Cowboy Monkey welcomes live music

Ryan Groff performs at Cowboy Monkey, 6 E. Taylor Street, Champaign, Saturday night. This marked the first time Cowboy Monkey held live music since late last year. Ned Mulka

By Phil Collins

The walls are repainted in a burnt yellow and are adorned with new artwork. The patio opens Wednesday and when the kitchen is ready to go the following Monday, the menu will be completely different. Cowboy Monkey is going through a lot of changes but some things look the same, including the stage.

Late last year Cowboy Monkey, 6 E. Taylor St. in Champaign, announced it would no longer book bands. It looked as if the restaurant and music venue would be dropping guitars for grills and rumors spread that the stage could be torn down.

Saturday night the stage stood as strong as it always has. The familiar red curtain still lines the back of the stage and the little stairway going up to the stage remains on the right hand side.

It was like old times again at Cowboy Monkey, with Champaign’s Ryan Groff and Casados playing the first sets of 2008. Vandaveer, a male-female duo from Washington, D.C., also graced the stage.

Matt Selinger, general manager for Cowboy Monkey, dispelled any rumors of the stage being taken out.

“That’s just a waste of a good business opportunity,” Selinger said.

Selinger confirmed that live music is back for good at the venue, although it may not be as often as it used to be.

He said the venue is trying to book bands that are consistent with its new look and feel. They are also trying to get soundchecks for shows done early. Loud soundchecks had a tendency to drive people outside between sets, he said.

People at the show were happy to see the venue return to live music.

“I think the stage is an important part of the bar,” said Beth Rockenbach of Urbana.

The bar has long been a home to local music and Selinger said it will continue to fill that role “as much as possible, whenever possible.” Both Ryan Groff and Casados talked about how great it was to be back on the stage at Cowboy Monkey throughout their sets, to cheers from the crowd, which was sizable as people lined the bar and filled up the tables.

The crowd was sizable – people lined the bar and filled up the tables.

They cheered loudly for all three acts and shouted out requests during Groff’s set, which he obliged on two occasions.

Casados and Vandaveer both offered a male-female vocal split backed by acoustic guitar. Casados also included a mandolin and a harmonium on some songs. Neither band did a soundcheck during the show. Groff did a short soundcheck, which appeared to be for the purpose of setting the various pedals he used onstage during his set.

“The local music scene has really picked up over the last five or six years and (Cowboy Monkey) has been a big part of it,” said Clint Popetz of Urbana, who watched the show from one of the tables.

Selinger said no one wanted to see live music gone from Cowboy Monkey and he was “ecstatic” to have Ryan Groff back, who is also the lead singer in local band elsinore. Selinger was very aware of some people’s dissatisfaction about live music’s temporary exit from the venue.

“I’ve had people open the door and yell at me for not having live music,” he said.

So Cowboy Monkey moves on with a new look and a new taste, bringing live music with it.

The new menu will feature some Spanish fusion items including gazpacho and a horchata dessert.

Selinger described the new look as a Southern cantina and said that nothing from the old menu will transfer to the new menu.

The food and restaurant aspect is becoming the main focus of Cowboy Monkey. All of this is part of an effort to “step up” the downtown area.

“We feel that we can offer downtown Champaign something that no one else can right now,” Selinger said.