By Brian Whitney
Before I even get into any of this, I feel obliged to put forth the following piece of information: I am a refugee of the New Brunswick, New Jersey music scene. It’s a city where your ability to sound like Thursday and/or preach like Earth Crisis is valued over any kind of originality, and most of the venues in town have been razed to make room for either more college buildings or new hospitals. I feel it’s important to note this because, since moving to Milwaukee a year ago, I have tended to look through a pair of rose-colored specs with regards to the independent music scene here. Where others might say “Bread and water?” I would say “Bread and water!” To continue:
Milwaukee has a number of excellent places for bands to play, be they starry-eyed youngsters or experienced vets. Much like in any scene, the venues can be sorted into two different groups: conventional venues, bars or rock clubs such as Cactus Club or, on a larger scale, The Rave/Eagles Ballroom, or unconventional venues, such as the Borg Ward art gallery or basements like The Vault. While traditionally the unconventional venue may have less prestige and may seem less “legitimate”, the energy and dedication of those who show up to these shows make them superior.
I had a conversation with some friends about the recent M.I.A. show at Turner Hall. The general consensus seemed to be that, while M.I.A. had an excellent show and was very entertaining, the impersonal nature of the venue made it difficult to really enjoy it on the same level as even a small club. Now, M.I.A. is a popular artist and obviously it makes sense for her to play at a bigger venue, and as bigger venues go Turner Hall is probably the best around. That being said, it’s difficult to capture a performer’s energy in a large room. I know this seems like a no-brainer, but as a musician, it’s not something you ever really think about until you’re confronted with it, and as a spectator, it’s not something you’re ever really going to have to worry about.
Unconventional shows such as last night’s Truthdealer/We March show can be more entertaining for both bands and audience. The show, held at a basement in Riverwest, could have easily turned into a house party while bands played downstairs. Despite the fact that the show featured two out of town bands who were not known in the Milwaukee area, those who came watched and enjoyed, and those who were able were willing to give an optional donation to said touring bands to help pay for their gas/food/other tour expenses. The basement was packed to the gills and gave off the sort of “anything is possible” vibe. The smiles were what really got to me. Almost everyone seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves on some level, and the attitude was contagious.
Given the disorganized nature of the age group involved with unconventional venues, it’s surprising how many quality bands have played Milwaukee basements, and how far they’ve traveled to get here. One prominent current example is the Monotonix, an Israeli punk outfit who have been solidly touring the underground circuit for the better part of two years: their wildly entertaining shows have earned them respect from many different corners of the rock world, including the opportunity to open for the Silver Jews in San Francisco and back in Israel.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal taste. While some may enjoy seeing “Big Rock Band X” at the Rave/Pabst/Turner Hall/etc. (and certainly these venues do put on quality events) these shows often lack the charm of seeing a band of people you work with/go to school with/otherwise know on a first name basis playing in a sweaty graffiti-and-beer-coated basement. While it is often harder to find out about these shows because they are not advertised as well as the larger ones, making the extra effort to find out what’s going on will pay off. If you haven’t been to a quality unconventional venue yet, I suggest you check it out. You won’t be disappointed.
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