Are Milwaukeeans still singing the blues?
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Ask blues musicians, fans and experts around town and you'll quickly find that Mamie's, 3300 National Ave., is generally thought to be the sole remaining "authentic" blues bar in town.
Folks credit the Milwaukee Ale House, the Up and Under Pub, Painted Parrot or Kochanski's Concertina Beer Hall with providing the occasional stage, but in the end Mamie's is the only stop completely dedicated to the blues.
"Mamie's is probably the last real blues bar in the city. Owner Deb Mickey is a true believer and all they play there is blues. If you don't play blues, you can't play there," says musician Reverend Raven, who fronts Reverend Raven and the Chain Smoking Altar Boys.
Mamie's is what you expect a blues club to be. Located on 33rd Street and National Avenue, the bar represents its South Side neighborhood with good deals, no frills and great music. The patrons are regulars and the bartenders know everyone by name.
"I love the blues," says Mickey. "A lot of times I think you just do it for yourself. I think I might be a little selfish that way. Charles Walker, Hounds Tooth and Reverend Raven all play here. I love them but I can't get them as much as I'd like to."
Aside from "Open Mic" Tuesdays, Mamie's stage is strictly blues with a weekly show on Friday night from 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Musicians this month include Pee Wee Hayes, Blue Wagon and Raven.
Some musicians, however, believe the concept of a Milwaukee blues club died when the Up and Under Pub changed ownership in 2006.
"Mamie's, in my opinion, is a borderline blues bar," says Victor Span, drummer for Perry Weber and the Devilles. " They bring in some great acts but, like most bars, they're more concerned with how many people you're going to bring out."
"Mamie's has been around for a long time and she's probably the most consistent but they don't bring in regional or national acts," JD Optekar, guitarist for Hounds Tooth says. "If you play there on a Friday night, the place will be full with maybe 40 or 50 people, but we see in other cities, if you partner with a blues society, they can get 150 out for a band they don't even know."
There seems to be a consensus that blues clubs in Milwaukee are few and far between. Accordingly, the lack of local venues begs the question, is blues music still alive in Milwaukee? In short, the answer is a bit fuzzy, somewhere between yes and no.
MILWAUKEE'S BLUES SCENE
"Back in '94 when I moved from Chicago to the Brady Street area, there was a vibrant blues scene. Jim Liban ruled the roost. Sunday jam sessions at the Up and Under were jam packed.
Perry Weber, Billy Flynn, people would come up from Chicago, it was a great scene," says Raven. "And then slowly through the '90s, they started dying out; blues clubs started closing or stopped doing the blues. It's kind of gone underground."
Milwaukee-based musicians like Raven, Liban, Perry Weber and Alex Wilson can be heard on blues nights at bars across town and at festivals like "Jazz in the Park." But, hometown shows are only possible thanks to the money the bands earn on tour.
"If you want to make a living, you really have to hit the road. There's a blues bar in every town in Wisconsin and Minnesota," Raven says.
"The beauty of the Midwest is that there are so many mid-size cities close to each other," adds Span. "It's great for travelling. Most cities have one legitimate blues club, and because it's known for authentic blues shows, they can bring out of town bands and a crowd will show up."
Perhaps time spent away from home adds the bona fide element of heartache, pain and passion that fuels the blues. Regardless, local artists find regional tours a necessary part of the job and very often, that a more thriving blues scene exists elsewhere.
"In my mind, authentic blues bars not only support the local scene but bring in regional or national artists," Optekar says. "In Madison, there's the Harmony Bar and in Indianapolis, The Slippery Noodle. I've only been in Milwaukee for five years or so, but guys that have been around for a long time, listening to their stories, the Up and Under used to be that place."
What sparked the change in the local scene? In general, it seems to be a generational shift; the consequence of an aging baby boomer generation.
"Really the baby boomers have always been huge supporters of blues and like in every other market, with the economic downturn, baby boomers, statistically, aren't drinking as much and aren't staying out as late," Optekar says. "And if that's the core market, well then you have to find a way to attract 20 and 30-year-olds, but you also have to stay true to what you love."
"There's been sort of a generational change. The baby boomers in the '90s were really the demographic of blues fans. As that generation has aged and stopped going out as much, it's changed. The quality of bands has deteriorated or at least been watered down."
"There wasn't a different generation of fans or college students that hooked on to the music and kept it going," says Raven.
At the Up and Under -- once a local beacon for blues fans -- owner Tim Brodersen points to the need and desire to diversify.
"We still have some great blues acts that come through like Alex Wilson, but we love our rock 'n' roll, reggae and other forms of music," he says.
For a city only a quick drive from Chicago, a city historically known for branding its own collection of blues artists, the lack of attention and support is surprising.
"The blues scene in Chicago still vibrant. You've got people from around the world coming to Chicago for the blues; you've got a steady stream of tourists and a hardcore fan base. But still, you see clubs closing; it's smaller but it's still there," says Raven.
But, despite thinning crowds and fewer gigs, a unity between local artists survives as the gap between "old-style" and "modern" blues styles continues to shrink.
"There's a lot of new bands in Milwaukee -- Robert Allen Jr., Alex Wilson, Hounds Tooth, Charles Walker," says Raven. "It's nice to see a younger generation out there playing and touring."
A YOUNGER GENERATION OF BLUES
As the Milwaukee crowds have changed, so has the music itself.
From originals like Mamie Smith and Ma Rainey to B.B. King and Muddy Waters in the '60s, Stevie Ray Vaughan in the '80s and Kenny Wayne Shepherd and The Black Keys today, the style, influence, tempo and instrumentation of the blues continues to evolve.
"People have an idea in their head of what blues is -- maybe its country or older styles of blues. Everything is related to the blues and I think if people saw how broad reaching it is, they would find they really like it," Kris Raymond, founder and president of the Grafton Blues Association says.
"Jared Nichols, our lead, he's 20 years old," says Optekar. "Jared can play old style traditional blues but we tend to play a modern dual guitar style."
B.B. King sparked the addition of brass sections to the blues and other artists like Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters added the rhythm of bass and drums. Later, The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton would pull the international spotlight of rock into the blues scene.
While the older generation of artists like Weber and Liban stays true to its interpretation of the blues, the younger guns are adding more genres -- like funk and r&b -- to the mix. And while some have embraced the "hybridized" concept, others remain fundamental in their views and are critically resistant.
"I think the blues in Milwaukee is struggling but that is true of the blues and the industry in general throughout the country," says Charles Walker, guitarist for the Charles Walker Blues Band. "In Milwaukee, we try and blur the lines between blues, r&b and funk. We're really playing a hybrid, which seems to connect with a younger audience."
"I call it the 'guitar-magedden,'" says Span. "Some bands listen to Hendrix or Zeppelin and consider that blues. As much great as Stevie Ray Vaughan did to revive the blues, he also spawned a generation of blues players who don't understand the craft."
"Authentic is a tricky word when it comes to purists," says Walker. "A purist will call what I do not blues. But, B.B. King's 'The Thrill is Gone' doesn't sound much like Robert Johnson's 'Sweet Home Chicago.' So there has been change in the blues. But the stories and the feelings, are universal. It's just the delivery that needs to evolve."
Live music as a whole is reeling right now due to multiple of reasons. The first being that the demographic that used to enjoy coming out to watch live bands has aged and they are staying home, and if they do come out they are leaving the club by 11:00. Another reason in my opinion is people are drinking less due to the fear of getting busted on the way home or they can't stand the smell of cigarette smoke in the bar. It will be interesting to see if this year's smoking ban helps our cause or hurts it even more. Most importantly is the lack of support from clubs. IN my experience the club owner expects you to bring in half the city to see a show. As a growing artist it is essential to perform in front of new people to grow. Half of the clubs in the city that have live music aren't offering things that other popular night spots are. In our age of D.J's, Hip-Hop, and Techno music there needs be something out there that can rejuvinate the live music scene and appeal to a younger generation and it is gonna start at the club. There has to be an edge. Dealing with customers at work, I meet alot of people who like the blues but have no clue where to go and see a good act. THE CLUBS NEED TO START PULLING THEIR WEIGHT. Any working musician out there knows of the sacrafice and financial investment it takes to get out there and do it professionally. "If you build it, they will come" Bars in this town need to promote their shows and invest in their business. The bands have it together-----when will the clubs?
Good point, karl. What kills me is that the same people win WC Handy awards year after year. BB King was great, back in the day. Now his stuff is unbearable (much like Clapton). I also hate the term "new generation blues". A tag that is given to people like Johnny Lang and Keb Mo (who is almost 60!). Who else? Bernard Allison, when not storming out of the club that bared his dad's name, is OK. Joe Bonamossa has his moments. I always dig Tommy Castro. Buddy Guy put out an album a few years back called Sweet Tea - that was a face melter.
Ain't much I know...but I do know the blues. I remember seeing the late great Luther Allison a couple of times at the Up And Under in the late 90's. Four hours of sweaty-emotion playing later Luther would leave the stage. I think the blues is undergoing a gut check right now. They can either stay true to their form or join the rest of the live bands and invite a Mac computer on stage to sit in with them. Everything old is new again and hopefully Milwaukee can survive this blues crisis. A young lion who means business in Marquise Knox out of KC. He's no SRV...but he's just as serious.
Although a bit "corporate", if one goes to Chicago and checks out shows at Buddy Guy's Legends or Kingston Mines, they'll have a chance to see blues bands that are far beyond what can be seen here. And unfotunately, many don't turn the radio dial past 96.5 (yuck) to check out WMSE's Blues Drive. There is good blues out there, you just have do a little digging to find it.
Interesting article but it would be helpful to have a listing of places with blues nights and the corresponding night. It's certainly understandable that not everyone likes the blues but it's disappointing how difficult it is to find blues in this city.
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