2013 marked one of the highest of highs for the Milwaukee rock folk band The Belle Weather. It wasn’t just that the band released its debut album, "Hold On." It got to celebrate the new record as a headliner in one Milwaukee’s finest concert venues, The Pabst Theater.
"I can’t imagine anything cooler than that ever," said the band’s frontman and guitarist Eric Cox. "If we were to break tomorrow and Rolling Stone wanted to write an article about us and we had to go play anywhere, I don’t think I could find another venue that trumps The Pabst Theater. To step out onto that stage and think about all of the songs played there and artists who’ve walked across those boards, it’s otherworldly."
Fate wound up making the gig even bigger than expected for The Belle Weather. After putting the album together, the band wanted to give their effort the biggest stage possible. Cox’s first thought was The Pabst Theater, a bold mission for a small local band on its debut record. The guys originally managed to talk their way into a Sunday night slot – a pretty low-key, low risk spot – but when the Pabst’s Saturday night act cancelled, The Belle Weather slipped into the venue’s weekend headliner spot along with I’m Not A Pilot and Rectifier.
"Growing up in Milwaukee, I’ve seen so many shows there over the years," Cox recalled. "I’ve been to venues all over the place, but I’ve never been any place that holds music better than that room does. It was surreal."
A year after certainly one the band’s highest highs, however, came also certainly one of its lowest lows. Stephen Spalding, the group’s drummer and the friend who Cox originally started playing with as a duo, had to bow out of the band due to a painful and problematic nerve condition in his lower back.
"Of all the musicians I’ve played with over the years, he’s the closest thing I’ve ever found to a musical soulmate," Cox said. "So it was really, really difficult for him to leave – I know he felt really bad about it – but we could see him wearing down. When it’s not fun anymore and it hurts that badly to play – I mean we played 75 shows last year; we gig a lot – it’s tough.
"We’re all getting toward 30 or older," he laughed, "so life starts to catch up with you a bit."
The two are still great friends, hanging out and talking music together. Meanwhile, the remaining members of The Belle Weather – Cox and stand-up bass player Tom Abromaitis – has adjusted, reinventing themselves as an acoustic rock duo inspired by the sonic likes of Glen Hansard, Damien Rice and Ray LaMontagne. So far, it’s working, and with Cox testing out working with a tambourine pedal and kickdrum, there’s no rush to replace their vacated drummer position.
"We’ve been having a blast playing as a duo," Cox said. "If we find just the right new player, it’s gotta be someone we want to hang out with and like to be around with as much as make music with. It’s really difficult to find the whole package. If we fall into it, fantastic. And if not, we’ll find other ways to keep the music interesting."
About six months after losing Spalding, the change in lineup hasn’t stopped The Belle Weather from its gig-intensive schedule either. In fact, the band has a show (alongside Emily Forst, a Milwaukee-New York singer-songwriter) coming up this post-Christmas weekend at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 27 at Bremen Café in Riverwest.
"People see us come out on stage with an acoustic guitar and an upright bass, and they expect two guys who are going to strum and play folk tunes," Cox said. "The first comments every time we walk off the stage playing like this is, ‘Holy cow, how did two guys make that much sound?’ We still bring a full band’s worth of energy."
The two-man band also assembled a new sophomore album of acoustic numbers, ranging from new songs to some older tunes written and put together back when the band was recording "Hold On" with Shane Hochstetler from Howl Street Recordings.
"For the longest time, it kind of just felt like a bunch of disparate pieces – fragments of an album that didn’t really come together," Cox said. "But then, in the last couple of months, a couple ideas and new songs really tied the whole thing together. We started playing around with some other sounds, as well as the acoustic sound, and found this interesting balance between ambiance noise and sound and really earthly acoustic sounds. And that really tied it all together."
The Belle Weather is looking to release that new album next March. Bringing a second album release show to The Pabst Theater is likely out of the question for the group ("The thought of something like Turner Hall has crossed my mind," Cox hinted though), but the duo is looking at other ways of putting the album and band in the spotlight, such as a music video and working on getting some radio play.
All in all, 2015 will be a busy year, one Cox hopes will bring a dose of needed good news – for both the band and the city they call home.
"There’s a ton of turmoil going into this holiday season, so I’d love to see the old adage of ‘peace on Earth and goodwill toward men’ play itself out, peacefully so and on a grand scale. That’d be nice to see, but the flipside of that coin is that peace and justice have to go hand-in-hand."
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.