Bozeman live-music institution leaves big shoes to fill
By Michael Somerby EBS ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR
BOZEMAN – After reigning for nearly a quarter century as a bastion of alternative live music in Bozeman, the Zebra Cocktail Lounge will be hosting its last show on May 28.
Founded in 1995 by Bozeman residents Brett Cline and Steve Lee, the Zebra sought to fill a void in the Bozeman nightlife scene, breaking the mold from the traditional fare and blazing a trail for new forms of culture and music to find footing.
The venue was the first in Bozeman to host touring acts but due to its smaller size began booking past-their-prime musicians when hip-hop artists such as Young MC, 2 Live Crew and Digital Underground would take the Zebra stage, according to Bryan Hovda, who began bartending, among other duties, for Cline in 1999 and took over the business in 2014.
“In 1995, every bar in Bozeman was a cowboy bar, and Brett was the first person who was kind of like ‘lets bring in a scene,’” Hovda said. “We had this band called Five Fingers of Funk come out from Portland, and they tore it up; next thing you knew, it was a packed house every night.”
When the bar first opened, it had just enough money to operate on a week-by-week basis, Hovda said, but soon became a staple for those seeking a unique experience in the nascent city.
Today, Bozeman is a music town with venues and festivals attracting live and diverse acts on a weekly basis, a direct result of Cline’s efforts.
Yet Cline and the Zebra’s successes in paving the way for a vibrant music scene have ushered in a host of issues, chiefly a loss in clientele for what was once the only player in the game, and with Bozeman’s rental prices rising, the business is no longer feasible.
“It’s gotten harder to hack up that sizeable market share,” Hovda said, “especially in the summer when there’s always some festival or outdoors concert; something more fitting than going into a basement.”
Hovda recognizes the Zebra still has a loyal fan base, college students and longtime patrons who flock to its doors regularly for the “bad lighting, but great sound,” says Hovda.
“There’s a lot of people that have come to me since we announced the close a couple of months ago that are like, ‘Where are we gonna hang out?’”
Quinlan Conley, a Bozeman musician who’s played at the Zebra some 75 times over the past 15 years with various bands, he says, is troubled by the loss.
“We lost another space for all kinds of music,” Conley said. “It’s not just about my music being affected or my friend’s bands, either. I mean I saw Method Man [of Wu-Tang Clan] there. It’s really the only type of place in Bozeman that could have happened.”
Conley began playing gigs at the Zebra at 17 years old in 2004 when he wasn’t even of legal age to enter the bar if he wasn’t performing, waiting in the band’s van outside until getting called in. He says that anytime artists come from big cities to play the Zebra, they are instantly reminded of venues back home, a strong endorsement for a little nightclub in downtown Bozeman.
“Everyone that’s played the Zebra is like, ‘This reminds me of this punk club I play in Virginia,’ or ‘a hip-hop club on Coney Island,’” said Conley, adding that East Coast friends said the Zebra was reminiscent of one of the most famous rock and roll bars in Massachusetts. “My buddies in Boston were telling me it reminds them of The Rat.
“It’s not going to be the same,” he said. “We lost an institution.”