Gabe's celebrates 40 years of rock


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"Here we are now; entertain us."

These familiar lyrics likely conjure an image of either a guitar player with long, dirty blond hair or a yellow smiley face with a dangling tongue and Xs for eyes. Either way, many know the famous American rock band Nirvana in some shape. 

However, not everyone knows Nirvana played its first Iowa City show at Gabe's in 1989, along with many other well-known musicians, including Smashing Pumpkins and John Mayer. 

With bands of this magnitude playing Gabe's, it's no surprise that the venue is approaching its 40th anniversary party on Friday.

In the early '70s, the venue now known as Gabe's opened as the Pub, and from there was called Fox and Sam's, Gabe and Walker's, Gabe's Oasis, Picador, and just Gabe's, until finally landing back on Gabe's Oasis. This name is fitting for the relatively new owner's vision for the venue.

"Gabe's used to be nationally known," said Pete McCarthy, manager of the Yacht Club (whose owner, Scott Kading, purchased Gabe's three years ago). "It was kind of like an oasis in the Midwest. All of the big bands would stop here during their tours, and it's kind of fallen off since then."

Sweet Chariot, Paul Cary & the Small Scarys, Diplomats of Solid Sound, and Dan Maloney of the Deathships will take the stage from 9 p.m. Friday to 2 a.m. Saturday, not only to celebrate the venue's 40th anniversary but also to help in the process of restoring Gabe's to its former glory.  

"There are so many big names who have played there in the past, it's ridiculous," said Doug Roberson of the Diplomats of Solid Sound. "The fact that the place is still going after this many years is a testament to something that it's doing right."

McCarthy said he recruited acts for the 40th Anniversary Party that represented the history of the venue. For example, Roberson is not only a returning performer at Gabe's, he used to book bands for the venue in the past. Jack Isleib, the drummer for Sweet Chariot, used to be a manager at the venue as well.

"Paul Cary and the Small Scarys are kind of considered an old Gabe's band," McCarthy said. "Dan Maloney used to play there all the time, too, with his band, so we really just tried to get old Gabe's favorites to play for the anniversary." 

While the four acts all have history with Gabe's, they represent very different musical genres, from soul to metal. 

Think heavy guitar riffs, grumbling bass tracks, and hard-hitting drums to sum up Sweet Chariot's solely instrumental music, tagged "doom metal pop rock sludge" on its website. This dense sound may come off as serious, but Isleib said there is humor to the music as well.

"We hope to make people laugh with our absurd song titles," he said and laughed. "We try to keep songs short and to the point so we don't lose anyone's attention. When you're an instrumental band, you have to deliver." 

Isleib said listeners can still feel the tension in the music through the guitar, bass, and drums that provide the band's sound.

For the Diplomats of Solid Sound, seven members and five instruments work together to make up its mix of soul, R&B, funk, and jazz. 

"The combination of the artists that are performing at this show are people from around Iowa City who maybe don't live there anymore," Roberson said. "It's kind of like a homecoming that will hopefully bring people out of the woodwork so they can come out and remember their past."

Paul Cary and the Small Scarys will act as a foil to the hard-core riffs of While Sweet Chariot and the bouncy jazz of the Diplomats of Solid Sound, presenting haunting rock music with soft but powerful vocals living up to the band name.

Cary said he looks forward to Gabe's 40th Anniversary Party, specifically because of the venue.

"People from here and even anywhere else — if you just say Gabe's, they know what you're talking about," Cary said. "There have been a couple of punk houses that come and go, but everyone knows Gabe's."

This familiarity may be the reason for Gabe's longevity, despite the opening of several other downtown music venues over the last couple decades — including the Yacht Club in 2003.

"Many years ago, Gabe's was one of the only places to play in all of Iowa City," Roberson said. "Now, there are many more places to play, so it has more competition, yet it remains a popular venue."

Owner Scott Kading said 40 years of live music deserves a celebration honoring Gabe's rock and roll history.

And McCarthy said he feels optimistic about the future of the venue.

"The music we're doing and the whole vibe surrounding the place is much better now," he said. "It's almost back to where it was in its heyday, which is what we wanted to do."

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