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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 56.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Kiki Schueler devotes her life to Madison music
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Schueler (second from right, with Josh Harty on guitar)presides over Kiki’s House of Righteous Music in her basement.
Schueler (second from right, with Josh Harty on guitar)presides over Kiki’s House of Righteous Music in her basement.
Credit:Stephen Funk

On Jan. 29, 1996, Ben Folds Five played a show at Madison's Club de Wash - three weeks before the esteemed venue was destroyed in the Hotel Washington fire.

Kiki Schueler thought about going to that show, but she couldn't convince any of her friends to come along. So she stayed home.

It's a decision that has shaped her life ever since.

"I never went to Club de Wash, and after it burned, I so regretted not going," says Schueler. "That was a trigger. I decided I wasn't going to miss any more shows, whether my friends came with me or not."

Today, Schueler fills every corner of her world with music.

She hangs set lists she's cajoled from the Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash, the Wrens and Tim Easton in frames above her bed. Her workspace on the fifth floor of UW-Madison's Biochemistry Addition is wallpapered with show posters, and a boombox hums in constant rotation.

After work, she's off to a show three to four nights a week. Those evenings she spends at home? They're dedicated to writing reviews that she posts to her blog.

Schueler operates a live-music venue just north of her hot-water heater, down 10 stairs from her kitchen. She calls it Kiki's House of Righteous Music. The makeshift stage she's arranged in front of 20 to 25 folding chairs has attracted nationally known artists like the Silos, Chris Mills and Ian Moore.

Why? Because Kiki Schueler has decided that you never know what tomorrow may bring. So she's willing to ask her favorite musicians if they to want to come play at her house.

At 42, Kiki Schueler is anything but a midlife cliché. Single and child-free, she shares a modest east-side home with her sister Liz. The oldest of seven children, she grew up in Tomah and planned a career as a scientist. She attended UW-Eau Claire in the 1980s and graduated with a degree in biology. She moved to Dallas in 1988, where she spent six years employed as a lab technician.

Since returning to Wisconsin in 1994, Schueler has adopted live music as her main hobby. Now, she lives spontaneously in ways that seem guided by her inner teenager.

Once, she went to the Club Tavern and, without knowing any of the band members, asked them if they wanted to crash that night at her house. And, of course, they did.

"It was Tim Easton and his band," recalls Schueler. "No one was at the show, so I went up and started talking to the guys. I asked them if they needed a place to stay, and they said that would be great."

It's not like Schueler hadn't warned roommate sister that she might give in to these impulses. "I'd thought about inviting a band to stay at my house once before, but I thought my sister would kill me. So I asked her, and she said, 'You can do what you want - it's your house!'"

Schueler, it seems, took that advice to heart. Last month, she busied herself taping flyers up and down State Street, inviting passers-by to her house for a basement gig.

I obliged. It was a summer evening, near solstice, and the giant spruce trees towering above the small ranch homes in Schueler's neighborhood were (in the words of Schueler's favorite musician) blowin' in the wind.

Chips and dip, beer and soda and a few dozen friends filled the tidy rooms inside. Posters of Dylan loomed large.

I took turns talking to Josh Harty and Blake Thomas in the living room. They were on the bill to open this show. Brooklyn indie-rock troubadour Chris Mills, who was hanging out in the front yard, was headlining.

"I met Kiki at one of the shows I did," said Thomas. "She had reviewed my first CD, so I asked her, 'Do you really think I sound like David Gray?'"

"I play other house shows," said Harty. "But Kiki's are different. They're more free-flowing, not just middle-aged people sitting around drinking wine."

The pre-gig chatter flowed as freely as the beer. Harty and I made small talk. He told me all about growing up in Kindred, N.D., where his dad was chief of police.

A friend of Schueler's chimed in: "Kiki's shows are just like a big house party. We all got to know each other because everyone knows Kiki."

Schueler took me on a tour of her home. There was the backyard, where an Irish band played on the day she moved in. There was her bedroom, which looked like a music museum, decorated with framed set lists.

Down in the basement, we walked into the bathroom she had installed to accommodate the post-beer needs of her house-show patrons. A Chris Mills flyer hangs framed above the toilet.

The show began, and Schueler stood stage right throughout the evening. She was the hostess, thanked at least a dozen times by the musicians. She calmed their nerves with attentive deliveries of liquor shots a few songs into their sets.

Schueler, who is tall, stood between her equally height-endowed sisters, Liz and Gina, during much of the show. Liz, her roommate, had come to know this crowd and these musicians. Gina stood arm-in-arm with Blake Thomas, whom she dates.

Mills' soaring voice carried the night. When the show was finally over, Schueler wasted no time reminding people on their way out that she'd planned another basement show for the following Saturday. And if they couldn't make that one, another was scheduled for July.

Among Madison's live-music patrons, a few stand out as bona-fide fanatics. For these musical activists, going to a show is more than a social outing; it's a way of life. The most committed club enthusiasts become emblems of the music scene, public figures whose presence defines the scene as much as the musicians themselves. The list includes Marco Pogo, Todd the Doorman, and now Kiki Schueler.

During the week I met Schueler at the Crystal Corner Bar for an interview, she was in the middle of a six-night, seven-show, 16-band stretch (see sidebar).

Her musical preferences lean toward alt-country bands like the Bottle Rockets. With her favorite acts, she's a genuine groupie. Lately she's been seeing the Blueheels, a roots-rock band from Neenah, every time they're in town.

Schueler doesn't limit her club-rat ways to Madison.

"Before gas prices went up, I used to drive down to see shows in Chicago two to three times a month, but now I've tried to curb that habit," says Schueler. Two to three times a year, she buys a plane ticket to see a show in an exotic, far-off setting. Like St. Louis or Cleveland.

On her Web log, Schueler has written more than 400 show reviews over the past four years. It's the place to go to get the inside scoop on the number of times Kiki saw Chris Mills play in 2006. (Answer: 17.)

Building on years of seeing shows and writing online, Schueler became more widely known to local music fans when she began writing for the now defunct monthly magazine Rick's Café, in 2004. She became one of its strongest voices, contributing dozens of CD and live-show reviews. She now writes for Isthmus' TheDailyPage.com.

Before I closed my window on the world of Kiki Schueler, I wanted to see her life on the other side of nighttime. So I walked up Bascom Hill and down Linden Drive one Friday afternoon, until I finally arrived at the unmarked Biochemistry Addition along Babcock.

Far removed from clubland, these academic halls were quiet and sanitized. I wondered: Would I find the same Kiki Schueler I had come to know? My elevator opened on the fifth floor, just outside a large laboratory. A student immediately asked me, "Are you looking for Kiki?"

She walked me back to a far corner of the lab, where Schueler was filling vials with a clear liquid. Here, she helps identify genetic characteristics of mice that have diabetes.

As Schueler carefully filled the vials, her mind seemed focused on the boombox next to her.

"I listen to CDs all day," she said.

Nearby co-workers seemed unfazed by the flow of drums and bass streaming from Kiki's corner.

"They know if they're going to sit near me that they're going to have to put up with this," said Schueler. There was no trace of belligerence in her voice. It was just an acknowledgement that she couldn't pass a day anymore that wasn't packed tight with music.

Kiki Schueler stopped waiting for her world to join her musical fanaticism years ago. And in doing so, she found a new world waiting on the other side.

Now, she says, local promoter Tag Evers calls her his best customer. "Tag said he was going to get me a punch card," Schueler says with a smile.

"Buy 100 shows, get one free."

One week, seven shows, sixteen bands......over six nights in May (yes, two shows in one night). It's all documented, photographed and filmed on Kiki Schueler's blog, www.2bhifi.com/kiki, excerpted here in one big stream-of-consciousness flood of pop music:

Blueheels It's always been Robby's twangy, yet totally sexy voice that draws me to the band. Blake Thomas When I protested that I didn't know he was going to play with a band, Blake responded neither had he. Josh Harty I watched his set and everything else that night with a big, dumb smile on my face. Jentri Colello Yeah, I know. I'm not supposed to like girl singers. I'm just as surprised as you. Flame Shark An addictive combination of the Jayhawks and the Cash Brothers. Javelines Mostly, I wanted them to be done. Better Off Deads ('80s Cover Band) They might want to consider adding "Jessie's Girl." Bottle Rockets They've been through (Madison) plenty of times. The Maharaja Indian restaurant in the east side is their favorite. Califone Once I gave up trying to understand their songs, I found them easier to enjoy. Selfish Gene Catchy, poppy fun-ness. Decibully They have a lot in common with Okkervil River. Tex Tubb An excellent musician; also the head chef at the El Dorado Grill. Funky Bumpkins Dylan Tubbs was Tex's son. Java/Danny Feral & The Last Bar Band; Clyde Stubblefield Band My fourth night in a row at the High Noon. The real question is - am I ever going to get the ink off the back of my hand?

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