At heart, Jim Tillmann -- Jimmi T. to his fans -- is an entertainer. A consummate performer who's played numerous Milwaukee venues for decades, including Summerfest, the Yacht Club and the Wisconsin State Fair, Tillmann can most often be found performing at Barnacle Bud's, 1955 S. Hilbert St., at which he plays Tuesday and Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons during the summer.
Tillmann is trim and tan with solid white hair in a page-boy style haircut. When we caught up with him at Barnacle Bud's on a recent warm Tuesday afternoon, Tillmann was wearing a pirate-esque, billowy-white shirt, cut-off shorts and Teva sandals. In both dress and mannerisms, Tillmann evokes images of a hard-working sailor, a fun-loving rock-and-roller, and a Parrothead, all at once.
Tillmann had already performed a couple sets when we invited him to sit and discuss his life, music and Barnacle Bud's.
"Maybe I should get some more whiskey before I talk about this," he said.
Forever in the party mood, Tillmann won't give you a straight answer initially but, although it might be the whiskey, he will get reflective and wistful. For example, when asked, "Where do you come from?" Tillmann will reply, "My mother made me." But eventually Tillmann will tell you he's "half country boy and half city boy," hailing from Wauwatosa and "Up North."
Tillmann is good friends with Barnacle Bud's owner Gene McKiernan, who is also the proprietor of Ducky's Tavern, 3172 S. 8 St., Victoria's on Potter, 110 E. Potter Ave. and McKiernan's, 2066 S. 37 St. Although he's not entirely certain, Tillmann says he's worked at Barnacle Bud's for "10 or 12 years" and he's enjoyed every minute of it.
"There's no place like this place. There are so many great people here. And the whiskey is plentiful," Tillmann says.
Bud's is located on the banks of the Kinnickinnic River as it approaches Jones Island and the harbor, at the end of an old industrial road off Bay Street that goes past several warehouses, which makes it difficult to find. But with the only outdoor oyster bar in Milwaukee and the fact that it feels like being in Florida, taking the time to find Bud's is worth it. Plus they have "the best wings in the world," according to Tillmann.
Tillmann started playing music as a teenager, dabbling with keyboards originally. Before heading south to Florida to play some Caribbean-influenced rock and go deep sea fishing, Tillmann played guitar and sang in Milwaukee-area band Hat Trick for 20 years.
Hat Trick played at Summerfest many times. "It was great. I played on every stage except the Marcus Amphitheater. They treat their entertainment well at Summerfest," Tillmann says.
With Tillmann, Hat Trick also played the State Fair 12 years in a row and, without Tillmann this year, they will be playing at the Door County Fish Boil on Sunday, August 7, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Tillmann has a hand-written setlist of 95 songs he performs at Barnacle Bud's. The list circulates the patio on a clipboard. Some of the songs Tillmann played while we were there, drinking Jimmy Buffett's brew Landshark and being thoroughly entertained, included the Beatles' "A Little Help from My Friends," Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man," the Eagles' "Peaceful, Easy Feeling," Dylan's "Just Like A Woman" and the June Carter Cash-written classic, "Ring of Fire" (which, admittedly, we requested from Tillmann's songbook).
Tillmann will take requests, not only of Johnny Cash songs, and he encourages all forms of audience participation: you can sing-a-long, accompany Tillmann on one of two washboards or you can play the maracas while he belts out the hits.
An active performer, Tillmann claims he's lost 14,000 guitar picks between the slats on the wood deck. "He gets everyone in a great mood. I have never seen him in a bad mood," says Ronda Bermi, a server at Bud's.
Let us not forget about the "Sociable." After every few songs Tillmann will hold up his shot glass of whiskey and, asking the audience / diners to join him, he'll yell "Sociable!" Audience members will respond in kind.
Although Barnacle Bud's is open year 'round, the patio, Tillmann's stage, is not. Years ago, Tillmann used to fix electronics, but if you're trying to make it as a full-time musician whose gigs are predominately in the summer, winters can be hard to pull together a living.
"I scratch and claw. In this economy, everyone can understand that," Tillmann says.
Weather has affected Tillmann's ability to play this year, which has severely impacted his income. "This is the first Tuesday I have been able to work and it's almost July. But if it stays like this, everything's gonna be OK," he says.
In 2010, Tillmann recorded an album of original music at a studio in Oak Creek. Entitled "Let Me Be The One," the album is available on CD Baby for $13.99.
Tillmann has enjoyed many local bands over the years. "I just like good music," he says. "But I'm not real thrilled with polkas, unless it's 2 a.m. and everyone's hanging out, listening to polkas and having a good time. Then OK."
Royal has taught courses in critical pedagogy, writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at several schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
Royal lives in Walker’s Point with his family and uses the light of the Polish Moon to illuminate his way home.