Colectivo’s Back Room becomes a treasured venue with the Pabst’s help

Most Colectivos are exactly what they look like: fun, trendy coffee shops where patrons grab a drink to start their day, cram before the next exam or get a quick bite to eat. The one on Milwaukee’s East Side, at 2211 N. Prospect Ave., is special. In a back room, there’s an entire concert venue.

Since last June, Colectivo has partnered with the Pabst Theater Group to bring in under-the-radar artists for “Live at the Back Room” shows, intimate performances where patrons get up close and personal with musicians and other artists. In the past year, the partners have brought in just about everything you can imagine: an improv music and art show with Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, feminist slam beat poet Andrea Gibson, live podcast recordings with The Memory Palace and RISK!, and lots and lots of musicians. Basia Bulat, Caroline Smith, Avishai Cohen Quartet, Crystal Bowersox and many more have graced the Back Room.

Performance spaces all have a personality and the Back Room is no different. Most music venues of this size are dark, but the room floods with natural light inside and throughout, seeping from a skylight above. When the lights are dimmed, the lighting gives the room a romantic glow, making the interaction between performers and the audience that much more personal.

Scott Schwebel, Colectivo’s vice-president of brand marketing and retail, has been involved with the Back Room since its genesis several years ago. The room was originally used to house the company’s roasting and wholesaling operations, from 1997 until that part of the business moved to Colectivo’s Riverwest location in 2008.

At that time, Schwebel and others at the company decided to use the space for special events, like guest speakers and Milwaukee Film Fest panels, in addition to small music performances.“We started with the gospel brunch that we host on Sundays, which is a charitable partnership with a city organization for healthcare,” Schwebel says.

“We thought it was an underutilized and wonderful space,” he adds, and one that was well-positioned to host larger events than they were already booking.

Schwebel already had a longstanding relationship with Gary Witt at the Pabst, so he simply asked Witt if he’d be interested in programming the Back Room as a music venue. Witt and others from the Pabst stopped by the location, saw the room, and instantly saw its potential to bring in interesting, eclectic talent — most of which had never had played a show in the market before.

“They build their spaces with an aesthetic of beauty in mind. That’s why you kind of have the look and feel of the room,” says Witt. “The space has always been available for people to be able to use in the city. … We consistently get hit up by agents looking for smaller rooms in the city (for their artists) and quite often they’re not able to find that space.”

For example, Witt says, last year he was contacted by an agent who he had a long relationship with, who’d booked shows at Pabst theaters for numerous other artists. He had a client, Olivia Chaney, who was particularly interested in a space with a more intimate aesthetic, but wanted the promotion and marketing muscle the Pabst Theater Group could provide. She’d ultimately become the first artist to perform in the Back Room, on June 14, 2015.

That show was a success, but Witt and Schwebel say it didn’t immediately confirm the Back Room’s viability as a performance space for national acts. More experimentation was in order, and the partners booked successive acts selectively to test the space and get feedback from the artists who used it.

“It was very exciting for us,” Schwebel says. “We came out of there and everyone had a checklist of what we could do better. … One year in, we’re pleased, but we’re not done. We’re constantly trying to figure out ways to improve. You’re going to see us test types of performances and I think you’ll continue to see more interesting and more diverse programming come through.”

For Witt and the Pabst Theater Group, the venue is a logical extension of what they’ve done with Turner Hall Ballroom, the Pabst Theater and the Riverside Theater: creating a loose hierarchy of venues for artists to ascend as their talent and popularity grow, both under their financial umbrella and at other locations in the city.

“Look at how the artist grows,” Witt says. “One show we’ll do at Turner and the next the artist will be at The Pabst and very often it moves beyond there. Amy Schumer is the perfect example on going from Turner Hall to the Pabst to the Riverside all the way to the Bradley Center.”

The natural lighting of the Back Room makes it a good fit for daytime events as well as evening concerts. Photos: Melissa Miller.
The natural lighting of the Back Room makes it a good fit for daytime events as well as evening concerts. Photos: Melissa Miller.

Since that original Olivia Chaney show, performances in the Back Room have grown increasingly popular, with many selling near or all the way to capacity. And the talent level of the performers has grown as well, with Colectivo and Pabst Theater Group able to book more familiar acts like Five For Fighting and Jessica Lea Mayfield in upcoming weeks. They’ve found that many performers even at a national touring level like the opportunity the Back Room gives them to perform in a smaller space.

“Performers, especially at this level, like that direct connection with their audience,” Schwebel says. “There’s this very simple, open connection between the artist on stage and the people who are sitting in the audience. I think all performers get a charge and I think our room sets it up to be a wonderful exchange between artist and audience.”