When the talk turns to great Milwaukee bands, most people would agree that the Violent Femmes are the biggest thing ever to come out of this city.
But close on their heels are the BoDeans, who are still together, and Semi-Twang, a band that had a big recording contract, incredible critical acclaim and a life that was far too short.
For those who remember, and for those who love music today, Semi-Twang is reuniting for a gig Nov. 6 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Shank Hall, arguably Milwaukee's greatest exclusive music venue. Twenty years ago Peter Jest bought the bar and Semi-Twang, a band a year and half into its first album for Warner Brothers, played the opening weekend.
"I loved this band and they were climbing nationally," Jest said. "So I thought they were a natural to open the club. (At) that first show it cost $3 to get in and ashtrays covered the tables. This year it's going to be $12 and the show is smoke-free. How times have changed."
Semi-Twang was formed to do the songs of John Sieger, who was one of the founding members of The R&B Cadets. The Cadets were the typical three-headed monster with Sieger, Paul Cebar and Robin Pluer. Sieger wanted to do his songs but there didn't seem to be enough room, and thus, Semi-Twang was born.
He got together with two Mikes -- his brother, Mike, on bass, and Mike Hoffmann on guitar, two Bobs -- Schnieder on drums and Jennings on keyboards and sax, and Jason Klagstad on guitar and formed their own band. Klagstad left the band because there seemed to be a glut of guitar players but he played on some tracks and will join in for the reunion.
"I knew this was a good band after our first rehearsal," said Hoffman, who was a member of the alt country band E*I*E*I*O before he joined Semi-Twang. "We had all these great songs that John wrote and sounded great."
The first gig the band played in 1985 was opening for Emmylou Harris in Madison. And it wasn't long before they stood on the shaky precipice of the big time. Record companies started calling and the band signed a $175,000 contract with Warner Brothers, one of the big dogs of the music business.
Off they went to California to make a record. They had world class producers Mitchell Froom, who produced Crowded House, Chris Thomas, who worked with INXS and even produced a couple of Beatles' tracks and Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads. Then to New York to make the video for "Salty Tears," the title track of the album.
"It was wild," said Mike Sieger. "We were staying at the Park Meridian Hotel right near Central Park. We went out to buy clothes and shoes and this lady from the record company had this big roll of cash. I mean a big roll, and whatever we wanted she paid for."
The record was released on March 22, 1988 amid a flurry of optimism. The good times didn't last long, though. The promised tour in support of the record never materialized. MTV didn't play the video. Then the promised second album was either canceled or never even scheduled. Almost as quickly as it came, hopes of fame, wealth and the big time disappeared.
There is no firm answer why it didn't happen for Semi-Twang. Their record was greeted with almost universal critical acclaim. Reviewers from around the world loved the record, the songs and the band. But there were almost no promotion dollars put into the effort, and without promotion, the record withered on the vine.
Last weekend I sat in while the band rehearsed in John Sieger's studio. This band now has a lot of gray hair. All of them are still making music as players or producers. Schneider has added a world championship in lawn bowling, of all things. They are all much older, but they've still got serious musical chops.
Listening to this band play something like "After Hours" it's easy to see why there was major interest in them 20 years ago. When you look at so much junk that makes the popular music scene today, I find myself wishing that there was a place in that spectrum for a band like this. When you listen to Hoffmann and Klagstad play a solo together it sends chills down your spine.
Hoffmann, who has carved out a real niche as a great producer himself, has long been one of my favorite guitar players ever to come out of this city, treating the instrument like a best friend and giving any song he's playing on room to breathe and stretch out. He understands that a little can be a lot in the world of guitar and music.
The story of Semi-Twang is not unique in the world of music. There are lots of bands in this world that have worked hard, come close to that big breakthrough, and then somehow fallen through the cracks of disappointment. But Milwaukee doesn't have that many of those stories. It's a rare thing when we find a band this good in our own backyard. And that's why nobody should miss this reunion concert. It's a chance to see what was once great, and, not surprisingly, still is absolutely wonderful.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.