Dubuque Iowa After Dark

Iowa City-based musician David Zollo performing in Dubuque.

Iowa City-based musician David Zollo performing in Dubuque.

Excuse me but have you seen where Iowa City’s nightlife might have gone?  It seems to have been misplaced. I swear it was here just the other night.

Turns out it wandered 85 miles northeast to Dubuque.  This doesn’t happen often, but Dubuque is borrowing more bands from Iowa City and the surrounding areas than most would have ever thought possible even a few years ago.  The nightlife is one of the more obvious examples of the benefits Dubuque is enjoying after putting a strategy in place to revitalize a river city that fell into disrepair.

“With the river, casino and people buying up and renovating all these old buildings, Dubuque is in the right spot at the right time,” says Michael Elliott, a manager at Isabella’s nightclub.

Take one Saturday in March, where instead of playing host to the students at the University of Iowa, an impressive display of Iowa City’s musical talent was scattered across the downtown Dubuque area.  The festivities began in the afternoon at the Dubuque Museum of Art, where Iowa City photographer, Sandy Dyas, unveiled a retrospective of pictures featured in her 2007 book, Down to the River: Portraits of Iowa Musicians.  To give the subject matter some context and dimension, smoky-blue chanteuse Pieta Brown, daughter to folk-legend Greg Brown, came off the road from her “Remember the Sun” tour to bring voice to Dyas’s work.

The performance was held in the museum’s atrium and was standing-room-only before the show began.  Brown was accompanied during the 45 minute unplugged acoustic set by her husband, roots guitar slinger and producer Bo Ramsey.  A cursory look around the crowd revealed Belfast-born singer and songwriter Andy White, who would later be joined by pianist Radoslav Lorkovic, who backs folk-icon Odetta, at Isabella’s.  Ramsey’s son, Benson, along with David Huckfelt, who together make up the Minneapolis-based folk/blues outfit The Pines were in attendance and had a gig that evening at the Silver Dollar Cantina.

Also in town from Iowa City was blues/rock pianist David Zollo, holding court at DaVinci’s pub, and Brother Trucker over at the Busted Lift.  Across the river in Galena, Mike and Amy Finders were enchanting the crowd at the Depot and Joe Price had a house party going on in the area as well.  Regardless of the city, this much talent in one evening makes deciding where to go difficult, and in Dubuque these are the kind of dilemmas the city planners and business owners are hoping for often.

“Dubuque has the best music scene going in Iowa,” said Zollo.  “I’m looking at relocating from Iowa City over here because of the scene.”

During the 1990s, Main Street in Dubuque was itself an antique.  Many of the historic buildings were vacant and those businesses that remained – wig stores, five & dimes and pawn shops – wore their years poorly.  In 1992 the Port of Dubuque area, an inlet adjacent to the downtown and reachable via a short bridge off Main Street, began with an extensive long-range planning and feasibility study.  The idea being to reclaim these old docks and brownfield areas that had fallen into urban decay.  The new restaurants and bars seen in the lower-Main Street area are dividends of this well-planned river city turnaround.

The city, state, and private enterprises formed a partnership in Dubuque among the City of Dubuque, the Chamber of Commerce, Dubuque County, the historical society, State of Iowa Vision Iowa Fund, and Platinum Hospitality Group, which together make up the America’s River redevelopment project.  They conceived an ambitious vision to restore vitality to this river city and carve out a lasting state and national identity that would draw visitors and new residents alike.

Phase I of the America’s River project was concluded in 2003, and came with a price tag of $188 million.  The Port of Dubuque was the anchor that signaled to the city that change was on the horizon.  The Mississippi River runs 2,400 miles, through ten states, and Dubuque has positioned itself to be a major player in developing a cultural celebration of the longest river in North America.

To provide a base for economic prosperity and a balance between local nightlife interests and tourist traffic, the 90-acre Phase I project includes The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, the Grand River Convention Center, the Alliant Energy Amphitheater and Riverwalk, the Grand Harbor Resort and Indoor Waterpark, and the Dubuque Greyhound Park & Casino.  The benefits have been instantaneous.  Over 1,000 new jobs have been created.  It’s estimated by the Dubuque Convention & Visitors Bureau that Phase I projects have increased tourist activity by 500,000 people and in its second year of operation America’s River facilities produced an $18 million increase in tourism dollars compared to 2002 when these projects opened.

Phase II of the America’s River project is already underway.  This $82 million investment is slated for completion in 2010.  This will add two more facilities to the rapidly expanding Port of Dubuque campus.  The centerpiece to this phase is the new 35,000 square foot Diamond Jo Casino.  Originally opened in 1994, it’s one of the cornerstones to Dubuque’s tourist industry, drawing over 1 million visitors yearly, this riverboat gambling casino is currently stationed dockside, but is building a $50 million land-based expansion set to open in late 2008.

Also expanding will be the National Mississippi River Museum.  They will take over the vacated Diamond Jo’s dockside buildings and riverboat to create the Great Rivers Center and the RiverMax theater, where 3D films may be shown.

Phase 2 is projected to attract 732,000 additional visitors, with around 287,000 from outside the area.  This could bring $33 million in additional tourist-related revenue to Dubuque.

Fundraising has been continuous since the inception of the America’s River project.  Everything from a $2 beer purchased at Taste of Dubuque to a bowl of chili from the chili cook-off have contributed to the renovations.  Perhaps the biggest incentive has come from the state itself.  Vision Iowa, and the Community Attraction and Tourism program, in conjunction with the Iowa Department of Economic Development, is charged by the Iowa Legislature with encouraging and supporting creative projects that enhance the lives of Iowans.  Vision Iowa offered a $40 million grant to get Phase I off the ground and has thus far pumped $8 million into Phase II.

With a population of around 58,000, Dubuque is the eighth-largest city in the state, and the oldest.  It played a key role in the early settlement of Iowa and that is why it is sometimes referred to as the “Key City.”  Dubuque has a deep history and rich cultural fabric that gives the city a prominence that belies its size.  It’s home to five institutes of higher education.

Together with the Port of Dubuque and fledgling ‘Downtown District’ this city is the main commercial, industrial, educational and cultural center for the tri-state area, where Illinois and Wisconsin meet Iowa.

Zollo performing for an enthusiastic Dubuque crowd.

Zollo performing for an enthusiastic Dubuque crowd.

Part of the rich cultural fabric in this town is its strong German-Irish heritage.  Stop off in the Busted Lift pub on lower Main Street, where Gaelic symbols and tapestries adorn the walls.  This downstairs establishment has been the linchpin most recently for Dubuque’s revitalized nightlife.  Opened in 1999, this pub is designed to be a quintessential Irish-type establishment, meant to serve Dubuque’s hard drinking German-Irish population.

The exposed rock walls and low ceilings mix well with the low-lit atmosphere, where two bars serve the divided room.  With a capacity of 160, it’s the right size for sweaty live shows, but not too large to hang out in with only a few patrons.  The stage remains the true draw.  Its only a step up from the main floor and resembles more of a den setting, with bookshelves, dartboard and Irish artwork setting the scene.

Originally booking traditional-Irish acts from around the region, the Lift has progressed into one of the premier live venues for beginning to medium sized acts crisscrossing the country.  It has stayed true to its Irish roots, booking acts like Gaelic Storm, who performed in James Cameron’s movie mega-smash Titanic.

“It use to be we’d get college students in here with their professors to have a drink, but now its blown-up and we get all kinds of crowds,” says Jon Roling, the 26-year old manager.  Roling lived in Chicago for two years while attending art school and enjoyed the scene, but in Dubuque he feels his work and the presence of venues like the Busted Lift make a difference in bringing about the changes to Dubuque’s nightlife.

“It started to swing in 2001, but really got jamming in 2003,” says Roling.  With the Bricktown Brewery holding down the corner of W. 3rd Street and Main, the ‘Lift’ on lower Main, the Silver Dollar Cantina one block up, and the Five Flags Center bringing in UFC fights and people like Brett Michaels, there’s action to be found downtown.

Roling isn’t ready to compare the place to Chicago or even Iowa City, he’s just enjoying being part of the renaissance.  “We’re not jaded like Iowa City,” says Roling.  “They’ve always had great musicians there and sometimes take that for granted, we appreciate everything that is happening in Dubuque.”

With pub quiz every Tuesday and “Readings Under The Influence,” where speakers must take shots prior to and after their readings, filling out between live gigs, the ‘Lift’ is rolling.

One block up is the Silver Dollar Cantina, housed in the ground floor of the old German Bank building that offers Tex/Mex cuisine and live music.  Began in the 1990’s, ‘the Dollar’ suffered a fire in October 2001 that put it out of business until March 2008.  This had been the premier live music venue in Dubuque prior to the fire and could have signaled the end of any progressive music scene.  Most other places in town offered bad cover bands but ‘the Dollar’ only booked bands that played original music.

After over a $1 million renovation ‘the Dollar’ is back up to speed and better than ever.  With a contemporary setting including bright color schemes, multi-colored skylights and flat-screened televisions, the stage has been moved and increased in size.

“There was nobody on Main Street before us,” says general manager Michelle Bechen.  “We’re doing something different and bringing in bands from around the region and further out to introduce Dubuque to new kinds of music.”

Iowa City rocker, David Zollo helped persuade management to install a new PA system and give the place a feel of an urban club.  A lot of the old crowd has returned to the Dollar.  It’s an eclectic group that includes college students, professionals, and tourists, but the family feel keeps folks coming back.

The Urban Llama taking in some nightlife in Dubuque.

The Urban Llama taking in some nightlife in Dubuque.

Over at Isabella’s a different vibe is in the air.  Located in a large, old Victorian home, this ultra-lounge has use of the basement, side rooms, gazebo-area and the yard for outdoor seating when weather permits.  The ceilings are low and a variety of dollar bills with messages written on them, hockey sticks and whatever else are tacked to the ceiling.  The sound system is digitally clean, the walls are deep red and the seat cushions are a funky green color – this is hangout central.

Open since 2005, Isabella’s is reaping the rewards of seeds sown by the Busted Lift and the Silver Dollar.  “This scene has really amped-up in the last 10 years,” says Elliott.  “The renovation work in town, the Busted Lift – it’s really blossomed here.”

There’s some mean foosball played here, but you will not find Red Bull on tap or ‘Red Headed Sluts’ on the drink list.  It’s not that Isabella’s is trying to be pretentious, but it strives for that art-bar feel and don’t need to cater to a crowd looking to get hammered.  It’s really a high-end beer establishment, modeled after the Sanctuary in Iowa City and has the beer menu to rival it.  “This is more like a public house concept,” says Elliott.  “You’re not here to get trashed – it’s more about having a conversation with people – this is not a Kool-Aid bar, it’s a drinkers bar.”

With a capacity of 82, it’s an intimate setting.  The stage is tiny and more resembles a smoking room, with books and a radio set on shelves behind a couple of easy chairs.  This also happens to be Dubuque’s only vinyl bar.  With hookah-smoking nights on Thursday, there is a definite vibe crafted at Isabella’s that brings in a more sophisticated crowd.

With renovations readily visible throughout the downtown area it appears Dubuque’s future is just beginning.  Dozens of new restaurants, cafés, bookshops and upscale coffee bars dot the landscape and signal a lifeblood is pumping through this area.  New pavement, brickwork, decorative lamps, benches and waste cans have been installed as part of the new downtown revitalization.  Make no mistake we’re not talking about Las Vegas or New York City here, or even Iowa City yet, but with like-minded clubs such as the Busted Lift, Isabella’s and the Silver Dollar, options abound for folks looking for a good time in this Midwestern river town.

“It’s ‘the Dollar,’” says Bechen.  “It’s been a lot of hard work and a long time coming – but to see all those faces back and the excitement – I couldn’t be happier unless I was drinking another Cosmo.”

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