For 25 years Mike Kostal owned and ran Brady Street's blues HQ, the Up and Under Pub, 1216 E. Brady St. Often smoky, dark and focused on the smooth slide of a blues guitar, the cozy East Side watering hole was everything a blues bar should be.
When Kostal sold the bar to Chicago couple Tim and Jill Brodersen last July, the new owners were already huge fans of the place. Although the Brodersens appreciated the Up and Under for what it was -- Tim admits to demanding everyone meet him there on his frequent trips up to Milwaukee -- they weren't quite sure everyone else did. Show attendance was dropping and it was time to re-evaluate.
The first step was a major cleaning overhaul, followed by a series of modernizations and improvements. Brodersen installed four large plasma screen TVs for sports, brought in a sampling of salty snacks and pizza, began accepting credit cards and has made it a summertime goal of transforming the empty space between his bar and the Suminski Funeral Home into a beer garden with plants and patio seating.
With what felt like a fresh new space to work with, it was time to face the music. What they saw was a withering trend.
"The blues bands following isn't as big as it used to be," says veteran Up and Under bartender Roy Henning.
In the 10 months since the Brodersens made the move to Milwaukee, their Brady Street bar has been slowly morphing from Milwaukee's blues capital into a music venue with a bit more scope.
"We needed to inject some new life into the place," says Henning. "We still do a few straight blues bands, but we're looking at a lot more rock acts and other genres to have something for everybody."
In the wake of reinventing the room, more than 12 feet came off the end of the wooden bar, opening up a dance floor-sized space in front of the stage. Brodersen installed a house sound system -- bands previously had to supply their own sound equipment for every show, he says -- and a full lighting system.
"We changed it from strictly a blues bar to more of music venue," he says. "Right now we're the only bar on Brady Street doing live music regularly, and we're putting a lot of emphasis on local bands."
And this is where Henning expands his duties from beyond the backside of the bar. This coming weekend he's organized a battle of the bands at the pub that gives six local bands the chance to show their shops and duke it out for a chance to earn a spot on the 102.9 rock stage at Summerfest this year.
Three bands -- Avengers Assemble, The Delta Routine and The Andrew Geles Band -- play Friday, April 27 for an hour each. For a $5 cover, people are invited to come and vote for their favorites via a ballot system.
"It's very straight-up," says Henning. "There are no judges, no applause. If you bring more fans, you get more votes, you win. I've seen so many battles that have judges their own agendas and their own opinions -- this is the fairest way to do it."
Aside from the additions, changes and tweaks, the Brodersens hope to retain the friendly, neighborhood feel of the Up and Under Pub -- which is what they've loved about the place for so long. And with the live music still kicking and the more than 20 beers on tap -- and plenty of them local -- there's little doubt that it'll ever lose the charm of a nice out on Milwaukee's East Side.
OnMilwaukee.com staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.
As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When OnMilwaukee.com offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”