What two words best describe the local music in the 1990s? Full Choke.
People would drive for hours and pay the cover charge just to crowd the dance floor as the Clearwater-based band belted out favorites like “Copperhead Road,” “Fishin’ In The Dark” and “Battle of New Orleans.”
Antelope County will be treated to a rare free performance by Full Choke on Saturday as they headline the Neligh Mills Fall Festival from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. A beer garden will be available for adults that will be separate from where families can listen, watch and even dance, if they so desire.
Drummer Jon Lundgren said the band only plays three or four shows a year and is really looking forward to returning to Antelope County.
“It’s like riding a bike. One, two, three, four — here we go,” Lundgren said with a laugh. “It’s fun. I don’t miss the long drives or long nights, but I do miss playing with the guys. That I miss, so it’ll be nice to play so close to home.”
Norfolk singer Abby Nicole was originally booked to headline the festival, but tragically, she died in an ATV accident in late July. Full Choke graciously stepped up to the plate to ensure the festival had an act for the stage.
“After the accident, I called Dan (Mlnarik) and asked if we could help them out,” said Lundgren, who now lives in Neligh.
“It’s 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., so we decided it worked for us. Plus it’s a chance for family and friends back home to bring their kids and watch. Kids can’t go to the bar and watch us, so it’s a great opportunity for some people who wouldn’t be able to see us. Maybe there will be 20 people, maybe 200.”
Playing Saturday for Full Choke will be Lundgren, along with Dave Mlnarik, Dan Mlnarik and Donny Robertus, the former lead singer of well-known band Sandy Creek. Dan’s daughter Sydney, who is a sophomore in college, will also make an appearance on fiddle with the band.
A Look Back
A staple of the 1990s, Full Choke rarely had an open weekend and performed all over Nebraska, making local performances few and far between once word of their talent spread.
Although known to this day as a Clearwater band, Lundgren said he and brothers Dave and Dan Mlnarik were actually living in Lincoln when they started playing together.
“They were in college down in Lincoln, and so was I when they said they needed a drummer,” Lundgren remembered. “It was 1990 when Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson were really getting going, and everyone was buying snakeskin boots and cowboy hats. It just clicked.”
All three sang in choir and swing choir while attending Clearwater High School. Dave Mlnarik graduated in 1987 while the others were just two years later in 1989. Lundgren said he played the drums throughout high school, but the Mlnariks didn’t pick up the guitar until Dan injured his knee his senior year.
It wasn’t long until the brothers both started playing and called up Lundgren to play in their band. They practiced in Lundgren’s garage in Clearwater, and one day he invited his cousin, Ryan Baker, to grab his amp and guitar to jam with them. With Dan Mlnarik as lead, Baker playing rhythm, Dave Mlnarik on bass and Lundgren smashing the drums, the foursome of Full Choke was born.
Lundgren said it was the Mlnariks who came up with the name of the band. Full Choke is a reference to removing the restriction in a shot gun to allow the shots a greater diameter.
“It was a good country name,” Lundgren said. “It fit well, plus Dave and Dan were big hunters, so we became Full Choke.”
Their first gig was at Charlie’s Bar in Clearwater (now The Waterhole) with a set list of about 20 songs that they played over and over. About a year later, Jay Blomencamp joined the band on harmonica and harmony. Another year passed and Josh Mlnarik continued the family tradition with vocals and guitar, making it a solid six piece.
“We had the three parts with Dave, Dan and Jay, and that really worked,” Lundgren said. “It was a year after Jay joined that Josh started playing with us. With those six guys, we really got going with Riverside in Norfolk, Howells Ballroom and Riley’s in Wayne.”
Mix in venues in O’Neill, Atkinson, Schuyler and countless others, and Full Choke was booked every weekend — oftentimes Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Turning back the clock to the 1990s, the music scene was different. When bands played, people danced. And when Full Choke played, the dance floor overflowing with the jitterbug, swing, two step and more.
“I wish today’s generation understood dancing,” Lundgren said. “They don’t go out to the bars and learn how to swing. I wish these towns could get that going again. Not just for bands, but for the people. Life’s gotten busy, so I hope it someday comes back. It was a fun time.”
Lundgren said it wasn’t uncommon for the band to play a weekend in North Platte and have Full Choke faithful follow them to the venue.
With band members living hours apart, there was no time to practice. If they needed to rehearse a song or two, it was during set up. Lundgren downplays their ability to learn songs on the fly, but the band’s talent was undeniable.
“We never really practiced. If there was a new song we liked, Dave told us to find it on the radio. We learned it and played it without really practicing,” Lundgren said. “I don’t know if we were talented or what it was, but we could pick up a song without really practicing.”
The goal, Lundgren said, was to break into the Lincoln music scene, but it was hard. Lincoln didn’t pay well, not like Northeast Nebraska did. Plus, Full Choke simply had a bigger following in Northeast Nebraska.
But eventually Lincoln took notice, and the band started performing Sunday nights at the Pla Mor Ballroom with Sandy Creek.
Full Choke also started mixing in original music. The band recorded two original albums in 1994 and 1997, one in Lincoln and the second in Nashville.
By 2001, life started getting really busy for the members of Full Choke. They stopped booking gigs after family and work obligations took their toll. Since then, the band dropped to just three or four shows a year.
Lundgren said his grandmother told him to keep a journal every night about who they played with and where, but he never did and regrets that. The gigs started running together, and Lundgren said it’s hard to remember all of the big names they opened for over the years.
The biggest concert Lundgren recalled was Trisha Yearwood at the 1992 Antelope County Fair, easily the biggest concert in the fair’s history. Full Choke played the local fair for several years, and Lundgren still smiles when talking about the time Doug Supernaw joined the band on stage.
“We were playing ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ and Doug Supernaw came up to me and asked if he could play with us,” Lundgren said with a laugh. “He had on this Nebraska Huskers shirt we gave him, and he played with us. Man, the cameras started flashing then.”
Lundgren admitted how crazy it is to look back at just how big Full Choke was in Northeast Nebraska. It was nothing for 700-800 people to turn out for a Full Choke dance.
To this day, Lundgren is often recognized from the band.
“I still meet people who say, ‘You’re the drummer from Full Choke,’ and I get a little embarrassed,” Lundgren said. “I was the guy in the back on drums, so I though nobody really saw me. I guess they did.”
Saturday marks an opportunity for Full Choke to reach another generation of music lovers. While there likely will be those reminiscing about seeing the band play in the 1990s — or even just a couple of weekends ago in Ralston at Bushwackers — there will also be lots of single-digit children taking in the band for the first time.
For some of those listeners, they may hearing “new” favorites for the first time.
“George Strait, Garth Brooks, Pure Prairie League, Radney Foster, Steve Earl. We haven’t changed much because that’s what people want,” Lundgren said. “It’s surprising how many songs we play that are still played on the radio, so Full Choke is still playing the songs everybody loves. That’s what everybody will hear on Saturday.”