Historical Iowa City music oasis grapples with pandemic-caused financial strains

Since the ‘70s, Gabe’s has served Iowa City as a haven for concerts and music lovers of all types. Although the downtown venue has been financially struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic, memories from shows are remembered fondly by those who’ve attended shows.

A+silent+mic+along+with+an+empty+chair+sits+on+the+stage+at+Gabe%E2%80%99s+on+Friday%2C+Oct.+30%2C+2020.+A+stage+that+once+was+alive+with+music+is+now+quiet+due+to+Covid-19+restrictions.

Jeff Sigmund

A silent mic along with an empty chair sits on the stage at Gabe’s on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. A stage that once was alive with music is now quiet due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Megan Conroy, Arts Reporter


Whether the front of the building reads “The Pub Gabe’s and Walkers,” “Picador,” “Gabe’s Oasis,” or just “Gabe’s,” 330 E. Washington St. has been a haven for music lovers since the early ‘70s. Now, however, the music venue and bar is experiencing unprecedented struggles.

Gabe’s stages have remained dormant over the course of the pandemic. The bar and entertainment venue’s staff posted an announcement on Facebook on March 16 that their upcoming performances would be postponed or canceled.

Soon after, the bar toggled between closing and reopening its doors along with many other Iowa City businesses, attempting to navigate a balancing act between staying in business and complying with government orders and health-safety restrictions.

Gabe’s reopened on Oct. 5, but manager Pete McCarthy explained that having business doesn’t entirely solve the bar’s pandemic-caused financial struggles.

“We’re not going to fill the bar, obviously, or have people pile in to hang out on Friday or Saturday nights,” McCarthy said. “I don’t see it as being very profitable. We’ll barely be able to pay the bills.”

McCarthy said Gabe’s has lost well over $100,000 since the spring. He noted that T-shirt sales and a GoFundMe that raised a total of $4,171 have both assisted the establishment pay rent and bills. The bar received one of the forgivable relief loans, but not the other forms of relief they applied for.

“We just have to learn how to operate and run our businesses as safely and correctly as possible,” McCarthy said. “We do everything we can do to try to control and live with COVID-19 because it’s not going anywhere.”

He added that he and owner Scott Kading are lucky to also own Wildwood Smokehouse and Saloon, another entertainment venue, which can safely seat people at a distance and even have a show. The saloon-style bar remained open while Gabe’s closed in September because of an order from Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds shuttering bars, distilleries and wineries.

The Gabe’s upstairs and downstairs stages have been witness to many of today’s popular bands before they blew up, like Nirvana, according to Gabe’s Facebook page.

Photographer Mark Weills was in attendance at their Gabe’s concert in 1989. Weills’ friend told him they had to go see the band, so he brought some friends and tagged along. Just before Bleach came out, Kurt Cobain on guitar, Jason Everman also on guitar, Krist Novoselic on bass, and Chad Channing on drums played for a small crowd at Gabe’s that night.

Photo of Nirvana playing at Gabe’s in 1989. Contributed by Mark Weills.

Despite being prepared to take photos that night, Weills didn’t pick up extra film for the occasion. The photos he has from the Nirvana show were taken using the last few shots on a roll.

“None of us Midwesterners had heard anything about Nirvana,” Weils said. “This was their first tour and we had only heard murmurings of a band that was going to kick our asses. A friend of mine told me that I had to see them. There really weren’t that many people there. At most 35 — 50 would be an exaggeration. The show was amazing. I thought they were fantastic. Pure dingy, nasty, swampy rock and roll.”

Similarly, McCarthy also recalled a 2012 show where Chance the Rapper played for 40 people at $5 a ticket.

When Gabe’s is able to host shows again, the performances will look very different, McCarthy said. He explained that the bar will more than likely be at half capacity and may have table seating to distance.

Despite a concert-less Gabe’s this fall, responses to a tweet from The Daily Iowan garnered the attention of Gabe’s patrons, past and present, nationwide.

 

When he was still in high school, Des Moines native Caleb Slater’s short-lived band, Forget About Me opened for the eclectic Youtuber Social Repose in July 2018.

The show had an audience of only 15 people. While the night was what Slater described as the band’s “worst performance ever,” the UI freshman said he remembered the night as a good one.

“Our band, we played maybe about 15 shows before we broke up,” Slater said. “That show was by far our worst show, so you would think that it would be like ‘Man, I hate Gabe’s, I never want to go there again,’ but Gabe’s had nothing to do with it. In my 10 years of playing guitar, I’d never broken two strings at once until that night.”

Slater recalled the atmosphere of Gabe’s being one positive aspect of the night, with stickers of bands who had played the stage before him scattered around the venue.

Even though the show itself wasn’t ideal, the musician considers the time he played at Gabe’s as a fond memory, especially because it was his first time in Iowa City. His experience from that night was one of many reasons why he decided to attend the University of Iowa, he said.

That was in 2018, but the plethora of memorable nights at Gabe’s are not foreign to other patrons like then-UI student Sarah Nielson. The writer is reminiscent of her early 2000s Gabe’s Oasis experiences, where she frequented themed nights such as ‘80s night and a Burlesque night.

“They had it decorated like an ‘80s prom out of a John Hughes movie with streamers, balloons, and all that,” she said. “There was something really cool about this dorky gym prom setting. It felt like a movie world had been blown open.”

The contrast of ‘80s pop, Gabe’s natural punk atmosphere, and Nielson’s first experiences realizing she was queer made this memory of Gabe’s all the more special, she said.

“‘80s pop isn’t necessarily good, but it’s built for enjoying groups,” Nielsen said. “This was just a huge group and I can’t speak for everybody, but I know my life has not been moment after moment of feeling like I was really a part of something. That night, it really felt like we all belonged there, and we were all very welcome.”

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Corey Jones, now a substitute teacher in Rhode Island, put together a rap showcase with his friends in 2018 during his junior year of college to be performed at Gabe’s. Jones’ friends opened for a local Chicago rapper, FBG Duck.

He added that in August of this year, rapper FBG Duck was murdered in Chicago. Jones intended to book the rapper again after COVID-19, but never got the chance, which makes the showcase at Gabe’s even more special to him, he said.

“He was a Chicago rapper and he said for $5,000, he said he would come to Iowa City,” Jones said. “We were able to bring out like 260 or so people and actually made $1,200.”

Jones’ unique experience at Gabe’s remained close to his heart, especially after the death of FBG Duck.

“It was a very sentimental moment because a lot of the people who took part in this have known each other for our entire lives, worked on music together, and always supported each other,” Jones said. “It was incredible to have people believe in your vision.”

Regardless of the name on the front of the building, Gabe’s has been home to unique musical experiences for decades. While the circumstances surrounding concerts are unusual, McCarthy said it will give the venue the opportunity to showcase local talents when it’s safe for musicians to perform again.

“Gabe’s is going to be a constant. It’s not going anywhere,” he said. “It might be a little while before we have those hot, sweaty, packed shows that people like. It’s going to be different and feel different for a while, but we’re still going to try our best.”

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