If those walls could talk: Lincoln’s Zoo Bar celebrating 50 years of live music

Blues harmonica legend Charlie Musselwhite doesn’t know for sure when he first stepped onto the tiny stage at the east end of the Zoo Bar, but he thinks it was more than 40 years ago.

“And I wish I knew how many times I played there,” he said in an email interview in mid-June. “I could only make a wild guess.”

Musselwhite, 79, came back to Lincoln, Nebraska, from California as often as he could over the years. He liked the town and the bar, and he developed a deep friendship with Zoo Bar owner Larry Boehmer. In 2011, he joined 100 people who made the trip to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, to celebrate Boehmer’s 64th birthday – about a year before his death. 

“To me, Larry’s Zoo Bar was a home away from home,” Musselwhite said. “I would often stay at Larry’s home, and I made many friends and always loved Lincoln.”

Boehmer went to work for original Zoo Bar owner Jim Ludwig while he was an art student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and later brought his booking magic to the place, offering live music at least six nights and introducing Lincoln to blues giants and new acts as well.

The bar is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer – 50 years in the same location. If those walls could talk … 

“The Zoo just has a feel, a rapport, a special friendliness like I’ve never experienced,” Musselwhite said. “I have a feeling that all the regulars understand there’s a special kind of togetherness, like a family, that we all sense without ever saying so. You just feel it, and you know it’s genuine.”

Charlie Musselwhite performs on the outdoor stage at ZooFest 2018. Musselwhite, one of countless blues legends to perform at Lincoln’s Zoo Bar over five decades, will headline Thursday night of ZooFest. Photo courtesy of Jay Douglass

The long, narrow room – a whopping 1,888 square feet – makes shows up close and personal for players and patrons alike. Hundreds of posters and photos, including a life-size portrait of Musselwhite, grace the walls. 

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Luther Allison, a four-time W.C. Handy award winner, nearly peeled the black paint right off the walls in one of his last performances before his death in 1997. The show had the place screaming. Dave and Phil Alvin of Blasters fame reunited in 2016 for an amazing performance four years after Phil had a near-death experience in Spain. 

And Otis Rush, who influenced countless blues and rock musicians – well, let’s just say some people believed they might have found God when he took the Zoo Bar stage.

Matt Murphy, who appeared in the “Blues Brothers” with Musselwhite, was a Zoo Bar crowd favorite. And South Side Chicago Blues great Morris “Magic Slim” Holt found such a home with Boehmer and the Zoo Bar that he moved his whole family to Lincoln in the early 1990s after a couple of decades of playing here. His widow, Ann, and much of the Holt family still lives here.

Other blues greats who have played on the postage-stamp-sized stage include Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Robert Cray, Koko Taylor, Junior Wells, Son Seals, Pinetop Perkins, Tab Benoit and Clarence Gatemouth Brown. 

Ruthie Foster and Irma Thomas and Mavis Staples, Bobby Rush, Tito Jackson and Delbert McClinton, Dave Alvin and Musselwhite have all played the much larger stage at ZooFest, the outdoor festival the bar has put on for the past 25 years.

Boehmer played bass in the Zoo Bar’s house band, The Heartmurmers, in the late 1970s, when fans would form a line down the block for Friday afternoon shows. Two of the original Heartmurmers, keyboard player Jim “Cid” Cidlik and guitar player “Hollywood” Doug Rosekrans, will be part of the 50th anniversary show closer at the festival this weekend. 

The 50th Waltz will feature more than 40 musicians who have played the Zoo over the decades. It will include Boehmer’s son, bass player Jeff Boehmer, and Magic Slim’s son Shawn Holt, plus drummer Dave Robel, who started playing at the Zoo in 1973 and still plays once a week with the live karaoke band Shithook. 

Musselwhite will headline Thursday night at ZooFest, which runs through Saturday, July 8, on the street in front of the bar.

The outdoor stage during the annual ZooFest event offers more space to performers than the small one inside the club on 14th Street in Lincoln. This year’s festival gets underway Thursday and continues through Saturday. Photo courtesy of Jay Douglass

“I have so many great memories and a real heart connection so it means a lot to me to be invited back to play in Lincoln for ZooFest,” he said. “I hope everybody will come and have a great time dancing and listening to the music because I’ll be playing for you all, and for Larry and his family, from my heart.” 

He’ll be playing for Pete Watters, too. Watters took over the bar when Boehmer retired and has kept the magic alive.

“I believe he (Pete) has a similar spirit like Larry’s and has always been a great guy to know and deal with,” Musselwhite said. “I can’t imagine the Zoo having a better guy. I always look forward to seeing him.”

Man, if those walls could talk.

Thursday, July 6
5 p.m.: The Bel Airs
7 p.m.: Igor and The Red Elvises
9 p.m.: Charlie Musselwhite
Friday, July 7
5 p.m.: The Jimmys
7 p.m.: Amythyst Kiah
9 p.m.: Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe
11 p.m.: Andy William & The Nebraska All Stars
Saturday, July 8
1 p.m.: Blues ed
3 p.m.: The Lightning Bugs / Fabtones 5
5 p.m.: John Primer & The Real Deal Blues Band
7 p.m.: The James Hunter Six
9 p.m.: Shemekia Copeland
11 p.m.: The 50th Waltz

Tickets, including three-day passes, are available here. There is a discount for purchasing tickets in advance.

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

By Catharine Huddle

Catharine Huddle was a reporter and editor at the Lincoln Journal and the Lincoln Journal Star for nearly 39 years. She left the paper in 2017 but still loves the Zoo Bar family.


Could you use this comment? Typo in the first

Great story. I loved the Zoo Bar. I practically lived there in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It’s where my hearing went. So much great music, so many memories.



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