Kevin Bradford is one of the founders of Black Sheep, the all-ages, punk music venue on the corner of South Grand Ave. and 11th Street in Springfield. It’s at the center of a plethora of indie and DIY activities in Springfield’s once-blighted Southtown neighborhood.
“The Black Sheep started in August of 2005. I was in a band called Solemn Vow, it was a local hardcore band. We were playing a show at Skank Skates, the legendary indoor skate park next door and we looked at this abandoned building … it was sitting there for years, unused … I was kind of skeptical like, ‘OK none of us have money - how is this going to work?’” And it just sort of happened. It worked,” says Bradford.
In this episode of The Scene, we bring you a documentary on the story of ten years of Black Sheep.
Music in this piece in order of appearance:
- Minor Threat - Out of Step
- Screaming Females - Criminal Image
- Asthma - Broke & Violent
- Cloakroom - Bending
- Clare Frachey aka 'Rella' - Warm Like Winter
- Sammy Flores - Beautiful Flores
- Looming - Definition of Home
For a timeline of Black Sheep, click here.
It’s said that nature abhors a vacuum. We’ll see that although the Black Sheep did not actually spring forth from an absolute void, it’s true that it arrived from humble, and not necessarily promising, beginnings - to perform well beyond anybody’s expectations. It’s shown no sign of slowing down after a decade in business.
Kevin Bradford and a few friends got it going. One of the guys helped bankroll it with money earned while serving in the National Guard. Still, by the end of the first year, Bradford was the only original partner still connected to the project. “Everything was really a challenge I mean it was so unpredictable because you’re not really working with a budget. It was always week by week, month by month … Working with the public, especially a marginal segment of the public was always very challenging.”
From the beginning the name “Black Sheep” seemed to say it all. Generally speaking, the teens that gravitate here are not star athletes or likely to be part of the homecoming court. Instead, it has served as a sort of haven for kids who are perhaps a little awkward: outsiders, transgender kids, and arty types whose interests don’t intersect with the standard high school culture.
Landlord and neighborhood Godfather George Sinclair is always there to provide support, helping to keep the doors open even when things sometimes seemed dire. George opened Skank Skates in the late 80s. Since then – the 53 year old has been an enabler of the scene. “The music and the skating used to be hand in hand. The first musicians down here were skaters who rounded up instruments and started putting on shows ... Music is now the biggest draw down here.”
One way that Black Sheep has facilitated more bands having a place to play is through festivals like Dumb Fest, which concentrates on bringing touring bands to the Springfield area, bands that might not ever make it here otherwise. Brian Galecki is now one of the owners of Black Sheep, he also helped get Dumb Record Store up and running. He has put countless hours into organizing the third Dumb Fest: “We always have Black Sheep Fest every summer, we’re about to hit year 8 with that, so that’s been going for a while … But we were like what if we had a fest where we got to showcase what’s going on even outside of our local scene - more focused on the Midwest even because there’s all sorts of cool bands coming out of nearby towns like Champaign, Bloomington, Peoria - and let’s try to get as many touring bands as possible too … where else better to do it than our own venue and skate park and everything we got going here.”
Bo Mellado is a musician who started coming here as a 14 year old. Bo’s transgender and prefers to go by neutral pronouns like “they” and “them.” Bo says they come here at least once a week – and uses South Town Studio to record and rehearse. “People see nothing and they choose to making something - and that’s part of the whole DIY idea is: 'Build it yourself.' That sort of thinking is definitely what has brought this here,” says Bo. Bo is part of the widespread effort to keep this environment safe and those who attend away from alcohol and drugs. Which in turn keeps this place viable.
“I mean I’ve had to do some sweeps of the parking lot today ... making sure there are no people sitting around and drinking beers. There’s a sign right there and if people are doing drugs or smoking stuff they’ll be asked to leave. Because we have to keep it all-ages … We want a safe space for kids, ‘cuz like I said there’s not much else around here,” says Bo.
Over near one of the parking lots during Dumb Fest, Bobby Markos is unloading a trailer full of musical equipment. “I play in a band called Cloakroom, we’re from Northwest Indiana, we played here at the Black Sheep Cafe last year and we had a great time and the owners graciously invited us back to be a part of the festival … This venue is one of my favorite venues to play simply because it was built from the ground up by people who love music. You can tell there is a lot of heart here - you can tell that the people who put on shows really care about it… We’ve played venues all over the world, you have your good ones, you have your bad ones. A lot of the time you get mixed in with people who are just kind of going through the motions. The two experiences we have had we have been welcomed with open arms and people at Black Sheep Cafe really seem to care about the scene here so it’s very encouraging.”
Clare Frachey has grown up in the scene – she’s gone from an attendee to an organizer, artist, writer, gardener and musician. She also helped form the South Town non-profit which wants to archive hundreds of hours of video taken over the past 25 years at Skank Skates – which has hosted music shows as well as famous skate boarders like Tony Hawk. The non-profit is also trying to coordinate volunteers who will help with community gardening and even bee-keeping, something that takes place on the property. “The non-profit is basically so that we can write grants that will help improve this general area and this neighborhood. It would be cool even if we could have goals such as opening a small grocery store, or even just improving the spaces we have already started. It would also ground us in the community I guess you could say in a more legal way so that we’re giving back to Springfield not just through the culture, but through other things,” says Clare.
Clare says she’s formed relationships not just with those who attend shows – but also the people who own surrounding businesses. “I know the guy across the street who works at the glass studio, we know Simon who owns the beauty store. He has a really cool parrot. We try to know who comes around if they want to be known.”
Clay’s Popeye’s Barbeque is just down the street on South Grand. Mary Clay has long been with the 50 year old business, which has been in this location for 20 years. “I’m one of the owners... I think the kids have been positive – I am actually surprised they do as well as they do. They have 100 to 200 kids in one space, and they don’t have any problems ... Well behaved ... Lot of the kids are vegan and we do vegan chilli and greens ... We do try to do stuff that they like to eat... It’s helped business, when they have a big show over there they send the people over here to eat,” says Mary.
Sammy Flores is a young hip hop artist and singer, she moved to Springfield from Wisconsin about a year ago. She says she was worried that her music would not be welcome at Black Sheep, but she’s already played over twenty shows here.
“Wisconsin’s really country, you know... and then I was in Lafayette, Indiana – I wasn’t really feeling it. I was in Chicago for a little bit. I had some friends here already, so I ended up here. I love music, but I’m a huge humanitarian. I really want to open up safe-homes for sex-trafficking victims.” Flores says her passion for music and activism has found a sense of purpose here. She’s already been part of a charity event to support a child with cerebral palsy. “This place is family you know, it's family,” she says.
That sense of a close-knit community and support is part of what’s kept Jessica Knight in Springfield. The lead singer of Looming – one of the most popular bands in the Black Sheep scene and one that was signed to No Sleep Records in California earlier this year, grew up in the Quad Cities. After moving to town, she went to her first Black Sheep show at the age of 19. She says growing up, her parents always had non-mainstream music playing in the background. But she didn’t find people her own age to relate to about it until coming to shows here. And before long, she was picking up a guitar and writing songs herself.
“I mean it changed my whole life ... Because I never thought I would play music before I came here ... Usually you go to a concert and it’s on a stage and they look like they’ve been doing it forever ... Here you see the charm and the beginnings of everyone’s project ... It gives everyone room to fumble I guess so that they have room to grow and that’s exactly what I have done here.” Knight says she still has a love for pop music, like singers Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift - and it influences her writing. Here, she can try out new pieces she is working on in front of a crowd without fear of shame or judgment. And the audience listens in earnest, she says.
“It’s not like you are standing there in front of a bunch of scary people ... I’ve heard a lot of people comment on how interested people are ... It’s endearing ... Some people are taken aback by it I think, they stop and they are like 'Whoa, everyone is totally quiet while I tune my instrument.' It’s out of total respect, it’s really great,” says Jessica.
Brandon Carnes is Jessica’s band mate in Looming. He has numerous other projects and he runs the South Town Recording Studio, which he also lives in. He’s also now part owner of Black Sheep, since Kevin Bradford handed over the reins to him and a couple others earlier this year. So what keeps an ambitious energetic guy like him in Springfield? “Honestly, I always saw myself going out to California. But as I got involved in this community I realized people come here from California and say, ‘We don’t have anything like this where I’m from.’ ... The core of it for me is that the culture of Springfield is what we make it. I used to want to live in California – but now people are coming here from California. The scene is what we make it.”
For now, that culture is vibrant and thriving. As Black Sheep’s founder, Kevin Bradford has seen what started as a few teenager’s idealistic dream flourish now for a decade, and build a community around it: “There’s that sense that you weren’t alone. You may have felt like a loner in high school, and all of us growing up were kind of loners ... I was like that too ... I think a lot of people who gravitate toward underground music scenes are the same way. If those people found good things through it, I think I did my job.”