On the set of Wisconsin Public Television's new music show, The 30-Minute Music Hour, producer Andy Moore is tight-roping the creative process with Pat MacDonald, former front man of Timbuk 3 and reputed character. MacDonald's gear includes a cigar box guitar and an amplified stomp board, which produces a variety of percussive sounds.
"I've resisted talking about this until just now," Moore says while MacDonald kneels on the floor in front of him, snacking on a sub. "But during your first song, when I sense an instrumental window or a little break, I'm going to walk through the shot and introduce the show."
MacDonald is momentarily flustered and stammers a bit before glaring at Moore over his glasses. "You're messing with my head, man!" And then he grins.
"That song doesn't have any breaks, really," he continues. "It has parts that I can vamp out on the riff, basically. There's two ways we can do this..."
And that's how Moore works for about a half hour with MacDonald. Nudging and tugging him into putting together a set that fits into a format that is intentionally loose and accommodating of creativity, but still tidy enough to work on TV. I wonder how closely Moore's interactions with MacDonald mirror the way he works with the policy makers who appear on the news shows -- Here and Now and, previously, Weekend -- he has produced for WPT over the years.
But as much time as he spends massaging the details of the intricate production into place, Moore is also able to relax and enjoy music played by artists like MacDonald, folkie Willy Porter and honky-tonk wiseass Robbie Fulks from his perch on the set. "Not a bad way to do government work," Moore confides.
Full disclosure: Andy Moore is a senior Isthmus contributor and a friend of mine who, over beers at the Weary Traveler, convinced me to cover the first day of taping for The 30-Minute Music Hour. The idea of a day spent juggling three high-profile soloists in the same TV studio that houses Sewing with Nancy was irresistible, even without the beer.
WPT's Vilas Hall studio is buzzing on Wednesday afternoon, with a full control room, four camera operators, a boom-mike operator and plenty of enthusiasm for the new project. Some of the students who work here part time are thrilled to be given a level of freedom they're not allowed when working on Here and Now. Moore explains that the television audience won't be getting a sanitary, polished production.
"We're shooting the space pretty aggressively," he says. "So you might end up in some of the shots."
Indeed, the finished product finds handheld camera operators moving in and out of the frame. The back-and-forth between the musicians and Moore, who hosts as well as produces the show, is intentionally conversational and, in the case of Fulks' performance, makes its way into the songs themselves.
That shouldn't surprise anyone who ever saw Moore perform with the Cork 'n Bottle String Band, his former and occasionally current band that used to hold court at the late, great Ken's Bar on Butler Street. Those weeknight, happy hour shows included plenty of give-and-take between the musicians and audience members, and set lists were as unwelcome as pretentiousness.
MacDonald, Porter and Fulks would all fit right in with that outfit, as evidenced by their off-camera interactions. Just as MacDonald finishes loading a flatbed cart full of gear, Porter walks into the studio carrying only a guitar and backpack.
"I guess I didn't bring as many trinkets as you did," says Porter.
"Maybe that's because you're not compensating for anything," MacDonald replies.
The 30-Minute Music Hour debuts on WPT's Wisconsin Channel, a digital television offering available over-the-air to those with digital receivers, on Friday, Jan. 18, at 10:30 am and again that evening at 5:30 pm. It will also air on Saturday nights, immediately before Austin City Limits on the main network starting February 9. According to James Steinbach, WPT's director of television, digital TV is allowing the network to take some risks with new programming.
"We're anxious to do shows for whom there is a very narrow audience or shows we've always wanted to try," he says.
There's also a substantial Web component to this new programming. All of Tuesday's performances were streamed, live, on wpt.org and the first three episodes of The 30-Minute Music Hour are already available online. It's another sign that public broadcasting is embracing the digital era -- and the expected immediacy that goes along with it -- with far less reluctance than its commercial counterparts.
Before leaving the studio on Tuesday afternoon and making his way back up to Door County, where he lives, MacDonald eagerly accepts a DVD of his performance.
"It might be the first thing I've ever done on TV that I liked," he says.