Upstairs couldn't have sounded or looked more different from downstairs — a reminder of the variety and scope of Omaha's wide-ranging music scene.
Late Sunday afternoon at the Sokol Auditorium just south of downtown, the 11-piece Jimmy B Orchestra played ballroom music. In the basement, meanwhile, heavy-metal bands made their sound checks for that night's concert in the Sokol Underground.
Upstairs, “Moonlight Serenade” and “Tennessee Waltz.” Downstairs, “Hook, Line and Sinner” and “1,000 Lies.”
Upstairs, long-ago youngsters with hair of white, dancing in formal style. Downstairs, young folks preparing to bounce around in mosh-pit style. Upstairs, coats and ties for the gents, dresses for the ladies. Downstairs, just about whatever you want to wear.
“Extreme opposites,” 20-year-old downstairs singer Alex Good said with a smile as he surveyed his elders dancing across the floor upstairs. “This is something you don't see at our gigs.”
The contrast Sunday at Sokol may have shown opposites, but there's a lot of Omaha music in between those poles. Last year, the website livability.com named Omaha the fifth-best live-music scene in the nation, not counting the iconic music centers of New York, Los Angeles and Nashville.
Each Thursday in The World-Herald's Go section, readers see a long list of live music performances — acoustic, alternative, blues, country, folk, funk, hip-hop, indie, jazz, oldies, reggae, rock, soul and on and on. Not to mention the symphony at the Holland Performing Arts Center and national acts at the CenturyLink Center and the Orpheum.
If you say there's nothing to do, you're just not looking.
Alex is the lead singer for a touring group called Texas in July, though the band is based in Pennsylvania. After we met in the Sokol Underground, I asked him to spend a few minutes topside, so to speak.
“I can't dance like that,” he said as he watched folks the ages of his grandparents or older. “It's wonderful. I do want to take a salsa-dance class.”
At a break, Jimmy B, last name Bochnicek, said the beauty of music is that its varied genres appeal to a wide range of tastes. He is 67 and recalled playing in country-western and rock bands in high school.
For years, though, he has been known for big-band and polka music. He plays drums and serves as genial host.
“I love playing here,” he said, dressed formally in black bow tie and tux and looking around the high-ceilinged Sokol Auditorium. “I love the classic chandelier and the acoustics. I love when we play a fanfare onstage and the curtain opens.”
Heavy metal isn't Jimmy's thing, and ballroom isn't for Alex. But these musicians separated by two generations both love what they do and respect the variety of music.
Alex and his band and crew travel in a 15-seat van. They had arrived in Omaha at 7 a.m. Sunday after driving all night from St. Louis. Tonight they play in Salt Lake City. They travel eight months a year.
Jimmy B recalls his own days on the road.
“I sympathize,” he said. “When I was doing polka in the '70s and '80s, we left on a Thursday to play three nights in Canada. We got home and then headed out for the following Wednesday and Thursday in Texas.”
Jimmy's longtime singer, Janet Staley, who also performs at Omaha jazz venues, started the program at 4 p.m. Sunday with an opening song. Before long, young people lined up outside on the sidewalk waiting to enter the Underground and enjoy music of a much different tenor and tone.
It was January in Omaha, but they looked forward to hearing Texas in July, along with headliner Woe is Me and a couple of other bands.
The low-ceilinged Underground formerly was a bowling alley. The building at 13th and Martha Streets dates to 1926, but the Czech-based Sokol fraternal organization has existed for more than 130 years in Omaha.
Sokol's credo is “a sound mind in a sound body,” and the organization has produced Olympic gymnasts. Gymnastics lessons are still given two nights a week.
Dan Rannels, the building's manager, said it's home for wedding receptions, theater, flea markets, conventions, private parties and more, including the Polka Hall of Fame. On Feb. 2, Sokol will host the 35th annual Groundhog Prom, with attendees wearing bizarre costumes in a hilarious sendup of Omaha's glitzy Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation and Ball.
The Underground has provided space for many young bands and their fans since 1997. In recent years, the Waiting Room Lounge in the Benson business district and Slowdown in north downtown also have booked lots of bands.
Saddle Creek Records is known nationally for its independent or indie-music “Omaha sound,” with Conor Oberst and such bands as The Faint, Cursive and Icky Blossoms.
The upstairs venue at Sokol isn't limited to older folks. Younger bands that draw big crowds play there, too. It's one part of a metro music scene that a national website rated one of the nation's best.
So many venues, so much live music. Upstairs, downstairs, all round the town.
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