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Arts & Life

Springfield's DIY Scene Before Black Sheep

Since a recent announcement that Springfield's all-ages, DIY music venue Black Sheep Cafe has fallen on hard times, there's been an out-pouring of concern. Many people are talking about what it's meant to them over the years. 

In a couple weeks, Black Sheep will celebrate its 12th year with an anniversary show. I wanted to share the perspective of a friend who grew up going to all-age shows in Springfield before Black Sheep became an option in 2005. I think it speaks to the transitory, tenuous nature of DIY & all-age spaces - as well as their importance. It also captures a perspective on how the culture has evolved. Here are Jenny Sawyer's recollections from her time spent as a scenester kid in Springfield from the years of 2001 - 2005 ...

- Rachel Otwell

I started going to punk shows in about 2001 when I was 13. My friends and I would meet up at The Asylum or some other spot on Friday and Saturday nights to see both local and out of town bands. It was a small coffee shop/youth space that was located at the southeast corner of Wabash and MacArthur in Springfield. I grew up just down the street in the Sherwood neighborhood and quickly became intrigued with the budding music scene emerging there.

I enjoyed having a space where I could gather with friends, discover new music, and generally just feel like I fit in. There were a few other venues that I would frequent around this time. One was Viele’s Planet, located at 2nd and Jefferson in downtown Springfield. Viele’s was a bar as well as a concert venue, they often held all-ages shows to accommodate the large, underage crowds that would flock to see acts such as NIL8, The Timmys, and Tub Ring. The shows at Viele’s were generally crowded and energetic. I attended my first Hobgoblinspookadelic there (an annual Halloween show with popular Springfield punk band NIL8 headlining). There was also the occasional show at Skank Skates in Southtown, where bands would set up on or among the ramps.

There were a few other, more short-lived venues in Springfield around this time. (Note: Cafe Andiamo used to hold all-age shows in its basement and still does from time to time. Another short lived all-ages venue from this era was called Project Peace and was located downtown.) I went to a few shows at the downtown sandwich shop, Bread Stretchers. I vaguely remember going to a place called The Space, an extremely improvised venue held in someone’s basement on Spring Street. There was even a short period of time when a small cafe at the mall hosted local musical acts (although the name of the place escapes me now). Club 10 was on Bradfordton Road, slightly outside of town. The Asylum eventually closed, but quickly became The Rise and continued to hold events until it, too, was closed and later torn down.

These venues provided a place for Springfield teens to gather in a drug and alcohol free environment and watch bands perform for a small cover charge, usually $5.00. (Note: that price has stayed virtually stagnant for over a decade as far as Black Sheep goes.)

I have mostly fond memories of this time growing up in the scene, but there was always a presence at these shows that unnerved me, and on several occasions even made me question whether or not it was safe to be there. There were a small group of individuals I came to know as the neo-Nazis. They typically sported white shirts, steel-toed boots and shaved heads. They used intimidation and threats of violence to carve out a space for their rhetoric in a scene that would have otherwise felt inclusive.

It was obvious that they made people extremely uncomfortable, but no one seemed willing or able to confront them. I certainly didn’t feel able to, being a shy petite teenage girl. There were a few incidents that I witnessed or had recalled to me by friends. Words were thrown around, kids were chased, bats were wielded. In what I’ve never been able to determine was an accident or not, I was once shoved over a table at the edge of a mosh-pit by one of them. Unfortunately, their presence at shows went mostly unchecked but over time they started to show up less and less.

After The Rise closed, it felt like Springfield had lost a solid gathering place for it’s young, musically inclined population. There were other places to hold a punk rock show, but it still felt like the end of an era to me. Black Sheep Cafe opened its doors in 2005. By that time I was a senior in high school and found myself going to shows less often, but I do remember those early days at Black Sheep and the feeling that it had the potential to be better than any other place that had come before it.

I had hope for the scene, even though I felt myself pulling away from it at that particular time in my life. Some of my most formative years were spent at these various, sometimes very temporary, venues. I met some of my best friends because these places existed. I want that same thing to be available to future generations of kids in the Springfield area.

When I do make it out to Black Sheep these days (admittedly not often enough) I’m awestruck with what it’s become. The atmosphere is welcoming, the camaraderie among show-goers is incredibly heartening. There’s always something going on, some event, some new local band or speaker. And those neo-Nazis would definitely not feel welcome at a place like Black Sheep today. I recently attended a show there in which a large anti-swastika banner was prominently displayed on stage. It made me think back on my teenage years in the scene, and how much change and progress I’ve witnessed. It made me smile.

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