In the lower floor of the Busch Student Center, Saint Louis University hosts the Billiken Club, one of the region’s hottest venues for live music. Under the direction of Chris Grabau and operated by an all-student staff, the Billiken Club was known for attracting both nationally renowned and talented local acts, and featured many artists who would later go on to become big names. The club received rave reviews from local press, and won two “Best of Saint Louis” awards from the Riverfront Times, one in 2007 for Best Rock Club and another in 2009 for Best All Ages Venue. Indeed, the Riverfront Times went so far in 2009 as to say that the club held “some of the best concerts this city is lucky enough to host.” In addition to praise garnered for the quality of the music, the Billiken Club was recognized as exceptionally well operated (noteworthy as a rarity among student run organizations of its kind). Many patrons of the Billiken Club were Saint Louis University students, for whom it was not only an exciting destination on the weekends, but also a point of pride in their University. To many attending SLU in the mid to late 2000s, the Billiken Club was a vital part of their student experience; for some, it was also a valuable early opportunity to work or intern in the performing arts. As such, the Billiken Club Collection documents a vibrant period in the cultural life of SLU and the local St. Louis music scene, which is why these materials are now part of the University Archives. The Billiken Club is resuming scheduling in the fall of 2013 after a lengthy hiatus and transition in management. The club retains a vocal and devoted fan following hoping for a rapid return of the excellent programming for which it was known. Under the direction of KSLU (the student-run university radio station), the newly reopened Billiken Club promises to fulfill that hope. Eric Woods received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1996. After a period in New York City, he moved to Saint Louis to pursue a career in advertising. In 2002 he left to pursue work that would allow a more personal blend of artistic and commercial sensitivities. In pursuit of this dream, he founded The Firecracker Press.
Over time the Press has grown in terms of both attached artists and commercial space. Originally located in downtown Saint Louis, the press was forced to expand into larger commercial space located on Chippewa Street. The addition of new presses prompted the press to expand again into its current Cherokee Street location in 2008, and The Firecracker Press has since become a staple of the Cherokee Street business community and a force for revitalization in the area. It was recognized by the Riverfront Times as a mover in the Best New Local Art Trend of 2009: Artist-run Print Shops. It continues to be recognized as one of the prime drivers behind the print culture movement in Saint Louis.
The Firecracker Press is a collaborative effort between several highly talented local artists working together to produce artisan works of commercial art. They create these unique works of art through a process combining computer design with traditional letterpress and printmaking techniques. Artists first design the prints on computers, then hand-carve the images into blocks of wood — one woodblock for each color represented in the image. Each block is inked with its appropriate color and separately run through the press with the same sheet of paper, so that the colors build up to create the final multi-colored print. The woodcut medium encourages strong, bold lines and also captures the texture of the wood, lending the resulting prints a warmth and immediacy of the artists’ involvement. Each poster, then, is an original work of art, each hand-printed, rather than produced by an automated offset press.
The Billiken Club posters represent the convergence of two different artistic spheres – the visual and the musical – at a time when Saint Louis was home to energetic and creative members of both. Produced by The Firecracker Press as color woodcuts, the posters are also both art prints and advertising; they are graphically striking while at the same time powerfully evocative of the bands they advertised. From the outset, the intent of the Billiken Club posters was to provide an artifact of the experience as much as to advertise. A new series of posters was produced for each concert season, and many of these series employed inventive design elements, such as prints combining to form a larger image or folding into small artists’ books. The prints were often stolen for their artwork as much as for being concert souvenirs. They are outstanding examples of the dynamic letterpress printing and printmaking industry that has emerged in St. Louis over the past ten years, concentrated on Cherokee Street and spearheaded by The Firecracker Press. Though creative input is shared, and series often have multiple designers, Eric Woods generally “set the tone” of a series by designing the first few images. The Billiken Club prints were created with the use of a 1960’s era Vandercook SP20 Proof Press. The paper was consistent throughout each series except for the first year, though varied between series and tended to be 80 lb. paper from Wausau or Weyerhaeuser. The Firecracker Press used Vanson inks, and favored Birch Plywood for the creation of woodcut blocks. The Billiken Club Posters frequently garnered critical acclaim as well as popular attention. The 2010–2011 series of prints won an American Institute of Graphic Arts Award of Merit in 2010. The Riverfront Times named the Times New Viking poster their Best Concert Poster of 2011.Note written by Tim Achee