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Rahulapalooza Omaha : Darden Smith


Living in Omaha, which is supposed to have a pretty strong underground music scene, has been musically disappointing. Either the scene is really quite far underground, or Omahans feel about their music the same way they feel about their food.

“Omaha has great restaurants! Omaha has more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the country!”

Quantity, my friends, does not equal quality. McDonald’s, Applebees, Chili’s, Village Inn… ugh. The exception, rather than the rule, is that Omaha has great restaurants. The good one’s are really quite good, and I’ll do a post of our favorite restaurants in the area at some point—probably some night when I come back frustrated from trying a new restaurant.

I feel the same way about the music. Again, maybe I just haven’t found it yet. Saddle Creek records is here, and they’ve got about a dozen artists/bands signed to their label—but it seems once you get signed you stop doing shows in Omaha and start playing elsewhere. Although listening to the sample tracks from their artists on their website, most of it isn’t my style anyway. Too much yelling. Ma, get me my cane!

This live music problem is compounded by the fact that musicians who I like very rarely pass through Omaha. Well, they may pass through, but they certainly don’t stop. There’s only been one show I’ve wanted to see since we’ve been here (and we’ve been here for a year and half now!), and unfortunately, I missed it.

So, I’ve taken it upon myself to bring good music to Omaha.

Arist the first: Darden Smith

Thursday night, a show that at times I thought was never going to happen, actually happened. I lost a chunk of change on the deal, was slightly embarassed at times, and quite frustrated at others, but when all was said and done (as it is now), I’m very glad the show came together.

Jeff and I used to throw house concerts in CA, but Jeff did most of the leg work. Jeff booked the act, paid for everything artist-related, communicated with all third parties. I MC’d and provided food and drink. He undoubtedly had the harder job.

Non-specific riders, over-specific, unreasonable riders, crappy microphones, double-booked performance spaces, poor communication, apathetic community…

A learning experience—but not one so painful that I don’t want to do it again.

As I was saying, this past Thursday night Darden Smith did a one hour set at the Reading Grounds in Omaha, NE. Matt Mason and Sarah McKinstry-Brown opened the show with thirty minutes of their fantastic, moving and thought-provoking poetry.

We had about 40 people in the audience–a far cry from the 60 I was hoping for, but better than the 20 or so it looked like we were going to have. A failing on my part was a lack of intensive marketing to get the word out. I think. It’s hard to tell, actually. I don’t know Omaha–I don’t know how knowledgable Omahans are about music. I think I’ll learn as I get a few more of these under my belt.

Large crowd or not, opening the show Darden remarked that the last time he did a show in Omaha it was with Chris Whitley and for an audience of 7. So in his book, this was a huge accomplishment. Darden is a very engaging performer. He elicits dialogue with the audience and seems to shape his show based on this dialogue. I love when an artist can make the audience feel as if this performance is a special performance for the performer. There’s a magic to music already, but for the magic to be a special kind of magic that you the audience member are a part of at this place and at this time, I think can make the magic longer-lasting, more memorable… more real. I think Darden is a sorcerer of this sort.

The set was seemed split about 50-50 between Sunflower (my favorite of his albums) and Field of Crows, his newest album.

A song I hadn’t heard before (and of which I wish I could find a recording), “Broken Branches”, was one of my favorites of the night. During his inter-song patter (another art he’s good at–and admittedly enjoys) he described the inspiration for the song. Stopped at a traffic light with his 3-year-old(?) in the back seat, his car was approached by stoplight a panhandler. As he described it, the panhandler broke the boundries of “polite” pan-handling and stretched his face nearly into the car. The man was dirty, threatening, fetid. Somewhat nervous about having this person near the car with his child in the back seat, Darden, uncertain as to what to say or do, heard brighly from the back seat his son call out “HI!” In that moment Darden noticed the homeless man’s face briefly change, revert back to a child-like state. It was reminder to him that this man is man, was part of a family, felt and feels the way the rest of us do.

In “Broken Branches” he sings of a pair of homeless people he sees on a street corner, mournfully referring to them as “broken branches from a family tree”. (I may be misquoting, it could be (broken branches from the family tree”.) A beautiful song.

To close out the night (and to sell more CDs, undoubtedly–shrewd this one), Darden unplugged the guitar, stepped away from the mic and did a fully acoustic version of the title track from “Field of Crows”. Came back and did a couple more songs as an encore…

The show turned out very nicely.

After the show Darden and I went to the bar next door and had a few drinks. Very interesting man… very happy man. It’s nice to meet artists content in their work. He’s been doing this for 20+ years now and has found a way to have fun with his work day after day. We talked about being artists, about politics, about Omaha, about the music industry… It was nice to spend a couple of hours with him; I hope to again.

His sense is that all Omaha needs is someone (like me, perhaps) to take some initiative and invite musicians to come out and do shows… Build a little momentum and word will spread. His opinion is that Omaha is located in a great place because just about anywhere you’re goin’ in the midwest you’re gonna pass through Omaha. If artists can do a show while en route to another it’ll be a great situation for everyone.

Hopefully by the time we leave Omaha we’ll turn Omaha into a destination for musicians instead of a way station.


  1. abi wrote:

    you know, you just have to know where to look, as with all things…13th street? great coffee. la bouvette in the old market? delicious food. the Taj? great indian food…Vietnamese-Asian has great, well, Vietnamese food..I could go on for awhile..

    Saturday, April 22, 2006 at 10:14 am | Permalink
  2. Mr. A wrote:

    First of all, thanks for writing. Second of all, how the hell did you find me?

    I agree that there is good food here–as I said in the post, there are some great ones (Vietnamese-Asian being one of my favorites). The Taj, in my opinion is only so-so. We do really enjoy La Casa, Zio’s, Dinker’s, Ellada (the Dundee Locations), Em’s, Mongolian Grill (in the Old Market) and a new Vietnamese place that opened up on Dodge near Home Run Pizza. Ahmad’s is good for lunch, but too expensive for what you get for dinner.

    But honestly, a few good restaurants doesn’t compare to San Francisco or Berkeley (nor would I expect it to) — and that’s what I’m crying about. I’m just kinda spoiled.

    There is a place we’re really interested in trying: Le Cafe de Paris. It’s supposed to be the highest rated restaurant in Omaha. Have you been?

    Are you currently in Omaha?

    Saturday, April 22, 2006 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

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