Sure, Steez has reinvented the Madison jam-band sound since it formed in 2003, blending synth and electronica with improvisational funk-rock. But here's the band's most unrecognized accomplishment: It has revolutionized the role of facial hair in the local scene.
Before Steez, facial hair was a dreary sideshow in Madison music, reserved for bearish bass players in thrashy hard rock and metal bands (notable exception: Carl Johns' groovy handlebar 'stache, circa 2001).
Steez may not be making beards and soul patches into a new wave of glam rock, but it has turned the mustache into a key part of its identity. That's because the biggest event of the year in Steezland is the annual Mustache Bash.
It's a simple idea, a contest among fans to see who can show up with the most unique above-the-lip follicle growth (or, for women, faux-growth). Now in its fifth year, the Mustache Bash has become popular enough for a large-venue setting.
The event, which always coincides with the last day of fall semester classes at UW-Madison, takes place at the Majestic Theater Dec. 10.
"The idea for our first Mustache Bash came while most of us were still in school at UW," says Steez guitarist Steve Neary. "We wanted to find a way to include our fans in the show other than just having them watch us monkey around on stage."
There's a method to the mustache madness, according to Neary. "We have someone pick out five or six people who got crazy with their facial sculpting," he says. "We'll bring them up and have the crowd vote for them. We whittle it down to three people and revote. The person who gets the loudest cheer wins whatever prize we've got for first place. Last year's top prize was a four-foot-tall trophy we had made."
Adds Neary, "This year's top prize will not disappoint."
To mark the occasion, Steez brings in a photo booth and provides complimentary pictures to members of the audience.
Neary says the most unforgettable moment of past bashes, for him, dates back to the year the event commenced. "We didn't know how it was going to work, and we ended up with what seemed like 30 people up on that tiny little stage at the King Club," he recalls, naming the former nightspot at 114 King St. "People were spilling beers all over the place. It was a mess."
The winner had shaved his head, leaving only small patches of hair that curved behind his ear and connected to his mustache via his sideburns. "The best part was that he concealed this the entire night with a winter cap," says Neary. "When it was his turn in the contest, he ripped off his hat and the crowd went bananas. It was epic."
Steez remains one of the most active bands in Madison. "We played about a hundred shows in the past year, and we have no intention of stopping now," says Neary. "We'll probably stick to the Midwest for most of the winter, but once it heats up we'll be back out on the road doing what we do. We're hoping that festival season will be good to us again this year." The band has been writing a lot of new material since the release of Creepfunk Crusade in 2009.
The Mustache Bash is also a food-drive benefit for Second Harvest. Attendees receive a $2 admission discount if they donate at least one nonperishable food item.
The event has come to define a side of Steez. "We try not to take ourselves too seriously," says Neary. "We put a lot of passion and effort into our music, but it's crazy events like this that keep us grounded."
It has come to define a side of their fans, too. "There are some people who will grow out their beard for an entire year," Neary says, "just so they can have a ridiculous amount of facial hair to work with."