Cicero's battle of the jam bands celebrates the landmark nightclub's return from fire damage
by Lee Abraham
The fire was small, limited to the prep area and dish room of Cicero's kitchen, but smoke and water damage was extensive. So was the impact on the local jamband scene. Suddenly closed for six months to make repairs, the venerable venue's absence left bands scrambling for places to perform.
"We consider Cicero's to be our home, that's where we feel real comfortable playing," says Jerret Hotle of CPB, one of the finalists competing in Cicero's -Battle Of The Bands-. "When Cicero's shut down, it was like nobody had a place to play around town, it was hard to find a gig. We'd have to play at bars where nobody really wanted to come see a show."
Much to the delight of local jammers, Cicero's reopened on September 5th. And old school scenesters couldn't miss the irony. These days a jamband hippie bar with Grateful Dead cover bands two nights a week, back in '87 when the club started booking music at its original location (now the Blueberry Hill Duck Room), it was a Mecca for the local punk, new wave and alt-rock scene.
"At the time there were only three showcase venues in the entire city: Cicero's, Off Broadway, and Mississippi Nights," recalls Chad Jacobs, who was four years old when his father, Shawn Jacobs first opened Cicero's as a restaurant in 1977. "Off Broadway was doing their thing, rootsy, country, singer/songwriter kind of stuff, and Mississippi Nights was doing all the really big shows, so it left Cicero's to do all of the smaller shows. The talent buyer was booking bluegrass, blues, pop, rock, metal, basically everything he could, because we pretty much had the market cornered for small and medium sized bands. As other clubs in town started to open up, Cicero's really developed its niche in the alternative, underground punk scene."
Voted "Best Alternative Club in St. Louis" from 1990-1995 by the Riverfront Times annual reader's poll, Cicero's enjoyed a lengthy run of popularity before moving in '97 to its current University City loop location. Although just a few blocks away, the slight change in latitude brought a major change in attitude. "There were rumors that Cicero's was going to change their music with the move," recalls Jacobs. "There were articles in all the papers about how Cicero's was dying, about how the scene was going to die, about how somebody else was going to have to take over, but it was all rumors. We got bashed in the local music press about how we were letting the public down. It was amazing how many people in town considered that place their home. There were a lot of worries about what was going to happen."
In fact, Cicero's -did- continue the same music at the new location, but it didn't matter. Crowds were thin. "Because of all the negative press, we weren't getting as many people as we were expecting, and the people that were coming had problems with the new room because it was -too- new," laughs Jacobs. "The old place was a completely unfinished, smelly basement. Literally a dive with concrete walls, wet and nasty dripping pipes, and concrete floors. It was a horrible place for music. So we moved and made a real nice place for music, taking the time and money to sound proof the room, make the acoustics perfect, and when people started coming to see all their favorite punk and alternative bands, they decided that it wasn't the room they wanted to be in. We went from negative press before we opened about how everything was going to change, to 'The music hasn't changed, but the room now has a corporate feel, it's too clean, it's not the dive we were hoping it would be.'"
With the old format failing, Jacobs convinced his dad to entrust him with booking the club. Success was elusive. At least at first. Frustrated by a short, unsuccessful stint mixing blues and jazz, Jacobs was open minded when approached about taking the club in a different direction. "A lot of people were asking me about booking Jake's Leg and also the Scwhag," he remembers. "So I looked into it. Quite frankly, I was never into the Grateful Dead before that and I didn't know about the jamband scene at that time." Educating himself online, surfing cyberjam hot spots like Jambands.com and Homegrownmusic.net, Jacobs was impressed and took a chance on several bands he was hearing for the first time.
"We did our first -big- jamband show in March of '98 with the Ominous Seapods and Day By the River," notes Jacobs. "We had 240 people at the door, which at that time was more people in the venue than we had seen for over a year!" Not only was Jacobs pleasantly surprised at the strong turnout, he dug the music. "I started booking as many jambands as I could because I thought the music was incredible!" he admits. "It was different, it was fresh, it was a unique thing. And if you think about it, that's what made Cicero's a successful venue in the first place, when it started doing the alternative music before anybody else and really started a scene."
Radio host James Mullins of KDHX's -Stumble In The Dark- program (Tuesdays from 8pm to 10pm) was spinning jamband CD's and concert tapes even before Cicero's found its new groove. And he was ready to throw his support behind a local club that gave jambands a place to play. "For a while, Cicero's was the only venue that was booking jambands, except for the national acts that came through like the String Cheese Incident or Widespread Panic," says Mullins. "There are a lot of bands that wouldn't even have come through St. Louis if it hadn't been for Cicero's. They also book a lot of the local jambands which has done wonders for the scene locally."
Jay Mumma, who took over booking when Jacobs relocated to Colorado earlier this year, agrees. "Since Cicero's started spotlighting this kind of music, there are more bands focused on jamming," observes Mumma. "Right now it's thriving. There's a lot of really, really good local bands that all have their own sound. And -that's- the hardest thing to get people to understand. It's frustrating when Cicero's gets hit with the stigma of being a Grateful Dead cover band club, because that's just part of a bigger picture. The jamband thing has so many subgenres in it, from bluegrass to funk, blues to techno, just about anything. That's one reason we record all our shows and post them on our website for people to check out. We're willing to share in some of the magic that happens here!"
A couple of years ago, Cicero's held its first battle of the bands to draw attention to the fledgling scene. Now in its 3rd year, the annual month long competition means more than ever. In addition to cash prizes, gift certificates from local music stores and merchandise manufacturers, bands are competing for free studio time at Smith Lee Productions to record a new CD. The suspense is almost over. Winners of the three preliminary rounds will battle it out for the grand prize in this week's finals.
"Making it to the finals means that people like us and support us, and we love that," Says CPB's Hotle. "If we win the final round that would mean recording time, which would be great for us. But even if we don't win, it's okay because this battle of the bands is great for the whole scene in St. Louis, and that's what we really care about."
--------note: due to word count limits on this article for purposes of print publication, there was no room for the quotes below, but here in cyberspace the operative word is -space-... so here's a few exclusive bonus quotes from Chad Jacobs we thought you'd enjoy...
----------------on why jambands are a good fit for Cicero's:
"It's different than most of the other bands in the music world because everybody knows what they sound like and they don't change day to day, and they usually don't change year to year or cd to cd. It's the same thing over and over again. But jambands evolve from night to night. That's why we decided that it would be neat to offer the music online just to get people interested in the music."
"There are a few things in my opinion that make a jamband crowd a better crowd. The first is energy. It's a very positive energy, whereas a lot of the harder bands out there are not necessarily projecting positive energy to the crowd. That's the reason you don't see a lot of fights. Plus, people seem like they are much more into the music itself than a lot of the other scenes where people are either into the band as a whole, like a groupie situation, or individual members of the band."
"The reason people are more focused on the music because it's more intellectual than a lot of the other types of music. It's not a band playing a forty five minute set note for note, night after night, in whatever venue they play. I think that's also why a lot of the musicians are into the jamband scene, as far as the music they personally prefer. Musicians are drawn to this because it opens up a lot of doors and gives them a lot more freedom with the music than most other styles."