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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
Music
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Harmony Bar celebrates 20 years of blues and brews
Coming of age
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Owner Keith Daniels turned the Harmony from a dive into an institution.
Owner Keith Daniels turned the Harmony from a dive into an institution.
Credit:Jake Naughton

Ask longtime near-east-siders to tell you a neighborhood legend, and they're likely to mention the Harmony Bar, 2201 Atwood Ave.

With a tin ceiling and checkerboard floor, plus bartenders you just can't help but shoot the breeze with, it's custom-made for the stuff barroom tales are made of: Saturday-night shindigs and happy-hours-turned-hootenannies.

Perhaps good spirits run in Keith Daniels' blood. Daniels bought Lee's Tavern in 1990 to give the blues a home in the neighborhood and carry on his family's bar-keeping tradition. He even named it Harmony Bar, the same as his dad's place in Burlington, Wis.

"I knew I was going to be in a bar all the time, so it was just a matter of time before I bought one," he jokes.

The joint wasn't very harmonious when he bought it, though. In fact, it fell somewhere between "dive" and "dump," says Daniels, recalling how it took a full month to make the place presentable.

Daniels' love of the blues helped the place become an institution. He even remembers the day he discovered the genre, back in the eighth grade. "That's when I stopped listening to 'Yummy Yummy Yummy' and started listening to Paul Butterfield," he recalls.

Joe Nosek, singer for the local blues outfit Cash Box Kings, says part of the place's charm stems from its resemblance to a Windy City blues club.

"The guys in the band who played in Chicago in the old days, they say it reminds them of one of those old clubs where people danced right up to the stage," he says. "We play all over Chicago and the Midwest and even Europe, and the Harmony's got one of the best dancing crowds there is."

Of course, the walnut burgers and pub chips don't hurt either, nor does the disco ball the staff turns on during slow numbers. But it's the intimacy of the music room that makes it special, whether you're a dancing fool or just taking it all in.

Brian Hirsh and Mark Kunkel, hosts of the bar's twice-a-month bluegrass jam, sing the praises of the room's sound, which allows musicians to perform without amplification.

"Before the Asylum Street Spankers bought PAs and moved on to the High Noon, they played this show at the Harmony that made everyone be quiet and sit on the floor," says Hirsh. "The music fills the room without overpowering it, which makes it great for bluegrass, too."

He also remembers upbeat moments of dancing and romancing, such as a Cajun Strangers show where the entire crowd did the two-step.

Daniels constantly lends a hand, whether by doing the sound or making sure the tip jar is filled to the brim.

"Having Marcia Ball here three different times was just great," he says. "She's definitely outgrown a place this size, but it was a treat to get to know her and her husband. Then there was W.C. Clark, one of my all-time favorites. We've been real lucky to get musicians like him and Junior Wells in here."

The most memorable show, however, may have been Paul Black & the Flip Kings in the fall of 2005. Daniels remembers it like it was yesterday. "The band, they were on fire. They were clicking on every note, and everybody in the place was in awe," he says. "It was like a cathedral, it was that hot."

Expect the bar's 20th anniversary party on March 14 to make the neighborhood sizzle as well. Daniels and his girlfriend, Alison Mader, have recruited eight bands: the Bel-Airs, Westside Andy/Mel Ford Band, the Jimmys, Cash Box Kings, Jim Schwall/Andy Ewen Band, the Midwesterners, the Roddys and Jimmy Chuck & the Drunken Sailors. So they've had to move the bash down the street to the Barrymore Theatre.

"We started out with three or four bands, and then all of these other bands were like, 'Why can't we play, too?' and pretty soon we found ourselves booking a nine-hour-long party," Daniels says. "I told everyone else to bring along their instruments, too."

In other words, it sounds like another legend in the making.

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