The Next Verse: Turning an Eye to Emerging Local ArtistsJun 25, 2021 04:45PM ● By Virginia Kathryn Gallner
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Throughout the past year while the curtains have been closed, musicians have been hard at work behind the scenes. Without live performances, it’s hard to stay connected with audiences. Some have connected through livestreams, like Aly Peeler and Hector Anchondo, while others have used the time away from the stage in other ways, honing their craft, or “shedding,” as jazz musicians would say. Many have been preparing new music for release, while others are itching for the opportunity to get back onstage.
Social media provided new opportunities to connect with audiences. Singer-songwriter Andrea Von Kampen shared a duet with her violin player Jessica Hanson. Dryden Thomas has been sharing previews of his upcoming album, playing multiple instruments and layering vocal harmonies to create elaborate TikToks. Ben Rasmussen, development director at classical music station KVNO, has been posting Irish folk tunes, “dueting” with himself on mandolin and guitar.
We asked established musicians to name emerging artists who have caught their attention. Some of the artists here have been working in the scene for several years but strive to challenge and even reinvent themselves.
As a singer-songwriter, I find myself inspired and motivated by these musicians. It takes tremendous drive to keep growing as an artist, especially at a time when live performance has been difficult, if not impossible. These artists have the ambition to keep pushing forward through a global crisis that has severely impacted the music industry—not just to survive, but to thrive.
This is just a small sample. The Omaha music scene is home to a wide variety of genres and artists, as is neighboring Lincoln. As venues continue to open, these are a handful of the artists to watch.
Aly Peeler: Sandy Irwin & Erin Mitchell
Aly Peeler is a ukulele-wielding mother of two boys. Since 2013, Peeler has hosted one of Omaha’s longest-running open mic nights at the Down Under Lounge (formerly known as The Side Door Lounge). She loves to cultivate young and emerging talent, and is an award-winning songwriter in her own right.
Sandy Irwin was nominated by the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards (OEAAs) under the name Come Back Sandy. Now, she has reinvented herself and started a new project called SAND.
“She’s grown so much in the past couple years, and this project is my all-time favorite of hers,” Peeler said. “She recently shaved her head and I am here for it, too! Her lyrics are so powerful…SAND is literally just getting started.”
Peeler also pointed to Erin Mitchell, whose first band, Daisy Distraction, formed in honor of her friend Anna Abbott. Peeler noted that every project is different and “cooler than the last.” Mitchell’s latest endeavor, Urn, was nominated for 2020 Outstanding New Artist by the OEAAs.
Aly Peeler: facebook.com/people/Aly-Peeler/100038758213612/
Héctor Anchondo: Grace Giebler & Joseph Donnelly
Héctor Anchondo is an award-winning blues guitarist. He started performing as the frontman of Anchondo, but felt drawn to the blues. He moved to Chicago for a year to immerse himself in its historic scene. He is also a co-organizer of Omaha’s In the Market for Blues Festival—alongside E3 Music Management—booking over 40 local, regional, and national bands at 12 downtown venues.
“Grace Giebler is a special talent,” Anchondo said.
Like Mitchell, Giebler is a BluesEd alum. Anchondo served as a judge for the youth edition of the Blues Challenge in Omaha a few years ago. He remembers that Giebler and her band brought down the house with her phenomenal voice, refinement beyond her years, and wonderful stage presence.
Anchondo also mentioned Joseph Donnelly, “a star shining bright right out of the gate.” Not only does he have his own solo act, he tours with famed guitarist Kris Lager.
“He’s slaying that groove,” Anchondo said, adding that you should not miss the chance to see Donnelly play in person if given the opportunity.
This is high praise coming from Anchondo, who won the solo/duo category of the International Blues Challenge in 2020, in his third year performing at the Challenge in Memphis as the representative for the Blues Society of Omaha.
Hector Anchondo: hectoranchondo.com
Grace Giebler: gracemusiclive.com/home
Joseph Donnelly: facebook.com/josephdonnelly.716
Mesonjixx: Mars X
Mesonjixx (Mary Lawson) honed her musical style of Afro-futuristic Experimental Subculture Soul in Chicago and returned to Nebraska in 2014 to find balance in her interconnected identities. In March last year, just before venues shut down, she opened for Kamasi Washington at the Slowdown with her trio.
She recommended Mars X. “They are an incredible producer, lyricist, singer, performer. I first heard their music in 2020 and am now a fan for life.” Mesonjixx is grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow alongside them here in Omaha. “All should tap in.”
Mesonjixx herself is exploring new avenues of creative expression. While she is still performing, she is also expanding into organizing, and others are noticing.
Amanda DeBoer Bartlett: Mesonjixx
Amanda DeBoer Bartlett is a soprano singer, improviser, composer, and organizer, as well as founder of Quince Ensemble and Hasco Duo. In 2014, she started Omaha Under the Radar, an experimental performance festival. Bartlett noted that in addition to musical projects, Mesonjixx is “emerging as a brilliant curator and organizer with projects like Strange Fruit Femmes, Uplift+Elevate at the Union for Contemporary Art, projects with Charlotte Street in Kansas City, and more.” As a festival curator, Bartlett knows that organizing can be thankless work. “It’s an act of love for the community. I think we’ll feel the ripple effects from Mary’s work for a long time.”
Mars X: marsxtheplanet.bandcamp.com
Amanda DeBoer Bartlett: amandadeboer.com
Evandale's Ryan Lang: The Party After and Gallivant
Hard rock band Evandale has invited two bands to be part of their album release show later this year: The Party After and Gallivant. They have both been on the scene for a few years, but Evandale’s drummer, Ryan Lang, said their live shows are something to be seen.
Fronted by Jared William Gottberg, The Party After is a three-piece group that takes its cues from ’70s blues-rock and ’90s alternative rock. “Jared really knows how to speak to the crowd and his genuine personality shows so much…cracking jokes and reacting to the fans,” Lang said.
He described Gallivant as straight-up talented. “If you’re into those bands where every band member can sing, play, and rock out at the same time, look no further.” In their current live show, they switch instruments between “shreddy but tasteful” solos.
Joseph Donnelly, guitarist mentioned by Hector Anchondo, is also a member of Gallivant.
The Party After: facebook.com/PartyAfterBand
Justin Strawstone: King Iso
Justin Strawstone, founder of Nice Enough Ent., has been doing great work for the hip-hop scene, both to support established artists and uplift young and emerging voices. He started as an artist in his own right, and three years ago, he shifted to the management and promotion side of the industry. Strawstone said he wanted young musicians to have better opportunities than he had. He started managing a few artists and building local shows to expand his circle. He has become a connection point for regional and national artists coming to Omaha—but he makes sure to showcase Omaha artists whenever he can.
His work led him to connect with King Iso, a hip-hop artist from Omaha who has been signed by Strange Music.
“His message [is] absolutely beautiful,” Strawstone said. “All you have to do is go to one of his shows and see how much it matters to want to root for him.”
King Iso sold out a mixed-genre show at The Waiting Room before leaving for a tour in which he shared a bill with Omaha artists Snake Lucci, Taebo Tha Truth, and Jay Influential. His music spreads a message about mental health awareness.
Strawstone noted that he has a lot of respect for those who have waited out of safety precautions, but he is excited to see more live music.
Nice Enough Ent.: facebook.com/NiceEnoughEnt
King Iso: facebook.com/TheRealKingIso
Jocelyn: Radio Jamz
Jocelyn got her start at open mics and songwriter nights, and has since risen to national recognition with her positive, empowering music and her powerful stage presence. She stepped into the national spotlight in 2017 with her appearance on Celebrity Undercover Boss with songwriter Darius Rucker of Hootie & The Blowfish. In early 2018, she signed with major record label BMG and has since released her debut full-length album. In 2020, she was selected as the Capitol District Musician in Residence.
She said that Radio Jamz is one to watch. Radio Jamz is a hip-hop and rap duo with Brady Wells (of Domestic Blend) and Ishma Valenti (formerly of AZP). “Brady sings the smooth hooky melodies while Ishma spits the cool rap lines.”
They have been working on an EP, and they performed at The Mint in L.A. last month.
Jocelyn is also mentoring young artist Izzy, a 13-year-old singer-songwriter, through the Midlands Music Group. Izzy is currently working on her first EP.
“For now, you might find her at an open mic or two at the Down Under or other venues. At some point she will open for me, so be looking for Izzy in the future.”
Radio Jamz: radiojamz.band
Mitch Towne: David Hawkins & Myles Jasnowski
Mitch Towne is a keyboardist and touring musician, regarded as the “go-to” Hammond organist in the Midwest. He has performed with jazz/R&B artist and Grammy-winning producer Terrace Martin; jazz artists Ryan Kisor, Dave Stryker, and Adam Larson; blues guitarists Eric Gales and Ben Poole; and multi-platinum artist Aloe Blacc.
Towne noted two players on the rise: drummer David Hawkins and guitarist Myles Jasnowski.
“David Hawkins has honed his craft the old-fashioned way: hard work, apprenticeship, and constantly striving to play with musicians better than he is. This is how jazz musicians did it in the old days and, starting in high school by hauling drums for jazz great Dana Murray and literally taking notes in a notebook at his gigs, David has developed into a startlingly talented and versatile drummer who is building his reputation both locally and regionally.”
Hawkins has performed with Jocelyn, Sebastian Lane, and many other local and regional jazz musicians.
“Myles is a triple threat: fantastic singer, excellent songwriter, and a phenomenal guitarist. There doesn’t seem to be a ceiling to what he’s capable of.”
Based in Lincoln, Jasnowski has played with Mesonjixx and Chad Stoner Band, among others, as well as his own band, who opened for Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal at the Zoo Bar in 2019. He sometimes joins the house band at The Jewell.
“He’s adept at not only his own music, but he is also a first-call sideman with some of the area’s best jazz, gospel, and soul artists.”
Mitch Towne: facebook.com/mitch.towne.7
David Hawkins: facebook.com/david.d.hawkins.9
Myles Jasnowski: facebook.com/mylesjasnowskimusic
Having been a performing artist since 2012, I’ve had the honor of sharing the stage with several of the musicians mentioned here, and many others. Aly Peeler welcomed me to her open mic when I was starting out, alongside Jocelyn and other young songwriters. I remember jamming with Jack Hotel at Folk Alliance International in Kansas City in 2018, in a small hotel room with musicians from around the world.
Many artists give back to our audiences and the wider Omaha community through arts-related volunteer work. Omaha Girls Rock brings together femme and nonbinary artists from around the city to empower youth through music. Several of the artists mentioned here have volunteered for OGR, myself included. Looking west, Lincoln Calling has been doing great work to amplify the voices of local artists, especially those from historically underrepresented communities.
A lot of us in the Omaha music scene wear multiple hats as performers and organizers, or as songwriters and bandmates. Most of us do our own marketing, booking, and outreach as well. It is an interconnected and collaborative community. We are at our strongest when we’re supporting each other—whether attending shows, playing together, or just spreading the word about new releases. That support has grown during the pandemic as we realize how precious and beautiful live performance is.
Virginia Kathryn: virginiakathryn.com
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.