Old favorites with the Old Tin Can String Band at Brocach.
The life of a weekly-gig musician is not an easy one. It's hard enough to attract crowds to one-off shows, let alone convince people to come see you on a regular basis. It's often the case, too, that you find yourself playing for people who haven't come to hear you. They're there for dinner, or drinks with friends, or even just to study, and musicians have to strike a precarious balance between pleasant background music and unwelcome distraction.
Despite the challenges, the regular gig can also be a boon to performers. It's a good chance to work out any kinks in a set list, to spend more time getting comfortable as a band or solo artist, to discover what works and what doesn't, and maybe even make a few tips along the way.
So it should come as no surprise that Madison has its share of weekly installments from a wide range of musical acts.
I recently went out in search of a few good ones, curious to discover what exactly the city has on offer for weekday live music entertainment. Settling on three different nights and three (I hoped) very different styles of music, I ventured out into the late-evening dinner and bar crowds to see what I could hear.
In a brightly lit, high-ceilinged back room at his club on Park Street, drummer Rick Flowers and his fellow musicians are setting up their instruments and getting ready for what has become a weekly routine. Every Wednesday night at R Place on Park, the Rick Flowers Trio lays down a solid set of jazz, R&B and soul - whatever moves them on any particular night.
The unassuming space on Madison's near south side has grander aspirations than its humble appearance suggests. Flowers opened the place in January with the aim of bringing good live music to a part of town that otherwise suffers from a severe lack of venues. He wants it to become a place where the local community comes together to socialize, and also where touring bands can make regular stops.
"I'm waiting on some new speakers to come in," explains Flowers during a break between sets. "And then I'd like to start booking some bigger names, bands that will open us up to a wider audience, maybe bring in some folks from downtown."
Which isn't to say that the trio itself doesn't have some serious talent participating. The lineup rotates a little from week to week, and on the night I caught them, two very accomplished musicians had joined Flowers for the jam.
As the band played old favorites like "Ain't No Sunshine," Bruce Alford, the bass player, absolutely tore up his instrument, his fingers sometimes slapping and skittering across the strings so quickly you could barely see them. He laid down a solid foundation over which guitarist Charles F. Davis III poured wailing, smooth riffs and solos. In the middle of it all sat Flowers, thumping away at a ruby red drum kit with a beatific smile spread across his face.
Though the bright lights and exposed ceiling beams lend a cafeteria-like quality to the look and sound of the room, the place holds a lot of potential. Even with a multi-piece band set up, there's ample room for both sitting and dancing. R Place on Park takes advantage of this with a couple of other weekly attractions: a "Friday Night Steppers Party" and a DJ spinning soul music on Saturdays.
It's not exactly smooth sailing for the club, though.
I noticed, rather glumly, that this incredibly accomplished display of musicianship was not being witnessed by many people that night. A handful of patrons sat and enjoyed the show for a while, but attendance still left something to be desired.
"I'm stubborn," says Flowers. "I'm going to see this through, make this a good business, no matter what."
Between the great music and the void it helps to fill on the city's south side, I can only hope that his persistence pays off.
Bluegrass with a touch of Éire
If you can get past Brocach's exaggerated desire to be an authentic Irish pub, you'll find a really cozy, comfortable place in which to spend a cold winter evening. Amid the faux aged walls and too-clever Irish-themed drink names, there is a genuinely inviting atmosphere, with good booze and decent food. Even better, most nights you can hear (or even participate in) various Irish music sessions - or, as is the case on Thursdays, the foot-stomping sounds of the Old Tin Can String Band.
While the quartet's roots are in traditional Irish music, the group's sound falls more squarely into the bluegrass genre. On a recent Thursday, the musicians move through a solid set of old familiars (including "Whiskey in the Jar," natch) as well as new tunes, transitioning easily between slower ballads and up-tempo capers. Halfway through the first set, as the mellow but appreciative applause dies down, mandolin player Chris Powers announces that, in two weeks' time, the band will be celebrating their two-year anniversary of playing weekly shows at the Brocach. He jokingly asks how many people had been to all of the shows.
The Old Tin Can String Band is a good fit for the cool night and the festive crowd. Though it is clear that the vast majority of the people in the bar have come for a late-night snack or a friendly chat, no one seems put off by the live music. In fact, most seem to be enjoying it thoroughly; it strikes that elusive balance between something that could slip into the background of a conversation, and something to pay attention to.
Rounding out the band is guitar and banjo player Patrick Spaay, bassist Mary Gaines (who was filling in for Chris Boeger) and fiddler Shauncey Ali. It's worth noting that Ali was the 2008 Wisconsin Fiddle Champion at the State Fair, and it shows in his beautifully played accompaniment and deft solos. The rest of the band demonstrates a great deal of expertise as well, with Gaines establishing a perfectly minimalist bottom line for the others to build upon.
The only downside to the venue is that should one feel so inclined, there is little room for dancing. But there are other places for such things, and anyway, it feels more appropriate to sit and have a pint while listening to the Old Tin Can String Band.
Songs to eat meat by
At the far end of the weekly gig spectrum is Acoustic Moon, the duo of David Irwin (guitar) and Keith Lienert (drums), who on Sundays play relaxed Latin-influenced tunes that fall easily into the background of dinner conversations.
As the restaurant's gauchos wander the floor offering various meats skewered on swords to hungry patrons, Acoustic Moon plies perhaps the most underappreciated type of musical trade. For some diners, it's likely that the live music barely enters their consciousness, instead finding itself relegated to the position that piped-in tunes might enjoy. But that is, perhaps, the highest compliment for this kind of arrangement. In a purely restaurant setting, a band is usually hired only to provide low-key atmosphere and not to distract attention away from the main attraction: the food.
Still, it's certainly worth noting the high quality of the musicianship that both Irwin and Lienert display. They weave bossa nova beats into sambas and classical Spanish guitar work, with a slight detour into folk as well. Sitting on the warmly lit and surprisingly spacious stage, they play well despite the lack of attention from the dinner crowd.
Choose your flavor
I admit that, prior to this concerted foray into the world of the weekly gig, I had never gone out of my way to attend one. I'd stumbled onto them before, wandering into a bar for drinks with friends or a meal, but I'll be more inclined to seek a few out in the future.
After all, there are dozens more weekly gigs in the city, and the styles vary greatly enough to provide options for almost any musical palate, whether you favor the drinking and dancing of R Place or Brocach's Guinness-soaked, sing-drunkenly-along vibe, or even Samba's trademark meat jamboree with a Latin feel.
In fact, weekly shows are often your best bet if your favorite live music doesn't belong to the pop and rock genres favored in nightclubs most weekend nights. To name just a few, there's the blues of the Westside Andy/Mel Ford Band (Thursdays at Middleton's Hody Bar & Grill) or Catfish Stephenson (Thursdays at the Up North). There's the jazz of Cliff Frederiksen (Wednesdays at Fitchburg's Liliana's).
There's the country of Brown Derby (Wednesdays at the Crystal Corner Bar) and the crooning of Francie Phelps (Thursdays at the Ivory Room) or Gerri DiMaggio (Wednesdays at Samba). There's even - three nights a week - the New Orleans-style piano of Johnny Chimes (Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at Middleton's Louisianne's, Etc.).
And if you don't want to stand in place for three hours watching a concert? These regular shows will be right up your alley.