One of the things I miss the most about home is music. In the land of Wi-Fi streaming and The Current, my ears were almost constantly serenaded with sweet melodies. I knew moving to a rural setting could be dangerous. Luckily, I spent my first morning in Des Moines scanning through the radio stations, programming them into my car. Through the sea of country and religious radio, I found several classic rock stations, an alternative station, and my favorite, a retro hip hop station.
I intentionally unroll the windows and blare the retro hip hop when I pull into small town gas stations. The beats are good, but the glares are great.
All things considered, I’ve been able to find enough music to keep my mind intact. But summer is fast approaching, and with it the concert scene. Stations on the radio can’t compete with an awesome concert at First Avenue or the Turf Club. But Des Moines must have a comparable music scene, right? Or at least somewhere to see a band?
Amid the large venues like the state fair and Wells Fargo Arena, I found nothing but disappointment. Most of the bands were either garbage, has-beens, or garbage has-beens. I like Boston, but their peak was 40 years ago. Nowadays, “More Than A Feeling” is probably how they describe their bowel movements. I need a venue like First Avenue, where young, up-and-coming bands mix with seasoned and respected veterans.
While searching for concerts, I did manage to stumble upon a rare gem: Hippo Campus. For my more “experienced” readers, Hippo Campus is an indie rock band from St. Paul that started gaining popularity last year, due in part to air play on The Current. I’m not a die-hard fan, but missed out on seeing them last summer due to tickets selling out at First Avenue. I figured Hippo Campus would be nearly unknown in Iowa, and cheap, readily-available tickets reinforced this notion. At $15 a ticket, what did I have to lose? After booking, I looked up the venue: Wooly’s, in Des Moines East Village. Which brings us to our post…
Forgive the photo quality, I took some of these rather hastily.
People look at you oddly when you take photos that aren’t selfies.
Location: 504 East Locus Street, Des Moines
Background: I haven’t been able to find out much about Wooly’s, but I do know it is a fairly new music venue (opened in 2012). I would guess it popped up with many of the other “hip” storefronts in East Village to cater to Des Moines’ younger audiences.
Décor: While no First Avenue, Wooly’s was strikingly similar to its sister venue: Turf Club. Both were relatively small, straightforward buildings. Both had small wooden tables in the back for older patrons to sit on. Both had bars pushed to the side. Both had small stages facing a large space for standing room. Both had crumbling concert posters plastering the walls. These similarities are a good thing, because the Turf Club is a solid concert venue. And Wooly’s has one thing the Turf Club does not: a giant ceiling fan. This made what could have otherwise been an excruciatingly hot concert much cooler.
Staff: I showed up an hour after show start, to find the 2nd act wrapping up. A gruff bearded man held up his hand to non-verbally indicate he wanted to see my ID. After receiving my wristband, I headed for the bar. The bartenders were wisely wearing ear protection, which made holding a conversation difficult. But the hipster glasses-wearing bartender I ordered from seemed pleasant enough.
Patrons: Good Lord, I’m surrounded by children! For every person with a wristband, there were 10 too young to drink. The three people in front of me couldn’t be much older than 18, and spent the 45 minutes between the 2nd act and Hippo Campus perpetually snapchatting their faces. It was kind of sickening.
The tables in the back were occupied by a mix of 1st date-types and older people who fancied themselves into “hip” music. My father would have been right at home. Otherwise, the patrons were almost entirely younger than myself. Which is saying something.
“Wow, we’re seeing a concert on a weeknight! What did your mom say?”
“She said it’s okay, since my American Lit lecture doesn’t start until 10:30am. But even if it didn’t, I’d still come.”
What a rebel.
Food: A small sign at the bar read, “Yay, we now have snacks!” A few small bags of what looked like chips followed. I passed.
Beer: Unlike Turf Club, which has an impressive array of beer, Wooly’s was a bit disappointing. They had a fair amount of beers on tap, but I don’t like tap beers at concerts. Mostly because open cups are one clumsy prick away from spilling everywhere. I asked if any local beers were available in bottles or cans.
“All we’ve got is Exile for local beer.”
For those who don’t remember, Exile was disappointing.
“Wow, I’m going to hate myself for this, but I’ll have a tallboy of Coors.”
“Banquet or Light?”
“I said ‘Coors’, not water.”
All in all, Coors wasn’t a terrible choice. Although during the show, Jake Luppen, the vocalist/rhythm guitarist, held up a PBR and proclaimed, “21!” Which made me think, damn, I didn’t know PBR was an option. Also, this guy is only 21?”
Concert: Hippo Campus was amazing. For such a young band, they played some pretty solid music. Nathan Stocker’s melodic, hook-driven guitar was instantly gratifying, and left me in an energetic bliss. The songs were nearly seamlessly strung together as well: unlike many bands, who drag out shows with rather conceited crowd-calling, Jake kept the pleasantries brief. Rarely did 15 seconds pass between songs. Which was great, because many songs blended together in surprising ways. “South,” the song I was most looking forward to hearing, caught me off guard with a slow, building beat. I wasn’t 100% sure I was hearing “South” until the signature guitar riff cut in.
What was somewhat surprising was the speed of the concert. Hippo Campus came on around 9:40pm. By 10:30pm, they were finishing their final song.
“We don’t do encores.”
This was actually nice. Encores tend to be a lot of waiting, in my opinion, and tend to give bands an excuse to front load their new songs, knowing everyone can hear the classics during the encore. And although less than an hour, the concert was quality over quantity. The lack of filler, down-to-business style of concert was appreciated by this old man who had to work in the morning.
Recommendations: If you have not heard Hippo Campus before, I would recommend the songs, “South,” “Violet,” “Souls,” and Suicide Saturday,” as good starters.
Bill: Domestic tallboys were $4.50 a pop. I had two. Add to that my ticket fee of $15, and we get a grand total of $24. Not bad for beers and an excellent concert.
The Verdict: While light years from the history and legend of First Avenue, Wooly’s was a solid concert venue very much akin to St. Paul’s Turf Club. Both were small venues that catered to young crowds and modern bands. The beer selection wasn’t what I had hoped for, but that’s okay. I usually order lower-grade beer at concerts anyway (Grainbelt is my go-to). That being said, Wooly’s is an excellent place to see young bands strut their stuff. I would definitely recommend it, and hope to find future concerts stationed at Wooly’s.