Documentary ‘Music of the Moment’ features Iowa City musical improv scene of early ’00s

Music of the Moment

Film Scene — Dec. 13. Music at 1 p.m. Film at 1:30 p.m.

The following is a look back at the history of the Iowa City improvisational music scene featured in Music of the Moment, a documentary screening this Saturday at FilmScene as part of it’s FLAM series. The film will be preceded by a musical performance at 1 p.m. by local musicians Pete Balestrieri, Matthew Burrier and Max Johnson, and will be followed by a Q&A with the director Kevin Winsor.

Through the kitchen and down a rickety flight of stairs, a band frantically plays away in one corner of a crowded basement. The bodies of curious spectators cram in uncomfortably close around the band, nodding their heads in time with the music, while others take a more active approach, cutting loose and dancing in whatever way the music seems to move them. The temperature rises, the sweat starts dripping, and just like that, the band finishes and tears their equipment down, giving the crowd just enough time to step out of the hot basement and outside for a breath of fresh air or a few drags of a cigarette before the next act starts playing.

For anyone that has spent even the shortest amount of time exploring an underground music scene, shows at a house venue are a common — albeit fleeting — event. House venues and the bands that play them come and go, and the shows held in their walls become legend, existing only in the memories of those that attended. However, a new documentary, Music of the Moment, seeks to encapsulate the experience of one Iowa City house venue, the Sacred Garden Cafe, a venue that operated on a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethos and was the hub for the free-form improvisational music scene of Iowa City in the early 2000s.

The history of the Sacred Garden Cafe extends back to the 1993 when it began as Ed’s Juke Joint, a venue born out of necessity. Since most bars at the time had no interest in hosting the types of bands Ed Nehring and his friends were playing in, he decided to transform the basement of his own home in the quiet Lucas Farm neighborhood into a performance space. Ed’s Juke Joint hosted locals acts like Ethan Richeson, Nitro Ground Shakers and Nehring’s own band, the Rough Housers, who sought to merge the rough blues aesthetic of Hound Dog Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf and RL Burnside with the punk rock attitude that had been lingering in the Iowa City music scene since the 1980s. Bands played behind a roll of chicken wire to wild crowds clambering over each other to get a piece of the action, and the shows at Ed’s Juke Joint became increasingly more packed.

Musicians play behind chicken wire at Ed's Juke Joint
Musicians play behind chicken wire at Ed’s Juke Joint — Photo courtesy of Kevin Winsor

In 1995, Kevin Wisor, a recent graduate of the University of Iowa film program, contacted Nehring about documenting a night at Ed’s Juke Joint, filming the performances of the bands and interviewing those involved. Nehring agreed and on June 24, 1995, Wisor documented an entire show with performances by Los Diablos Del Soul, Ethan Richeson, the Ben Tucker Band, the Rough Housers and the Nitro Ground Shakers as well as interviews with Nehring, his brother Jeff Nehring, and Jay Streitz, among others, giving their perspectives on the music scene and the DIY attitude in general. The finished film, aptly titled Ed’s Juke Joint, was featured in numerous film festivals including the Chicago Underground Film Festival, and won the audience choice award at the Chicago Rebel Underground Film Festival. Even though the film is just shy of the eighteen minute mark and documents one night only, it really is a fantastic and informative look into the Iowa City music underground of the time.

There are a slew of reasons why house venues will cease hosting events: fed-up neighbors, police activity, or, as is the case with Ed’s Juke Joint, just a change of interest and direction. Despite the popularity and positive feedback on the shows, Ed’s Juke Joint hosted its final show in 1997, four years after it started. Nehring decided he needed to shift in a new direction in his life, quitting his band to focus more on Zen Buddhism which he had studied under Taiken Yokoyama from 1993 until 1995. Before Taiken left Iowa City for California, he challenged Nehring to find a way of merging Zen Buddhism with his love of music.

Nehring spent the next few years away from any public performance, pondering his teacher’s parting words. Zen Buddhism instilled in Nehring the notion that no moment is the exact same as any other moment and each moment can be appreciated for what it is. Using this basic principle, Nehring formed the basis of his fusion of Zen Buddhist teachings with music and began the practice of sound improvisation. Improvising by himself at first, free from any outside influence, Nehring would play the drums for three hours a day in order to be able to empty his mind of thoughts and simply play in the moment without having to think. Only then did he approach his brother Jeff, a saxophonist, to ask if he would be interested in exploring improvisation with him. Jeff agreed, and once the two became comfortable improvising with each other, they reached out to and began improvising with the likes of saxophonist Pete Balestrieri, guitarist Ed Gray, and many others.

Saxophonist Pete Balestrieri was a fixture of the Secret Garden Cafe — Photo courtesy of Kevin Winsor

With a new found interest in in-the-moment improvisation, the idea of performing live again began bouncing around in Nehring’s head. Local bars and more on-the-radar music venues would have no interest in hosting his improv group, so again, out of necessity, he needed to open his basement to host live performances. With the chicken wire torn down, a fresh coat of paint applied, and some new lights strung up here and there to give the basement a brand new feel to it (and, really, to keep the show goers interested as Nehring was worried patrons of past shows would have little to no interest in the planned future performances in his basement), Ed’s Juke Joint was transformed into the Sacred Garden Cafe. Nehring sent out postcards in the mail announcing the first improvisational performance and, in 1999, the Sacred Garden Cafe hosted its first show.

The audience left over from the Juke Joint days were divided and, just like what Nehring had worried about, some people showed little or no interest in improvisation. Some others, however, latched on, appreciating the art form for what it was and soon a small group of true believers was formed, attending each performance, some participating themselves. The Sacred Garden Cafe had, on average, a performance a month and played host to some incredible touring performers including saxophonist Jack Wright, thereminist Jeff Mcleod and percussionist Toshi Makahara.

It was around this time that Kevin Wisor got back in contact with Nehring to catch up and find out what the musician was up to. Hearing about Nehring’s transformed basement space and its focus to exploring improvised music and sound, Wisor knew he had to document the growth of the scene fostered at the Secret Garden Cafe. This time, however, instead of filming just a single night, Wisor decided to take a more anthropological approach, capturing performances and moments of growth over a period of five years. From the 2000 to 2005, Wisor filmed the performances at the Sacred Garden Cafe, focusing not only on documenting the music and sounds created by the artists, but shining a light on the thoughts, feelings and delicate psyches behind the passion for this art form.

Wisor’s film, aptly titled Music of the Moment, was trapped in post production for years due to a focus on work and family, but his film finally saw its release this year.

The film provides a vibrant and distinct look into the history of Iowa City’s music scene, showcasing an important cultural milestone and growth period for well known local musicians and the Iowa City music scene itself. Music of the Moment is an important document for anyone interested in the history of Iowa City’s DIY culture, forever capturing the all too fleeting burst of creativity and burning spirit involved in a music scene revolving around house venues as well as offering a unique window into a music scene important to Iowa City’s past, present and future.

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