The Riverwest Music Scene: Plentiful and Diverse Sounds

by Jeremy Berg

Welcome to Riverwest. Brew pubs, rock clubs, and basements, banjos, guitars, and forty-year-old jazz drum kits bashing away at heavy fusion. There is a place for everything in Riverwest. “I guess we’re true ‘variety club,'” says Paul Onopa. Indeed, he speaks knowledgeably of punk, bluegrass, alt-country, and the unclassifiable, all of which find a home here. Onopa Brewing Company is relatively new on the scene, having opened its doors on June 14, 2001. His selection of Riverwest was no accident. “I opened [Onopa] in a neighborhood with neat people, one that plays.” Riverwest’s reputation is not new. Long time resident Jim Linneman opened Linneman’s Riverwest Inn in June of 1993 (the exact date varies depending on whether or not you count its single day of operation followed by a shut-down until later in the month) and despite much talk of where the neighborhood’s been and where it’s going, he has seen little change. “Riverwest has always been. . .an area that’s very rich with a lot of students. . .a lot of artists live here.” He adds that he has always thought of Riverwest as “The [1960s era] Greenwich Village of Milwaukee.” “There’s a lot of history on that stage out there,” he adds. The bar-level stage, built in a single night by Linneman and a friend, has played host to Country Joe MacDonald and members of the BoDeans and the Violent Femmes. Ray Davies of the Kinks once walked across it, though he did not perform. Local history has been made on that stage as well. Linneman’s hosts the longest continuously-running acoustic open stage in Riverwest, giving 12 people three songs or 15 minutes every Wednesday night. Chris Floss of Freshwater Collins first played on such a night, and the band played its first show at Linneman’s. Riverwest Basement BandA Community of Musicians The spirit that Linneman describes continues to pervade Riverwest today. The neighborhood is bustling with overlapping projects in various media and shared musicians. “[There’s] definitely a community. it’s a positive thing,” says Paul “Fly” Lawson of Dr. Chow’s Love Medicine. The fact that his band shares a rehearsal space with 20 or so other groups attests to this. With so much going on though, it can be hard to get noticed. “Networking and crowds are the two biggest battles,” says Josh Rauen of Josh Rauen and The Big Escape. Rauen stresses the need to increase your audience, impress venue staff, trade shows with out of town bands, and have good promotional materials. Lawson sounds a similar note, saying “It’s tough. You just have to get good, build a mailing list, get listed.” Local bands have found the effort rewarding. Far from the much-worried-about homogenization of music by major labels, Riverwest is a place of immense stylistic diversity where the decisions are still made by the music. Paul Onopa, despite recently hiring a booking agency, still makes some selections (and his booking agency, Critical Hotwax, is a Riverwest group). Jim Linneman and many other Riverwest bar owners do their own booking. Guy Fiorentini, a Riverwest musician since 1985, notes “the interaction between the club owner and the bands is crucial to the vibe of the place, how much fun you have playing or seeing shows there.” Lawson cites Quarters for its willingness to give new bands a chance, and hails 91.7 FM (WMSE) for playing local music. Senor Policia of Complete Bastards also names Quarters Rock and Roll Palace as a favorite venue. (For a peek at the many additional venues and musical offerings that exist in Riverwest, see the Community Calendar.) Paul Setser, Quarters’s promoter, acknowledges the club’s role in giving new bands a place to start out. “Up and coming bands come to Quarters first,” he says. “We give new bands a chance to establish themselves.” He also speaks of Riverwest’s individuality. “There’s no such thing in Riverwest as one kind of music.” Quarters reflects this, with a weekly schedule that ranges from country to reggae to open stage. In addition to his role at the club, Setser has been active in the community for years as a producer, DJ, and musician, and attests to the fact that major labels are pretty far from people’s thoughts when it comes to recording. “Now that you can burn your own CDs, that’s the way to go,” says Lawson. Rauen also notes the do-it-yourself spirit of the scene: “In the last five years or so, not so many people have been looking for labels,” he says, and his description of local recording studios, internet sales, and CD duplication facilities speaks of a place that isn’t waiting for someone else to come in and make it happen. Colin O’Brien of Salt Creek, whose forthcoming album was recorded mostly in his house, agrees. “If you wait, you’re dead.” Punk Rock Lives And what of that most traditionally do-it-yourself movement, punk? Linneman and Setser haven’t seen so much of it lately, but maybe that’s because it’s gone underground. Specifically, into basements (complaints about that pun can be sent to ). “I think there will always be a place for kids, because people have to start somewhere,” says Kris, who runs a basement club, host to many a punk band. It is, literally, the basement of her house, with donated pieces of carpeting and egg-crate fabric tacked to the walls as sound dampeners. With the lack of many official all-ages venues, though, it fills a vital niche by providing a place for those under 21 to experience live music. A couple other neighborhood venues have recently started offering all-ages shows on an irregular basis, and a group, The Milwaukee Venue Project, has formed to find a permanent home for all-ages shows. Running such a place isn’t easy. Shows have to end by 10:30 to keep noise complaints to a minimum, the door take sometimes isn’t enough to pay for out of town bands’ gas money, and advertising can be tricky. “It’s really hard to do promotions sometimes. . .bands have websites you can post on, but for a lot of people a flyer is [better], but I’m worried the wrong people might pick it up.” Indeed, a house on Bremen used to host such shows, but its occupants were eventually evicted. A couple other houses will have shows, but Kris’s is the only one that currently has a consistent schedule. “I wish there was some place in Milwaukee that was easy and cheap to rent out,” she says. Until there is, her door is open. “Anyone who wants to play here. I try to accommodate.” Heart and Soul A Los Angeles musician once told Linneman that while people in L.A. were mostly concerned with record deals, “people in Milwaukee put their heart and soul into it.” Musicians certainly do. Unfortunately, that is not always enough. Linneman and Setser both peak of a lack of support. “A lot of musicians get down on Milwaukee. . .we don’t promote out own,” says Setser. Several musicians speak of a marked aversion to paying cover charges by the general public. This lack of support, however, does not necessarily point to a downturn in the neighborhood’s musical fortunes. Setser opines “I think there’s a lot of potential for the local scene. . .You have to look at it as a burgeoning scene that hasn’t taken off yet. . . I think it could.” Setser is not alone in his views. Support issues aside, Onopa and Kris’s relatively recent venues and the addition Linneman is constructing speak of an optimism pervading the Riverwest music scene, as does the proliferation and diversity of bands and performers. Whether established bands or newcomers, professional musicians or the weekend warriors of Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing, everyone out there is playing for the joy of making music. As Linneman says of seeing people perform for the first time at his Wednesday open stage: “It’s just that feeling – I can feel it from them. . .that is my favorite night of the week.” If you’re interested in joining the efforts of the Milwaukee Venue Project, contact . And look for an article on the project in next month’s Riverwest Currents. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 6 – June 2003

Riverwest Band Guide

compiled by Tess Reiss
AUDIOTROPE Music Style: Electro-acoustic improvisational trio of Hal Rammel, Steve Nelson-Raney, and Thomas Gaudynski. Hal also hosts Alternating Currents on WMSE. Contact: Thomas Gaudynski, 414/962-3374
CAPOEIRA BATUQUE STREET RODA (pronounced Cap-oh-era Bah-too-key) Music Style: Afro-Brazilian martial art and dance, accompanied by music and song. Contact: Wayne Petri, 414/378-5442
CEOL CAIRDE (pronounced Key-ole Card-ya) Music Style: Gaelic translation: “Music of Friends.” Traditional Irish music with irresistible blend of fiddle, mandolin, flute, tin whistle, concertina, bodhran (Irish drum), hammered dulcimer, banjo and guitar providing the unique sound that is the “Music of Friends.” Classes taught in Irish music, dance, language, theater and other Irish cultural activities for all ages. Contact: Kristina Paris, 414/372-3060
ETHNICTRICITY Music Style: International folkdance music for listening and dancing. Contact: Jessica Wirth, 414/263-2907
GOOD VIBES DRUMMING & COMMUNICATIONS Music Style: Using drums & other percussion instruments, people of all ages are encouraged to find their groove. Instruments and light instruction provided. Community Drum Circle on first Thursday of the month at Quaker Meeting House. Contact: Darrell Smith, 414/372-9758
THE MOSLEYS Music Style: Original rock. Contact: Call Mike Fredrickson for private parties, 414/372-1232 (order from their 7 CDs)
ONE DRUM Music Style: Eclectic, multi-cultural ensemble performing music and songs rooted in the cultures of Africa, the Caribbean, Australia, the Middle East & the Americas on aboriginal, ancient, modern & one-of-a-kind percussive, string & wind instruments. Contact: Jeff Green, 414/352-9256, Ramon Edirisinghe, 414/372-4884 , (can order CDs)
ROSE BLADE Music Style: Eclectic, melodic pop singer/songwriter on piano, guitar, bass & beatbox. Contact: 414/264-0934
SALT CREEK Music Style: Electrifying string band rooted in Celtic, Appalachia, and down-home bluegrass, extending towards exotic improvisation and compelling original compositions. Contact: Colin O’Brien, 414/372-8523
SNOWBLIND Music Style: Hard rock “classics.” Contact: Scott Krier, 414/264-7992
TASTE EMCEES Music Style: Hip Hop Message Music Contact: Kings Paradice, 414/264-7857
TIM COOK & THE RIVERWESTERNERS Music Style: 50s & 60s Country & Western. Contact: Tim Cook, 414/372-9438
TOM SCHWARK Music Style: Acoustic Americana songs on mandolin & fiddle. Contact: Call Tom at the Bookings Institute, 414/964-5161
TWO THIK MICKS Music Style: Traditional Irish & American music. Contact: David Towle & Jim Mullens, 414/460-2267
WEST OF ENNIS Music Style: Traditional Irish music on fiddles, button-accordion, guitar, vocals, flute, uillean pipes, tin whistle, bodhran. Dance tunes & songs. Available for pub gigs, dances, house parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. Contact: Rob Steinhofer, 414/967-7871
ACOUSTIC OPEN STAGE Every Wednesday at Linneman’s with sign-up at 9PM and show at 10PM, FREE. Started in 1993, it’s Milwaukee’s longest running continuous acoustic open stage. Contact:
BAND WEB PAGE Create a web page for your band. Contact:
COMMUNITY DRUM CIRCLES Make your own music at the Community Drum Circle on the first Thursday of the month or at the Bremen Cafe, every Monday evening (see Calendar for listings).
RAUEN GUITAR Sells and repairs guitars, for over 20 years. Contact: 414/265-43432475 N. Weil St.
SEEKING MILWAUKEE BAND INFO Seeking info from all sources and interviews for a book to be written on popular Milwaukee pop & rock groups. Contact: Linda R. Nickel, Freelance writer414/272-8470 x808
SUPPORT RIVERWEST MUSICIANS Riverwesters love their local musicians and some groups have built up quite a following of loyal fans. If you’re musically inclined you can premiere your talent at local venues right here in the ‘hood. If not, then lend your support to a budding musician by attending a show.

Riverwest Basement Band

The Subterranean Riverwest Rock Scene

» Riverwest Band Guide!