By Drew Olson Special to Published Jan 04, 2007 at 5:33 AM

When it comes to stage banter and song introductions, many musicians rely on the classics.

"How are you doing tonight, (insert city here)?"

"Are you ready to party, (insert city here)?"

Eric Lowen and Dave Navarro definitely didn't graduate from that performance school. After 20 years of recording, touring and playing together under the banner Lowen and Navarro, the duo prefers to punctuate its shows with humorous and often self-deprecating tales about everything from memorable recording sessions with their musical heroes to menu and venue of their pre-show dinner.

During a visit to Milwaukee in the fall 2005, Navarro looked out into a near-capacity crowd at Shank Hall and made a comment that skipped past the predictable cheese, beer and bratwurst repartee and targeted another characteristic of the region.

"You guys in the Midwest sure like to smoke a lot," he said. "We're from California and we're not used to that."

While several major cities have banned smoking in public places, Milwaukee has not joined the list. Still, when Lowen and Navarro visit Shank Hall next week (Jan. 12), smoke won't be an issue. The show, along with a handful of other upcoming events at the club, has been designated "smoke-free."

"We do that mostly at the request of the artist," said Peter Jest, who has owned and operated Shank Hall since the club opened in 1989. "There are a number of artists who have allergies, health issues or just don't want to deal with smoke.

"I don't know if it'll become a trend with rock bands, but a lot of the singer/songwriters who come to the club request that we go smoke-free."

Recent "clean air" shows at Shank Hall have featured Bruce Cockburn, Martin Sexton, Leon Redbone, Greg Koch and Daryl Stuermer. Paul Cebar plays a smoke-free show with the Milwaukeeans on Saturday night and Howard Jones, booked for an acoustic show on Jan. 24, also has requested a smoke-free environment.

In separate e-mail interviews this week, Lowen and Navarro both revealed that they are ex-smokers.

"For my part, cigarette smoke has always been a bit of a bother, though you do get used to it," Navarro said. "I smoked for many years, though not particularly heavily. I quit for good in 1995, and it does bother me more than it used to, though I've learned to ignore it. It irritates the throat and smells like squat.

"Since I've quit, I can smell it on people from several feet away. We have never made it a hard and fast rule that our shows be non-smoking, but I do indeed prefer smoke free-shows. I have at least three friends, all non-smokers, who have contracted lung cancer in the past two years. Two of them died within six months of diagnosis."

Lowen, who suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), said he always associated smoking with "clubs, playing, recording, writing, whatever.

"When California outlawed smoking, I was inconvenienced at first, then enjoyed the exclusive outdoor smoking camaraderie and gave up smoking inside altogether.

"It became very obvious playing in smoke free environments was more enjoyable almost right away and has become more that way ever since.

"Now having been a non-smoker for over two years (I never smoked more than six or seven a day, but have stopped completely) and having an illness that will eventually take me by eliminating my ability to carry on respiration, I much prefer to not be around smoke, but I miss the ritual and the camaraderie."

Navarro, whose cousin, Dave, played with Jane's Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers and recently filed for divorce from wife Carmen Electra, recalled a few memorable smoke-filled shows.

"In Harrisburg, PA, the venue, a long tunnel-like setup, left an open front and back door that created a draft drawing billows of the stuff directly toward the stage," he said. "That was pretty hard to handle.

"And at another show, in Minneapolis about two years ago, a gang of guys in the very front lit up a mess of camel-turd Cohibas that were pretty hard to take. At the end of the day, you chalk it up to 'comes with the territory' and carry on."

Jest, who suffers from asthma, has installed a "smoke-eating" ventilation system in his club to lessen the effects of second-hand smoke for patrons and employees. Still, he hears complaints from non-smoking patrons.

"We could have a retractable roof and open the ceiling to the outside and people would still complain," he said. "I understand that. I don't like to go to bars that are smoky. You can't smoke at a movie. You can't smoke at a basketball game or a play. But, people are used to smoking at bars and live-music clubs."

Asked if he thought "smoke-free" could become the norm rather than the exception, Jest said he doesn't expect it to happen soon:

"Milwaukee is a blue-collar town," he said. "If there was a demand for it, more people would do it. As it sweeps across more of the country, we may see it here. One thing that the anti-smoking crowd could do to help things is to support smoke-free shows.

"We had Paul Cebar here for a smoking show and then a few months later we did a non-smoking show and the attendance was about the same. I think rather than complaining all the time, the people who don't like smoke need to support smoke-free events. That's the best way to get more of them."




Drew Olson Special to

Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.