LINCOLN— On a Thursday night in late November, Chanty Stovall and a handful of other Lincoln musicians took the stage at the Zoo Bar, where they played a set made up entirely of French songs.
Throughout the night, various guest musicians — French-loving friends and friends of friends — joined them on stage for a song or two. Nearly every seat in the bar was taken.
Stovall's show was sort of an impromptu thing — a show that grew out of a performance at a coffee shop not long before. He got good response from the coffee shop show, so he asked a friend of his who works at the Zoo if he could play there, got the OK, rounded up some musicians and scheduled some practice times.
For Stovall, 36, a musician and barista at The Mill Coffeehouse in Lincoln's Haymarket, the show was sort of a fun experiment — he's a Francophile and liked the idea of a group music show.
For Lincoln, though, it was something different.
“I expected a pretty good crowd, but I was surprised with the turnout,” Stovall said.
He was surprised in part because the very same night, a Brazilian band was playing at a nearby downtown venue.
“I thought it was neat for there to be a Brazilian band and then a block away for there to be something else that was a little bit outside our speaking comfort zone,” he said.
Lincoln's entertainment options are diverse, said Todd Ogden, marketing director for the Downtown Lincoln Association.
Since 2010, 35 retailers have opened in the city's downtown and Haymarket districts. These include restaurants, boutiques, bars and galleries, he said.
The website Livability.com recently named Lincoln's downtown as one of the best in the United States (No. 7, to be exact). Livability cited the city's downtown bars, restaurants, music venues and boutiques, as well as its proximity to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, seasonal farmer's market, music festivals and soon-to-be-completed arena as reasons for the rank.
Those things definitely don't hurt, said Jeremy Buckley, 34, an independent promoter who books shows in both Lincoln and Omaha.
But Buckley also believes that Lincoln's size — big enough to support a variety of entertainment, but small enough that downtown business owners and revelers still know each other — plays a big role in its increasingly vibrant downtown.
“I don't know how much bigger it could be or smaller it could be and still have it work,” he said.
In Lincoln, most entertainment venues are within just a few blocks of each other — something that fosters relationships among bars, restaurants and galleries, as well as among people who like to go out.
“Because our nightlife culture is so centralized into one space, I think it's really easy to get to know each other, whether it be talking over the bar to the bartender, or seeing the same people at shows over a couple of months,” Buckley said.
Buckley has been a regular at many downtown establishments, particularly those that feature live music, since he was in college. In 2003, he founded the music festival Lincoln Calling, which the first year featured 25 bands playing at five different venues over a couple of days. The ninth annual show, held this fall, featured 120 bands and DJs at 10 venues over six days. It also drew 4,000 music fans to downtown — more than four times as many as the first Lincoln Calling.
Buckley was able to put the festival together in part because music venues downtown were willing to give a college kid with big ideas a chance.
He's seen that happen with other events, too.
“You have fashion shows, you have art exhibits, you have music events. It can be anything,” he said. “
It was with that kind of attitude that Jason Davis, 35, decided to move his screen-printing business, Screen Ink, downtown four years ago.
Prior to that, he had been in a larger space in a more industrial part of town. But Davis wanted to be someplace with more foot traffic and where he could use his space as more than just a print shop.
He turned the front part of his new location, 416 S. 11th St., into an art gallery, and he hosts art shows there each month. Many of his art shows revolve around a theme — two recent ones included bicycle art and cat art — and Davis designs coordinating T-shirts that he prints on-site during the opening reception the first Friday of each month. Other galleries throughout Lincoln, most of which are downtown, also host first Friday receptions, transforming downtown into essentially a giant gallery one night a month.
“I had just envisioned being a part of that,” Davis said. “I thought it could help my business, and I could also help the art community.”
Many businesses — boutiques, a few bars and coffee shops, a shoe store — are also staying open late and hosting art shows each first Friday, Ogden said.
“You want to get your name out there as a business,” he said, “but also to provide another outlet for artists.”
Like many downtowns, Lincoln's went through a rough patch in the 1970s and 1980s, as long-standing department stores closed and businesses followed. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw the beginnings or a resurgence, he said, which was fortunate to weather the recent recession. Now, the downtown seems to have come almost full circle.
“It's encouraging to see the core stay strong,” he said.
But it also continues to evolve, in ways both big and small.
The new arena will be completed soon, adding the occasional big musical act to the city's mostly indie and local music calendar.
And as long as there are venues willing to let them, people like Stovall will keep on experimenting with offbeat projects.
After a conversation with a bartender at Jake's Cigars and Spirits in Lincoln (not to be confused with the bar's Omaha location), Andrew Potratz, 30, and a friend started up an unconventional weekly pub quiz, which they write and host themselves. The sports category during a recent pub quiz was entirely dedicated to police mug shots of famous athletes. The week of Potratz's birthday, one category was dedicated to one of Potratz's favorite shows, “Saved by the Bell.” (The questions in that category were really hard, Potratz acknowledged, and not very many people got them right. But they were good sports about it.)
“It's pretty easy to get an idea into fruition just by suggesting something, you know,” Potratz said.
And in this case, it's been successful.
Part of that is because people in Lincoln know each other and thus support each other, Buckley said. He's stopped by the pub quiz a couple of times, just to see how it's going and to make sort of a public show of support.
“There are enough people here with creative minds that find their own niche,” Buckley said. “Together it creates this huge space of a lot of really fun different stuff going on.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1052, firstname.lastname@example.org