BEST FORMER ROCK & ROLLER LIVING MORE OR LESS QUIETLY IN IOWA CITY: Pete Balestrieri
Pete Balestrieri was a mainstay of the rotating assembly of musicians known as the Horns of Dilemma, who the Violent Femmes used to add a generous portion of crazy to their live shows, and he appears on several of their albums. He moved to Iowa City when his wife took a position at the University.
Since moving here, Pete has been a valued contributor to several local bands, including the Kickass Tarantulas and the Miracles of God. He is currently performing in the saxaphone trio Crackety Sax, who memorably opened up for Will Whitmore recently, later joining Will on stage. Crackety Sax plays their own arrangements of songs by Moondog, Cab Calloway, and many others.
Pete’s a mostly self taught saxaphonist, whose playing style encompasses both the gutbucket honking of 50s Rhythm and Blues and free jazz scronk of Archie Shepp. And yet, Pete will tell you he’s definitely not a jazz musician — whether he’s wailing freestyle over the sludge-punk noise of the Kickass Tarantulas, or adding in-the-pocket color to Sam Locke Ward’s recent solo album, his playing is deeply rooted in the American pop tradition. And he knows every corny pop song from the 20th Century and can toss them off a lyrical, florid vibrato straight out of Coleman Hawkins.
BEST LIVE VENUE: 3 Way Tie: The Mill, The Picador, and The Yacht Club
Oh sweet Jebus don’t make me choose between these. Just thank your lucky stars that 3 such venerable venues all co-exist within a 3 block radius in Downtown Iowa City.
The Picador — which us old-timers have a hard time remembering that it’s no longer called Gabe’s — has a great sound system, friendly bartenders, and that filthy, uncleanable concrete slab of a floor that’s soaked up countless hogsheads of spilled bear over the years. It is a bit of living history — what other venue has hosted so many famous musicians, both on the way up and the way down? What other venue regularly hosts militantly uncommercial experimental bands, without a hint of turtlenecked, chinstroking pretension?
The Mill is another historic venue, albeit a quieter, more comfortable one. Anyone who is anyone in folk music has played the Mill going back to the 1960s. Under new ownership for the past few years since Keith Dempster’s retirement, it is slated to be torn down soon, so soak up that dark-gravy-shellaced ambience while you can. Booking has recently been taken over by Sam Locke Ward, so be sure to show up, order a pizza and check out a more eclectic live calendar that still incorporates old favorites.
The Yacht Club was resurrected by Scott Kading after several years of indifferent tenancy, to bring back the incredible vibe he experienced as an Iowa Student in the late 1980s. This place is a labor of love, from the multi-year legal battles with the City of Iowa City, to the surprisingly comfortable wrap around oak benches. I personally have washed those benches down those with Murphy’s Oil Soap, back when we briefly ran a mildly illegal after-hours there before Scott was able to make peace with the City.
The Yacht Club is hands down my favorite live room in Iowa City. In a basement rumored to have been the embalming room for the Funeral Home that used to occupy the building, it seems to be perfectly sized for intimate shows with full, crystal clear sound. I’m not always as attracted to the booking line-up as I am the other clubs mentioned above, but that’s a matter of personal taste. My own perverse, twisted musical taste. But if you live in Iowa City and have not gone to the Yacht Club to see Dennis McMurrin’s Demolition Band, you can’t really claim to have lived here. No matter who is playing, if you can’t have a good time at the Yacht Club, there’s something wrong with you.
BEST NEW LIVE VENUES: Public Space One and The Industry
The Industry is in the spot formerly occupied by the Cue, but if you knew the Cue you won’t recognize it now. They’ve turned it into a live room that can comfortably hold 450 people, that has the state of the art sound and lighting you don’t often see in a town the size of Iowa City. And if that’s not enough, the upstairs bar is a second, more intimate performance space. In the same building as the legendary COD Steam Laundry, where you could see Blues guitar virtuoso Luther Allison on the regular back in the early 70s, the Industry has big shoes to fill. They have not yet hit their groove in terms of booking, but I have high hopes that they’ll find their niche, and endure.
Public Space One is run by The James Gang, a non-profit cultural organization. It’s a small room with minimal live sound equipment, but continues to host some completely awesome shows too small or weird to interest the bars. The James Gang guys (who, in the interest of full disclosure, occasionally write for Little Village), are real heroes for all the musical and cultural activities they sponsor. If you’re a musician, visual artist, poet, or whatever you can book the PS1 space for your event. And it’s your duty as an adventurous participant in the cultural life of Iowa City to watch the PS1 event schedule. Even if the performances you see are tentative, rough, or downright amateurish, they’ll never be boring or trite.