Cork n' Bottle String Band: The Ken's Bar Story
Screening Saturday, June 2, Orpheum Theatre's Stage Door, 7 & 9 pm
In an early scene from Cork n' Bottle String Band: The Ken's Bar Story, banjo player Andy Moore describes the now defunct Madison tavern that was home to his amateur bluegrass band for six years:
"It was spectacularly unspectacular.
The same can be said of this Madison movie about a bunch of guys who worked at the Cork n' Bottle Liquor Store on East Johnson Street in the early 1990s. And who, for some mysterious reason, were collectively moved to start a bluegrass band.
Most music documentaries tell the story of an act that becomes a national sensation and changes the course of pop history. This film is great because it doesn't do that. Instead, The Ken's Bar Story chronicles the Wednesday night gigs the Cork n' Bottle String Band put on for six years at a dive bar in the shadow of the Capitol. It depicts an inexperienced local band that slowly transforms a no-name venue into a musically sacred space for a group of Madisonians.
Eighty-seven minutes later, a universal truth is revealed: At the core of every music scene is a relationship between a band, a place and an audience.
"There was some kind of magic about the diversity of people that went there and the band and the music," says Jim Nikora, a Wednesday night regular, during one of the film's many interview segments. "There was a great energy that flowed from that place."
The setting for Nikora's interview is an unglamorous conference room inside the administrative offices of the Madison Police Department. Nikora is the property room supervisor for MPD (the keeper of evidence and lost-and-found items). His soft-spoken demeanor says a lot about the average Madison folk who took refuge at the Ken's Bar shows between 1996 and 2002.
That lack of glamour is conspicuous in a movie that has the look and feel of a Ken Burns PBS special. The film's technical sophistication and plain subject create an appealing tension, suggesting that ordinary live entertainment can have an extraordinary impact on people.
The Ken's Bar Story is the brainchild of mandolin player Greg Dierks, one of the original members of the Cork n' Bottle String Band. "I've seen every rock 'n' roll documentary and VH1 special that's ever been made," says Dierks. "I love that stuff.
"So I talked to Steve Gotcher, the sound guy for the shows we do now at the Memorial Union. He said, 'Talk to my son, Jeremy. He's the video expert.'"
Jeremy Gotcher, 30, works full-time as an IT employee for the Wisconsin Department of Administration. His freelance video business doesn't typically venture beyond weddings and graduations, but Dierks inspired him to make his first feature-length film.
It took a little convincing. "At first, I thought the subject was interesting, but not all that entertaining," says Gotcher. "When we began to put the music and the video clips together, that's when I really began to see the potential."
The Ken's Bar Story made its Madison debut in April, at the Wisconsin Film Festival.
"Everybody who used to go to Ken's came to the Film Festival," says Dierks. "A lot of those people came up to me and said they were amazed at how much the movie was able to capture what it really felt like inside the bar back in those days."
This Saturday's screenings at the Orpheum Theatre mark the Cork n' Bottle String Band's 11th anniversary. Ken's Bar was torn down in 2002, but the band have kept up their weekly gig. Their show now takes place every Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Memorial Union Rathskeller/Terrace.
"The Terrace is a beautiful place to play, but there's no way it could physically be what Ken's was," says Dierks.
Jim Wright, the band's original banjo player, is in the process of buying the Cork n' Bottle liquor store on East Johnson Street. Dierks says he's pretty sure Wright's financing will go through, "because my cousin's the loan officer."
The band will, of course, be there to mark the liquor store's grand reopening under new ownership in August.
And someone will probably film it.