Writing captivating stories is a tough gig, and pairing those stories with song composition only increases the room for error. When done right, though, these musical narratives are able to take the listener on the journey alongside the music and characters, creating an experience they’re invested in. And it was in the intimate setting of a local coffee shop that Madisen Ward And The Mama Bear sang their folk-tinged stories that captivated a sold-out audience.
For its second show at the Back Room of Colectivo’s Prospect Avenue location, the Pabst Theater Group stayed true to the venue’s cafe roots as it showcased the largely acoustic set.
Opening the evening was Milwaukee favorite Trapper Schoepp. With brother Tanner on the bass, Trapper performed a much more stripped-down set than the highly energetic party that he brings with his full band. That said, the set was not lacking in the least, as Trapper and Tanner ripped through songs off the 2012 release, Run, Engine, Run, and some more recent tunes as well.
Beginning with a rockabilly tribute to Elvis’ favorite roller coaster, the Zippin Pippin, Trapper set the stage for the evening’s theme of story-based songs. Whether it was about back pains in “Pins And Needles,” or their car inherited from their grandfather on “Run, Engine, Run,” the brothers played and the crowd welcomed them. To cap their set off, the brothers performed a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love.” With that, the brothers left the stage and the family affair continued as the mother-and-son duo of Madisen Ward And The Mama Bear prepared to take the stage.
As the audience cheered, Ruth and Madisen Ward took their seats side by side with guitars in hand to deliver a set of captivating storytelling set to their unique blend of soulful folk music. Having played under the name Madisen Ward And The Mama Bear for the past several years, this Kansas City-based duo has recently garnered national attention, earning spots on The Late Show with David Letterman and love from NPR and Rolling Stone. Riding on the momentum of the twangy jam of “Silent Movies” and their Glassnote Records debut, Skeleton Crew, Madisen Ward And The Mama Bear played Milwaukee for the second time, but now as the headliner.
The set opened with “Down In Mississippi,” a somber tune that contrasts the beauty of community and nature with the pain and struggle of civil rights. The pairing of emotion from the strong and, at times, wavering voice of Madisen with the tender nature of Ruth’s voice rolled smoothly with the gentler guitar picking and strums reminiscent of the bells on Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm.”
After sips of whiskey and the addition of a bass player and drummer, the pair jumped into “Whole Lotta Problems,” a toe-tapper that used the call and response of the two musicians to describe a relationship of pure friction. “Modern Day Mystery” described the inability to escape, using a character that feels gone but can’t actually leave. With a “Passenger”-esque chorus, the song built up with the character’s frustration, with Madisen taking the high notes and Ruth on the harmony.
With no words, Madisen’s voice became part of the story, whether he was harmonizing or releasing the emotion through barks or yelps reminiscent of Odetta. And on haunting songs like “Undertaker And Juniper,” which tells the tale of a love only realized when it follows its affection to the grave, this style was used to further amplify the despair and longing.
Interspersed through the set were a couple of covers as well. Between “Dead Daffodils” and the crowd favorite “Silent Movies” was a lovely cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” was also covered to an enthusiastic response before the duo closed their set with “Sorrows And Woes.” A two-song encore that included “Aquarium Drunkard” and “Yellow Taxi” followed.
Madisen Ward has said that he doesn’t like to write about things too personal. He’d rather tell tales of others, and it was those stories that captivated the crowd at Colectivo’s Back Room on Monday night. Madisen Ward And The Mama Bear were able to take their soulful folk music and intertwine compelling stories at the same time. A great thing about stories and their characters is the investment felt toward them, and when one can compel an audience to feel something, they’ll undoubtedly want to hear more from the authors.