Beer, cheese, motorcycles, sports—these are the things that a lot of people still think about when they hear the word “Milwaukee.” I’ve lived in Milwaukee my entire life and have never really cared about the city’s trademarks. (Except cheese, I guess. I’m pretty into cheese.) For most of my young life, I absolutely hated living in Milwaukee. I thought it was bleak and boring compared to bigger, more exciting cities I’d visited like New York and Chicago. It wasn’t until I got older that I started to fall in love with my hometown—specifically, with the music culture that lives here.
Like most music fans, my formative discovery years were during adolescence. I spent most of my free time listening to new artists, but my exposure to local music in high school was nonexistent. (Best Milwaukee bands? Umm…Violent Femmes? And Bon Iver! They’re from Wisconsin, so that counts, right?) I went to a very small, Catholic high school. Most of my classmates weren’t super interested in music, and they definitely were not involved in the Milwaukee music scene. I wasn’t even aware that there was a scene until my freshman year of college. I was introduced to all-ages, DIY shows by a coworker at my first job out of high school.
I went to my first DIY show when I was 18: Body Futures at the Cocoon Room in May 2015. This was my first taste of what all-ages, DIY shows were like. I felt very nervous being in such an unfamiliar environment, but I knew I didn’t need to be. There was a list of venue rules on the wall about how the Cocoon Room was an intended safe space. The audience was small, giving the show a sense of intimacy that I had never experienced at any of my previously attended all-ages shows (mostly, uh, at The Rave and Summerfest). There was a lot of candid dialogue between the band and the audience, fostering a community between everyone in attendance.
I started to attend DIY shows regularly after the Body Futures show. In my lifetime, 2015 was the best time to be an underage music fan in Milwaukee. My friends and I had three all-ages, DIY venues: Cocoon Room, Borg Ward, and Lucky Cat. I was exposed to a lot of local music and saw bigger punk bands like Screaming Females and G.L.O.S.S. To this day, the best DIY show I’ve ever been to was Downtown Boys and Dogs In Ecstasy at the Cocoon Room. I still tell people about how mind-blowing this show was.
In July 2015, the wonderful, safe, DIY, all-ages kingdom started to crumble. Cocoon Room closed and was turned into a cell phone store shortly after. In February 2016, Borg Ward closed. And finally, Lucky Cat closed in April 2016.
Ever since these DIY venues were shut down, finding all-ages shows has taken some effort. Shows still happen, but are few and far between. Summer is the best time to be underage in Milwaukee. There are street festivals every weekend. Bands who almost exclusively play at bars come out of the (literal and metaphorical) woodwork to play outdoor shows that are both free and all-ages. When summer is over and festivals aren’t happening regularly, seeing Milwaukee bands perform live is far more challenging.
There are a few places to see shows if you’re underage. Shows at established concert venues like The Rave and Pabst/Riverside/Turner Hall are always all ages, but generally cater to a more, uh, conventional clientele than DIY venues. Turner Hall occasionally has PBR Ten Buck Shows for hype machine indie bands like Car Seat Headrest and Whitney. Many bills often include Milwaukee bands as openers for national headlining artists.
Smaller venues like Anodyne Coffee Roasters and the 88Nine RadioMilwaukee studio host shows as well. Anodyne books artists of a very specific genre, and 88Nine mostly has performances during the day for their 414 Music Live series. Record stores like Acme Records and the Exclusive Company put on small, intimate shows for touring and local bands in their small but welcoming spaces. The best all-ages show I’ve been to in recent history was Sat. Nite Duets and Negative/Positive at Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum. I was able to see one of my favorite Milwaukee bands perform at one of the most beautiful and unique venues in the Milwaukee. If only life was always this easy.
One of Milwaukee’s most valuable all-ages resources is WebsterX’s Freespace, a monthly concert series showcasing local and regional hip-hop musicians. The free shows are held at the Jazz Gallery Center for The Arts on Center Street in Riverwest. The Jazz Gallery also hosts shows during Riverwest FemFest and Arte Para Todos, making it the closest thing Milwaukee has to a current all-ages venue.
Sometimes bands I like play shows at bars, and sometimes I have no other option than trying to get into these shows. My success rate is around 25 percent…and this is mostly at bars that are notorious for not carding at the door. (Approximately 50 percent of my failure rate is from deciding not to go, because getting turned away is unbearably awkward for me.) The first time my best friend and I weren’t let into a bar, we literally begged the “bouncer” (local band member standing at the door) to let us in. “WE’RE NOT GOING TO DRINK! WE JUST WANT TO SEE THE BANDS! WE PROMISE TO REMAIN LOW-KEY! IT’S A CHARITY SHOW! WE WILL PAY!” Despite our pleas, he did the responsible thing and didn’t let us in.
Aside from my few triumphs, I don’t really find going to shows at bars when I’m underage to be very worthwhile. Even when I can get in, I’m always paranoid that someone is going to come up to me and ask to see my 20-year-old date on my I.D. I’m constantly on my toes, trying not to draw attention to myself. This is probably irrational most of the time, but being raised on ’80s and ’90s teen movies has me prepared for the worst. “Getting caught” has yet to happen to me, but the anxiety about being kicked out of a bar in front of a crowd of people tends to slaughter the excitement of seeing live music.
It’s easy to feel undervalued when you’re underage in Milwaukee. There are, of course, a number of very dedicated people who have put a lot of effort into organizing all-ages shows and maintaining DIY venues. Without those people, I wouldn’t know nearly as much about Milwaukee music and wouldn’t have seen nearly as many bands. I’ll be turning 21 in June, and soon my underage problems will be behind me. No more stealthily trying to slither into bars. I won’t have to drive to Chicago or Madison to see bands that only play bar shows in Milwaukee. And best of all, I won’t have to worry about missing out on excellent shows.
I feel very lucky to have seen the shows that I have—but what about the Milwaukee music fans younger than me, who are in high school or early college? How are they supposed to fall in love with local music in a city that, most of the time, doesn’t seem to care about its underage fans? So much has changed in the two years that I’ve been familiar with Milwaukee’s music scene. I hope that things can turn around for the better, for the sake of young music fans.
Also, all-ages shows are always the best. Duh.