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On The Romance & Reality of Black Sheep Cafe

Rachel Otwell
a scene from Springfield's Southtown

Recently, a fellow public radio journo wrote a piece about the Black Sheep scene for Noisey, a branch of Vice Media. If you are unfamiliar with the venue, and even if you are a regular attendee - it's definitely worth a read (and a look/listen - the pictures & music speak volumes.)

Sean Neumann, a producer for The 21st, does a great job summarizing the amount of talent and effort going on to keep Springfield's Southtown one of the most relevant DIY communities in the Midwest, if not the nation.

Unsurprisingly, it takes a lot of hard work. It's not a profitable model, though no one was ever intending to rake in the dough. I have long been hearing that Black Sheep Cafe is in bad financial shape, and I've always believed it. A successful effort to get a non-profit, Project Southtown, established and running seemed promising, but apparently there's just not enough people showing up for the amount of shows being booked.

The current four owners went public this week with acknowledging things are tenuous and those who value Black Sheep should enjoy it while they still can. So I wanted to take a moment to explain why Black Sheep is so important to me. And really, I'm one of those people who's at fault for too often not going to shows, too often for lame excuses. It's a good reminder that life is short, our time on earth won't be forever - and that time is often best spent exploring passions with those who are similarly enthusiastic. So here's some reasons why I've appreciated this place during its 10+ years of existence.

1) Since being a local high schooler/show-goer, other all-age venues I have been privy to have paled in comparison to Black Sheep. They've also mostly gone under. Maybe the Asylum was cool, I was too young to know. Black Sheep is and has been a diamond in the rough when it comes to places for young folks to see and make music in a drug and alcohol free space.

2) People have long argued Black Sheep is too cliquey or is hard to feel welcome at. To that I would say the following ... A DIY venue of this sort will be inherently cliquey. A relatively small group of people are bonding over that which they are most passionate about. Some of these people end up forming bands. Some of them end up living together. Black Sheep has hosted both a wedding and a baby shower. And yes, people of this ilk often like certain types of music. However, people being dismissive or non-inclusive has become less of a problem in my experience. Owners say they are open to genres and want to foster a welcoming and inclusive environment. It's hosted punk, rock n' roll, indie, R&B, hip hop, hardcore, metal, folk, poetry readings, art shows and much more. The festivals mentioned in the Noisey article also deserve lots of props.

3) We are now blessed by having four owners: Brian Galecki, Clare Frachey, Drew Kodrich and B.j. Pearce. Don't get me wrong, we were blessed to have Kevin Bradford as the founder, no Kevin = no sheep. The people heading the place now rose up from this scene. It's their lifeblood. It's not a commodity or some self-serving thing - it's love and sweat and memory and grit and tears both happy and sad. It's something rare and precious these days. It's also thankless. So hey, if you have benefited from Black Sheep in any way - remember to show some love.

4) The older I get, the more I appreciate Black Sheep. Every time I have been, there have been people feeding people and meeting people and laughing and communing. On top of a venue,30 year old indoor skate park and skate shop - there is now a record store and recording studio on the premises. Godfather of Southtown, George Sinclair, has a garden and tends to bees. Even though times are tough, in my decade or so as an observer of the local music scene, times have never seemed better. 

All this said, I am not putting my money where my mouth is. On average I probably attend one show or event a month there, even though multiple per week often take place. But the owners have made it apparent they are willing to let people host events and take the reins when it comes to planning and promoting. Now's the time to pull together and get creative - and then follow through with action.

My sincere hope as an advocate for art in this city is that we will continue to make this miracle of miracles work. Surely there are more people like me out there. People who maybe aren't going to attend multiple shows a month, even - but can recognize and value this space for what it is. People who know they are welcome and should show up as much as they ever feel they'd want to. For those of us who already love it - it's time to show what true community is about and help support each other. Let's get excited about what the future might bring if enough people come together to figure out how to keep this thing running. As romantic as the idea of this mecca of DIY/weirdo culture is - the reality is it is also really hard work, and it's work best shared. Not every detail will be perfect, and there is always room for constructive feedback.

Meanwhile, keep an eye out for more stories being shared on why the Black Sheep matters to people, and how it has radically changed lives.

UPDATE: Owner Brian Galecki speaks out more about the current situation and answers some FAQs, here.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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