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A night on the road with Pat McCurdy


Pat McCurdy is playing a show tonight.

In other news, the sun will set in the west, the Packers' regular-season opener is sold out and the long-range forecast for Milwaukee in January calls for freezing temperatures with a chance of snow flurries.

McCurdy is playing a show tonight -- at a place called Carvetti's in Lake Geneva -- because that's what he does. You can argue about whether he's the best-known musician in Wisconsin, but there is little debate that he is among the busiest. Accompanied by Jim Schafelburger, his roadie/sound man/partner in crime, McCurdy plays about 25 shows per month, a schedule he has maintained for more than a decade as he traverses the Milwaukee-Chicago-Madison-Green Bay corridor and beyond.

Unlike many of the people he plays for, McCurdy genuinely loves his job. "I just try to put on a good show every night, no matter where it is or how many people are watching," he says. "I couldn't go out there and fake it. People could tell."

His show, which he once described as falling into "the gray area between music and comedy," appeals to a wide range of ages, but the biggest chunk is comprised of those in college or just out ... the people who go to bars at night. In a time of endless entertainment options and short attention spans, McCurdy connects with this fickle demographic on a level that multinational marketing experts dream about but never realize.

Much like a sports franchise, McCurdy has a fan base that consists of a small group of rabidly loyal and devoted fans, a gigantic group of casual fans and a small cadre of detractors who consider him overexposed, overrated and much too "mainstream" to be relevant. That's part of the deal in the entertainment world: one fan's consistency is another's predictability. While some 20-something fans eagerly attend shows with their parents, others reflexively turn away precisely because it's something their parents enjoy.

I first met McCurdy late in the winter of 1993, when he was working to establish his solo act and I was trying to establish myself as a writer. I did a profile that ran in Wisconsin Magazine, which was a staple of the Sunday Milwaukee Journal. In the years since, while watching McCurdy's show blossom from cult favorite to a kind of statewide institution, I also came to consider Pat and Pipe Jim to be two of the more intelligent, loyal engaging and flat-out funny friends in my personal rolodex.

In preparation for writing that story, I climbed in the back of their van and rode to a few shows with the duo. Last month, we recreated that scene for a show at Carvetti's in Lake Geneva. What follows is an itinerary of our evening, or, if you will, "A Night on the Road with Pat and Pipe."

5:09 p.m. -- A 2005 Ford E-150 van pulls into our rendezvous spot -- the parking lot outside the Pettit National Ice Center. Pipe Jim is driving, Pat sits in the passenger seat (they usually reverse roles after the show) and I climb onto a makeshift backseat made of foam.

Pat and Pipe travel between 4,000 and 4,500 miles a month in this van ("We get about 18 to 20 miles a gallon on the highway," Pipe says) and buy a new one about every 18 months.

5:11 -- The radio in the van is tuned to the Brewers' game against the San Francisco Giants. Pat and Pipe Jim are huge fans, and Bob Uecker and Jim Powell are their travel companions throughout the summer. "I want to be positive about this team this year," McCurdy says. "But, I don't know." The Brewers are leading the game, 6-5, heading into the bottom of the ninth and all-star closer Derrick Turnbow is entering the game to face pinch-hitter Barry Bonds. "I'm nervous," McCurdy says.

5:15 -- McCurdy's fears are realized. Turnbow gives up a single to Bonds. After striking out Omar Vizquel, he gives up a double to Steve Finley and an intentional walk to Moises Alou. Suddenly, the bases are loaded.

5:20 -- Ray Durham hits a ball that caroms off Turnbow's glove and into right field. Two runs score. The Giants win, 7-6. "Now, I'm depressed," McCurdy says, shutting off the radio.

5:29 -- The bar that McCurdy is playing is Carvetti's, a name which makes me think of "Carvelli," a secondary character from "Welcome Back, Kotter."

He was a curly-haired tough guy from a different school and he was a rival of the Sweathogs. Pat and Pipe Jim know immediately who I am talking about. "That guy (who played Carvelli) is a comedian," McCurdy says. "I saw him once, but I can't think of his name." Pipe Jim recalls a favorite "Kotter" episode, when Gabe Kaplan's title character and assistant principal Woodman dress as thugs to intimidate Carvelli and his gang. "Remember Woodman in the leather jacket with his hair slicked back?" Pipe Jim asks. "Carvelli said 'Man, this is a tough school.'" Nobody can think of the actor's name and it's driving us crazy. "We'll think of it," McCurdy says.

5:33 -- I ask the guys about Summerfest, which was a bit of a touchy subject for McCurdy and his fans. For years, McCurdy closed the comedy stage at night and generally packed 3,000 to 4,000 fans into the tent. When festival officials transformed the spot into a martini lounge, McCurdy was replaced by piano players and prerecorded music. Though he did well at a handful of slots on various stages this year, McCurdy's presence at the festival was diminished.

"It's not my festival," McCurdy says. "I don't run it. I kind of had the misfortune to play at it a lot of times."

Wait a minute -- misfortune? Many local bands would kill for a Summerfest slot. McCurdy isn't being jaded or ungrateful, but he is coming to the realization that in addition to providing a huge boost for business, his regular appearances over the years set the stage for a backlash when his schedule was reduced by about two-thirds.

"Our shows this year were great," he said. "We had huge crowds at almost every show, especially on the Classic Rock Stage. But what happened was that our fans got used to being able to see us all the time (at the comedy stage). This year, they cut my sets to 30 minutes and people were coming up to me saying "We came from Minneapolis and you only did a half-hour?" They were mad about it. I got complaints."

So, how is McCurdy's relationship with Summerfest today?

"I think they're trying to ease me out," he says. "It's like I'm more of a problem to them now, but they set the precedent. I don't know what's going to happen. I still like playing there a lot and we'll do whatever they ask. But, we lost out on some stuff because we had some open dates the second week. Next year, we may try to book a few shows at some of the other festivals that we've passed up over the years."

5:41 -- Dark clouds are on the horizon and the forecast is calling for rain. "If it rains, they might move us inside again," Pipe Jim says. "We'd play up in front. It wouldn't be the worst thing."

As he pulls off the interstate and begins the trek into Lake Geneva, Pipe Jim says, "Man, this is a bleak exit."

6:01 p.m. -- We pull in front of Carvelli's, er, Carvetti's, and Pipe Jim quickly begins to set up the mixing board, monitors, lights and guitar cases. "It usually takes about a half-hour," he says. "But, if I have to do it quickly I can get the stuff from the van to the stage in about 20 minutes. If I'm really in a hurry, I'll have the bouncers help. They're usually cool about it." Showtime is slated for 7 p.m., and the stage setup tonight will indeed be inside and close to the front door, so Pipe Jim has plenty of time.

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Talkbacks

OMCreader | Aug. 22, 2006 at 6:55 a.m. (report)

is a fan said: As someone who has seen Pat play numerous times at many different venues, I would have to say that Pat puts 150% if not more into every show. I have seen him play to huge crowds to just a few people and at each show Pat gives it his all. Thanks for all the great memories Pat!!

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OMCreader | Aug. 21, 2006 at 10:59 p.m. (report)

Light Mike said: Pat is so original and a great songwriter. He has more creativity and energy with one instrument than crappy cover bands have with four or five. If the van sat more than three, the belittlers might learn a thing or two riding with Pat and Jim, and don't you dare criticize the fans. College girls aren't high school dropouts, remember that. Great article, but c'mon guys: WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?! Charles Fleischer, voice of Roger and the cab!! That was an easy one.

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OMCreader | Aug. 19, 2006 at 7:26 p.m. (report)

not a fan said: First (and last) saw McCurdy at the Quad Graphics picnic. I wasn't really watching, but listening from a distance, and found myself yelling to no one in particular "Who is this?? Make them SHUT UP!!" Don't "get" him. Never will. Jump the Shark - indeed!!

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OMCreader | Aug. 18, 2006 at 9:09 p.m. (report)

TW said: I mistakenly used by full name on the previous post a few minutes ago. Please either remove my last name or don't post. Please!!!!!!!!!!!!

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OMCreader | Aug. 18, 2006 at 12:16 p.m. (report)

Hey West Side Dave said: I believe it's JS Online, not "a JS online". Names begin with upper case letters!

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