At some point during last weekend’s ridiculously great Arte Para Todos festival—possibly while passing a block-long line for GGOOLLD at Company Brewing on my way to see Canopies at Club Timbuktu—I had a thought: this sort of thing would never have been possible 20, 10, or maybe even five years ago. As someone who has called Milwaukee home his entire adult life, I can confidently say that the Milwaukee music scene of today is infinitely more exciting and supportive than the one of yesteryear. The bands are better, the crowds are better, and the coverage is better. The number of current artists that consistently release and perform top-shelf music in all genres never ceases to amaze me. (Your mileage may vary, Milwaukee music lifers.) Sure, there are plenty of great bands and venues that will be forever missed, but by and large, the Milwaukee music scene is in a much better place in 2015 than it was when I moved here in the mid ’90s.
Which brings me to the early ’80s, and an intriguing artifact from that long-ago era. Recently, a reader was kind enough to gift Milwaukee Record a vinyl copy of a 1980 installment in 93QFM’s Hometown Album Project compilation series. A sweet twilight of Downtown as seen from behind a drum set on an otherwise empty Summerfest stage graced its cover; 13 vintage songs from 13 vintage Milwaukee bands, hand-picked by the long-defunct rock radio station, graced its dusty grooves. “Farewell” by Arroyo, “Never Give A Sucker An Even Break” by Bad Habit, “You Got What It Takes” by The Big Tips Band, more. Save for “When I Was Younger” by The Shivvers, I was unfamiliar with all of them.
But what initially piqued my interest wasn’t the tracklist, but a back-cover intro from 93QFM Program Director Paul Kelly. Here’s what it says:
“Milwaukee has always been my home. I’ve worked in its music business all my adult life. But the wealth of musical talent this city turns out never ceases to amaze me. The 93-QFM HOMETOWN ALBUM PROJECT is only a small sampling of the current crop of musicians alive and well in our city. The surface has been scratched, but it’s only the beginning. As long as you keep making music, Milwaukee, 93-QFM will keep producing hometown album projects.”
Huh. Swap out the album name and the call letters, and that sentiment could just as easily be found on a 2015 comp as a 1980 one. Hell, it could be the lede to this piece.
Which got me thinking: Is there really that much difference between the Milwaukee music scenes of then and now? Hasn’t the city always been amazed by its “wealth of musical talent”? When hasn’t it been “only the beginning”? And, save for a small handful of local acts that beat the odds and “make it,” aren’t most Milwaukee musicians destined for semi-obscurity, their efforts doomed to earnest and well-meaning compilations that will maybe be puzzled over years later by an inquisitive writer?
These questions loomed as I did some research on the bands found on Hometown Album Project. Almost instantly, a 1982 Milwaukee Sentinel story entitled “Big-name bands at crossroads”—featuring the first two groups on the record, Arroyo and Bad Boy—caught my eye. Writer Joe Cannariato begins:
“If you can believe rock music and professional boxing are synonymous, then this column is the saga of two local big-name pugs at the crossroads.
“Arroyo once was one of Milwaukee’s strongest contenders for a national recording contract, local music’s equivalent of a championship title. Now the band receives a one-way ticket to Palookaville as it prepares to disband in September.
“Bad Boy had it once. In the late ’70s it had a national recording contract but lost it two albums later. Steve Grimm and company came back to Milwaukee and started working toward another shot. Band members believe they are on the verge of a second contract.”
And then there’s this quote from Arroyo drummer Derrick Procell, in reference to his band winning album-of-the-year honors from the Southeast Wisconsin Music Awards:
“’We put out the album of they year and where did it get us?” Procell said. “If you’re not progressing, you’re reduced to slugging it out with all the cover bands. You’re reduced to where you get so frustrated, it hurts.’”
Aside from some changes in the music world—national recording contracts aren’t necessarily “championship titles” any more, and failure to secure one doesn’t necessarily lead to “slugging it out with all the cover bands”—the above passages, once again, could have been written today. Shit, I’ve seen any number of Milwaukee musicians voice versions of Procell’s existential whine for years. (I was one of them, in fact.) So the question remained: Is the Milwaukee music scene of today just as likely to be doomed to “fondly remembered” status as the one from 1980?
I mulled this fatalistic question as I dropped the needle on Arroyo’s “Farewell.” The group apparently shifted styles a lot during its four-year run, but Hometown Album Project finds it solidly—almost comically—in Bruce Springsteen mode. Seriously, take a listen:
So maybe that was it: the only thing in the cards for the bulk of Milwaukee musicians was a short career spent cranking out some era-specific, style-chasing songs before being relegated to the cut-out bin of history. A band is but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets its hour upon the stage—hopefully with free drink tickets in its back pocket—and then is heard no more.
But then I did a little more digging, and was surprised at what I found. Steve Grimm of Bad Boy still kicks it with a version of his old band to this day, and performs with the Sleighriders for the group’s annual charity concert at Shank Hall. Former Arroyo bassist Paul Wehrley currently plays with the Bill Camplin Band. So does former guitarist Jason Kalgstadt, who also does time with Semi-Twang and is the senior vice president of K-Nation Entertainment. Bringing it full circle, Kalgstadt’s daughter is none other than singer Rae Cassidy. Far from forgotten, these figures from Milwaukee’s music past (just a small sampling of the ones featured on Hometown Album Project) are still around in one form or another today. Go figure.
So maybe that’s the life-affirming “I learned something in the end” lesson I came away with: the Milwaukee music scene isn’t a single, shining moment in time—it’s a continuum, with each era owing something to the one before it. Are most bands destined to flame out? Sure, but who gives a shit? They keep the scene moving, and ultimately feed into its future. The past and the present are equally vital.
Maybe I knew that all along. Maybe it didn’t matter. Hell, maybe it was bullshit. But even if it was, and even if one era of Milwaukee music was truly “better” than another, who’s to say which one that would be? Whether it’s captured in a three-day festival featuring 70 of the best Milwaukee bands of today, or a radio station compilation featuring 13 of the best Milwaukee bands of 1980, every chapter in the city’s music scene is exciting, fresh, and new to those in it. Still, while it may seem like it’s “only the beginning,” it’s nice to know it isn’t.
Full Hometown Album Project tracklist:
Bad Boy, “If You Love Me Tonight”
Bad Habit, “Never Give A Sucker An Even Break”
Benny’s Basement Band, “Spanish Fly”
The Big Tips Band, “You Got What It Takes”
Burst, “Leavin’ The Country”
The Shivvers, “When I Was Younger”
Fred, “Winner Takes All”
Your House, “Be There”
Traum, “Open Doors”
The Bruce Koenig Band, “My Money Is Funny”
LP, “Give What You Get”