Smile Politely

Life within: The Highdive, 1999-2015

The Highdive was an integral part of the Champaign-Urbana music and cultural makeup for nearly two decades. Many, many humans entered and exited its doors thorughout those years, with good and bad experiences and everything in between. As The Highdive became The Accord over the winter break, things have changed a bit, though those memories remain. The experiences each had are his or her own, of course, but amongst a common thread that this was the place for a long period of time — one that was focused on live music.

Really though, these amazing shows happened at The Highdive throughout the active years — Arcade Fire, The Black Keys, The White Stripes, Flaming Lips, Queens of the Stone Age, Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent, just to name a few. These are massive bands in the realm of music nowadays. The list is endless.

Truth of the matter is: I wasn’t even around for most of it. Some of it, for sure. I remember going to The Great Cover Up in college, living between Downtown Champaign and Green Street’s madness that is Campustown. Participating as a part of WPGU for a few years, and then into being an Editor for this very magaizne. I didn’t really know The Highdive as it existed in the early days in any intimate capacity. I’ve learned to know it better in more recent years, being involved with the local scene in a variety of ways, and listening to people talk about what they experienced there, who they met there, what bands they saw that were amazing (or terrible), and all sorts of other stories. First-hand accounts are where you truly find the gems.

The people who knew the place were the local musicians, talent buyers, managers, bartenders, drinkers, publishers, editors, writers, and general patrons and citizens of the community. When coming up with a list of folks to contact about this piece, the obvious start was Ward Gollings, longtime talent buyer for the venue. He assisted a great deal in putting together a group of people to ask a single question to:

“What is your favorite/best memory of The Highdive?”

Some answers brief, some not-so-much (when you ask “roughly 50 words”, you learn that isn’t always going to work, which is OK). Below you’ll find some of the memories shared by those who were involved in what was happening at the venue throughout the years. This is merely scratching the surface.

I decided that there’s no good way to order these stories (though, Doug Hoepker thought of the idea, so I’ve started with his account). I’m presenting them to you in a somewhat-random fashion, and lightly edited. I didn’t want to interfere — just spectate, collect, and listen.

Doug Hoepker, former Music Editor at The Octopus/CU Cityview:

Despite all the spectacular touring bands I saw play at the Highdive and wrote about for The Octopus, my favorite memories are actually of local band performances. My first thought was to go with the time The Blackouts served as last-minute replacements for local band AD/HD. I was interviewing The Blackouts, then one of the more respected bands from C-U, following their practice at the old train station (now Black Dog). The interview had just begun and the band was quickly on its way to being suitably plastered (and hence to giving me the sort of frank responses that make for a great feature). I had barely asked a handful of questions when the door to the practice space opened and in came Mark Newton from local band AD/HD, who let it be known that their band member, Mark Peaslee, had taken a cymbal stand up the nose while the band was loading in. He was en route to the emergency room and AD/HD needed someone to take their spot as openers at that night’s Highdive gig. The Blackouts immediately said “yes” and we agreed to postpone the interview. An hour later, The Blackouts, now really inebriated, took the stage and performed a blistering opening set. This is a perfect example of the tightness of the local scene at that time. The Blackouts had AD/HD’s back and they didn’t think twice about it.

The fact that all these local bands got the chance to play The Highdive, this awesome club, on a regular basis should not be overlooked. Major props to Ward Gollings for booking local acts with the regularity that he did. It was a big deal for up-and-coming bands to have access to a proper stage in a top-notch venue that sounded spectacular thanks to smart, caring sound engineers. To that end, the memory I’m choosing is the local band showcase I booked during the waning days of CU Cityview, the rebranded version of The Octopus. It was a Wednesday night in mid-November and The Highdive was nearing capacity. That’s what happens when you take five really memorable local bands — Absinthe Blind, The Blackouts, The Buzzards, Lanterna, and (a new band at the time that many were seeing for the first time) American Minor — and put them in a really great local venue: people show up. At that time, the media, the musicians, and the venues all did a lot more than just pay lip service to the local scene. They cared. And when the community recognizes that people truly give a shit, they’re far more likely to support what’s going on. Here’s to hoping The Accord can conjure a similar magic.  

Ward Gollings, Talent Buyer for The Highdive


I booked flights for him and his small posse of 2 people. It makes me laugh as Ahmir Thompson still pops up/prompts on my Expedia account when entering passenger info for personal trips. He was the most laid back guy ever. You’d expect some serious rock star BS, or at least a super high maintenance manager in tow with him. Not the case. He flew in, had us drive him straight to Old Navy to buy some stuff. HA! Soundcheck was easy-peezy. And then his set was 3+ hours long and totally AMAZING. The vibe and the energy in the room was absolutely beautiful. When I signaled to him that he had about 10 minutes until the bar closed, he kinda rolled his eyes because he was in no way ready to call it a night. I bet he would have gone 5 hours if there was no curfew. Thank you Kosmo for putting together one of the best nights of my life ever!

The Living Blue performing at The Highdive, photo by David Cubberley

Michelle Brotherton, former Manager of The Highdive:

I have so many crazy, wonderful memories of the Highdive… which do I pick?

I do think that one of my favorites was a Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks show on Halloween night. Lyle Hodges, Matt Graham (also former Highdive bartenders) and I dressed up as The Smashing Pumpkins. Considering the infamous Malkmus scorn of Corgan at the time, we thought it was a clever idea. Well, mid-show Stephen invites Lyle (dressed as Corgan in white-face and a “bald” cap in the ZERO t-shirt) on stage to once-and-for-all bury the hatchet. They shook on it, the crowd roared — amazing. After the show we all then get in the band’s van to take them to a party at a loft downtown where DJ Funk is playing. Bob Nastanovich is driving, we’re all singing along to Outkast on the stereo… I mean, the lovely irony of it all… the indie-rock demi-god carted off to a party with a Chicago booty-house legend deejaying.  I then proceed to get into a bit of verbal sparring with the doorman at the party, make a small-ish scene, but it all ends well and good. The next week I send a brief apology to the band regarding my antics and soon after I get an orange postcard in the mail. It says, “Michelle — You are off the hook! Thanks for the hospitality! – Stephen.”

I’m really lucky to have had such a great job in my twenties! I met so many tremendous people over the years. What a fantastic time of my life…

Mark Rubel, founder of Pogo Studio:

A great highlight was getting to see Los Straitjackets with The World Famous Pontani Sisters and Kaiser George. Big Fun!

Seth Fein, Founder of The Pygmalion Festival, member of Abstinthe Blind:

In February of 2000, I got up the nerve to ask a girl on a date after my first real heartbreak. I’d never really been on a “date” before, so I figured, dinner and a show is probably a decent way to work that, right?

Took her to The Courier, casual and easy, and super local, which is always nice. And then brought her to Highdive to see Salaryman, the alter-ego of Rick and Rose from Poster Children.

Rob McColley reserved me seats in the balcony, and the show was packed. Salaryman performed to perfection. They had projection in the background, and the video was stunning. One song, they kept posing interesting questions to the audience on the screen, which was kind of like the ultimate ice-breaker for a first date, because we could kind of laugh or talk about them as they appeared.

She was so impressed and we totally kissed on the first date.

Angie Heaton, longtime local musician:

My favorite Highdive memory was the time I was playing drums with the Tractor Kings and we were opening for Neko Case… She saw us sound checking and walked by and said… “You’re a great drummer… for a lady”….I almost peed my pants!! <3

Marquee at The Highdive, photo by UrbanMilwaukee.

Isaac Arms, Talent Buyer at Mike N Molly’s, Label Manager at Heirship Records, local musician:

My favorite memory of The HighDive will always be walking in from the cold outside, looking left, seeing Bart, and immediately feeling warm.

Mike Ingram, local performer, DJ, and musician in various projects:

Most of my favorite memories of the Highdive are tied to The Great Cover Up — Absinthe Blind as The Beastie Boys is definitely up there, and Temple of Low Men as Stone Temple Pilots melted my goddamn faces, and Orphans/Headlights as Bjork was the first time I’d ever seen a band transform so completely — but often when I think of that bar I think of my first time playing there. It was 2003 and for some reason Ward let wannabe singer/songwriter Mike Ingram open up for Volcano! I’m Still Excited (this was the band of Mark Duplass of The League fame, pre-fame). I was pretty sure I could bring a crowd and that’s probably why he put me on that show, despite only having played campus places up until then.

I hadn’t learned a lot of the lessons I’d go on to learn, so my first-of-three-acts set ran a little too long, but Ward was kind and he paid me a little cash and I felt good about it. In the middle of the bill was a guy going by the name of Pointed. I didn’t really get his stuff and my friends definitely didn’t get his stuff and while I don’t think they ever did it to him, they definitely made fun of him. And I probably joined in. I hadn’t figured out yet that in a scene like this we should all be supportive of each other. I hadn’t figured out that it’s okay not to enjoy what another musician does, and that you could still support them despite that fact. I hadn’t figured out a lot of things.

One of my roommates at the time printed out a picture of the dude and put him on the dart board at our house. Yeah, it was like that. I don’t even remember why this guy caused such a response amongst my friends, but it might have had to do with nothing more than the fact that he wasn’t throwing Pearl Jam covers in the middle of his set of originals. Who knows?

Anyway, I learned a lot in my first couple of years of being in the scene and quickly became a cheerleader for it. I stopped writing my own songs partially because I was so in awe of some of the other writers around me, and I was happier promoting their stuff than my own. But I always felt bad about that encounter with Pointed and I always figured if I ran into him I’d apologize just in case any of it actually made it to his ears.

Flash forward several years to when I found a used Pointed CD at Exile On Main. I put a picture of it up on Facebook with some kind of “blast from the past” type of caption. Someone commented that he had died a couple of years before and it hit me like a Mike Tyson punch. I’d never run into him and never told him what a punk I’d been back in 2003 and now I wouldn’t get to. If I wasn’t already resolved to trying to spend my time trying to build up the scene instead of tearing it down, that certainly did it. The Highdive played host to my first real DJ residency and to some of the biggest shows I’ve ever player or booked, and when I think back on it I remember Pointed and a me that didn’t know shit. And I’m glad. It makes me want to be better.

Scott Schaub, one of the original bartenders in 1999, owner of Furniture Lounge:

I worked at The High Dive from opening night in 1999 till some time in 2002 a few months after Amanda and I started Furniture Lounge.

The HighDive was a much different place back then. Average customer age starting out was probably around 30. Heavy on bands and weekend DJs. 

I remember opening at 4:00 pm on Fridays for Jazz happy hour. I remember Heavy Metal Monday’s with $1 PBR drafts on the “small side of the bar”. I remember seeing Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse, Hum, Black Eyed Peas (never a big fan of Hiphop but absolutely the BEST LIVE SHOW I’ve ever been to), Queens of the Stoneage, Nashville Pussy, Reverend Horton Heat, Suplecs, R L BURNSIDE, T Model Ford, J Mascis + The Fog, the Gazza Strippers, Frantic Flattops, Dixie Witch, Todd Snider and on and on………….. Ward has always been excellent at getting quality acts in! 

I remember chain smoking and drinking too much and working with a bunch of interesting bartenders from different walks of life that were funny, cool and entertaining to be around.

Oh ya — Last but certainly not least…….

I met my future wife there too!

Aimee Rickman, member of The Violents:

The guitarist of the band playing after our band, The Violents, got taken out by a drum-stand-up-the-nose load-in accident. We went next door to the old train station where my other band Felix practiced and found The Blackouts, who grabbed their gear and jumped into the lineup. Now the train station is the Black Dog and the Highdive is the Accord. Location still matters. Go, downtown Champaign!

The Violents played their first show at The Highdive — a benefit for the Common Ground Food Co-op organized to help raise money for their always-dying coolers. All of the bands had to play a cover in their set that tied to the cooler theme. We ended on our cover (cheezy as shiz New Edition), which turned into a mass singalong with Sally standing on her kit. A fun night, and great start! Thanks, Highdive!

David Washington pictured with Kunal Nayyar, photo by Don Gerard

Don Gerard, former Mayor of Champaign, member of The Moon Seven Times:

I took Kunal Nayyar to the High Dive and I can’t remember who is DJing, but when word got out “Raj from Big Bang Theory” was in the club folks wanted pictures. This big guy came up and yelled to his buddy, “Hey, get a picture of me with the Mayor!” I laughed and said, “What? You don’t want a picture with the movie star?” and he said, “Fuck that! I want a picture with the MAYOR!”

Holly Rushakoff, Music Editor at The Octopus, bassist of Triple Whip:

I won’t forget the Cibo Matto show. I interviewed Yuka Honda for The Octopus. Miho Hatori got the whole room to dance in sync, left to right, right to left. And Sean Lennon is the closest I’d ever get to The Beatles.

Mike Coulter, local columnist:

Maybe not favorite or best, but my memory of the Highdive was the first comedy show we did there. It was Ward, Talbott, Lyle Hodges, and myself. Long story short, we had a few one night and decided it would be a great idea so we set a date. I picked up Talbott, who was carryhing a trombone, before the show and he said, “We have to stop at County Market. I need a bunch of rope and 3 grapefruit.” I thought that was weird… until we went inside and saw Lyle reading a copy of Big Asses magazine and drinking a forty. Oh, he was also dressed as a chicken.

HUM performing at The Highdive in 2011, photo by Andrew Youssef.

Larry Gates, member of Curb Service and various other local projects:

In 1999 my good friend Bryan Phelps (Kittens Inc, The Chemicals) told me about The Great Cover Up explaining that C-U bands like Hum and The Poster Children were coving the likes of R.E.M. and Zepplin. We decided to go see for ourselves — we walked into The Highdive for the first time and heard Jenny Choi and her band ripping through The Muppets (in full costume). We made our way to the front of the stage and watched in amazement as Absinthe Blind handled Michael Jackson and The Poster Children brought the house down as U2. We were hooked — on the town, the venue, the scene — all of it. I’m proud to say that I was fortunate enough to perform at The Highdive 40 times (including 14 Cover Up sets). Legendary venue. Let’s keep the legend alive.

Kayla Brown, longtime local musician, member of We The Animals:

We The Animals’ first show was at the Highdive. The start of WTA was really important to me as marking the start of a lot of really positive change in my life and music, so I’ll always have a warm and fuzzy place in my heart for the Highdive as the jumping point for a lot of that.

Adam Fein, member of Absinthe Blind, Gazelle:

Absinthe Blind performed Michael Jackson to a completely packed house for the Great Cover Up (in 1999, I believe). We closed with “Thriller” and Tristan’s father, Colin, performed the Vincent Price monologue at the end. Deafening screams and cheers — it was a great time.

Bob Henne, member of the ACME Principle, soundman for various venues:

A favorite for me was doing the stage mix for Neko Case from on-stage. She and her band were so nice to work with, and I had a super great seat! That was a special treat for me. Mixing Jucifer was also pretty awesome and again, so nice to work with!

J. Matthis Helmick, former bartender at The Highdive, projects include Beats by Otter, Prologic Rebel Base Ensemble:

I bartended at the Hizzle D for a couple years, pretty fun. Performance wise, lots of record spinning, seeing Beats by Otter on the marquee was always a thrill. Opening for the Black Eyed Peas was surprisingly super fun, and Kool Keith’s famous no show was a trip (rocked the full house anyway, so much chicken!) My band sharing the stage with friends bands was always special.

As a fan. The Blonde Redhead show was my personal favorite. The Helicopters and the Flaming Lips round out my top 3 shows.

Sufjan Stevens performing at The Highdive in 2009, photo by Justine Bursoni.

Joe Funderburk, member of We The Animals, various other projects:

Obviously with the Cover Up looming, I’m reminded of the amazing sets and fun I’ve had over the last 13 years. Elsinore, LG, The Dirty Feathers and a few other come to mind as GCUP faves but Temple of Low Men are my personal cover up kings. Best non GCUP memories include seeing bands like The Bottle Rockets, Web Wilder, and the Straigt Jackets, but my fave is Kayla Browns going away party at 80s night w Mingram. There was a dance off. Ward Gollings won.

Tim Williams, local DJ:

My best memory of The Highdive was not a single event, but a culmination of many wonderful musical moments. I had the pleasure of being the Saturday night DJ in the 2000’s. Playing records for that many people dancing was a joy to experience and watching talented artists like the Black Keys and QOTSA and so many others, will always be cherished memories.

The Flaming Lips performing at the Highdive in 2000.

Scott Kimble, member of Terminus Victor, Wicked Walls:

There are a whole slew of memories that I have when it comes to the Highdive. One of the earliest was when the Flaming Lips played in early 2000? on tour for The Soft Bulletin. the band had played in Champaign several times before, but to me this show burst with a kind of energy with everyone knowing that they were on the brink of really breaking big. They were definitely firing on all cylinders back in those days.

I’d like to extend a personal thank you to everyone who participated in this piece, and shared what they had to share with our readers. You all lived it, and knew it best.

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