Beef. College football. Nebraska wasn’t known for much more than that until the public caught wind of Saddle Creek, the Omaha indie label founded by Justin and Conor Oberst in 1993. Within a decade Conor’s group Bright Eyes hit the national radar with the album Lifted, Saddle Creek bands the Faint and Azure Ray were opening for acts like No Doubt and Moby, and other bands on the label started selling out their own concerts. The label was “good for showing people it was possible to make it in your own scene,” says Omaha native Erin Foley. “But then the town was defined by a few big acts, and there was so much more going on.”

Meanwhile, a group of 18- to 22-year-old screw-offs began putting on shows in the basement of the three-story, 13-bedroom mansion they called home. Dubbed Gunboat, the place had been a hangout for years–members of Bright Eyes, the Faint, Cursive, and other Saddle Creek bands had lived there, and the parties and the basement shows were legendary. By second-generation resident Grant Brownyard’s time, kids who came over to drink would end up staying for days. Stragglers from the transient hotel down the street would wander in and jam on instruments in the basement. One particularly wild night, fueled by way too much beer, Brownyard and company destroyed the living-room piano with their bare hands.

The cost of living was so cheap that none of the Gunboat residents had full-time jobs; some got by just selling plasma. Days were spent on independent projects: Brownyard drew, recorded music, and hatched plans with a friend to start a video game company; Chris Fischer worked on his label, Unread Records, releasing mostly low-fi local acts like Church of Gravitron on tape and vinyl. A few residents joined Saddle Creek bands; some started a Food Not Bombs chapter. All–joined by Conor Oberst and others–played softball once a week.

“The scene was so small, everyone just hung out together,” says Brownyard. “Culture wasn’t shoved in your face. You’d go out and find stuff for yourself.”

But, he says, “people were looking for a place where they can be a part of culture that’s happening in the present instead of waiting months for something to hopefully happen in the future”–and many couldn’t find what they were looking for in Omaha. Foley came here in 2000 to attend the School of the Art Institute; she’ll get her BFA later this year. Others followed, including Brownyard, who moved here for good last June because so many of his close friends had already migrated.

Now that they each have more options–Foley’s shown her cheeky conceptual art at Nippon Steel, Apartment 1R, Gallery 312, and the now defunct Joymore, among others, and Brownyard lives at the Wicker Park gallery space Buddy–they’re putting on a show featuring current and former Omahaians. “We’re still trying to keep the community we used to have,” says Brownyard, “and this art show is a way to strengthen that.”

Named for Omaha’s area code, “402” takes place at Buddy, 1542 N. Milwaukee, second floor, 773-342-7332, this Friday, April 2, at 7. The free show includes an exhibit of photos and drawings, poetry readings, live performances by Church of Gravitron and Brownyard’s band Casiopeia, a documentary on expat Nebraskans Head of Femur, a home video made the night of the piano bashing, and a multimedia piece by Foley featuring a keyboard stuffed with sheet music and playing a chaotic recording of the busted Gunboat spinet. “Everyone in Omaha moves off and spreads out,” says Foley. “But you can never get away from your hometown.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.