Side Door to Center Stage: Aly Peeler Does the WorkAug 27, 2021 04:07PM ● By Virginia Kathryn Gallner
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
In college, Aly Peeler was shy about her singing. Every Sunday, she would go to the open mic at Boheme Bistro in Ames, Iowa, with her musician friends and watch them play. Now, she offers support and encouragement for others who are starting out.
Peeler earned her bachelor’s degree in history and anthropology from Iowa State University, where she ran several political clubs on campus. In 2008, she had opportunities to meet every presidential candidate who came through, from both sides of the aisle, including John McCain and Barack Obama. At the same time, she was writing her senior thesis. In the midst of this stress, Peeler discovered the ukulele when a friend received one as a birthday present. Peeler strummed it and felt the tension leave her body. He told her to hold onto the instrument.
“Once that ukulele hit my hands, it was so amazing,” she said. “It’s been a companion. It brings me a lot of peace and comfort.”
Peeler graduated in 2009 and returned to Omaha the following year, moving into a house behind the old Side Door Lounge. The owner at the time, Steve Jamrozy, offered her a Tuesday show. Although the venue wasn’t normally open Tuesdays, Peeler packed the house. It was a transition point in her life.
Before she started playing shows, she had applied for Green Corps, an environmental organization. She was disheartened by her placement in Minneapolis, a city where she had told herself she could never live because of the overwhelming winters.
“I could see my life had these two paths,” Peeler said. “There’s so many things I wanted to put my passion through. But it was going to be 80-hour weeks [at Green Corps]. I don’t think I would be a happy person.” She chose music.
The first song Peeler wrote was about suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. “It felt so good to sing and perform songs I had written,” she said. “I could feel these songs just coming out.”
Peeler started hosting the Side Door Lounge open mic in 2011. She sought to cultivate a safe environment for new performers, especially young people. Peeler knew how much the open mic at the Boheme had meant to her and wanted to create that space in Omaha. “It’s always been about promoting everyone else,” she said. “Having a place for people to share themselves.”
When the Side Door closed in 2014, she moved her open mic for a short period to The Hive downtown. Now the Down Under Lounge resides in the former Side Door space, and Peeler’s open mic is back and going strong 10 years later.
One of the most important aspects of the (now-Wednesday night) open mic, for Peeler, is hearing others’ stories and respecting everyone’s lived experiences. She felt the absence of the open mic during the pandemic.
“What COVID made us really do is think locally, and focus on our neighborhoods, our communities. But also how our city is working as a whole,” Peeler noted. “We have such a disconnect between the haves and have-nots.”
The open mics provide space for local community organizations and nonprofit members to spread the word about their services. Omaha Autonomous Action and Revolutionary Action Party are grassroots organizations seeking to fulfill survival necessities for those most in need.
“A community takes care of each other, cares about when someone’s hurting. People deserve to have this human dignity,” Peeler said.
Black Bird Flii, founded by Tricey Chea, collects new and gently used clothing every Wednesday at the open mics. According to Chea, Peeler practices what she preaches. “Aly Peeler is a phenomenal woman,” Chea said via email. “She is a role model and inspiration to myself and a lot of other people. She is a prime example of showing up for the community and using your voice and platform to make a difference.”
For Peeler, community means people doing the work, and that needs to include creative minds.
Throughout the pandemic, she performed with guitarist Andrew Bailie and drummer David Hawkins, fundraising money for those in the service industry and creative sector who were most impacted by the pandemic through online performances. “Those Saturday livestreams became a sense of normalcy during a really not-normal time,” Peeler said. She also set up a porch concert series with her friends Rod and Jana Howe. Each performer picked an organization to support through their tip jar, including Black and Pink and Culxr House. “Our community is full of artists who are helping us face our history and heal,” she said.
Lately, Peeler has been playing with cellist David Downing, who can often be found in the Old Market with his “otherworldly” cello and loop station. “His music has a way to take you somewhere,” she said.
Another music venture is Glitterbush, which features Peeler and Valerie Electricradbolt as core members, with a rotation of additional voices.
Frequent collaborator Collin Smith has played lead guitar for several of Peeler’s shows and music videos over the years. He said working with her is a “wonderful experience.” “[Peeler’s] voice and songwriting style deliver profound stories,” he added.
Within the last two years, Peeler has become a board member of the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards and the Omaha Summer Arts Festival.
Peeler is also excited to continue hosting the Omaha Performing Arts Singer-Songwriter Showcase. “It’s time for the city to hear these people,” she said. She collaborated with donor relations senior manager at O-pa Victoria Ortega, also a musician, to select performers.
“There’s something so cool about the way communities find each other,” Peeler said. “We can celebrate these moments we have together and really be present.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.