” the 11-track album is like Joy Division meets The Faint, or as Tvrdik describes it, “Frank Sinatra on top of electronica-goth.” It was a true labor of love and Tvrdik really trusted Baechle’s expertise. Some tracks he thought were polished and ready to go; Baechle would hear them and mistakingly refer to them as “demos.” It took the experience of his fine-tuned ear to sew up any loose ends.

“We’ve made a lot music together over the years from a musician and engineer standpoint,” Tvrdik explains. “For this one, we started working through the process of what it was going to look like. I always knew when I was done mixing and recording it on my own, I would take it to him to refine. My producorial technique is very raw. For songs I thought were done and perfect, Clark would be like, ‘I got your demos’ [laughs]. I’m very right brained and he’s very left. I wanted his brain to go through it with a fine-toothed comb and nit pick the hell out of it, which he did. I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.”

Although Tvrdik’s music background goes back to The Cog Factory days, where Omaha staples like Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, Cursive’s Tim Kasher, and The Faint’s Todd Fink (Baechle’s older brother) got their start in the early ’90s, naturally he’s experienced plenty of evolutionary changes in terms of his musical output. At one point, he was in a hardcore band, and later a noise-based outfit. While he felt he was still emotionally expressive in all of them, it’s with the forthcoming Irons he felt he was truly able to effectively communicate to the listener exactly what he was experiencing.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

Ren
ais
sance 
Man

April 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A boozy brunch between girlfriends, a meeting of coworkers over coffee, a couple splitting a glass   of wine—conversations captured around the city, all serve as fodder and inspiration for Brion Poloncic’s work. In the quiet corners of Omaha’s local coffee shops and wine bars, Poloncic puts pen to paper, his ear tuned into the surrounding babble, creating art that he feels represents those around him and the experiences they discuss.

But don’t expect a still life of women gossiping between sips of their Venti mochas. As a visual artist, author, and former musician, Poloncic is a man of many hats but always remains a creator of thought-provoking and idiosyncratic work that paints middle America in a psychedelic wash.

“I’ve always fancied myself an artist,” Poloncic says. “My art is an affirmation of my peculiar skill set, and it just so happens to make me happy. It’s my own blend of therapy.”

It was through chance that Poloncic was first bitten by the creative bug. After he didn’t make the baseball team, he traded mitts for guitars and started writing music. A fan of everyone from Pink Floyd to Johnny Cash, he parlayed his early love for listening to his parent’s records into seven albums, all released under the moniker “A Tomato A Day (helps keep the tornado away).” A prolific songwriter, his discography is filled with character and colorful song titles, including ditties like “You Little Shit” and “Weirdo Park.”

For Poloncic, music wasn’t enough. He needed to sink his teeth into his next artistic outlet. So when a friend needed help setting up an Iowa art studio, he asked Polonic to draw pieces that illustrated his career. With no formal training or experience, unless coloring backpacks with magic markers counts, he dove in.

Two years later, Poloncic sold his first piece at a gallery in Lincoln. He has also shown work in Omaha and Kansas City and has a collection represented at Gallery 72, all those diploma-yielding pros be damned.

“My art isn’t constrained by my knowledge or training, and I think this makes me naturally less critical of my work,” Poloncic says.

Filled with abstract shapes, haunting faces, and stark use of color, his off-kilter yet original drawings mirror the tone of his written work. Through The Journal of Experimental Fiction, he published his first book Xanthous Mermaid Mechanics in 2012, following this up in 2014 with his second printed work On the Shoulders of Madmen. Both explored concepts of the subconscious mind, and the novel he is currently working on will follow suit.

“I’ll be surprised if anyone can read it,” Poloncic says. “It’s got no characters, no story arc, and isn’t about anything in particular.”

And he admits this is his niche, comparing his art to improvisational jazz or free-style rap where “things just happen.” For whatever he’s working on, he says the hardest part is just getting started. Once that happens, everything else just falls into place, and if he can’t get over a block, he always has another craft to turn to.

“If I stumble off the creative wagon with drawing, I get back on with writing and vice versa,” Poloncic says. “As you work on one, the other comes right along with it.”

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

The Best Is Yet to Come

April 5, 2017 by

Wow! A city of “Bests!”

Omaha is filled with so many amazing businesses, innovators, artists, entrepreneurs, vendors, doctors, venues, restaurants, and… well you name the category. The “Bests.” They make us proud to be from Omaha.

And yet, how many times have you been on a trip to some exotic locale like Bora Bora, Paris, Costa Rica, Portland, or even Lubbock, and upon being asked where you’re from, you’ve mumbled, “Omaha,” furtively, under your breath?

Despite the fact that our hometown boasts a 6-foot-tall bronze statue of Chef Boyardee, and the archetypical power of our name emblazoned on the Wizard of Oz’s escape balloon, we feel shy about claiming our place as one of the best places on earth.

Admit it. We’ve always had a bit of an inferiority complex about where we’re from—where we live. But, why? Well, I suspect that bit of shame might be rooted in the lyrics of an old song that described this town of ours back in the early days:

“Hast ever been in Omaha,
Where rolls the dark Missouri down,
And four strong horses scarce can draw
An empty wagon through the town?
Where sand is blown from every mound
To fill the eyes and ears and throat?
Where all the steamers are aground
And all the shanties are afloat?
Where whisky shops the livelong night
Are vending out their poison juice;
Where men are often very tight,
And women deemed a trifle loose?”

Hardly a “New York, New York” or “April in Paris,” that’s for sure. The lyrics are no match for “Bombay Se Gayi Poona,” either.

We started with a pretty brutal musical self-image. Maybe this nagging sense of “less than” is rooted in the dearth of good tunes about our fair city.

Groucho Marx tried to lift our spirits with a ditty that included, “There’s a place called Omaha, Nebraska, in the foothills of Tennessee.” The geographical illiteracy, however, negated any positive image building.

Stan Freberg didn’t help with his musical Omaha! that included lyrics like; “Who me? Miss the weenie roast in Omaha?” and “Omaha moon keep shining. You shone on Council Bluffs last June. Leaving Dundee lovers pining. Please remember you’re an Omaha moon.”

Nobel Prize winner Robert Allen Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan) sang, “I’m going to ride into Omaha on a horse. Out to the country club and the golf course,” in 1964—no comfort there.

Psychedelic ensemble Moby Grape did us no favors with their 1968 single, “Omaha,” which didn’t mention Omaha even once beyond the title.

Bob Seger sang about “A long and lonesome highway east of Omaha” in his paean to touring as a rock star but he never mentioned actually coming into town while he was in the neighborhood. So, thanks a lot, Bob.

We did hit it big in 1973 when Grand Funk Railroad sang about “four young chiquitas in Omaha,” in their No. 1 hit “We’re an American Band.” The problem was, Little Rock got top billing in the verses, and, after the chorus we ended up getting a hotel torn down.

So here’s the deal, we need an Omaha anthem. A song with the Omaha equivalent of “little cable cars,” and some parallel to “that toddling town.” We need to be where “little town shoes” are headed. Omaha needs a “Best Song About Omaha” winner next year. We need to patch up the psychic scars we’ve borne for all these many years.

It won’t be easy. Others have tried and failed. I’m counting on you, we all are.

Do you have an anthem for Omaha? E-mail a video of your song to Omaha Magazine at editor@omahamagazine.com to be considered for prizes.

This article was printed in Omaha Magazine’s 2017 Best of Omaha” issue.

Sexy & Slow

March 31, 2017 by
Photography by Keith Binder

Is it terrible the pain in Peedi Rothsteen’s voice is musically satisfying?

His honest mix of pleasure and vulnerability blended over incredibly sexy slow jams makes your knees buckle.

Rothsteen knew he was tapping a vein when he emerged on Omaha’s music scene nearly two years ago with a brand new sound unlike any of his other rhythm and blues projects.

Many may know him as lead singer to Voodoo Method or “P. Minor,” a local R&B artist and former radio personality, but he’s since evolved from typical masculine crooning. His delicate vocals now have depth. Musical grit, if you will. And, ultimately, rock influenced his creative trajectory.

Watching the evolution of Rothsteen has been quite entrancing. A lyrical twist intrinsically influenced only by time and experiences.

Music is second nature to the Chicago-born singer, who played trumpet and French horn as a child. He sang for his high school and church choirs. In fact, he got his start as a scrawny 7-year-old who took his church talent show stage in an oversized suit, patent leather shoes,  and a skinny black tie belting out Bobby Brown’s “Roni.”

Music was a persistent influence in his early years, but he stepped into his own in 2006 while working at Omaha’s hip-hop radio station Hot 107.7 FM.

P. Minor became a local R&B crooner who opened for some of the early 2000s’ hottest hip-hop musicians, including Donell Jones, Ciara, Akon, Ludacris, Ying Yang Twins, and Yung Joc. At the time, his single “Can I” was one of the most requested songs at the radio station. He garnered radio play outside Nebraska. His song “Keys to the Club” played in Arkansas, Missouri, and Minnesota.

Omaha’s R&B scene still is relatively small. Only a handful of soulful singers have landed regular gigs or made successful albums. He was tired of being stuck in a genre filled with repetitive melodies and predictable style. So he tried his hand at a new genre: rock.

“I liked the energy of rock music,” he says.

Minor was introduced to a couple of guys who were putting together a band. After a few jam sessions in 2007, the group formed Voodoo Method. With that band he toured and learned more about music than he’d ever imagine.

Voodoo Method featured an unexpectedly good combination of punch riffs, accurate lyrics being soulfully delivered by Minor, who almost always sported a tuxedo shirt and bow tie.

In the eight years performing with the band, his songwriting, voice, and look changed. He stepped into his own distinctive, expressive style. It was multi-dimensional.

“In rock, you have to be ready to take it up another level,” he says. “You have to be able to get out of your level. You have to be a magnetic frontman and push your vocals. And, without being in a band, I wouldn’t … my sound wouldn’t have developed that way.”

Voodoo Method is still around.  “We’re taking our time writing and just exploring music,” Minor explains.

But he got the bug for R&B music again.

“I wasn’t trying to get out or push anything, just exorcise my own demons,” he says.

He knocked the rust off and started producing again.

“What if I take what I’ve learned with the band and some of those experiences and move them over with R&B,” he ponders. “I might have success.”

All the while, he was producing a podcast and doing audio production.

“I wanted to create something new.”

He quietly started making R&B music again, he says. “A few songs here and there and then it started to feel good.”

So, here he is: a promising, ambitious, and talented songwriter and musician with one foot in rock, and the other in soul. This musical metamorphosis brought him to create his stage
persona, “Peedi Rothsteen.”

“Peedi” is a family nickname that stuck and Rothsteen is homage to Sam “Ace” Rothstein of Martin Scorsese’s brilliant and brutal 1995 film Casino.

Ace’s claim to fame is being an excellent gambler, he says. The way he approached the game. He knew all the ins and outs to gambling and could pick a winner.

“That the way I feel about music,” he says. “I know a song, what it needs. I know how to pick a winner. That to me, it’s symbolic.”

Hence, the brilliantly collaborative Peedi Rothsteen.

“There aren’t many things I can do great,” he adds. “Music is one. I work really hard, too. What comes out in the end is something people can enjoy.”

In 2015, Rothsteen released his debut EP Moments Before,  a five-song compilation of incredibly soulful lyrics. The music scene took notice. That same year, Rothsteen took home the Best New Artist award at the 2015 Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards.

Exactly a year to the date, Rothsteen released Moments During, a five-track EP follow-up. The songs are full of foot-stomping grooves and fiery grooves vocals. Two songs to wrap your nodding noggin’ around are “Righteous Giant” and “Clap.” Rothsteen hopes to continue his music collection by releasing Moments After this summer–same June 11 date, of course.

His audience is just as diverse. Young. Old. Black. White. Metal. Soft rock.

“I don’t want to be just one thing,” Rothsteen says.

“In rock, you can go anywhere you want,” he says. “Good music will never be bad. It doesn’t matter how you box it up, how you deliver it.”

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Encounter.

Revamped Radio

March 18, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When the band Train came to Omaha’s Baxter Arena for a concert in December 2016, there were plenty of flashing lights and excited fans. “But when the lights go out and the audience starts screaming, there’s no rush like it in the world,” says Andy Ruback, general manager of NRG Media. Ruback knows a great deal about screaming fans—when a big concert comes to town the likelihood is that Ruback had his hand in the planning. His role as general manager has evolved over the years from managing radio stations to include managing events brought to town by NRG Media Live.

The business is a natural fit for NRG, which owns stations ranging from Power 106.9 to 1290 KOIL. The company was looking to the future for broadcasting and leaning toward live shows as a way to increase profitability. NRG used their strengths in connecting people to music to expand into the business of concert production. With the radio stations’ on-air talent knowing their listeners’ preferences, the media company naturally knew what acts had potential to bring in revenue, and which ones might not.

Ruback came to Omaha from Lincoln, where he served as general manager for their NRG stations. Upon his arrival at the NRG offices in Omaha in 2012, Ruback went full speed ahead. He says the intention was never to focus on live shows over radio shows; rather, he called his plans a method for “diversifying for growth.”

Concert production is a challenge that Ruback gladly accepted, but in it, found unique bumps in the road. Some of those bumps included special requirements, such as permits, that needed the legal team’s help. Shock rocker Alice Cooper, for example, required the team to acquire special insurance because of the pyrotechnics involved with his show. Ruback and his team figured out how to get the right insurance, and now know who to ask the next time someone wants to light up fireworks onstage.

Ruback says some of the more surprising challenges he and his team have faced come from smaller, more routine details.

“I would say it’s more about the crowd experience logistics,” Ruback says. “How do we try to work with the arenas to make sure there’s enough concessions on the floor? What should be the entry ticket price? What should be the price for the front row?”

Logistics is the simplest description for the business of producing concerts. Is the specific artist available at the time? Is there enough interest in this artist to fill the seats? Is a venue available on the day needed?

“We could have the great idea, and the right price, but there could be a UNO hockey game and a Lancers game on the night we want, and we’re out of luck,” Ruback says.

It is a revenue stream in which many community businesses desire to participate, and there are many ways for them to participate, including attaching their name to experiences such as meet-and-greets with the band before or after the show, and attaching their name to souvenirs. Attendees at the Train concert, for example, vied for flashing bracelets and cups branded with a sponsor’s logo. Signage prominently displayed throughout Baxter Arena featured sponsor logos.

The scenario is beneficial to everyone involved: the band gets to play to a well-attended venue, the fans get to enjoy the band, and the sponsors get to present their message in an effective way.

“On that day, no other media group is producing a concert,” Ruback says. “So you’re looking at content that advertisers want to be a part of, but no other client can do.”

The diversification proved wildly successful. Ruback says that since 2014, more than 100,000 people have attended an NRG Media Live event. Associate athletic director for University of Nebraska at Omaha Mike Kemp enjoys his business dealings with NRG Media Live and says that when Ruback puts on a concert at Baxter Arena “… it’s not just a concert—it’s an event. He has great vision and ideas and that’s the true charm of what he does.”

“I think NRG Media does a great job of engaging the community to get behind the events,” adds Kemp. NRG Media has the ability to promote coming shows using the radio stations on their roster and their strong social media presence. This equals solid attendance numbers at concerts and happy sponsors.

“Andy’s full of energy and great ideas,” Kemp says of Ruback. “He’s an honest guy with great enthusiasm for what he does.” Rubak’s vision has evolved NRG Media into much more than an organization simply running local radio stations. In fact, the next time there is a popular concert in town, there is an excellent chance that Ruback can be found there, smiling and enjoying the rush.

Visit nrgmedia.com for more information.

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.

Orchestrated by God, Encouraged by Parents

March 12, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

At his first public concert, a benefit for disabled children in Ecuador, Washington Garcia realized that he was put on Earth to serve others through music. “It was a revealing moment,” Garcia says.

He was only 7 years old.

The next enlightening moment came when he was 10. He played and won his first national competition. The boy realized that he could earn money playing the piano.

Every step along his career has involved meeting the right people who could help at the right time. It’s something he and his parents believe God has orchestrated, placing him on a path that enables him to serve and give to a new generation of young artists.

That path led to Omaha in 2016. Today, the former child prodigy from Ecuador is the director of the School of Music at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

He started down his musical path at an early age, reaching for the piano as an infant and trying to recreate music before he was in school. “It was natural when we were little, my parents wanted us to be involved in music,” Garcia says.

At age 4, he tagged along with his 6-year-old sister to the music conservatory. By the end of the school year, his sister’s teacher contacted Garcia’s mother, Miryam Eljuri, and told her that he was a prodigy.

Miryam knew at that moment Garcia’s wish to play music was something the family had to support.

“Washington’s success was achieved as a team,” Miryam says through her son’s translation. It was Miryam who helped him apply for the Kennedy Center cultural exchange program in his teens, Miryam who lined up an airline sponsorship to fly her son around the world for his concerts.

Garcia’s father, also named Washington Garcia and one of the most respected neurosurgeons in Ecuador, helped as well, driving his son to classes and guiding him to become a responsible young man.

At age 18, Garcia simultaneously graduated high school and college, earning a Bachelor of Music from the National Conservatory of Music in Ecuador. By then, he’d played with the national symphony and performed for a former Chilean president. He’d won first prizes at the Guillermo Wright-Vallarino National Piano Competition in Quito, the Elizabeth Davis Memorial Piano Competition and the 19th International Young Artist Piano Competition in Washington, D.C., the 2004 Baltimore Music Club Piano Competition, and the Harrison Winter Piano Competition.

Garcia was accepted into the Kennedy Center cultural exchange program, earning a $25,000 fellowship to help cover his master’s studies at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. He graduated at age 20, returning later to complete a doctorate. At 25, Garcia became the youngest Latin American pianist to have ever earned a doctorate performance degree from the university.

Throughout his studies, he cultivated an impressive international concert portfolio, which up to that point, included performances and lectures in Asia and Europe. His desire to continue playing while helping students led him to a career in education. He taught seventh and eighth graders in Baltimore before taking his calling to a higher level.

Garcia became an assistant professor of piano at Texas State University. In nine years, he rose in rank to become the appointed chair of the keyboard area and then the assistant director. It was a dream position, allowing him to work with more people, fundraise, build relationships internationally, and play music. He knew his next step in life was to become a director of a music school.

He was hired at UNO in January 2016.

His career path has taken him around the world, and so, his choice to reside in Omaha has puzzled some people. He tells them that he fell in love with the friendliness of the city and the culture of the school on his first visit.

“The faculty at the school of music was so talented and so collegial that I fell in love with them,” Garcia says. “We have one of the best faculty in Nebraska. It’s a collaborative faculty, and this is huge, because it doesn’t matter how good you are if you cannot collaborate with others.”

Already, Garcia has helped establish an international concert series at the school. In the next year, he hopes to begin renovating UNO facilities, including adding another concert hall; start a radio broadcast program to showcase students; and increase community engagement with other organizations.

The School of Music already has a student recital series at First Christian Church and, in the fall, will begin another one at Gallery 1516. At the end of March, the school will be among many cultural institutions performing at the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping and FEI World Cup Dressage Finals at the CenturyLink Center. In 2019, he hopes to launch an international music festival in Omaha.

“My goal is to continue to establish Omaha as one of the most important cultural and academic destinations in the U.S.,” Garcia says.

It’s an exciting time at UNO, according to Garcia. And it’s exciting for his family. While visiting over Christmas to see Garcia and his wife’s newborn son, Garcia’s parents spoke about their son’s career.

“Obviously, he came here with a clear mission and vision from God,” Garcia’s father says. “I know that he is going to fulfill his mission here in Omaha.”

Garcia will debut with the Omaha Symphony Orchestra Oct. 8 at Joslyn Art Museum. He will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466 under the baton of maestro Thomas Wilkins. Visit washingtongarcia.com for more information.

From left: Miryam Eljuri, Washington A. Garcia, and Washington H. Garcia

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.