A Publication of WTVP

‘Pay the cover,’ let your ‘mind be blown’

by Roxy Baker | Photos by Ron Johnson |
The band Butta plays at Kenny’s Westside Pub in Peoria
The band Butta plays at Kenny’s Westside Pub in Peoria

A few key players are keeping Downtown Peoria’s live music scene alive, and there’s something for everyone

What’s that noise coming from Peoria’s Downtown?

It’s a live music scene that is balanced, diverse and global with several key players getting the work done!

From fresh upstart establishments to seasoned live music venues, the Downtown music scene has something for everyone, according to Peoria Music Live (PML), an online resource for what is playing where in Peoria.

PML’s Kindall Reuschel points to the likes of Kenny’s Westside Pub, Neon Bison, the Contemporary Art Center and X Bar at Gone Axe Throwing. And let us not forget all the musical magic being brought to us by cultural festivals, promoters Jay Goldberg Events & Entertainment (JGEE) and the Peoria Park District that will hit the Peoria Riverfront when warmer temps arrive. Meanwhile, the Peoria Civic Center has been selling out multiple acts for all tastes.

I recently popped into a relatively new establishment, Jack’s on Adams. Owner Jack Berres opened the bar/restaurant on April 27, 2022, and on April 29, Jack’s played host to local rockers Easy Riders. Live music has played at Jack’s every weekend since.

As 2023 approached, Berres stepped back, assessed the music schedule and made some tweaks. No more Friday night music, but on Saturdays he bumped it up to accommodate full bands. Thursday nights you will find local artist Mr. Charlie, a Grateful Dead-themed act. Established local bands tend to bring in the big crowds and the energy, said Berres, who expresses a keen awareness that live music at a bar/restaurant is an investment that takes time to cultivate.

Since day one, patrons of Jack’s have enjoyed the tunes pro bono, but on March 10, Jack’s on Adams will host its first-ever ticketed event, a Doors tribute band from Chicago, Lizard Kings. This St. Patrick’s Day, the intimate, 100-cap room’s stage will again feature local rockers Easy Riders.

Just up the alley from Jack’s, Kenny’s Westside Pub is set to celebrate 10 years in business on March 17, six of those at its current Downtown location, 112 SW Jefferson. An Irish pub that opened on St. Patrick’s Day? Now that’s a party! As the annual St Patrick’s Day parade is set to run right by the Pub, three local Irish bands will take the stage throughout the day with bluegrass outfit and regional favorite Still Shine closing out the huge, late-night party.

Sean Kenny’s passion for music first fueled Kenny’s original location on Farmington Road, a small venue that required a lot of innovation and manpower to turn the room from dining to live music each week. Central Illinois’ funk jam band Steady Flow was the first show at Kenny’s on Farmington nearly a decade ago. Live music has been a part of who they are, and the downtown location has just been leveling up.

Among the acts that have graced the Westside stage are the Marcus King Band, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Summer Camp staple Umphrey’s McGee, Papadosio and Keller Williams. Kenny’s recently hosted Colorado-based progressive bluegrass sensation Yonder Mountain String Band. International acts have included the G-Nome Project, an Israeli electronica jam band; reggae icon Bob Marley’s band The Wailers; and Barnes Courtney, a UK indie rock singer/songwriter.

Future bookings have the guitar-driven music fusion of the Joe Marcinek Band featuring Jason Hahn of the String Cheese Incident, and Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, a three-piece American country blues band from Brown County, Indiana. 

“I tend to book music based on what I like, so luckily my taste draws crowds. I like to change people’s minds (about bands),” said Kenny, who has a booking partnership with JGEE. Walk-ups are a special treat, as they weren’t necessarily out socially for the music, but they “decide to pay the cover and their mind is blown … standing in front of the stage with their mouths open.”

Sadly, it seems that live music alone cannot sustain a venue. Kenny credits the bar and music combination working together for his success.

Part of the legacy of live music in Downtown Peoria can be traced back to Jay Goldberg, who began his company JGEE in 1971 at the now-defunct The Barn on Galena Road with English rockers Uriah Heep. JGEE ultimately would bring to central Illinois the biggest names in the business: Fleetwood Mac, Journey, Van Halen, Aerosmith, Elton John and more over the next 40 years. Approximately a decade ago, the live music industry shifted with the rise of Live Nation, which according to Jay’s son Ian, who now heads up the company, has sadly squeezed out independent buyers like JGEE.

Today, JGEE books acts with smaller venues in mind, like Kenny’s Westside, the Peoria RiverFront, and area music festivals such as the Peoria Blues & Heritage Festival on Labor Day weekend. Peoria has a long history of helping to break in up-and-coming acts, said Goldberg.

“Honestly, Downtown Peoria shows are not a huge part of our revenue stream. These days, it is more about the festivals for that,” he said. “But they are so important to keeping a vibrant scene in Peoria … That is more important than the amount of revenue we get from it at this point.”

For the musical talents and acts themselves, playing Downtown often is considered “making it,” said Sarah Marie Dillard of Sarah & The Underground, “because it can be hard to break into. 

Peoria has a long history of helping to break in up-and-coming acts

“New venues like Jack’s on Adams are doing a great job of changing that by giving less-established acts … the opportunity to take the downtown stage. Additionally, I am so grateful to Sean Kenny for partnering with me to get more acoustic acts on the Kennys Westside stage via ‘The Listening Room’ mobile open mic.

“There are certainly pros to playing Downtown Peoria, like never being asked to turn down your volume during a performance, which is very common at uptown gigs. But many musicians would agree that the best part of playing Downtown is being able to say that they did just that.”

Roxy Baker

Roxy Baker

is a local radio personality at Peoria radio station WWCT, 99.9 on the FM dial, half of the Rik & Roxy in the Morning broadcast from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday