Stories of Nirvana, R.E.M., Green Day and more before they made it big

This poster, courtesy of John Wolf, was used to promote Nirvana's 1989 show at the Lift Ticket. Admission? Only $4.

This poster, courtesy of John Wolf, was used to promote Nirvana’s 1989 show at the Lift Ticket. Admission? Only $4.


Today on and in pages of The World-Herald, I shared more than a dozen stories from local concertgoers about seeing now-famous bands before they were a big deal.

Some of the biggest memories are of Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Conor Oberst and others that played tiny Omaha venues (Ranch Bowl anyone?) before anyone really knew who they were.

I heard from a ton of people (you guys saw some awesome shows, I tell you), but I couldn’t include every one of these great stories in print.

So I put all of them here on Rock Candy. Enjoy them and please, please share more of your stories in the comments below or by dropping me an e-mail (

Omahan John Wolf, who played in bands Cellophane Ceiling and Bad Luck Charm, also booked concerts in the area. Two of the most famous are Nirvana and Soundgarden, which both played The Lift Ticket Lounge (the same space The Waiting Room Lounge now occupies in Benson). How much did Wolf and his partner pay Nirvana to play that Oct. 8, 1989, show? $150.

“They weren’t anybody at the time, really. It’s one of those things that everybody I talked to was at the show, but the reality of it was that … we had a little over 50 people that paid and another 20 or 25 that got in free because they were friends with the opening band or whatever.

“It was a killer show. In typical fashion, Nirvana kind of trashed their drums. I remember Kurt (Cobain) getting up on the drum set and knocking it over and then the drummer, Chad (Channing), knocking it over and that was it. I remember they were really worn out from the road. I think they were playing every night. They were actually pretty low key guys.”“I know everybody who was there sure as hell remembers the show.

“That same time, basically a week or two later, we booked Soundgarden. That was kinda different. They just released their first record on A&M, and they show up in this tour bus to the Lift Ticket. You didn’t see that pull up to the Lift Ticket Lounge at the time.”

Chris Harding-Thornton, who ran the Cog Factory for years, has a few related memories of a pair of grunge bands.

“I saw Nirvana, like, the day before they became NIRVANA, in 1991. I had been living in Kansas, working at a tiny radio station, and we got a copy of ‘Nevermind’ on vinyl. I knew about ‘Bleach’ because there were people cooler than I was who had seen them play on that tour (in Lincoln and Omaha) and who had worn out the record at whatever horrible, wrecked, filthy house everyone hung out at during a given time period.

“Then they were booked to play at KU’s ballroom, which also seemed really weird, but then unexpected bands sometimes got lucky and got some student association to pay them some ridiculous amount of money to play a college show. I thought there’d be 100 people there, but the place was packed; I think it sold out. And if I remember correctly, there was instrument destruction at the end of the show, which was just bizarre. Bands like The Who destroyed instruments. Bands that had an arsenal of guitars in their own dedicated U-Haul did it. But indie bands didn’t destroy their instruments at the end of a set. They just didn’t. They needed them to play the next show. They couldn’t afford a new guitar; they were lucky to cover gas money with whatever they got paid for a set.

“It was sold out, which made no sense at all, and everyone was pretty aware that whatever was going on there, whatever was happening, was something. And it wasn’t magical; it was somehow ominous. Like all of a sudden, at least speaking for myself, one felt very small in the grand scheme of things.

“It was sold out, which made no sense at all, and everyone was pretty aware that whatever was going on there, whatever was happening, was something. And it wasn’t magical; it was somehow ominous. Like all of a sudden, at least speaking for myself, one felt very small in the grand scheme of things.

Brian Kiel saw Pearl Jam open for Smashing Pumpkins who, in turn, opened the show for Red Hot Chili Peppers at the Peony Park Ballroom on Oct. 20, 1991. Pearl Jam was listed only as a “special guest” on the marquee.

“My older brother had an extra ticket and invited me along, (and we) arrived shortly after Pearl Jam had started. Between songs, Eddie Vedder took a moment to ask everyone to back up a little bit and give people at the front a little space, made some mention of how it’s good to be alive, or how we don’t want anyone getting crushed, and then they launched into ‘Alive.’ Vedder jumped into the crowd during one song and crowd-surfed across. I distinctly remember passing him along, as he had a Red Hot Chili Peppers logo sticker affixed to the back of his shorts.“After Pearl Jam finished, I — sadly in retrospect — spent much of the Smashing Pumpkins set at the very back, outside of the ballroom. While I was still able to hear the music, I was overheated from the Pearl Jam set and really needed to cool down.”

Green Day, Ben Folds Five


Kiel also caught Green Day a few years later. The punk band’s major-label debut, “Dookie,” was doing really well, but in Omaha they played the Ranch Bowl.

While opening act Pansy Division played, “I was standing about halfway back from the stage (outside of the cluster part of the crowd) watching. Looked to my right and remember noticing a really short guy with a few facial piercings and green hair standing right next to me watching the show. We both stood there and watched, enjoying the show.

“It wasn’t until Green Day took the stage that I realized the person with whom I had watched the Pansy Division set was indeed (Green Day drummer) Tré Cool. It was (so) hot with that many people in the place, the windows were fogging over and (singer) Billy Joe (Armstrong) made some comment about that.”

State Sen. Heath Mello wears a suit to work these days, but he often donned a T-shirt and headed out to local rock clubs. His earliest “made it big” band was Ben Folds Five, who played the Ranch Bowl in August 1995.

“I was just entering my junior year in high school, and it was my first concert at the Ranch Bowl. The headliner was Better Than Ezra, with Ben Folds Five as the first opening band. “BFF was promoting their first album, and it was a site to see. By one of the last songs, Ben Folds was hanging from rafters and playing the grand piano with toes. Their onstage performance that night in the Ranch Bowl setting was the epitome of what a live concert was suppose to be. Needless to say, I became a Ben Folds fan after that experience.”

Red Hot Chili Peppers, Conor Oberst


Marq Manner sees hundreds of bands every year, and he’s been going to local concerts for decades. He related a few stories to The World-Herald.

“I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers (at the Ranch Bowl) in 1989, when I was 16 years old, on the Mothers Milk tour. The place was jam packed — and most will remember that capacity didn’t mean the same to the Ranch Bowl as it did to the city — as they had a cult following for quite some time. The band jammed through a lot of the songs on the new album, and it was a sweaty mess and the whole place was dancing and moshing as this was when the band was actually funky. I remember having to wring the sweat out of my jeans and shirt later. “It’s kind of odd now, but us that were fans at the time kind of felt like we were only seeing half of the Red Hot Chili Peppers as Hillel Slovak has passed away and Jack Irons had left the band. These John Frusciante and Chad Smith guys were newbies.

“The legendary story is that after the show the Red Hot Chili Peppers streaked 72nd Street. It’s been (told) enough times that it might as well (have) actually happened. I don’t know if it did or not.

“I also used to go see this band called the Goo Goo Dolls once a year or so when they came to the Ranch Bowl. They were this really fun bar band in the vein of The Replacements. The singer Johnny always wore overalls and had long shaggy hair, and the bassist Robby would jump and stomp around the stage barefoot. They always did a great cover of one of my favorite Prince songs, ‘I Can Never Take The Place Of Your Man.’ They usually did a cool cover of Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper.’

“The first time I saw them there there might have been 50 or so people in the crowd. The next time they had written a song with (The Replacements’) Paul Westerberg called ‘We Are The Normal’ that was getting some college and ’120 Minutes’ play, so there was decent crowd. They then put out this single called ‘Name’ and the place was full to the rafters that third time I saw them at The Ranch Bowl.

“Wonder what happened to that band? I liked them a lot.”

Lincolnite Andy Fairbarn booked bands for years at Duffy’s, so he’s seen a lot of shows. One of the memories that sticks out most in his mind is of a local teenager.

“I was good friends with the guys in Such Sweet Thunder when they played the Marian welcome back bash in 1992. I rode up with them from Lincoln to hang out with them. The first act was a 12-year-old kid by himself. Blew me away. Just the kind of guts it takes to do that at such a young age. (It was Conor Oberst.) The next band was really young & energetic, too. It turned out to be Slowdown Virginia.”

Omahan Keith Binder played in bands and has lots of memories of seeing a few Omaha singer-songwriters that turned out to be a big deal. Over the years, he saw dozens of big-time bands play Omaha’s now-defunct Cog Factory before they went onto bigger things.

“My first show I ever played at Cog Factory, I was 14 and in a terrible metal-core band, and we opened for a 16-year-old kid named Conor Oberst and an ‘older dude’ named Simon Joyner. There were maybe 20 people there at the most. It was nice back in those days because shows were mixed genres.

“I booked Desaparecidos’ second or third show ever and their first show at Cog, they opened for The Appleseed Cast and some other bands that were less memorable. I’ve seen Bright Eyes, Cursive and The Faint several dozen times playing to rooms of 10 to 20 people, and it was a great time to be into independent music.

“My favorite story though is seeing Against Me! just after Reinventing Axel Rose came out. They played an anarchist book collective downtown to maybe 30 kids. It is, to this day, one of my top five favorite shows and the best I’ve ever seen that band, and I’ve seen them a lot.”

Chris Harding-Thornton recalled a lot of different shows, many of whom she saw while running the Cog Factory in the years before it closed. Others, such as a formative Jesus Lizard show at the Howard Street Tavern, were concerts she basically stumbled across, but ended up being major memories. One of her favorites is about The Faint, a local band that became a national presence. At the band’s start, it was your basic guitar-focused indie rock band, but Harding-Thornton knew something was up when frontman Todd Fink asked her to borrow a keyboard.

“That was a weird question at the time. Keyboards were still pretty much verboten in bands with guitars. We were all still scarred by the runoff of keyboards’ and the saxophone’s influence on mainstream music in the late ’80s, I think.

“Anyway, so they walked in that night, and I’m not going to swear by my memory, but here is how I remember it: They were all wearing black, which was not normal. Not common. And they weren’t really talking to anyone. They were being very focused, very conscious of setting up, kind of evasive. The crowd, which was substantial, was buzzing with fairly quiet, nervous confusion. The scene was not unlike the initial gathering around the monolith in ’2001: A Space Odyssey.’ T… then The Faint got up there, and they launched into their first song. I have zero recollection of what song it was.I just remember standing in the sound booth and that whatever happened was very, very loud. Very jarring. And danceable. It was extremely loud, abrasive and danceable. Which was absurd. No one did that. And if I recall correctly — I probably don’t — they got through one song, everyone replied with stillness and shock, not knowing what the hell just happened, what they just saw, so The Faint launched into the next song with a loud pound of a noise, and then — snap — silence. They’d blown up the system. They’d just blown it up. All in the room knew they’d seen something strange and surreal and momentous, and that whatever it was was too much for the circuitry. The Faint had just blown everything up. It was ridiculously metaphorical.

Harding-Thornton also recounted a story from her husband, Will Thornton. It was a show at Kilgore’s on California Street where a very, very young Conor Oberst performed.

“(There was) this really young kid getting dropped off by his mom, playing a song or some songs, and then packing up his guitar and leaving, and it was kind of like that Faint thing. (There was) a moment where everyone was just like, ‘What the hell was that? What just happened?’”

Jason Kulbel, co-owner of Slowdown and former label manager for Saddle Creek Records, saw a ton of up-and-coming bands during his time with the label. One of those nights was spent in the dingy basement that is Sokol Underground, which is somewhat notorious for having a support beam right in the middle of the stage. One of his favorites involved Arcade Fire’s novel use of that very pole.

“That show was amazing. But honestly, it probably wasn’t as amazing as it really was. There was maybe 150 or 200 people there.

“I have a very specific memory of the guy in Arcade Fire (Richard Parry), he was always wearing a motorcycle helmet for some reason. Anyway, that pole in the middle of the room, he kept beating on that pole and beating on his motorcycle helmet. For some reason, that really sticks out as a memory. He was just beating on it and beating it on other things.”

Matt and Kim, REM, The Lumineers


Brendan Green-Walsh has booked concerts at tiny O’Leaver’s Pub for about eight years, and in that time, he has seen quite a few bands with little followings come through. Often, those bands break through and begin playing larger rock clubs. Sometimes, like when rock/pop duo Matt and Kim played the small room in 2006, they end up headlining festivals.

“It was a winter show and it was pretty sparsely attended. The next summer, I saw them play twice at Lollapalooza. That’s a pretty big shift.

“I had the same thought at Maha Music Festival this year watching them steal the show. Everybody was into it and, not too many years ago, these guys were playing to 20 people. That was the case anywhere they were going at that time. Then when ‘Grand’ came out, they really started to blow up and gain some attention”

Phil Reno and a friend skipped school to go see Pantera and White Zombie play the Ranch Bowl in 1992. He almost didn’t get in.

“We wanted to get (guitarist Dimebag Darrel’s) autograph on our guitars. So we showed up like at 1 p.m., and the band was just hanging out. (Singer) Phil (Anselmo) was bowling, (bassist) Rex (Brown) was playing a driving game and Dime was playing air hockey. They were all super cool, Dime talked our ears off for about 15 minutes and even wanted to buy the guitar I just had him autograph. Very cool. The only problem was the show was labeled as an 18-plus show, I wasn’t 18 but had a ticket. Fortunately I was able to get in.”

“The stage was so cramped with gear that White Zombie had to use all of Pantera’s stuff, which I must say sounded incredible. ‘Thunder Kiss ’65′ was the big song at the time. Pantera gets up there and proceeds to tear the roof off the place. By far the best concert I ever saw at the Ranch Bowl — top five all time for me.”

For several years, Greg Edds was the sound guy at O’Leaver’s Pub. He has set up for all kinds of bands and, for some reason, distinctly remembers the October night in 2011 that Wesley Schultz from The Lumineers asked if they could be added to the bill.

“They weren’t exactly on the bill. It was this singer-songwriter Paleo (who) as doing a show with Capgun Coup. Paleo asked if his friend’s band could jump on the bill, and I said that was fine. Then Wes, the lead singer of Lumineers, came up to me and asked if they could also jump on the bill. He asked if they could play first or if they could jump in after the first or second band. They’d be quick and easy. I remember asking their setup and he said they were an acoustic band with an acoustic guitar, suitcase drums and a cello player.

“As soon as I heard ‘cello player,’ I shrugged my shoulders. Miking stringed instruments at O’Leaver’s is not easy. He said, ‘We don’t even need microphones. We’re gonna play in the middle of the room.’

“I’ve heard weirder requests. So, t They were dressed like they popped out of the 1920s … (and) they played maybe four or five songs. It wasn’t a big crowd. There were more band members in the audience than crowd members. It was crazy to see that band blow up. I heard my wife humming along to that song, I remember asking about that band. I said, ‘Wait a minute. This band played O’Leaver’s a couple months ago.’ She said, ‘Well, they got rich in a hurry.’

It was crazy that these guys that were trying to get me to mike their suitcase drumset is playing ‘Saturday Night Live.’”

R.E.M. performs at the Drumstick in Lincoln. (Posted by the Friends of the Drumstick)

R.E.M. performs at the Drumstick in Lincoln. (Posted by the Friends of the Drumstick)

When REM called it quits last year, a lot of fans were upset. Christine McCollister had to have been among them since she saw REM play the Drumstick in Lincoln back in 1983. She was among about 10 people in the audience.

“Their EP, ‘Chronic Town,’ had just come out, there was a write up in the Daily Nebraskan about it and so we went. It was a good show, a Tuesday or something. I saw them a few months or a year later and there were more people, not standing room only though, but Michael Stipe spent the better part of the show in the back room. He did one song and then left the stage. I believe Peter Buck said he had something in his eye… er… nose… er, I don’t know but I was pretty sure he was altered in some way. That’s not what everyone did in the back room.

“We saw Nirvana at Duffy’s too. A friend owned an independent record store and he was really into it all and he insisted we go to that show. It was really loud and it made no sense as I recall — Sonic Youthish noise, a lot of that.A lot of noise. We were not impressed, not disgruntled just like, huh, that was kinda weird. I swear, I might be remembering this wrong but Kurt Cobain was wearing that green sweater at that show. I think ‘Nevermind’ came out about a year or so later maybe?”



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6 Responses to Stories of Nirvana, R.E.M., Green Day and more before they made it big

  1. bart says:

    I remember seeing Linkin Park and Shinedown open for the Kottonmouth Kings in ’00 @ the Ranch Bowl

  2. Nick says:

    I think it was 1993, in the fall. A few friends and I went down to the music hall at Civic Auditorium to see Cypress Hill. Rage Against the Machine opened for them, who none of us were familiar with. Stole the show. Tom Morello’s guitar work was like nothing we’d ever seen, and Zach did a spoken word section at one point that had everyone mesmerized. Amazing show.

  3. Jeremy Bresley says:

    I remember seeing Poe and the Eels both play the Ranch Bowl back in 95-96. Both groups had top 40 hits on the charts by the time they were scheduled to play the Ranch Bowl. Whoever did their booking had a knack for getting artists signed to play 6-12 months out, then having them hit it big before they were scheduled to play. Omaha still has some amazing local music places, but the Ranch Bowl is certainly missed.

  4. Man – Phil, I remember that Pantera / White Zombie show! I was there too! As a freshmen in HS!!!!! That was good…so was the Linkin Park show.

    Another good one: STP in, I think, 1993 with maybe 50 people there or so. Sex Type Thing had just come out, maybe a day or two before that show. I got to help sound check the drums, we all got free CDs and Tshirts and had a blast……until what I can now most certainly say was an intoxicated Wyland walking up on stage telling us all to beat it! Still loved the show, though!
    - Matt Frampton

  5. Jeff says:

    Don’t forget the much protested “Wendy o Williams in the Plasmatics at the Drumstick in Lincoln. I don’t recall the exact year but I was too young to be there but something that had to be done to get a chance to see BOOBS as a teenager.

  6. joey d'agusto says:

    I saw janes addiction at aksarben in 1990. I never heard of them but ny buddy gave them rave reviews. The music was good but the crowd reminded me of a freak show. He also saw metallica at peony park sometime in the mid 80′s. If I remember correctly he said they showed up at fat jacks in cb after the show and got to talk to them.