I’ll be honest, Appleton wasn’t on my radar until about four years ago. In 2012 a college friend moved to this small Wisconsin town to open a Vietnamese/Thai/Lao restaurant with his sister called Basil Café. Then in early 2014 I visited him and we saw comedian T.J. Miller at Skyline Comedy Club. The club and surrounding Fox River area thoroughly impressed.
Appleton’s cultural and artistic institutions are aided by Lawrence University, a renowned liberal arts college and conservatory of music. Recently the town has become best known for the Mile of Music (MoM) festival, which was founded in 2013 by Americana/folk musician and Appleton-native Cory Chisel.
Similar to the SXSW festival in Austin, MoM takes over a stretch of downtown Appleton and damn near every business (and some alleys) get in on the action. Chisel, who splits time between Appleton and Nashville, curates most of the festival. At this year’s MoM, colloquially referred to as “Mile 4,” there were more than 800 performances by more than 200 bands at 70 venues, virtually all taking place on one mile of College Avenue.
On Saturday my girlfriend and I were lucky enough to stay at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel right in the heart of the action, taking in one of the four days of the festival. We went to discover new music and to support our Milwaukee musicians friends, including the festival’s first hip-hop showcase curated by Lex Allen. What follows is my minute-by-minute recap of “Mile 4, Day 3.”
We exit I-41 onto College Avenue and as we get closer to “the Mile” traffic starts to slow down. In front of our hotel there’s a “Jam Room” parked on the street. It’s essentially a small trailer with windows and a guitar-singer duo are performing in it for passersby.
As we wait for our hotel room to be ready I email my Soul Low feature to my WiG editor. Check it out if you haven’t already, Nosebleeds is a great record and we had fun testing their domestic beer tasting skills during our interview.
We check into our hotel room and I realize one of my backup shoes is missing. I retrace my steps and find it in the parking garage where we stopped to look out on Houdini Plaza. Milwaukee favorites GGOOLLDD will play there later in the afternoon.
When I get back to the hotel lobby a teenage boy is playing acoustic guitar and doing a bang-up cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine” in front of a shower display by Tundraland, the official sponsor of the festival. It’s their “Sing in the Shower To Make A Difference” station. If 250 people sing a song in front of it they will “Send a kid to music school for free!” Throughout the course of the day we hear some surprisingly sweet sounds and some truly awful amateurs. I feel like if Tyler Maas was here he would write an article exclusively about this.
The air conditioning is blasting inside Déjà Vu Martini Lounge, our first stop. The frigid temperature inside makes me wish more of MoM was an outdoor fest, considering the weather is currently gorgeous. Déjà Vu has a jazz club vibe with a small stage off to the side of the wrap around bar. The sound guy seems to be doing his job solely with an iPad, which seems strange. We’re here to see Idle Empress from Eau Claire. Their first song sounds more Americana than what I sampled online, making me think they are pandering to the average MoM fan. But the second and subsequent songs have a Lady Lamb-esque folk-pop-punk feel with some nice guitar jams. Great start!
We head back to our hotel where The Dove and The Wolf are finishing their set in the courtyard. It feels great to be under the sun again. There are plenty of seats and two outdoor bars. The duo, one member from Paris and the other from Martinique, sings tragically sweet songs, each with their own guitar, and we wish we’d seen more of their set.
On our walk to Jim’s Place on the east end of the mile we pass a group of gypsy folk buskers, a young girl playing a recorder, a dapper shoe shine boy, and a poetic message about the power of music written in chalk on a sandwich board. I want to take a picture of it, but I also want to catch the end of Paul Otteson’s set. My girlfriend sees a vintage neon patterned poncho on an outdoor rack that she likes but I hurry her along as well.
Jim’s Place is a narrow pub and Otteson is playing in the back with a drummer. The patio door is open and the climate is great. “There’s a lot of sandals in here,” my girlfriend notices. Otteson, who is from Madison, seems to attract the Birkenstock crowd. His saintly voice sounds excellent despite the chatter in the pub.
On our way out of Jim’s Place I tell my girlfriend we’ll go look for the poncho, but we get distracted by even more vintage clothes at Beatnik Betty’s Resale Boutique and Tina Marie’s Unique Boutique. To our dismay, the rack with the poncho and the sandwich board with the poetic message are gone. My girl is pissed.
Walking back into the hotel I pledge to call the two boutiques we think might have the poncho in the morning. She’s still pretty mad.
Liza Anne and her band (Nashville) are in the hotel courtyard playing a new song called “Turn for the Worse” that they’ve only played out one other time. They jam out at the end and it’s pretty fantastic. Before we leave my girl comments that like Idle Empress, Liza Anne also has a Lady Lamb vibe. Might Aly Spaltro (Lady Lamb) be one of the premier models for female rockers? We tend to think so. She wowed us at her headlining Turner Hall set last summer.
Walking to The Bar on the Avenue I spot a Frankie Teardrop t-shirt. Two years ago my girlfriend and I made friends with a couple from Minneapolis sitting next to us at a TV on the Radio concert at the Pabst Theater. The guy, Konner Johnson, recently started playing drums for Frankie Teardrop. Fun fact!
“Oh that was so violating,” my girlfriend says after we catch a song by Oh My Love (Madison). Based on their online profile we suspected they would be highly derivative of Sylvan Esso, the amazing soulful electro-pop duo with Milwaukee ties. From Oh My Love’s sound to the producers sparse dance moves to the singers sparkly shoes and outfit, it all seemed like an imitation. They appear to have some talent, so I suggest they find their own identity fast.
We run into hip-hop producer Isaac Chevako (DMT), who recently moved back to Milwaukee from California. It’s nice to have him back and hopefully he and Pharaoh Mac keep making music. After exchanging pleasantries with Chevako my girlfriend looks at me and says, “I had visions of wearing that poncho tonight when it got chilly and it was magical! Now I’ll never find it again.”
Walking into McGuiness Irish Pub my girlfriend says, “It smells like sweet bread in here,” with a disgusted look on her face. At this point hunger has taken hold and we abandon our plan to eat at Basil Café, which is a bit of a trek from “the Mile.” We order a corned beef and I get a black and tan.
I make my way over to where Lowland Hum (Charlottesville, VA) are playing and singer Lauren Goans mentions they have lyric books, which are “not for keeps.” I grab one of the books and they are super adorable! From our spot at the bar it’s hard to hear the lyrics and follow along, but we can appreciate the effort.
A beefy guy bro hugs the bartender and says he’s coming in later with his boss to see Geri X (St. Petersburg, FL). He asks the bartender if he’s ever seen her. “Yeah she’s played here before, she’s awesome.” They have a twinkle in their eyes.
We’ve been waiting over 30 minutes for our corned beef. I ask the cook how much longer it will be. The bar is slammed and he says, “Probably more of a wait,” so we decide to go rogue and walk out. I only had $2 in cash so I drop it at the bar on our way out. Let the record show, I owe McGuiness Pub like $3 or $4, depending on how much a black and tan cost.
My girlfriend can’t eat gluten so we’re elated to find an Erberts & Gerberts sandwich shop with gluten-free bread. The subs totally hit the spot and are the perfect quick, walk-able meal for MoM. On our way to the Stansbury Theatre we check out the Alley Project, which has art projects, a large mural, tap beer, and a BBQ food truck. We just missed Milwaukee’s Space Raft, but I suspect we’ll get a chance to see them again back home.
Stansbury Theatre is where MoM’s first ever hip-hop showcase is being held, which was curated by Lex Allen. It’s on the east end of “the Mile” and there isn’t any signage leading to it. “There should be chalk arrows or something,” says my girlfriend. We worry there might not be good crowds because it’s hard to find. We also wonder if this is another example of hip-hop being purposefully marginalized.
Stansbury is a medium-sized theatre that seats between 400 and 500 people. To our surprise Milwaukee’s Fivy is playing, who was not originally on the bill. New Age Narcissism bandleader Kiran Vedula (Q the Sun) appears and informs us she’s splitting a set with Chakara Blu. He’s working out issues with the sound so we don’t keep him long.
On our walk back to see GGOOLLDD at Houdini Plaza the MoM Bus goes by. It’s packed with people and a New Orleans-style zydeco band is playing in the rear. As GGOOLLDD sound checks a crowd has started to gather in the plaza and even on the roof of the adjacent parking garage.
GGOOLLDD’s dreamy synth pop has little girls and young men alike dancing. After their third song lead singer Margaret Butler grabs her phone, which is adorned with a teal unicorn cover, and says “Do you guys know this is a killer Pokemon stop? There’s like four lors!” (I’m not sure if I’m spelling that term correctly.)
When they start playing their single “Boyz” the crowd cheers with recognition. Drummer Mark Edwards hits a sick flair going into the final chorus of “Boyz.”
Margaret invites a friend to dance with her on top of the amp during “Dance Through the Winter.”
They debut a new song called “Undercovers,” which is uncharacteristically dark, but still very good. During “Interlude” Margaret takes a break and walks through the crowd, giving my girlfriend and I a hug after stepping off-stage.
Thomas Gilbert’s guitar playing on set closer “Gold” is a wonderful way to finish a triumphant set and weekend for one of Wisconsin’s hottest bands, who were actually up at 7 a.m. that morning for a 10 a.m. set. Hard to believe considering they headlined the festival at 11:30 p.m. at Mill Creek the night before.
Milwaukee raconteur and scene staple Myles Coyne is playing piano in the lobby of the hotel! His band Ladders is playing the festival and I’ve already spotted his “Mouse Corn” signature on one of the wooden guitar cut-outs in front of the hotel courtyard stage.
We spot renowned Milwaukee artist Reginald Baylor. “Does Reginald Baylor go to everything?” my girl wonders aloud, thinking back to how many times we spotted him at Arte Para Todos 2016, plus this reported sighting at Summer Soulstice 2016. (Presumably he’s been to more things.)
Bo and Airo, a Milwaukee duo comprised of bassist/rapper Bo Triplexxx and drummer/rapper Airo Kwil are slaying a Deltron 3030-esque song about the “distant future.” They get the small but attentive crowd amped with a cover of Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem” and deliver the best between song banter so far of the festival.
Q the Sun is picking imaginary fruit or gold coins out of the air and popping them in his mouth while DJing for Zed Kenzo, who is twirling, twerking, and doing all sorts of karate-like dance moves to the beat. Her spazzy, alien-like, baby-voice rapping is giving some audience members “WTF” faces, but members of GGOOLLDD show up to support her charmingly weird brand of hip-hop.
After Zed Kenzo finishes we leave Stansbury with members of GGOOLLDD. We all want a drink and they suggest heading to the Alley Project. The Alley only has tap beer and since my girlfriend is gluten-free we pop into Jim’s Place. She orders a gin and tonic while I get the official festival beer, the MoM Pale Ale from Stone Arch Brewpub. It’s pretty bland, but it will do. At this point lots of bars are hitting capacity and lines are starting to form. As we walk back to the Alley Project my girlfriend says, “the ghost of the poncho hangs over us.”
We’re back in the Alley with GGOOLLDD and Thomas is telling us about the floppy disk with drum samples that Gina Barrington gave him when he joined her band Nightgown. He was able to import them into his keyboard/sampler and build arrangements. He describes this as, “Phase 1. Phase 2 will be adding live drums,” he says.
Inside Stansbury Chicago’s Ric Wilson is captivating the crowd with his ebullient energy and killer dance moves. “Damn he’s charming,” my girlfriend says after Ric gives the audience props for being his choir on “Lord Have Mercy.” He impressed us so much the first time we saw him at Cactus Club a few months back that he was at the top of our must-see list for MoM.
Lex announces that Klassik hasn’t made it due to a prior engagement, which was headlining Center Street Daze in Milwaukee with Foreign Goods. My girl and I were curious as to how he was going to do both and it looks like he won’t.
No Name Noise (Q the Sun on keys, Bo Triplexxx on bass, and Christopher Gilbert on drums), also known as the New Age Narcissism band, take the stage. Q announces they’ll be jamming out for a little bit and then the NAN set will start in earnest at 10:30 p.m.
Amanda Mills (fashion designer, photographer, Q’s girlfriend) pushes a Greek mannequin with no head or arms and black tape on its nipples onto the stage. Guitarist Angie Swan follows behind her. Swan starts soloing in no time.
A rapper named Rob, who I previously thought was a sound guy and he might still have been, is invited to grab the mic and he absolutely destroys.
The NAN set is about to commence and the crowd is in a frenzy. Stansbury is as packed as it has been or will be all day. From atop an amp Bo Triplexxx declares, “It’s lit!”
Siren gives me goosebumps.
Klassik shows up! At first it seems like No Name Noise is going to leave the stage for him to do his own set but then together they jump into one of my favorite Klassik songs, “Light.” When Q the Sun and Christopher Gilbert were in Fresh Cut Collective they regularly backed Klassik, so it was like riding a bicycle for them. Bo quickly got a handle on the bass line. They follow with “STAGESlayer,” which ends with an inspired and manic freestyle by Klassik.
Lorde Fredd33 frees the mannequin’s nipples!
Q calls an audible and launches into “Tupacalypse,” possibly Lorde Fredd33’s rowdiest song. The crowd responds with intense energy and Angie’s guitar sounds amazing.
Lex brings Queen Tut and Zed Kenzo onstage for their new song “Sex to Mozart.” Before we know it there are additional friends seductively dancing onstage.
Angie takes the mic to promote her upcoming album and launches into a rock guitar medley, which the crowd eats up. When she starts playing and singing MGMT’s “Electric Feel” Q steps in and gets the NAN set back on track.
There is a ten foot gap between the stage and the audience, with a short wooden gate keeping us from the stage. My girlfriend and another audience member talk about stepping over it, but I notice the panels on the floor and suspect there might be an orchestra pit below. We imagine WebsterX jumping off the stage and falling through the panels into the pit. Sure enough, during “Doomsday” he leaps off the stage and…he’s safe. It’s steady ground. Later, Siren tells us she had the same fear.
Almost everyone who performed and their friends from backstage come out to dance and get crazy during WebsterX’s squad anthem, “Desperate Youth,” which is one of the elements that originally drew us to WebsterX and NAN.
After an almost two-hour set and more impressive dance moves from Ric Wilson and Zed Kenzo, the NAN set comes to a close. Kudos to Lex. “Next year we will be outside. I’m thinking Jones Park,” he tells us.
Bo Triplexxx comes over to say hi, randomly reciting Lil Yachty lyrics. We tell him that we recently watched the crazy ass video for “1 NIGHT.”
Although Cleo’s is one of the coolest bars we’ve ever been to, with its dizzying array of hanging lights and Christmas decorations, it’s packed and we need to get off our feet. Plus we have tequila and beer back at the hotel room.
Late night hunger compels me to go out and grab a slice from Sal’s Pizza and some pickles and potato chips from Jimmy John’s. On my walk I spot Zed Kenzo prancing up the street. Back at our hotel room we scarf down the food and dose off to an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.
11:15 a.m. (the next day)
On our way to Sangria’s Mexican restaurant for brunch we spot a beautiful “Rock the Vote” David Bowie mural that reads, “He’s told us not to blow it, ’cause he knows it’s all worth while.”
12:45 p.m. (the next day)
After our delicious meal we swing by Hey Daisy, the boutique where my girlfriend thinks the poncho might be. Not only are they open but they have the poncho, which she buys.
It looks absolutely fabulous on her.