Maybe it only seems like it because I was a (very, very tiny) part of it, but the Don't Records stable of bands had some juice in the early 1990s. Bands like Citizen King, The Gufs, Paul Cebar and Willy Porter were the highest profile artists on the local label, but there were other extremely active and talented bands on the roster, too; bands like Pet Engine, the Wooldridge Brothers, Blue in the Face and Loyal Order of Water Buffalo, aka LOW-B, to name a few.
LOW-B, fronted by John Bitenc, with his brother Dan on bass, Jeff Benske on guitar and Matt Liban on drums -- the latter two are still active in town as part of The Five Card Studs -- possessed enough skill and enough spark that when it fired up its alt.country engine, it could knock you on your keister if you weren't careful. Think early Honeydogs with Noah Levy on drums. Or the first incarnation of Wilco on stage.
After releasing one great disc on Don't, the band, well, didn't anymore. John Bitenc left Milwaukee and everyone else moved on to other things.
In the wake of "reunions" -- in some cases just a first gig after a long break -- by Blue in the Face, The WBs and The Yell Leaders (I know, I know), LOWB is back, too, playing a gig at Shank Hall on Friday, Sept. 4 at 8 p.m. with The Carolinas, another vintage Milwaukee alt.country band that has defined "on again; off again" on the local scene.
We asked Benske and John Bitenc what happened to the band and what its members have been doing since.
OnMilwaukee.com: How long has it been since the band split? Why did you guys stop?
John Bitenc: Hmm, why did we split? Well, I made the choice to move the Minneapolis in November 1994. This proved to be too much of a stretch to keep LOW-B together. There was a period of about four years after the break-up where I was not in communication with anyone except my brother. Basically, I was going through changes and felt I needed to re-invent myself. Fortunately, the bond we had as friends proved stronger then the pains of breaking up the band. Our last show I believe was at the 400 Bar in Minneapolis in February 1995. Since then we have only played together as LOW-B once in 2001 and just for fun in a practice space.
Jeff Benske: Yeah, we imploded. Ran into John about five years later, shook hands, all better. We did try to make another attempt at a new band, but that proved to be too much too soon.
OMC: Why the reunion? Were people asking for it or did you guys just feel the urge to do it?
John Bitenc: We've talked about doing it a couple times in the last 10 years. In May I saw a window of opportunity in my schedule to do it in the fall, so I sent out the invitation to the guys and surprisingly it's going to happen this time. I have no idea if anyone outside of the band wants to see a LOW-B reunion. My want to do it has more to do with personal perspective. The man I am today is a lot different then the man I was in my early 20s when LOW-B was rockin'. It was a time when I really felt connected to passion and creativity. In hindsight I was in a very spiritual space and didn't know it at the time. Fourteen years later after a lot of living, I find myself again in a similar creative spiritual space. So, for me, it just feels like the time is right to reconnect with this beautiful legacy and I am very grateful the other members are willing to do it, too!
Jeff Benske: John and I played around with the idea when he moved back to Milwaukee 2000, but we couldn't warm up to it. We were going to do this a few years back at Points East hosted by The Carolinas, but things didn't work out. It was the catalyst that got us thinking about it in the future. Life's too short, why not. I'd really like to see some of the guys from back in the day, and just have a good time. I'd rather do this than go to a high school reunion.
OMC: Have you gotten together to rehearse at all? How did it feel? Was the "magic" still there?
John Bitenc: The others have been practicing on Mondays for a couple weeks now. I just moved from Phoenix back Minneapolis this weekend so I've been practicing on my own. I've talked to my brother Dan and Jeff each following Tuesday to see how it went. I get the impression it's pretty much like riding a bike, two wheels rolling and it's 1995 again!
Jeff Benske: When we did it for sh*ts and giggles in 2001, and we had a great time. No pressure, just playing for fun. It was a lot different than the last few shows we played in '95. I wouldn't call it magic, but it really takes you back and surprises you on how much you remember. We played a lot back then, and no matter how long it's been, it comes back pretty fast.
OMC: Will you guys do any new material? Has John been writing stuff?
John Bitenc: Yes, I have been writing. At this point this will be an all LOW-B revisited show no new material. That being said, hmmm ... maybe?
OMC: What have the Bitenc boys been up to since the band split?
John Bitenc: Since 1995 I've been very active musically in the Twin Cities. I also did a brief stint back in Milwaukee from 2001 to 2004 where I had the opportunity to play with Don Nelson and Jon Ziegler in The Nelsonics. Currently, I‘ve just returned to Minneapolis from a two-year stint in Phoenix with a bag full of new material. Some things haven't changed. Rock 'n' roll is still my medium of choice.
Jeff Benske: Matt Liban and I have enjoyed working our butts off in The Five Card Studs for the past 13 years, among other projects here and there. Wives, kids and all of that other fun stuff keep us pretty busy also.
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.