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Des Moines, Iowa
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A Week in Downtown Des Moines

Geoff Wood

Last week was my regular trip back to our office in Iowa and, after talking with my friend Erin, decided to change things up a bit. Erin, who we met here in Indy, works for one of the mega-insurance companies based in Des Moines and we decided a couple months ago to try to coordinate a trip so that we could ride together and I could show her that Iowa is a fun place. Since her meetings are in Des Moines and she always stays downtown I planned to stay with Mr. Downtown(1) and just commute up to the office. When I called on Monday afternoon to let him know when I would be getting to town he told me that he was near death(2) and I could stay if need be but it would best if I found some place else. I scrambled a bit and was able to get my other downtown connection, my brother Joe and his wife Mary, on the phone and they said it was fine to crash at their loft in the Hubble Building. In fact, they were going to visit our folks for most of the week so I'd have the place to myself.

Downtown Des Moines had changed a lot recently so I was excited for the opportunity to visit the new venues and check things out. Through the course of the week we were able to do a couple return visits to local favorite "The High Life Lounge", a night at Tony Bohnenkamp's new East Village venue "The Grand Piano Bistro", dinner/Crappy Beer Night at Buzzard Billie's, a happy hour beer at the new "People's Bar and Grill"(3) and a walk through of a couple other bars including the new speakeasy-style secret bar "Shorty's".

The new People's is good and bad. I wasn't overly impressed when I walked in. New-People's is really two bars, "The Backstage Bar" is the normal everyday bar and the second bar is the big music venue(4). The former isn't very impressive or distinguished. It's quite simply "a bar". Considering my pre-conceived reservations, I was impressed to see a large sign saying something to the effect of "Welcome Cyclone Fans". However it was missing all the paraphenlia from Ames that made Peoples, well, Peoples. We chatted up the bartender and a manager that was familiar from Ames and found that they did plan to bring more of it down from Ames so maybe I'll change my opinion next time. The manager did take us into the music venue and I did like that - it was still lax on memorabilia but featured a couple familiar items (notably the bass drum with "People's" painted on the side(5)). We found out that the capacity of the music area alone is three times that of the old place in Ames. It will be interesting to see how that changes the acts that play the place. Most acts that followed the Iowa college circuit of Ames, Cedar Falls and Iowa City could draw enough to make the old place full but the sheer size of the new place will probably be difficult - not to mention Court Avenue is not walking distance from any college campus. Tom Z is obviously somewhat aware of this since he's already pulling in his Alive Concert Series connections to book bands that either used to be big and have dwindled or had a big hit or two once upon a time(6). The first of these was Sister Hazel who played last Friday night following an opening act of new original music by Tony Bohnenkamp.

Speaking of Tony, we actually visited his new place twice this week. Ben, Alisha and I spent Wednesday night there planning to see Pianopalooza. We ran into Tony soon after arriving and he told us that Jared was on vacation so Mike Butterworth of Nads' fame was sitting in - good deal. The show was a lot of fun, they alternated between cover songs and Nadas tunes and even played one of my favorite Tony-pened songs "Somewhere"(6) that was recorded as part of The Heroes experiment. Several of the songs that were played are favorites of mine that Tony doesn't like to play without Butterworth including the aforementioned "Somewhere" and Jackopierce cover "Vineyard". It was one of those fun shows that I used to get to regularly in Iowa but now only see on occasion when I'm back and the schedule works out.

The bar itself was nice. I'm not very familiar with the East Village but it's a hike from Court Avenue (and even further from where I was staying at the Hubbel Building). The building is old (Ben claims it's the oldest building east of the river in Des Moines) and is simplistically decorated in blue paint with pianos literally hanging on the wall. It's quite large and a little sparse with a big bar in the back, stage up front, and tables in between. We sat at the bar which was great for service but not so much for seeing the show. We were relegated to the bar when they told us that they reserved all tables for food until 10 PM even though the show started about 8:30 (next time I'll wait to eat there). The don't have any beers on tap but have a wide selection of bottles from around the world that are reasonably priced. I tried a few and settled on a Scottish beer, Belhaven, for $4 per. Not the cheapest place for drinks but not out of line, either.

My only real caution is to check out who is playing before you stop in. We met up with Kerry the next night and decided to make the hike back only to find the bar mostly empty. Kerry was high school friends with Tony's co-owner and wanted to say hello. Unfortunately when we got there she wasn't in (nor was anyone else). There were probably 20-30 people listening to a very loud jazz duo that was a big change from the night before. It's not a "bar band" venue so it will definitely draw a different crowd based on the specific act of the night so before going I'd encourage anyone to check the schedule. I'm looking forward to my next visit.

(1) Most of you call him "Ben". (2) He survived. (3) Really just "People's Bar" since the grill isn't going, yet. (4)This may or may not have a name. (5)I believe this sat off the stage on top of the bathroom's in Ames. (6) These bands can be quite fun, like when we saw Gin Blossoms at the Simon Estes Amphitheater a couple years ago. (6) My request.