On Dec. 31, Chicken Wire Empire will play one of its biggest Milwaukee shows to date, providing support for the band Horseshoes and Hand Grenades at the iconic Pabst Theater.
Chicken Wire Empire is a quintet comprised of Jordan Kroeger (bass and vocals), Ryan Ogburn (mandolin and vocals), Jon Peik (banjo and vocals), Ernest Brusubardis IV (fiddle) and Greg Brundage (guitar), all imbued with much musical prowess. The band has been around since 2014, its origins found in Kroeger and Ogburn discovering inspiration during a raucous Infamous Stringdusters set.
As for the bluegrass band's name, Chicken Wire Empire comes from an obscure reference to a scene in "The Blues Brothers" – but the band has been anything but obscure in the Milwaukee music scene during the past year.
This past summer, Chicken Wire Empire had a string of successful shows. After its "Road to Blue Ox," a series of promotional gigs that worked as a stepping stone for the band, Chicken Wire Empire had the opportunity to play Eau Claire festival this year. They played an early set at the festival but got great feedback from the crowd. Then came the great accomplishment of being the direct support for Yonder Mountain String Band at Summerfest.
"Fun fact about that Summerfest show: It downpoured right before our set, and we were on the only covered stage – the Johnson Controls World Sound Stage – so it was jam packed when we started playing," says Kroeger.
Earlier this year, Chicken Wire Empire also released a film, "All It Takes," centered around them recording at the Riverside Theater, featuring live performances from Milwaukee venues such as The Jazz Estate and the dearly departed Gibraltar. The film had a big premiere at the Oriental Theatre. The evocative film – available now in its entirety on YouTube – is at turns funny and introspective, with director Ross Monagale deftly using the film to display the big heart of the band.
Outside Chicken Wire Empire, the musicians have their fingerprints all over the Midwest scene. Brusubardis is a concertmaster for the Sheboygan Symphony, Ogburn sometimes plays with the rising band Dead Horses and Kroeger is an integral part of R.A.S. Movement. But together, their combined stage experience shows during their energetic sets – though Chicken Wire Empire takes pride in being able to play either a raucous party show or more of a sit down "listening room" type of show.
"It’s not just old-time picking (music)," says Kroeger. "The music can be delicate, and if you talk over it, you’ll miss it … or we can just rage bluegrass."
Whether there is frenetic dancing or the audience is at rapt attention to the music, the power of their collective abilities shines through brightly.
Fresh off the heels of its Pabst Theater performance, the band will release its second album, "What Moves Mountains," on Jan. 1 to kick off the new year in high gear.
Produced by Chicken Wire Empire and Vinny Millevolte of Axis Recording Studios, "What Moves Mountains" is an impressive display of songwriting chops while paying homage to some of the greats who have inspired their music. The album is built upon the distinctive songwriting of Kroeger, Ogburn and Brundage, while the music soars in exciting ways with vivid storytelling as the centerpiece. The original tunes sit well amongst songs by Bill Monroe and even Tom Petty. It's an affecting piece of art that bodes well for the future of Chicken Wire Empire.
"You know, my personal feelings are that if you take it too seriously, it is not fun," says Kroeger. "It is just such a great group of guys, and we just want the music to be the best that it can be. Then from there just a bit of effort and see where it goes."
The growth has been organic for the band, and they hope to continue down that path. The title of the band’s new record, "What Moves Mountains", is actually an allusion to a quote about love moving mountains. It is an apt title because love is a central theme that you get from the album – and when you see a live set by Chicken Wire Empire.