Like everything else in this soul crushing 2020, neighborhood concerts have fallen victim to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving normally festive parks eerily quiet.
One of those series was Concerts on the Green at Enderis Playfield, which typically hosts a concert a month from June to August.
But organizers have tapped the FunkClub Wagon to fill in this week for the canceled July park concert and instead of neighbors congregating at the park to hear the music, the musicians will bring the music to the neighbors by performing on a trailer that will be pulled around the neighborhood.
The FunkClub Wagon group consists of guitarist Jesse Voelker, bassist Jordan Kroeger, drummer Jack Reed, keyvoardist Dan Buddha and saxophonist Isaiah Joshua, but also welcomes guests sometimes, including area notables like saxman Aaron Gardner, trumpeter Sam Neufeld and bassist Ben Stueve.
"We also had De La Buena do a run a few weeks ago," says Voelker. "We’re planning to start getting more people/bands involved in the upcoming weeks."
The musicians are long-time collaborators in numerous area bands and in this iteration, they’ve been playing tunes by the likes of James Brown, Prince, David Bowie, Dr. John and the Neville Brothers, plus, says Voelker, "a few cheesy classics and we have about six originals now."
Voelker says the idea came about when post-shutdown live stream performances quickly grew stale.
"When the lockdown happened everyone started experimenting with live streams and it kinda worked for the dreary end of winter weather; but the sun was on its way and I had just done a live stream from a friend's driveway with Uncle Don's Band," he says. "There were only a few people there, but compared to the streams I had done at home, alone, it made a big difference.
"Streams just weren't gonna cut it as a substitute for live music. Humans are social creatures and we believe that live music and dancing is one of the most important ways we connect and some of the best medicine you can get; even if you have to do it from your front porch."
What started out as a one-day-a-week thing at most quickly caught on as folks experienced the mobile outdoor gigs and spread the word.
"We started out saying the funk wagon flies on Fridays,’ but people have been hiring us for private appearances and neighborhood events on other days, too," Voelker says, noting that the funk has also hit the water on pontoons.
"We'll be doing some more water events, as well. We had plans to put the funktoon on the Milwaukee River a few times, but we were derailed once by weather and once by COVID closings. We did get it out on Okauchee Lake for the 4th of July. We'd like to start a pontuesdays series."
Voelker says in addition to the much-needed cash during a time when nearly every kind of potential gig has dried up for area musicians (you can donate via Venmo: @funkclubwagon), the performances have been fun, too.
"When you do something for a living, it's easy to feel like you ‘have’ to do it," the guitarist says. "Right now it feels like we ‘get’ to. We are all just happy to be playing and we are all friends off stage, so it's fun, the funk is infectious, it's grass roots, it's getting people's attention, we're getting hired and we aren't tethered to the venue. It's pretty satisfying."
That enjoyment isn’t only found on the wagon, either.
"People thank us all the time," Voelker says. "Once in a while someone gets crabby at us, but the joy out weighs the inconvenience. People tell us it's the best part of their day. We've even been called the Riverwest saints."
Once everything reopens, Voelker says you might expect to continue to see the FunkClub Wagon on the streets of Milwaukee.
"With or without a pandemic," he says, "one thing is true: no one likes loading, setting up, tearing down and unloading. Not only does a mobile stage make our lives easier, not everyone can justify the cost and the space of hiring a full band for a night, but maybe they'd like to have us swing by for a set.
"All we need is a parking spot."
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.