Wisconsin music makers have been busy these last few weeks. Appleton’s Mile of Music pulled off their fourth festival. One of the most anticipated Wisconsin albums of the year—Nosebleeds by Soul Low—was released on August 5. For more on Soul Low see my upcoming feature in WiG.
The attention of the international media will be on Eau Claire this weekend, as Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and friends host the second Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival. I will bring you my report in the next issue of WiG. Now I offer my rundown of Mile of Music, the Milwaukee Public Library’s inaugural “Library Loud Days,” a couple Company Brewing shows, and the latest addition to Milwaukee’s impressive roster of festivals.
Synth Fest MKE
A new Milwaukee festival debuted last month in the Bay View neighborhood. Produced by the people at Acme Records—a music store on S. Kinnickinnic Ave—the inaugural Synth Fest MKE put the spotlight on electronic music. Barry Paul Clark, bassist in several Wisconsin bands including Field Report and the mind behind adoptahighway, told me that what made the festival unique is it provided an outlet to artists who don’t often perform live.
“The experimental, electronic music scene in Milwaukee can be very introverted. It is usually one person spending a lot of time working with different recording technologies and machines in isolation. The festival was really special because it showed us that we’re all kind of speaking the same language and living in the same universe, so there can be a community around it.”
One of those people who rarely plays out is John Goezler, who performed as BTS.WRKNG on the second night of the festival. Clark was happy to see Goezler, as he was one of the first people Clark met in the electronic scene after moving back to Milwaukee from New York City. Synth Fest MKE comprised two nights of music at Cactus Club and two days at Acme Records on July 23 and July 24.
I caught Clark as adoptahighway on the first night and he delivered a powerfully haunting set. On my way out of Cactus Club I ran into a guy who looked like but was not Nick Schubert of GGOOLLDD, which made me sad he wasn’t playing the festival as his Holy Visions side project. Maybe next year.
“Library Loud Days” inaugural event
In an attempt to redefine Milwaukee’s concept of their library, the Central Branch became a lively, interactive destination on July 28. Out front on Wisconsin Avenue there was a block party with V100 DJs, food and beer vendors. Inside there was an instrument station, a music video display, free popcorn, a photo booth, spoken word, and a headlining performance from New Age Narcissism (NAN), Milwaukee’s premier hip-hop collective. The stage was set up inside the Schoenleber Reading Room. The packed audience, from toddlers to senior citizens, gave NAN a warm reception, feeding off their infectious energy. It was a beautiful night of music in a place where I never thought I’d get the chance to chant, dance, sing and stomp.
The Lion’s Ball and Strange Fruit
Company Brewing in Milwaukee is usually closed on Monday, but when Milwaukee saxophonist Jay Anderson requested that his birthday party fall on his actual birthday—Monday July 25—owner George Bregar gladly complied. After all, Anderson helps book Company’s Wednesday night jazz supper club series. “The Lion’s Ball” also honored Tarik Moody of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee. It was quite the social affair, with some good music thrown in.
D’Amato turned in an inspired set with a smaller backing band than usual and dedicated a cover of Amy Winehouse’s “I Heard Love Is Blind” to Anderson, who is a huge fan of Winehouse. The headlining band featured Fred Boswell Jr., arguably the best drummer in town, and Angie Swan, an accomplished guitarist from Milwaukee who is spending some time back home before another high profile gig elsewhere. They jammed along with Quentin Farr, Alan Harris, Terry Harris, and B-Free.
This weekend (August 12 – 14) Anderson has co-curated the Strange Fruit music festival, which seeks to “explore the thoughts and emotions of local musicians, regarding the current climate of racial relations both in Milwaukee and the country as a whole.” It was inspired by a community dinner that included Anderson, Chauntee Ross (SistaStrings) and others. It is co-produced by Tarik Moody and David Ravel (former director of Alverno Presents), will be held at the Hotel Foster, Company Brewing, and Cactus Club, and features a very strong lineup of hip-hop, jazz, folk, rock and poetry performances.
Siamese and the new Nightgown lineup
Company Brewing hosted another special event on Tuesday August 2, as Dallas, TX glam rock band Siamese visited Milwaukee. This weeknight show also saw the debut of Nightgown’s new lineup, Milwaukee singer Gina Barrington’s latest project. She was joined by Amelinda Burich, Thomas Gilbert (GGOOLLDD) and Erin Wolf (Hello Death, WMSE). Local artist Kristina Rolander created her fourth custom, hand painted backdrop for the Company stage. (Full disclosure, Rolander is my girlfriend.)
The glittery, neon, geological rock inspired backdrop flowed seamlessly with Siamese’s outfits and face paint, elevating the young band’s gorgeous, groovy sound. Milwaukee’s Marielle Allschwang, who made one of the best Wisconsin records of 2015—Dead Not Done—finished the night with a spirited set. At one point she improvised a song with fellow Hello Death member Nathaniel Heuer in which she sang, “I want to be the dirt.” The sentiment seemed morbid until she followed it up with, “I want to help it grow.” It was a magical midsummer evening with an excellently curated lineup.
Cory Chisel and Mile Of Music 4
Appleton-native Cory Chisel has carved himself a nice place in the music industry, splitting time between his hometown and Nashville, TN. On July 29, his “World Tour of Wisconsin” stopped at the newly-opened MobCraft Brewery in Milwaukee. The sound wasn’t great as it reverberated between the brewing tanks, but Chisel and his band had an enthusiastic crowd. The vocal talents of J-Council were a highlight of the performance, part of a nine-city tour sponsored by USA Today that takes Chisel and his band to non-traditional venues representing what they love most about our state: breweries, barns, bookstores, supper clubs and riverboats.
Four years ago Chisel founded Mile of Music, an Americana/roots festival that has attracted thousands of visitors to downtown Appleton. The 2016 installment featured over 800 performances by more than 200 acts at 70 venues over four days on one mile. I visited “Mile 4” on Saturday August 6, staying at the Radisson Paper Valley Hotel right in the heart of the action on College Avenue.
The festival can be overwhelming, with so many performances in bars, storefronts, alleys and outdoor stages. During my time I discovered the sweet, nervy indie-folk rock of Idle Empress (Eau Claire), the saintly-voiced Paul Otteson (Madison), and the derivative electro-hop of Oh My Love (Madison). It was no magic trick when Milwaukee favorites GGOOLLDD got Houdini Plaza dancing and debuted an uncharacteristically dark new song (working title “Undercovers.”)
The highlight of “Mile 4” for me was the festival’s first hip-hop showcase, curated by Milwaukee’s Lex Allen of New Age Narcissism. His collective headlined the five-hour block, which also included Milwaukeeans Fivy, Queen Tut, Mic Kellogg, AUTOmatic, Chakara Blu, Zed Kenzo, Rahn Harper, Cree Myles, Bo and Airo, and Chicago’s Ric Wilson.
The showcase was held at Lawrence University’s Stansbury Theatre, which was somewhat hard to find on the east end of the mile and had no beverage service. Even so, it was a success in that it exposed interested festival-goers to an underrepresented and often misunderstood genre of music, and some of its most talented local creators. After his show at MobCraft Brewery I spoke with Chisel about the hip-hop showcase.
“I’ve loved Lex for about two years. We played Summerfest and he was on the stage across from me. When I saw him I was like, “Who the hell is that?” So I tracked him down and we’ve become really good friends. He comes up to Appleton and visits. When I had the opportunity to expand the mind of our town with some new programming I immediately thought of Lex. The singer-songwriters are great but I think the festival needs what he brings.”
New videos by NO/NO, The Fatty Acids, and Airo Kwil
The last couple of weeks saw the debut of videos from one of the best Wisconsin albums of the year (NO/NO’s “Television” off Sound and Light), one of the best Wisconsin albums of the last 20 years (The Fatty Acids’ “Little Brother Syndrome” off Boléro), and the first single, “Run Away Now,” from Airo Kwil‘s upcoming album Best Served Cold.