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By Allison Babka
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The fire was small, limited to the prep area and dish room of Cicero's kitchen, but the smoke and water damage was extensive. So was the impact on the local jam-band scene. When the venerable venue suddenly closed for six months to make repairs, bands had to scramble to find places to perform. "We consider Cicero's to be our home; that's where we feel real comfortable playing," says Jerret Hotle of CPB, one of the finalists competing in Cicero's third annual Battle of the Jambands, which takes place on successive Thursdays this month. "When Cicero's shut down, it was, like, nobody had a place to play around town. We'd have to play at bars where nobody really wanted to come see a show."
Much to the delight of local jammers, Cicero's reopened on Sept. 5. These days, Cicero's hosts Grateful Dead cover bands two nights a week; back in 1987, when the club first started booking music at its original location (now Blueberry Hill's Duck Room), it was a mecca for the local alt-rock scene. "At the time, there were only three showcase venues in the entire city: Cicero's, Off Broadway and Mississippi Nights," recalls Chad Jacobs, who was 4 years old when his father, Shawn Jacobs, first opened Cicero's as a restaurant in 1977. "Off Broadway was doing their thing -- rootsy, country, singer/songwriter kind of stuff -- and Mississippi Nights was doing all the really big shows, so it left Cicero's to do all of the smaller shows. As other clubs in town started to open up, Cicero's really developed its niche in the alternative, underground punk scene."
Voted "Best Alternative Club in St. Louis" from 1990-95 in the Riverfront Times' annual readers' poll, Cicero's enjoyed a lengthy run of popularity before moving across the street in '97 to its current University City Loop location. Although the move was just a few blocks, the slight change in latitude brought a major change in attitude. "There were rumors that Cicero's was going to change their music with the move," Jacobs recalls. "There were articles in all the papers about how Cicero's was dying, about how the scene was going to die, about how somebody else was going to have to take over, but it was all rumors. We got bashed in the local music press about how we were letting the public down. It was amazing how many people in town considered that place their home."
In fact, Cicero's did briefly continue booking the same music at the new location, but it didn't matter. Crowds were thin. "Because of all the negative press, we weren't getting as many people as we were expecting, and the people that were coming had problems with the new room because it was too new," Jacobs laughs. "The old place was a completely unfinished, smelly basement -- literally a dive, with concrete walls, wet and nasty dripping pipes, concrete floors. So we moved and made a real nice place for music, taking the time and money to soundproof the room, make the acoustics perfect, and when people started coming to see all their favorite punk and alternative bands, they decided that it wasn't the room they wanted to be in. We went from negative press before we opened about how everything was going to change to 'the music hasn't changed, but the room now has a corporate feel; it's too clean; it's not the dive we were hoping it would be.'"
With the old format failing, Jacobs convinced his dad to entrust him with booking the club. Success was elusive -- at least at first. Frustrated by a short, unsuccessful stint mixing blues and jazz, Jacobs was receptive when approached about taking the club in a different direction. "A lot of people were asking me about booking Jake's Leg and also the Schwag," he remembers. "Quite frankly, I was never into the Grateful Dead before that, and I didn't know about the jam-band scene at that time."
Educating himself online, surfing cyberjam hotspots such as Jambands.com and Homegrownmusic.net, Jacobs decided to take a chance on several bands he was hearing for the first time. "We did our first big jam-band show in March of '98 with the Ominous Seapods and Day by the River," Jacobs notes. "We had 240 people at the door, which at that time was more people in the venue than we had seen for over a year!"
Not only was Jacobs pleasantly surprised at the strong turnout, he dug the music. "I started booking as many jam bands as I could because I thought the music was incredible," he admits. "And if you think about it, that's what made Cicero's a successful venue in the first place, when it started doing the alternative music before anybody else and really started a scene."
Radio host James Mullins, of KDHX-FM's Stumble in the Darkprogram (8-10 p.m. Tuesdays) was playing jam-band CDs and concert tapes even before Cicero's found its new groove. He was ready to throw his support behind a local club that gave jam bands a place to play. "For a while, Cicero's was the only venue that was booking jam bands, except for the national acts that came through, like the String Cheese Incident or Widespread Panic," Mullins says. "There are a lot of bands that wouldn't even have come through St. Louis if it hadn't been for Cicero's. They also book a lot of the local jam bands, which has done wonders for the scene locally."
Jay Mumma, who took over booking when Jacobs relocated to Colorado earlier this year, agrees. "Since Cicero's started spotlighting this kind of music, there are more bands focused on jamming," he observes. "Right now, it's thriving. There's a lot of really, really good local bands that all have their own sound, and that's the hardest thing to get people to understand. It's frustrating when Cicero's gets hit with the stigma of being a Grateful Dead-cover-band club, because that's just part of a bigger picture. The jam-band thing has so many subgenres in it, from bluegrass to funk, blues to techno, just about anything. That's one reason we record all our shows and post them on our Web site (www.ciceros-stl.com) for people to check out. We're willing to share in some of the magic that happens here!"
A couple of years ago, Cicero's held its first battle of the bands to draw attention to the fledgling scene. Now in its third year, the annual monthlong competition means more than ever. In addition to cash prizes, gift certificates from local music stores and merchandise manufacturers, bands are competing for free studio time at Smith Lee Productions. The suspense is almost over. Winners of the three preliminary rounds, CPB, Caravan and one yet-to-be-determined band will battle it out for the grand prize in next week's finals. Although judging in the initial rounds is based entirely on audience response, the ultimate winner will be determined by a panel of judges (including the RFT's own René Spencer Saller).
"Making it to the finals means that people like us and support us, and we love that," says CPB's Hotle. "If we win the final round, that would mean recording time, which would be great for us. But even if we don't win, it's OK, because this battle of the bands is great for the whole scene in St. Louis, and that's what we really care about."