The little club that everyone loves to gossip about was back on blast for the last few weeks, thanks to at least four events: 1, the place being put up for sale; 2, some slightly disparaging comments made by another LV writer, which in turn sparked an internet mini-flame war; 3, the fact that the club went “on hiatus” (read: closed) for a few weeks in the beginning of January; and, 4, during that hiatus, the website suddenly vanished from the internet for a few days. Taken together, all signs pointed to “closed.” The signs, however, were wrong, and now the familiar PBR light happily glows in the window once again. Furthermore, they had one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time on Monday night. So let me use this opportunity to briefly address what’s become a (sadly) familiar refrain around town: “The Picador used to have good shows. Now it doesn’t. Who cares if it closes?!” Well, I do. But before I get into that, keep in mind that this article isn’t an excuse for some of the sad events in the Picador’s past (especially the firing of Doug Roberson), or a dig on other places. It’s just some thoughts I’ve been having about one of the last great piss-smelling rock clubs.
What I increasingly feel (and want) from the Picador are exactly the things that will probably lead to its demise: intelligent (aka “snobbish”) music booking and “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. First of all, while the Picador’s lack of “good” shows in recent months is certainly related to larger economic factors, competition from other clubs and an unprecedented number of dark days on the calendar, it’s also, frankly, an issue of taste. Yes, other venues have indie rock shows now (and always have; I mean, Death Cab at the Union Bar is the stuff of local lore). But I think the fact that “indie” has gone “mainstream” (a point not worth belaboring, Garden State, etc.) is what makes many of those events even possible (and profitable). While on any given night we might want our rock clubs to be barometers of mainstream(ish) taste by booking currently (semi-)popular bands, what distinguishes clubs like the Picador is their capacity to also take risks and bring in certain genres of music not readily available at other official venues. For example, if we look at perhaps the two most musically-interesting and critically-celebrated genres of independent music in the last five years—”metal” and “noise”—then we’re forced to recognize that the Picador has booked some of the premier bands in each: Boris and Wolf Eyes come to mind, though there are certainly many others. Performers like Helsinki’s Lau Nau–who only played 7 venues in her U.S. tour–made the Picador one of them. That’s based on one thing: reputation. And reputation comes from booking “good” stuff. And if you don’t think Finnish music or metal or noise were big stories in the last five years of music, then check out the decade-end coverage from publications ranging from Pitchfork to The New Yorker. Whether or not it’s your cup of tea (or plastic cup of Beam), the Picador is still the best venue at keeping it weird, to borrow a motto from Austin, Texas.
Second of all, the rug matches the curtains, so to speak: the reason I like seeing dirty, strange, experimental, and aggressive music at the Picador is because the club itself is so often all of those things. I’ve heard people complain about everything from the bathrooms (obviously!) to the attitude of the staff members (wrong!) to the general vibe of the place (maybe!) as being reasons for steering clear on any given night. But Iowa City has as abundance of really safe, nice, friendly, easy places. Just like the music there, I think the Picador itself should be a little bit challenging. Hell, I’ve felt like a square there on nights where I personally booked the music!
While my vision of the Picador might be both naive and nostalgic, the show on Monday night was a good reminder of all the things the club has going for it: a booming sound system, a big dark room, cold cheap beer, and a group of people who will stay out late on Monday night to hear weird music. This will keep happening, because it already is, all over town, in places from the Blue Moose to people’s basements. But–fuck it–I still like the Picador.