As the temperatures rise, music keeps popping up all over the Corridor, in the smallest of spaces, spilling into outdoor places.
Restaurants and bars have been carving out room for bands for years, and local coffee shops, wineries and breweries are plugging into the trend.
Outdoor concert series dot the cityscapes, from band concerts in area parks and Summer of the Arts concerts throughout the season in downtown Iowa City to Uptown Friday Nights and superstar performers Willie Nelson on June 12 and Diana Ross on July 9 at the McGrath Amphitheatre along the riverbank in downtown Cedar Rapids.
On the brewery scene, revelers have been flocking to Millstream Brewery in the Amanas for years, where the German bands kick up the party feel of Maifest in the spring, Oktoberfest in the fall, and Saturday night summertime revelry from a variety of musical styles.
The new Big Grove Brewery & Taproom, 1225 S. Gilbert St. in Iowa City, which opened in March, sports a stage at the far end of the main room, near the tables and open seating areas adjacent to the game room.
“It fit the feeling of what we’re trying to do,” general manager Danny Standley said, noting that after checking out what other spaces and breweries are doing, “it fit the space and just felt right.”
The music runs a broad stroke of Americana, he said, with soul, bluegrass and rock from a mix of local bands and those passing through en route to Chicago or points west. Concerts currently are staged indoors on various weeknights, but Standley is looking to add music outdoors and at more family-friendly times on weekend afternoons.
Even two of the area’s largest entertainment venues have created smaller, multipurpose rooms to showcase music in more intimate settings.
Post-flood renovations to the Paramount building in downtown Cedar Rapids and the reconstruction of Hancher Auditorium at 141 E. Park Rd. in Iowa City gave both venues the opportunity to increase audience experiences by downsizing performance footprints.
The Opus Concert Cafe, which opens into the Paramount Theatre’s Hall of Mirrors, adds a taste of elegance for Orchestra Iowa chamber concerts and other small ensembles, as well as a gathering spot before, during and after orchestra concerts. The First Friday Jazz series is so popular with local performers that it’s booked into 2018, said Jeff Collier, Orchestra Iowa’s CEO.
The flexible cabaret configuration seats about 85, and the room is designed for concert acoustics, lighting and sound production. In addition to having a stage and bar, Opus also offers backstage access to the Paramount and a catering kitchen, so other uses have ranged from audience meet-and-greets for Paramount artists like William Shatner and Macy Grey to corporate meetings, wedding receptions and rehearsal dinners.
The venue opened in 2012 and generates about $50,000 for the orchestra, which manages the facility and contracts the bar through VenuWorks, which manages the Paramount for the city.
The intimate setting helps fill a niche on the night life scene, Collier said, with its “ability to serve so many different types of music in a cool hip vibe that it gives off.”
It also creates a more relaxed atmosphere for serious music programming, by taking the orchestra’s chamber ensembles out of churches and recital halls with conventional sit-and-listen seating.
“(Audiences) can get a drink and listen to some great classical music. That’s becoming more common, but finding the right spaces for that still is a challenge, so Opus is very unique in that way. ...
“It’s a performance space that is designed to be welcoming, somewhat upscale, but not pretentious. It’s intended to be a very classy way to spend an evening with some great music.”
Strauss Hall in the new Hancher Auditorium fills a flexibility void, as well, offering seating for 100 to 200 people in various configurations, including cabaret tables.
“We wanted a smaller venue — 1,800 seats isn’t appropriate for everything,” said Chuck Swanson, Hancher’s CEO.
The original Hancher, destroyed in the Floods of 2008, used Clapp Recital Hall for smaller performances, but it didn’t offer flexibility for auxiliary uses like banquets, which Strauss Hall can accommodate.
During its first season, Strauss Hall has provided rehearsal space for the Joffrey Ballet and “The Book of Mormon” musical theater production and other touring artists. It also provided a setting for receptions and performances of puppetry, dance and music from around the world.
The hall’s second season begins Aug. 24 and 25 with dance from Monica Bill Barnes & Co., continuing with music and theatrics from Ethan Lipton & His Orchestra in four shows Oct. 27 and 28, and the Ukrainian band DakhaBrakha on April 19.
“The acoustics are great, but more than anything, it’s that size of hall that is perfect for connecting the artist and the audience,” Swanson said. Being able to order food and drink creates a jazz club vibe, as well.
“It gives us an opportunity to have a variety of offerings, which is really important in the business that we do,” he said. “We thought about it very carefully. Hancher does a broad range of programs, and in order to do that, we have to be able to have a broad range of opportunities for spaces.”