The Black Sheep, which regularly plays host to both local and touring punk groups and will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2015, is the cornerstone of what has developed into a thriving complex of youth-oriented businesses breathing new life into the often-neglected part of town. Since the beginning of this year, a record store, a professional recording studio and a skate shop have all opened their doors on the same block. All of this is in addition to Skank Skates, the venerable indoor skateboard ramp which was officially opened on the corner in 1989 by George Sinclair, who has since become landlord, enabler and benevolent svengali to the Southtown punk scene.
On a typical Wednesday evening in Southtown, one might enter through the front door of Dumb Records (1107 S. Grand Ave.) and pass young people (leather, tattoos and piercings optional, but prevalent) talking and casually perusing the LP, 45, cassette, CD and t-shirt stock or possibly engaging in a game of foosball. The music choices on the store speakers here can be eclectic – recent visits have featured selections from Slayer and the Mamas & the Papas. The atmosphere is casual but strangely energized.
Exiting Dumb Records through the back door will land you in an unpaved parking lot, and if there is a concert at Black Sheep that night it will more than likely be abuzz with even more young people – band members might be unloading equipment from vans or cars while other kids talk, smoke or just goof around. Music is often in the air, wafting from Southtown Recording studios, housed in the building directly behind Dumb Records, where proprietor and engineer Brandon Carnes offers practice space to local combos between recording sessions. He has recorded projects for more than 30 bands since opening there in February.
Hang a left and you’ll find yourself at the unassuming entrance of the Black Sheep Café itself, where you can easily encounter bands onstage ranging from nascent high schoolers sweating through their first gig, to more polished local punk groups, to touring acts from as far away as Tennessee, Macedonia or Japan – all locales represented here in the past year.
If you aren’t in the mood for music or are just craving a more physical type of stimulation, you might head next door to Skank Skates to test your boarding and biking prowess on the popular indoor ramp. What? You don’t have a skateboard or yours needs repairs or a tuneup? Just head upstairs to Boof City Skate Shop (1107 ½ S. Grand) where owner and skater-extraordinaire Colin Eigenmann will set you right up (don’t let the apartment-like entranceway throw you off, you are definitely in the right place).
The Southtown area truly is a one-stop shop for youthful diversion. Ramshackle and rough-hewn as some of the facilities might be, it is never boring and there is a constant hum of excitement in the air.
“We try to stock as much local stuff as we can, along with everything Brandon records in the studio,” says Brian Galecki, co-owner of Dumb Records. One of Southtown’s primary movers and shakers, Galecki also books shows for and helps to manage the Black Sheep.
The unique Southtown scene which, in addition to regular concerts at the Black Sheep also hosts two music festivals, Dumb Fest and Black Sheep Fest, each summer, has attracted the kind of outside praise that has not been historically associated with Springfield. For one example, earlier this year a band from Barcelona called Una Bestia Incontrolable un-ironically posted on its website after playing a Black Sheep show that, “Springfield, Illinois, is the capital of punk!”
“It was crazy,” says Galecki, “because this was definitely the smallest city that they played on that whole entire tour and it was a Wednesday night.” The Spanish band was on the same bill with popular Seattle punk act Iron Lung which certainly helped the turnout for the show. But it seems to be the spirit of the community, and the Southtown scene’s self-renewing nature, that impresses outsiders the most.
“There are a lot of really young kids involved with the music scene right now,” observes Carnes, 25, who, along with Galecki, had been among the first wave of Black Sheep patrons as a teenager. “A lot of high school kids just started popping up this summer and now they’re at every show. I feel like that’s pretty promising.”
While the scene does a good job of impressing touring bands from around the world and appealing to local youngsters, adult music fans in town seem to be the hardest sell for Black Sheep concerts. That can be frustrating, as the musical and cultural offerings could easily interest audiences from across the demographic board.
“It’s all ages,” exclaims Carnes. “All ages shouldn’t necessarily mean just under 21.”
“I’ve heard people complain that there’s too many young kids here, or something like that,” sighs Galecki. “What kind of complaint is that? ‘There’s young people’? As far as bands playing go, you have a built-in audience. And there is a bar across the street [Bourbon Street Rhythm and Ribs, 1031 S. Grand] if drinking is that important to you. Plenty of the bands that usually play bars will play here and maybe the crowd isn’t that big, but these kids are there to see music.”
Carnes, who in addition to running Southtown Recording Studio plays bass in popular punk band the Timmys and is the drummer for Looming, adds that more outré music also gets respect and attention at the Black Sheep. “Even when I do Fuck Mountain shows, where I play droney, ambient music, the crowd at Black Sheep is not only there but actively involved – you don’t go to a lot of cities and see crowds that are willing to hang out and be immersed in this ambient music. Even when we bring in noise projects, people are here to listen, they’re here to watch, they’re here to be engaged, they want to be a part of what’s going on.”
The purely social aspect of the scene, as opposed to commercial concerns, is generally considered a positive thing. Galecki reports noticing a recent increase in kids showing up, not necessarily to see shows, but rather just to hang out in the middle of everything going on. “Some people would say that’s a bad thing, like they’re not paying to get in to see a show, but it’s cool to see what we’ve created here. I think more kids and parents are realizing that this is definitely a safe place. Just driving by outside you wouldn’t know, really, what we have going on here.”
“It’s cool,” agrees Carnes. “The kids are comfortable, they feel safe here – ‘Oh there’s a group of people who care about stuff, let’s go hang out there.’”
In addition to a regular replenishment of new habitués, Southtown has become largely self-sustaining, says Carnes. “When they come here, bands have a place to practice, they’ve got a place to record their music, they’ve got a place to play, they can put out their own tapes or CDs, t-shirts, whatever and they bring ’em down to the record store to sell them.”
Experience has made things go more smoothly. “We’ve gotten to really know what we’re doing here,” says Galecki with pride. “I couldn’t tell you the last time there was a fight at the Black Sheep,” says Carnes.
There is also a real sense that none of this is to be taken for granted. “Peoria’s a town about the same size as ours,” says Galecki, “but as far as the all-ages scene, there’s not a whole lot going on, from what we understand anyway.”
“If it’s there, I haven’t seen it,” says Carnes.
“It just shows that what we have doesn’t have to exist,” Galecki continues. “We’re making it happen. It’s not like it’s always gonna be there – we’re in the size of a town where this might well not exist.”
As for the future, says Carnes, “I guess we’ll just keep trying to find new ways to use the tools that we’ve got. I don’t know if there’s necessarily any more expansion in the works. But if somebody wants to come down here and open up a coffee shop, I’ll be your first customer,” he laughs.
Caffeine-fueled joking aside, there are tangible signs of growth in the air. A new head shop-style novelty store called Black Hole is opening up around the corner from the Black Sheep on 11th Street, apparently with the express purpose of serving the community of kids building up around Southtown. Longstanding neighborhood businesses are also feeling the benefit.
Mary Clay of Clay’s Popeye’s Barbecue restaurant, which has been in business at 1121 S. Grand for 18 years, says that the new Southtown activity has brought new business to the community.
“The kids eat in here,” she says. “There are a lot of kids who eat vegan food and I fix it for them and they eat. It’s a good thing.” She also notes that these young people never seem to cause any disturbances. “I don’t hear ’em arguing or anything. And they park in my lot, so if there were problems, I’d know it.”
Indeed, one ongoing challenge for Springfield in general is attempting to keep energetic young people from leaving town for greener pastures. The scene around the Black Sheep miraculously seems to be bucking or even reversing this trend. “I just recorded a band called Loses The Mighty,” says Carnes. “They’re kids from Hillsboro and Taylorville and a bunch of them are actually moving to Springfield because they’re involved with this scene.”
Galecki takes this a step further. “I personally moved back to Springfield after college and chose to stay to keep all this going. If this wasn’t here, I’d be elsewhere right now.” Carnes agrees. “If I wouldn’t have started recording bands I probably wouldn’t still be in Springfield.”
Kevin Bradford helped found the Black Sheep Café in 2005 when in his early twenties.
“He’s been doing this for 10 years,” says Carnes, “all of his adult life and he’s still going.”
The bearded, placid Bradford has seen a lot in his decade running the Black Sheep, and the one thing he seems to be most keenly aware of is the cyclical nature of this kind of endeavor. “There was a huge regional scene from 2008 through 2011,” he recalls, “people coming here weekly from St. Louis and Peoria, Champaign, Decatur, Quincy. Bands that played here then went on to headline the Warped tour. What we have now is great too but comparatively there were probably more people coming around then.”
While the scene was more regional at that point, Bradford says there is more local focus now after a fallow period that began in the second half of 2011 and only really got better about a year ago. “It was hard,” he says, “but now there are new bands forming, new kids coming.”
Now that he is in his thirties, Bradford feels increasingly that his purpose is to bring positive options to young people. “The question is, how can we use our resources to help people with good ideas, that are good for the community, to use them and apply them? I just want to enable people to use their gifts and use their talents.” He is proud of the expansion and influence that the Southtown scene has consolidated, calling it “probably the most authentic cultural thing we have in Springfield outside of downtown. It has taken years and years of not giving up to finally have people come and want to make it productive.”
Still, Bradford has no illusions about the future. “I do think people realize that there is something legitimate happening here but I don’t know how long this window will be open. These things have expiration dates, they always do. But while it’s going on it would be cool to make a good run with it and see how far it can go.”
George Sinclair had already been running Skank Skates for 10 years when Black Sheep opened up. Over the years he has weathered many battles with the city, with public indifference, with media hostility and with the zeitgeist, to land where he is today. He’s not just landlord and de facto scout leader to a group of young upstarts, but a true community organizer out to better Southtown in any way he can.
“We’ve got kids who bring their kids here now who came here when they were kids,” he observes. “We actually do have a clientele now, a small slice of the pie, it’s really a good crowd, too, for the most part, a slice of society that’s a little more interesting, I think.” It was not always this way. He recalls that during the Rodney King riots in 1992 there were “armed, grown men coming from every direction with pipes and boards” and who smashed all his windows and doors. “And when crack came to the neighborhood it really pulled the cork on us for about 10 years,” he says. “For most of the ’90s it was just a mess down here in every respect. Since 2000 things have gotten better by degrees. Now you see people walking, holding hands, pushing a baby stroller or walking their dog or somebody jogging – you never saw that back in the ’90s, people just stayed out of here and the cops would just barricade off the whole street up at 12th and South Grand and it would be just an ocean of gangbangers high on crack throwing beer bottles at anybody who got close enough.”
Sinclair stuck it out and a lot of the houses the gangs were operating out of were torn down. “The homeowners who stayed and saw it through are breathing a sigh of relief now,” he says, while also noting that the city is currently planning to tear down 200 houses this year including 1113 South Grand, which borders the Black Sheep parking lot. “We’d really like to save that one,” he says. In addition to the skateboarding and musical concerns, Sinclair is highly involved in maintaining a community garden which also borders the Black Sheep parking lot. “We’re in the process of trying to expand it. Next year we’re trying to start a Community Supported Agriculture program.” He also keeps bees which, he reports at press time, are all fed and ready for winter.
“The main thing is trying to get all of the businesses working together, promoting, getting people to move to the neighborhood rather than just visit,” he says.
Hopefully Sinclair’s dream for the Southtown neighborhood will continue to materialize as the cultural offerings continue to flourish and attract interest from inside and outside of Springfield.
“I’ll talk to bands from bigger cities or college towns,” says Carnes, “and I tell them, ‘Hey, you should really come through Springfield, we’ve got a corner of the city that has a music venue, a skate park, a record store, a recording studio and a skate shop.’ And they’re always like, ‘Holy shit, why don’t we have that in our city?’”
Those interested in checking out the scene will have an opportunity this weekend with the first Southtown Record Fair, which will be happening this Saturday, Nov. 15, at the Black Sheep from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m., with offerings from record stores, record labels and distributors from around the area. Masked Intruder from Madison, Wisconsin, will perform with The Timmys and Inner Outlines that evening. Visit http://blacksheepspringfield.com/ for further details.
Scott Faingold is a staff writer for Illinois Times and was an active participant in the Springfield music scene even before Skank Skates opened. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.