Des Moines, Iowa
Best known for: Eclectic booking, great sound, familiar faces
By Marc Hogan
When Wooly opened nine years ago, it filled a gap in the Des Moines music scene and helped anchor a burgeoning neighborhood. Named for its building’s earlier life as Woolworth’s Grocery Store, Wooly’s gave the mid-sized town a space for mid-sized shows, comfortably siting between 200 bars and 1,000 capacity theaters. Its presence has also resulted in a boom in the city’s so-called East Village neighborhood, a quick stroll over the Des Moines River Bridge from downtown. Over the years, Wooly’s has hosted artists of all genres including Jimmy Eat World, Sam Hunt, Danny Brown, Girl Talk, Spoon, Future Islands, hometown anti-heroes Stone Sour, noise-rock luminaries. Japanese Melt-Banana, and many more.
In Wooly’s shows, more often than not, it seems like everyone I know is there – certainly the case at the last gig I attended before COVID, a typically loud Black Lips gig. Owner Sam Summers, whose First Fleet Concerts also reserves the outdoors Backcountry Music Festival in St. Charles, Iowa, argues that the arts and entertainment venues are critical economic hubs. “I like to think that Wooly’s was a catalyst for a bit of what’s going on around us,” he says, with more than a hint of understated Midwestern understatement.
What is the most historic concert that has happened here?
Sam Summers: Gorilla Biscuits with Modern Life Is War in 2018. I was listening to the Gorilla Biscuits tape, Start today, while I was mowing lawns growing up. Then i met [guitarist Alex Brown, a Des Moines native, who passed in 2019] and really got into his art. They weren’t really on tour. They were playing big festivals in other countries. Alex moved here, and he wanted to do it, to have his family there and everything. I would say Black Flag was in second place.
Is there something about the exhibition space, perhaps memories, which have always been there and everyone knows it?
Two or three things, actually. Right in front, there is this huge crate of pasta. We use it for merchandising now, like where bands were setting up in the lobby, but it was in an Italian grocery store a while back. I guess he just moved around the block.
Kirk Blunck, owner of the building and who died in 2016, was an architect but also an art collector. There’s this massive piece of glass, I don’t even know what it is, but it’s in a frame. It’s too big to come out of our house, so we hung it above our ticket booth – which is a little scary, because it’s so huge. I don’t know if this is something the public is aware of.
What have you done to keep the place alive since the pandemic?
We have learned to be great grant writers. Really, it’s just about finding out what’s out there, because there has been a lot of help in different forms.
How to support Wooly’s: Buy tickets for the next shows
Capacity: 300 (standing), ~ 175 (sitting)
Best known for: Experimental and improvised music
By Liz Pesnel
When Mike Reed opened the Constellation in Chicago, he joked that opening a concert hall was the dumbest thing you could do, so it’s fitting that their birthday is on Fool’s Day. April.
The venue, initially formed for-profit in 2013, became a non-profit in 2018 that continues to give artists a space to both perform and develop new works, with an emphasis on jazz and the contemporary classic. It’s not uncommon to see local musicians Ben LaMar Gay and Macie Stewart or international artists like the Scandinavian band Atomic at Constellation, a small black box-style space akin to literal stargazing. Every show is intimate and wherever you are you have a cool view. “That’s exactly what I would do if I won the lottery,” says Reed, who is also our longtime production partner for Pitchfork Music Festival. “Having a place where I can showcase and be inspired by things that do this for me. I think it really comes to people. “
What are the most famous bands or artists to have played at Constellation?
Will Oldham, Roscoe Mitchell, Bill Callahan, Amy Schumer, Low, Cate Le Bon, Bonnie Prince Billy with Bitchin Bajas and Sun Ra Arkestra.
What does an average day look like at Constellation in normal times?
It’s unique because we share the space with [another organization], Link room. During the day there are usually artists [and] artists – not musicians – who use the rooms to work on anything, [whether it’s] a show they are developing [or] a workshop. This is what happens until about four o’clock almost every day. After four hours it comes back to the venue part of it.
What was an average day like in this location during COVID?
We do one or two shows a week. People sort of come in when they need it, to tune the piano or run the cables. … We did a bunch of research and then started bringing in some techs to try and do it safely. And then the Chicago Jazz Fest needed to go virtual. We filmed 18 performances in one weekend. So that’s been really great for us, spiritually. We put all of our content on YouTube [because] for the audiences we are targeting, I don’t want to put a barrier to entry. And these musicians are making maybe 30% more online from donation-based streaming concerts. And it is awesome.
Which artists are you looking forward to presenting once the shows return?
When we did the first show at the beginning of August, Jim elkington play. And I hadn’t seen live music in months. It was so miraculous to be in a room with someone who was making music. I got to be there, and it was unreal. A few weeks later I played there and it was like, wow, I remember why I do this.
Is there something about the exhibition space, perhaps memories, which have always been there and everyone knows it?[There’s] a picture of [saxophonist and club owner] Fred Anderson at the Velvet Lounge behind the bar – he has a saxophone. We have had a lot of business conversations. I would go there and help him out, especially when The Velvet Lounge moved; and we were talking business philosophically and trying to keep the music going. So I had this picture at home, and I was like, you know what, it goes right over the bar. From day one I put it up there, then the [photographer] came in, and he said, “ No, you need a bigger one. So it made a bigger impression, and we put it in place. Of course, not everyone knows who Fred is, but for the people who do, they know how important it is.