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RIBCO offers hot spot for live music

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Chuck Thomas

Club owner Terry Tilka stands in front of Rock Island Brewing Co. in The District in Rock Island. RIBCO is the Quad-Cities' prime live music outlet.

ROCK ISLAND -- If you have even a cursory interest in live music and you've been in the Quad-Cities more than a month, you've probably been to RIBCO.

The club, in Rock Island's District, is the primo live music outlet of its size in the area. On top of being a crown jewel gig for local bands and a hip place to hang out, RIBCO has hosted many hot acts on their way up the showbiz ladder.

The Wallflowers, Less Than Jake, Barenaked Ladies, Our Lady Peace and Sister Hazel are a few of the outfits with recent Top 40 hits that have hit the stage at RIBCO in the last two years.

Much of the credit goes to club owner Terry Tilka, who has a keen eye (or ear) for musical talent.

``There's not a greater feeling in the world than to walk in the bar when you've got a hot band playing and all you can see is a bunch of heads bobbing up and down with everybody dancing on the dance floor,'' Mr. Tilka said. ``It's then you know you've done your job.

``But on the other hand, the worst feeling is when you walk in and there's a great band playing, but there's only 10 people there because nobody knows who they are because they aren't getting any radio play,'' he added. ``It's funny, but eight months later the band is all over the radio and everybody wishes they would've caught them when they had the chance.''

Music trends change, he said, and you have to keep up. ``A big example is ska music. We were booking ska bands for a while and then all of the sudden ska music gets really big, so we were there to take advantage of it. We take a lot more chances, but it's rewarding when it pays off.''

Several factors go into deciding what bands to book, he said. ``You read magazines, you find a lot on the Internet,'' and get tips from employees and customers. ``It's your job to stay on top of the trends.''

When you treat the band well -- book them into a nice hotel and give them a hot meal -- they remember you, Mr. Tilka said. ``Bands talk to each other and they find you -- it goes both ways.''

Still, preparation is no guarantee. Iowa City clubs have little trouble snagging groups because they are near record-buying college students. The Quad-Cities, without a major university, has a harder time.

``I don't think a lot of people realize it's hard to get bands to play a market this size,'' Mr. Tilka said. ``A lot of kids come up to us and say `Why don't you get this band, or that band?' They don't realize that it's difficult to get bands to play.

``When we finally get a band like Dread Zeppelin (slated for the club in April), that we've tried to get for years, we know we've done our job.''

Mr. Tilka's been doing that job since shortly after he came to the Quad-Cities 19 years ago to attend St. Ambrose College.

He got a job tending bar to help pay for school. ``I was in college and I was starving and I needed a job. I happened to show up at the St. Ambrose student union around happy hour one night. There was something going on off-campus, a party, and none of the bartenders showed up for work.

``The (head of the bar) asked me if I knew how to tend bar. I told him I did, so he gave me the keys and took off. He didn't show up again until around midnight and by then the place was really busy. That's how I got started.''

It didn't take him long to rise from bartender to bar owner. At 22, Mr. Tilka bought a bar. Between 1980 and '90 he was involved in three other clubs. In 1991, he bought RIBCO.

``I used to come here as a customer,'' he said. ``When it was up for sale, Dan Carmody (executive director of the Development Association of Rock Island) called me and asked me if I was interested in buying RIBCO. So we worked the deal out in eight months and I bought it.''

The Rock Island Brewing Co. was formed when George Wagner's Atlantic Brewing Co. and Ignatz Huber's City Brewery merged in 1893. Prohibition squelched local brewing, although brewers tried to stay in business by producing root beer and other non-alcoholic beverages. RIBCO ceased brewing in the early 1930s.

Today's Rock Island Brewing Co. uses the historic name to conjure up memories of the city's brewing tradition, but is not an off-shoot of the original RIBCO.

However, it has had a big hand in creating a new tradition -- the tradition of the downtown as an entertainment mecca in the Quad-Cities.

``We helped create the District, we helped create The District events,'' Mr. Tilka said. ``Nobody really knew how to book the bands, nobody knew how to put something like a music festival on outside in a space like this. We helped create that.''

He credits District and city officials for having a vision for the downtown. ``If anyone had told them that they would've had 15,000 to 20,000 people downtown on a weekend, if someone would've told them that when it went up, I don't think they would've believed it.''

Mr. Tilka said he likes the diversity of a club like RIBCO. ``It's kinda neat, you can have three lawyers sitting at the end of the bar talking to a kid with dreadlocks about politics and that's what makes RIBCO RIBCO.''

-- By Sean Leary (February 9, 1998)

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