When The Mike Benign Compulsion took the stage at Turner Hall on Saturday night, the four veteran musicians knew that one of their heroes – REM's Mike Mills – was in the house. The band was opening for The Baseball Project supergroup that – for the tour at least – includes Mills.
By the time the Compulsion kicked off its set, three of the four – singer and guitarist Mike Benign, guitarist Joe Vent and drummer Mike Koch – were aware that Benign had chatted up Mills and convinced him to join them onstage.
The only one that didn't know was bassist Brian Wooldridge, who was celebrating his birthday, and is perhaps the biggest REM fan of the bunch.
Mills (who is on the tour pinch-hitting for his REM band mate Peter Buck) came out to perform "Superman," a song he sang of REM's fourth record, 1986's "Life's Rich Pageant." That tune marked the first time lead singer Michael Stipe didn't handle lead vocals on an REM record.
Vent told me afterward that Wooldridge – who perhaps felt extra pressure since Mills is also a bass player and he had to play Mills' part – was stunned and ashen-faced throughout.
"(It was a) pretty cool and surreal experience for the four of us," Benign said the next morning.
Benign said the band casually worked up the song in rehearsal before Saturday's gig, just in case. It turned out to be a winning gamble.
"We're all R.E.M. fans going back to the earliest days of that band, so we all knew the song," said Benign, "though none of us had ever played it. We ran through it a couple times in rehearsal last Wednesday in case there was an opportunity to do it at the show. Fortunately, Mike was really gracious when we asked."
You can see the performance here.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.