1 Flugelhorns & Fishnets

the Valley’s musical traditions range from brass bands to rock ’n’ roll decadence

by Scott Morfitt

Our traditions are not just steeped in history and high art. Some of our traditions are also sweaty and smell a bit of lager, though what truly makes this so poignant is you get to see the same musicians and fans enjoying this wide spectrum of musical traditions – sometimes even crossing through both ends of the spectrum in one night.

Bands and Band Shells

One of the oldest of these is Menomonie’s Ludington Guard Band. Officially founded in 1888 after supporting a cavalry regiment of the same name, the band was organized by Charles Ingraham. Over time the band has grown from 11 to 70 members. From its early days on, this band played throughout this region bringing soaring music to warm summer days.

Keeping Eau Claire covered in both patriotic standards and cinematic scores is one of our oldest community organizations, the Eau Claire Municipal Band. This band not only provides free entertainment to fans throughout the summer months in the historic Sarge Boyd Bandshell at Owen Park but also is a great example of inclusivity: Membership in the band is open to musicians of all ages, and musicians are encouraged to just bring their instruments and music stands and the band will help with the rest.

However, ensemble traditions are not limited to Sousa marches and Fantasia orchestrations. We also are privileged to have an amazing choral ensemble, The Master Singers; traditional orchestra music from the Eau Claire Chamber Orchestra; symphonic masterpieces from the Chippewa Valley Symphony Orchestra; and a cornucopia of jazz stylings from the Chippewa Valley Jazz Orchestra.

A Night of Decadence

Next, we get to the part where our tradition wears fishnets: the Decadent Cabaret. This staple of the Eau Claire music scene has featured a definitive listing of rock bands from this area. We’re talking pretty much every band that’s ever lived in or near this town. Making it even better these bands are playing cover tunes. To complete the fungasm, this is also a costume party.

Throughout its 35 years this festival has been held at many former venues like the Golden Chair, Brat Kabin, and Stone’s Throw before making finding its current home at the House of Rock for the last 11 years.

What keeps this tradition alive is simply the wealth of talent from Eau Claire bands and a labor of love from the many people who have organized it. This festival attracts the whole gamut of sub-genres that we use to divide rock ’n’ roll. This is not just three days of amazing music; this is a musical reunion that unites many scenes and crosses age boundaries. It’s the bridge that a sustainable scene needs.

Organizer Brent Kuechenmeister does have one critique: “I’d like to see more people coming out in costumes. The whole thing is intended to be Halloween, Mardi Gras, and New Year’s all rolled into one.”

Holiday Togetherness

Another holiday tradition that brings together Eau Claire is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Eau Claire.” This annual online mixtape brings together lo-fi recordings from all sorts of Chippewa Valley musicians. The idea is quite simple: Artists email their home-recorded songs to organizer Andy Plank and he creates a playlist at VolumeOne.org in the order the songs were received.

What is crazy is the process results in one of the most listenable holiday compilations pretty much ever. The songs move between experimental dissonance and reverential beauty without a pretense that the compilation be anything other than a grouping of gifts under the Eau Claire music tree.

One thing that all of the above traditions have in common is the fingerprint of the UW-Eau Claire music program. Every one of these traditions involves musicians who spent hours plying their craft in the practice rooms and recital halls of the Haas Fine Arts Center.

That tradition is seen most publicly in the jazz program at the university. The program has produced Grammy nominees and hosts an annual Jazz Festival that fills every venue in downtown Eau Claire. This festival features performances from nationally renowned artists at historic venues such as the State Theatre. It includes the 52nd Street event, which fills every possible space in downtown with performances from area jazz ensembles of all styles and sizes. It’s the closest thing to a jazz South by Southwest I’ve ever seen.

In the end, all of these traditions have the same goal: to make great music and make this a better place. That’s what keeps many of us here year after year after year…

In the end, all of these traditions have the same aim: to make great music and make this a better place. That’s what keeps many of us here year after year, consistently blessed and amazed at the wealth of talent that runs deep in the Chippewa Valley.

If I missed your tradition that was not my aim at all. Either let me know in person and I’ll buy you a beer at The Joynt or, even better, post it below the online version of this article so we can all learn more.

2 Uprooted

some musicians who find success elsewhere still find their hearts here

by Ken Szymanski

“It’s only the last five, six years that I've gotten that kind of playing time that I had in my time in Eau Claire. That’s where I figured out how to be a professional.”

Andrew Neesely former Eau Claire musician

Take two Chippewa Valley musicians who left town around the same time as Vernon … but unlike Vernon, they never migrated back: Andrew Neesley and Phil Cook. Neesley (The Andrew Neesley Quartet, Jesus on the Mainline) moved to New York and Cook (Mount Vernon, DeYarmond Edison, Amateur Love, Megafaun, The Shouting Matches, etc.). moved to North Carolina. Over a decade later, each is still in those respective places, happily making a living creating music.

Neesley, as an award-winning UW-Eau Claire music graduate, created a popular weekly live jazz gig at The Stone’s Throw in downtown Eau Claire. Now in New York, he’s producing, writing, and playing music and for himself and countless others. He’s been nominated for a couple of Grammys for live albums on which he’s played trumpet. And the schools he works with – such as the Manhattan School of Music – and all of the businesses and musicians who hire him are often a simple train ride away.

“In a city of millions there’s a lot more ‘work’ work,” Neesley said in a recent phone interview from New York. “Everybody likes to pretend they’re doing the creative stuff all the time, but you gotta make the doughnuts sometimes. And here, there’s just a ton of nuts-and-bolts work. There’s a lot of people here with a dollar and a dream. So life is good. I’m staying busy. Living the dream … or grinding away – take your pick,” he said, laughing.

With those types of opportunities sometimes unavailable in the Chippewa Valley, Neesley’s new home makes his time in Wisconsin nothing but a pit stop on this way to success … except that it’s not.

“I might be a New Yorker now, but I left my heart in Wisco for sure,” he says. “I still consider myself a Wisconsinite. If I didn’t have to be in New York to make a living, I’d be having a Berghoff at the Joynt and talking shit with Manas right now. I will come back eventually … when I’m financially able to do whatever the hell I want.”

And he recognizes that his special Eau Claire experience is what enabled him to do what he does now.

“The day-in and day-out of playing in Eau Claire … not a lot of other music scenes can afford a growing musician that kind of playing time,” he said. “You just don’t go to a big city and get that. It’s only the last five, six years that I’ve gotten the kind of playing time that I had in my time in Eau Claire. That’s where I figured out how to be a professional.”

For Phil Cook, proximity, too, played a role in his successful move to North Carolina, where most of the East Coast can be reached by car within a day. “The access is undeniably more appealing,” he said by phone from Raleigh, N.C. “When we lived in the Midwest … Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Madison were our four options. Beyond that it was like, ‘Where ya’ gonna go?’ You’d have to really haul somewhere.”

With Megafaun, Cook toured the country and Europe several times over, promoting several albums. He became a go-to instrumentalist in the Raleigh music scene and beyond. The diversity of the music projects available is what drew him to North Carolina in the first place. With a wide range of gospel, Appalachian, blues, and R&B, combined with a mix of cultures and traditions, North Carolina proved a natural fit for Cook’s musical instincts. He’s there to stay.

Still, he considers Wisconsin home – and he’s fully aware of the impact of his formative years here. “You know, it’s immeasurable … it’s immeasurable,” he says. “I would never in a million years and for a million dollars trade the upbringing that I had and where I grew up.”

The long isolating winters – often viewed as negatives – have a way of forging creative fires, Cook says.

“It kind of forces you to figure out what your hobbies are,” he says. “People have hobbies in Wisconsin like nobody’s business. It’s like Hobby Zone, man! It’s a hobby land!” he laughs. “The climate forces you to find something that gives joy, and people really cling to that. And it becomes a big part of your identity. And me, and Justin, and the Mount Vernon crew, we found that common love of jazz when we were 15 and explored that all together. And it’s pretty remarkable that they’re still my group of best friends now, 20 years later.”

And Cook couldn’t say enough about the support he received from the people of the Chippewa Valley, from musical mentors to supportive audiences starting when he was a teenager. With fewer entertainment options, people appreciate the music more, he says, and support those who are creating it.

Now, with a new band, The Guitarheels, his debut solo album ready for release, and a spot on the line-up of Eaux Claires Music and Arts Festival, organized in part by his former bandmate, Cook has a chance to move forward while still embracing his roots.

“I kinda look at it like this, man: Mount Vernon was summer camp, DeYarmond Edison was high school, Megafaun was college or graduate school, and what I’m doing with The Guitarheels is my first real job,” he says. “It took a long time. It took almost 35 years to get this point.”

And he’s bringing it back here, where it all began. Or, as Cook puts it: “That is some looong arcing full circle shit …” he says, with that Wisconsin laughter, echoing all the way from the coast.

3 Other Uprooted Musicians

these folks (& more) grew their musical roots here

Anna Johnson

This Chippewa Falls songwriter moved to Nashville in 2009 following winning a full-ride scholarship to St. Paul's McNally Smith College of Music. Since then she has released four albums featuring her own style of Americana-meets-pop.

Geoffery Keezer

This Eau Claire pianist and composer calls California his home now, but since then Geoff has been nominated twice for Grammy Awards: Best Latin Jazz Album (for Aurea) in 2009 and for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying a Vocalist (for singer Denise Donatelli's "Don't Explain" in 2010.)

Glenn Worf

Born in Madison and majoring in music at UW-Eau Claire, Worf later moved to Nashville and became one of Music City's top session bassists, recording and/or touring with the likes of Shania Twain, Keith Urban, Mark Knopfler, Billy Ray Cyrus, Toby Keith, Martina McBride, Reba McEntire, and many more.

Reid Anderson

Reid Anderson was a bassist and composer originally from Minnesota who came to UW-Eau Claire to hone his skills before co-founding the critically acclaimed genre-smashing jazz trio The Bad Plus back on the other side of the Mississippi in 2000.


4 It's Only 90 Miles

many Twin Cities musicians have Eau Claire roots, but the road goes both ways

by Thom Fountain

FYI there are actually a whole lot of prominent Twin Cities musicians have strong ties to Eau Claire

Since that move, Christopherson has done pretty well for himself. He and Mel Gibson member Ryan Olson1 have gone on to become stalwarts of the Minneapolis music scene as members of Polica2 and working with a number of the city’s well-known hip-hop artists. Other Chippewa Vallians have found similar success like Solid Gold3, Peter Miller4, Savannah Smit5, Feng Meng Vue6, Vacation Dad7, and far more than my editors have space for me to list.

The relationship between our two – OK, three (I gotchu, St. Paul) – cities obviously starts with the big lights syndrome that strikes almost any teenager or 20-something living somewhere without a skyline. That’s what brought Kyle Frenette to the Twin Cities for college, and then brought him back in 2013. Frenette, the late 20s music industry pro who owns Middle West Management and has managed Bon Iver through its meteoric rise, said the allure of Minneapolis is its size – big, but not too big.

“For a kid from Chippewa Falls, Minneapolis is the big city, but traveling as I have in the last few years I realized it’s a pretty small city and feels different from other major metro areas,” Frenette said. “It feels like a small community, but there are skyscrapers. And that’s how the music scene here feels. Everyone knows each other and everyone’s supportive of each other.”

But like any self-conscious younger sibling, what we really want to know is what Minneapolis thinks of us.

“I think mostly people are surprised there’s so many (Eau Clairians),” Christopherson said. “When I tell people I’m from Eau Claire they’re like, ‘Wow, you too?’ ”

The stretch of I-94 is of course a two-way street, which is great news for Eau Claire. Frenette talked excitedly about the bridge that’s built between the communities. For example, Eau Clairian Ryan Olson met Minneapolis rapper Lizzo after moving to the city and brought her back to record at April Base – Justin Vernon’s studio in Fall Creek – where she ended up collaborating with Vernon on that record.

“It’s all connected now,” Frenette said. “And it’s no one person’s doing. That’s just the natural Midwestern invitation to collaborate.”

Moving forward, Christopherson hopes more Chippewa Valley artists will make the jump and join in on those collaborations, from wherever they might end up.

“Eau Claire has always been a really strong arts community, but I don’t think people should be afraid to leave it,” Christopherson said. “I guess what I’m saying is keep them coming. The more Eau Claire musicians that spread across the country, the better for Eau Claire. And for the country.”

5 Success Across the Mississippi

Here’s just a few of the Chippewa Vallians making waves in Minneapolis.

Ryan Olson

Bands: Polica, GAYNGS, Digitata, Mel Gibson and the Pants.

MPLS Cred: “Olson has been the creative force behind some of the Twin Cities’ most striking and influential bands.” –The Current

Poli├ža

Eau Claire members: Drew Christopherson, Ryan Olson.

MPLS Cred: “Minnesota’s definitive synth-pop band.” –City Pages

Solid Gold

Eau Claire members: Adam Hurlburt, Zack Coulter.

MPLS Cred: “Best Rock Band of 2011” –City Pages

Peter Miller

Bands: We Are The Willows, Red Fox Grey Fox.

MPLS Cred: “Best Male Vocalist of 2010” –City Pages

Savannah Smith

MPLS Cred: “The seriousness shown when performing nicely balances her jazz-informed cooing and displays a talent for lyrical density that raises her simple melodies.” –AV Club Minneapolis

Feng Meng Vue

Bands: Sloslylove, Vandaam, Dogi.

MPLS Cred: “Slosylove is a prolific and powerful addition to the Twin Cities producer scene.” –City Pages

Vacation Dad

Member: Andy Todryk.

MPLS Cred: “Vacation Dad is prolific and proves just how fun and energetic his music is in a live setting.” –City Pages


6 Hearing Our History

from The Joynt to Fournier’s, our ears are still ringing at the thought of these classic local venues

by Barbara Arnold

Eau Claire's Fournier's Ballroom, December 1971, just prior to its demolition. Courtesy of the Chippewa Valley Museum.

Yes, to understand the roots of live music in the Chippewa Valley during the 20th century, you need to talk to people, because no one has written the book about them … yet. And the “book” would likely have several volumes, probably one for each decade. A post to Facebook’s “You Know You Are From Eau Claire When” group on the topic drew nearly 100 responses, with as many opinions as individuals answering the question about their favorite memory of local, historic live music venues.

And, to understand what happened at the start of the second half of that century – the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s – you need to listen to your “elders,” who age-wise are in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Among them is Eau Claire native Jim Hoehn – a guy who as a sports reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, picked up a guitar, wrote a few songs, and gathered a following of Parrot Heads – dashed off a quick note from the press box at a recent Milwaukee Brewers game: “A couple of places come to mind for live music: Pine Point on Tainter Lake near Menomonie, and in Eau Claire, the London Inn and The Barr before it became Fanny Hill.”

The Barr

Larry Barr opened The Barr in 1969 specifically for college students. Anyone under the age of 21 could legally drink because it was located on Crescent Avenue, in the Town of Washington, outside of the Eau Claire city limits. On weekend nights, buses drove back and forth from UW-Eau Claire’s Towers Dorms to The Barr. Over the years, local bands and national acts like REO Speedwagon, Bob Seger, Chubby Checker, Gary Puckett, New Colony Six, and Muddy Waters played there. When the drinking laws changed, the place became the recently defunct Fanny Hill – known for dining and dinner theater – and the future grounds of the Country Jam and Eaux Claires music festivals blossomed nearby.

The Joynt

A few years later in 1971, The Joynt – which has been immortalized by (among other people) best-selling author Mike Perry – opened at 322 Water St. From that time until 1994, it hosted approximately 100 national acts, most of whom now look down at patrons from posters on the club’s walls. They included such notables as classically trained jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd; musician and songwriter Corky Siegel; famed folk singer and civil rights activist Odetta; blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist John Lee Hooker; and jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal.

The Stone’s Throw

In downtown Eau Claire at the corner of South Barstow and Eau Claire streets, the Stone’s Throw was once a hotbed of blues, jazz, and other live music. Located in the famous Barnes Block, it was opened in 1980 by Frank Stone as a fine dining establishment. When it could not make a go, Stone shifted gears and brought in live music with the help of bluesman James Solberg, a local native. Solberg himself eventually owned the place between 1987 and 1993 (legend has it he won it in a card game!) and through the 2000s the Stone’s Throw was a popular spot for local musicians and touring acts booking gigs between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

Fournier’s Ballroom

No discussion of historic live music venues would be complete without Fournier’s Ballroom, which grew from a small dancing academy in the 1900s to a rock ’n’ roll dance hall in the 1950s and ’60s. Located at First Avenue and Ann Street, it closed in 1971 and was torn down to make way for the parking lot of the Eau Claire County Court House. Local acts, such as Paul Marcus and the Pied Pipers, The Thundermen (billed as the Midwest’s original rock ’n’ roll band), or country-western and polka groups, played there on Fridays, while out-of-town groups played on Saturday nights. Fournier’s is best known as the place Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens played a week before their fatal 1959 plane crash – “The Day the Music Died.”

ESSAY

7 Old Songs in our Hearts

musical threads are woven deep into the valley’s history

by Frank Smoot

When he was but a lad, my friend Noah Taylor asked the adults assembled, Wouldn’t your life be better if you had your own personal soundtrack? Why yes, Noah, yes it would.

Fortunately for Eau Claire, its people have always had songs in their hearts, and I’m not talking about the downtown background music that emanates from a windowless bunker underneath what’s laughingly called the Opera House building (Barstow, Main, and Graham).

Speaking of the Opera House, the real one (torn down in 1939 if memory serves) was a building so grand, it and its offerings drew people from Minneapolis and St. Paul. Each roof truss ran 72 feet, giving everyone in the room an unobstructed view. In the 1880s, every one of its 350,000 bricks spoke of Eau Claire as a city that was serious about music. Its heyday represented one peak – there have been many – in Eau Claire’s musical and cultural life.

John Barrymore (of those Barrymores) trod the boards there, and Broadway and film star Rose Koenig sang there as a youth. She’s one of Eau Claire’s many musical daughters and sons.

The Opera House came from a local tradition that had raised a Music Hall before it (sadly destroyed by one of Eau Claire’s many fires). I believe it was there, after a concert in 1870, that violinist Ole Bull, one of the greatest violinists in world history, rekindled a spark lighted earlier in Madison with a young Eau Clairian named Sara Thorp (the “Thorp Drive” family). Much later, she would help introduce America to Swami Vivekananda and help popularize Indian religious thought in America, but that’s another story.

Forward towards our time, Grammy nominee, blues guitarist, and former Stones Throw owner James Solberg, raised in Eau Claire, collaborated for decades with Luther Allison, often played alongside John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed. Geoff Keezer has a dozen albums, recorded with Diana Krall and Chick Corea, played the Hollywood Bowl. Peter Phippen has a Grammy nomination for Native American flute. Back in my day, Airkraft and Another Carnival each came to within an inch of the big time, and Randy Sabien started his now-long career. These days, I understand from friends that Justin Vernon makes something of a living at the craft.

Then there’s the local lore: As every local knows, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper played one of their last concerts here. As quite a few locals know, Bob Seger wrote “Turn the Page” in an Eau Claire hotel room. (I’ve heard he was playing The Barr out on Crescent Avenue, the place that turned into the now-dearly-departed Fanny Hill.) Insane Clown Posse got arrested outside Houligan’s. Tanya Tucker gave a local waitress a $100 tip. Someone I knew saw Poison at Kwik Trip.

I personally believe the fact that Eau Clairians have succeeded (relatively quietly) in so many musical genres has something to do with the fact that we have always been (relatively and quietly) tolerant of diversity.

Here, we had German singing societies, and Norwegian choirs, and Irish camp fiddlers, and opera. And people supported them by attending, and their kids ran through the crowds like water, just like they do at Phoenix Park today.”

Diversity? some of you laugh, I know. There was a time, however, once upon a time, that ethnic diversity meant something in America, a time when people paid real attention to whether you were Irish or Swedish or German, and not just when they were eating dessert at the Christmas table.

Here, we had German singing societies, and Norwegian choirs, and Irish camp fiddlers, and opera. And people supported them by attending, and their kids ran through the crowds like water, just like they do at Phoenix Park today. In a one-Lutheran-church town like Porter’s Mills, three miles south of Eau Claire, you either heard a sermon and some hymns in Norwegian, even if you didn’t speak Norwegian, or you didn’t hear any sermon and hymns at all. We were surrounded by different voices, some raised in song, and we just kinda grew up that way.

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