1 Celebrating Summer

when the weather warms up in the Chippewa Valley, outdoor music series proliferate with thousands of fans

by Lindsey Quinnies / photos by Andrea Paulseth

The Sounds Like Summer Concert Series in downtown Eau Claire's Phoneix Park sees weekly crowds of 2,000 music fans enjoying all-local acts.

Click here for the full flyover video of the Sounds Like Summer Concert Series — courtesy of Market and Johnson.

When summer finally arrives, we look forward to one of the most significant aspects of summer living – outdoor music. Over the past few years, the abundance, attitude, and accessibility of small-scale outdoor concerts in the Chippewa Valley has become a sincerely extraordinary, distinctive experience.

There are currently 15 weekly outdoor concert series on six different nights of the week throughout the Chippewa Valley (not including regular venues that offer outdoor performances sporadically, larger outdoor festivals, and indoor concert series). Depending on the day of the week, there could be more than 3,000 people attending an outdoor concert series per night and up to 10,000 attending per week from June to September – all within about a 40-mile radius of one another. Since we’re no big city here, such numbers are notable. For a listing of them all, visit VolumeOne.org/MusicCapital.

The ability to attend an outdoor music performance on a near-daily basis has become fundamental to life in the Chippewa Valley … and we’re lucky to have that. Many communities have embraced outdoor music culture and offer it in some way, but it’s different here. It’s not only that concerts exist in abundance, but also the quality and aptitude of the artists performing and the way these events are put together. For these we’re not talking big-time festivals, but local venues featuring local musicians organized by local people.

Artists are beyond eager to participate and perform original content more often than not. The coordinators are passionate about offering something beneficial to their community and showcasing the talent of the people within. It’s like we have the magic formula for creating outdoor musical awesomeness.

If you look back ten years ago, this wasn’t the case just yet. Most of the series we have now have developed in the last ten years by dedicated individuals that saw the potential available and/or recognized the growing demand brought on by the success of other series in the area.

Many of the concert series organizers shared a common idea that the success of one series seems to inspire the next, which is probably a contributing factor as to why we’ve seen the number of series grow in a snowball effect over the past several years. The success of larger ventures led to more demand for that type of entertainment close to home. Each concert series definitely brings its own panache, but together they create a synergy that shows off the richness of musical styles represented in this area and the talent possessed within each. From blues to indie, jazz to folk, big bands to rock – everything’s in the mix.

Just to touch on a few, Mondays you’ll find “ParkBeats” at Central Park in Osseo, presented by The Heartbeat Center for Writing, Literacy and the Arts. Tuesdays offers “Tuesday Night Blues” at the Owen Park bandshell in Eau Claire, which greets crowds of 500+ nightly and has been put on by the Chippewa Valley Blues Society for the past seven years. The Volume One “Sounds Like Summer Concert Series” on Thursdays in Phoenix Park is now in its 10th anniversary season and has grown to a crowd size of roughly 2,000 each night and formed into its own weekly festival. “Music in the Park” takes place in Altoona, Durand, Chippewa Falls, and Colfax at various venues. “Music Over Menomin” is hosted in Menomonie by the public library and greets crowds of up to up to 400+ nightly. “Wine Down Saturdays” at Autumn Harvest Winery, “Summer Concert Sunday” at Riverbend Winery, and “Hoots and Happening” at Bullfrog Fish Farm offer music alongside their refreshment selection throughout the week. I could go on…

A contributing factor to all of this, besides the multifaceted music culture, is the setting. The picturesque landscape experienced here exists year-round, but only offers allowing weather on short-term basis. This exclusivity emphasizes our need and adoration for this kind of entertainment when it is obtainable and, I think, contributes to the amount of outdoor music we find readily available in the Music Capital of the North.

2 Eau Claire’s Buddy System

ultra-friendly musical culture spawns collaboration

by Zack Katz / photo by Eric Christenson

Sayth raps over North House’s beats at the House of Rock

That’s just how Sayth (Eric Wells), one of many local show hounds, has it in Eau Claire’s all for one, one for all music scene. Around here, there’s always a collaborative opportunity, a bill to fill, a helping hand extended to pick up instruments at your lead.

And that’s the way it’s always been. The name of the game is collaboration and support.

“If I could go to a show for free every night I would … I guess I do most of the time,” Wells said laughing. “There will always be the idea that if it’s local it probably won’t be good – that’s completely wrong.”

Look at Paul Brandt. The multi-instrumentalist and jack-of-all-trades is a member of probably a dozen local bands like Meridene, The Frenettes, The Jim Pullman Band, The Rattlenecks, The Gentle Guest, etc. Similarly, Dave Power can be found behind a drumkit with Aero Flynn, Meridene (with Paul), Adelyn Rose, PUNCHER, Terminator Jeans and more.

The point is: Just because you’re in one band, it doesn’t exclude you another. And the same can be said for many other musicians in the Valley who aren’t tied to just one project.

You could maybe chalk it up to the abstract “Midwest-nice” idea, but the culture of Eau Claire’s scene is ultra-friendly – and ultra-active. Most of the musicians in town are friends with many of the other musicians in town, and everybody’s trying to throw shows all the time, be it house show or bar gig.

The first law of Eau Claire shows: If you want people at your own, you’ll have to make your way to theirs first. And that’s no new principle. Crowds at the Mousetrap or the House of Rock are routinely peppered with lead singers, guitarists, drummers: Musicians who might catch a little inspo from their peers on stage.

Chances are, even some of the city’s newest faces have overheard a pseudo-historian cool guy name dropping spots like Nate’s Dungeon between cigarette drags outside of The Joynt. The “dungeon,” a uniformly glorified punk basement venue that reached its peak in the mid-2000s, is one prime example of what sort of creative effort Eau Claire has always been so graciously galvanized to produce. All it takes is one good idea to create something cool like the Dungeon, when there’s so many kids in the scene that are actively ready to support it along with their friends. Nobody in Eau Claire is afraid to get their hands dirty if it means a cool show can happen.

These sort of places come in waves; there always seems to be a surprise when one venue dries up with its lease contract, but never a surprise when the next gathering of musically-inclined housemates make their splash.

And, along with the collaborative nature comes this friendly oomph that makes for a terrifically comfy “solo artist culture,” as Wells describes it. Lots of folks are doing their own thing, waiting to collaborate on remixes or partnering up for a track or two. But nobody is trying to just do their own thing in a void.

In our scene here, it’s all about doing it together.

“I struggle with the saturation … throwing too many shows,” he said. “But when your friends are constantly doing cool stuff, it’s easy to do.”

3 Supporting Acts

from vinyl shops to screen printers, businesses and individuals ARE crucial to musical success

by Laura Lash / photos by Mariah Hamm

Revival Records (above) and Ambient Inks (below) are two of Eau Claire’s prominent music businesses.

Revival Records

Passionate music aficionados have embraced vinyl – collecting classic records as well as purchasing new releases on vinyl – insisting that certain things simply sound best on vinyl. Revival Records is a wonderful environment for sampling music, getting exposed to local acts and picking up new releases (head in for “New Release Tuesday”). Their inviting space asks you to browse and flip through the titles, to stay for awhile taking in the visuals of the packaging around you as familiar music flows from their speakers. Take a seat by the record player, don the headphones and listen to the album you want to take home. Gig posters on the wall let you know of upcoming local shows and announce in-store performances of acts passing through. Revival also participates in Record Store Day (this year it was April 18), an annual international event in which droves of dedicated fans flock to their local record stores to show some love and pick up special Record Store Day releases.

Ambient Inks

Ambient Inks + Knorth Studios work together to create promotional materials for local and national acts. “Honestly, the rich music scene has been extremely instrumental in our continued growth, and a big reason why we’ve decided to call this town home base,” says Aaron Brice of Ambient. Founded six years ago by Aaron Brice, Ashley Raymond, and Tim Brunner after they graduated from UW-Stout, the business has now grown into their dream location on Water Street. Ambient Inks provides merchandise production, design, and online fulfillment while keeping a homegrown and personalized feel, working with all bands, regardless of their size. They will be producing all of the Eaux Claires Festival merchandise, including creating a gig poster gallery onsite that will provide, among other things, an Eaux Claires/band inspired gig poster that’s exclusive and specific to a few bands they have hand chosen. Knorth provides various creative services for bands, such as branding, interactive design, animation, web development, photography, and videos.

“Honestly, the rich music scene has been extremely instrumental in our continued growth, and a big reason why we've decided to call this town home base.”

Aaron Brice owner, Ambient Inks

Bands they have worked with include Sylvan Esso, We Are The Willows, Hippo Campus, Lizzo, S. Carey, and many more. Knorth is running point on branding the festival, alongside Aaron Draplin and Michael Brown. Soon the Water Street location will include a retail space where artists can sell their hand-crafted merch. Brice concludes: “All in all, we’re trying to establish an environment that gives our clients the opportunity to collaborate, create, and grow.”

Even More Local Support

Nick Carroll, who books bands for House of Rock, has been part of the local scene for more than 15 years. He spent many of those years running the label Crimes Against Humanity Records, working with a few dozen bands and releasing around 70 CDs/records. With his business Superior Screen Printing he’s now focused on producing merchandise for bands across the globe including Raw Power (Italy), Deathwish (Wisconsin), Wartorn, Vitamin X (Holland), Contagium (Canada), and many more.

Driving around town, listening to the radio, you may have scanned by 96.3 WHYS. This nonprofit community radio station has international and local sounds flowing to your ears. Shows such as Hmong Hour, Saturday Night Dusties and Soul Hour, and Jambalaya Shack are spread across their diverse schedule. Backing away from mainstream and ascertaining that we need diverse and under-recognized music reaching us, WHYS is doing a great service for our local musicians and music lovers.

Following the example set by the likes of Amanda Palmer and Juliana Hatfield, bands are using online fundraising to raise money for production, release, and touring for new album. Often the funding comes in from local fans, friends, and family once the goal is launched and the dollar amount pinpointed. Kickstarter has been a go-to for our Eau Claire bands. In 2014, the Dust of Men were able to fund a tour from Iowa to California by raising money through Kickstarter. The Arco Sessions, “a series of in-studio films featuring musicians performing new orchestrations of their songs in Eau Claire,” was fully funded in 2013. Earlier this year, Evergreen Grass Band reached its fundraising goals for releasing a second album.

As always, The Local Store is here to sell a library of local artists’ music on record and CD. Local acts perform well-attended and intimate shows within the gallery. Often music is bought because of the sound coming over the speakers in the store and warmly reverberating off the brick walls. Every song sounds like the soundtrack to our life here in the Valley.

Moving forward, we can continue to build on the optimism of Aaron from Ambient: “There’s so much untapped creative potential with this city, and I think this type of momentum has to be exponential in force. This goes for bands and all creatively-minded individuals.”

4 Setting the Stages

different venues cover Eau Claire’s musical moments

by Eric Christenson / photo by Lee Butterworth

Aero Flynn plays some new songs for a packed crowd at the House of Rock in Eau Claire.

The ground from which our music scene grows can be sticky with spilled drinks, or carpeted underfoot. The walls can be adorned with ornate columns and patterns just as often as rock n roll paraphernalia. Our venues are more than a setting and a sound system; they’re the liaison between music and moment. Between sound and emotion. Whenever you see a mind-blowing show, you can always remember where the band was playing…

After crunching the numbers, we discovered that there are 68 venues in the Chippewa Valley that are constantly programming original live music. We’ve got so much music being made here, we need these special places to exist – each with their own niche.

The House of Rock on Water Street routinely hosts rock, hardcore, and indie shows in a truly vintage space (my mother used to go there when she was a student in the 70s, back when it was the Oar House) and a legit rock club vibe. While the bartenders are whipping up their notable Bloody Marys, the House of Rock’s stage is shared by a true cross section of local music, from bluegrass to death metal.

The Mousetrap in downtown Eau Claire is a modest stage in a long room next to the bar and they’ve been hosting shows there forever – and they’re always free. It’s a cool room decorated with acoustic guitars and Leinenkugel’s collectables hanging over the stage. The townie vibe is essential to your good time.

Just down the street, The Plus has risen as a hotbed for great live music, utilizing its giant back room for stuff like battle of bands competitions, charity events, comedy shows, and versatile stage set-up for different types of music weekly. The Plus’ Tuesday night open mic was voted the Best Open Mic in the Valley according to our 2014 Best Of reader poll, and it’s a great weekly training ground for area musicians to show off their stuff in front of a crowd.

The Acoustic Café in Eau Claire offers a deep pool of different kinds of live music on a regular basis, everything from jazz nights to string bands, ethnic and world music to acoustic songwriters, and more. It’s a big, echo-y room, but fill it with music and it warms up instantly.

Nearby, the State Theatre is constantly having huge touring performers swing through. Everything from enormous country stars like Clint Black to nostalgia trips like Rusted Root to tribute acts to standup comics. The State is able to secure some pretty cool touring groups to come through its 1,100-seat space every month, while hosting local theater, art, and more in between.

When you’re watching and hearing live music, the setting matters. Our theatres, cafes, bars, houses, basements, and parks are all facilitators of the musical experience and the sound of our city. If there’s room to sit, sit. If you have to stand, stand. If you want to dance or sing along, go ahead and do both.

5 Underground Sound

D.I.Y. house shows play a significant underground role in the development of new artists – and they're all ages!

by Eric Christenson / photo by Jesse Johnson

Adelyn Rose crammed into the basement of Glassworks Playhouse for a show before the venue shut its doors last year.

By turning houses, basements, and living rooms into show spaces, hosts provide a stellar (and all-ages!) training ground for new artists to play for friends of friends. Despite light tendencies toward underage drinking, noise complaints, and some inherent shoddiness, these are places where young musicians can be nurtured into prevalence in a loving community of performers and show-goers under the warm glow of out-of-season Christmas lights.

Nate’s Dungeon was one of Eau Claire’s legendary basement venues, operated by Nate Sorenson for an entire decade (and then some) of sweaty hardcore and punk shows. Putting out the word with Xeroxed flyers and sly word of mouth, Nate’s Dungeon had over 100 shows in Sorenson’s mother’s Eastside Hill basement throughout the Aughts until running out of steam just a few years ago.

Last spring, Softly House (a house venue operated members of the band Softly, Dear) closed its doors after the dudes graduated, picked up, and moved. Similarly, the Glassworks Playhouse (an all-ages spot run by the guys in Glassworks Improv) – which regularly had comedy and music acts – shut down as the renters moved out.

After that, it looked like Eau Claire’s indie scene would be without a single house venue. But soon after those closures, a few new ones – Lake House, House of Broken Mirrors, and Hudson House – came into existence simply because the scene needed them to. And the Softly, Dear dudes have since ramped up their own house venue in Minneapolis called Green Greens, where a bunch of Eau Claire artists have already been able to play, making it a sort of subtle extension of Eau Claire’s DIY network.

What’s amazing is that as soon as a house venue in town calls it a day, it only takes a matter of months before somebody else takes the reins and hosts someplace different. They just keep popping up; it’s the pure nature of rental housing, combined with our resilient DIY scene. Usually about every year or two, there are one or two new basements throwing shows and one or two closing their doors for good.

Chalk it up to members of the music scene realizing that they need venues like these to get an entirely new subset of people engaged, involved, and creating. What makes Eau Claire’s house show scene unique and cool isn’t each venue individually, but rather the resilience of the house show idea. No one would consistently go through all the work of booking, promoting, cleaning, managing sound, talking to neighbors, and organizing everything if it wasn’t worth it, right? Nobody risks inviting people (and strangers) into their homes – even temporarily – to throw serious basement shows unless it’s completely essential to the well-being of our little arts community.

No, house shows will never completely replace “legitimate” venues, but for their purposes, they’re 100 percent necessary. These are comfortable, safe, all-ages spaces that allow for community, expression, the freedom to be completely experimental and to have fun, and – most importantly – to make good art freely accessible to those who long for it.


6 Tilt Your Ear to the Valley

a non-musical regular joe finds his niche in the scene

B.J. Hollars

There comes a time in every teacher’s life when one’s commonalities with one’s students becomes the wedge. When one learns that a line like, “You guys hear the new Phil Collins jam?” no longer holds the cultural cachet it once did.

When my day came, when I knew I risked losing those students forever, I did what any concerned teacher might do: donned my coolest pair of cargo shorts and loitered the local record store.

It was time to join the 21st century; which, coincidentally, looked a lot like the 20th century in regards to the renewed popularity of vinyl. I joined that wave of popularity, infiltrating our record store for months and doing my best to blend in. By which I mean I flipped through the bins with a furrowed brow, made frequent mention of some rare bootleg I was allegedly in search of.

But the truth was nobody was interested in why I was there, only that I was. Though I’d initially stepped foot inside to enhance my street cred, even in the moments when I didn’t (see: my Huey Lewis and the News collection), nobody much cared. The store’s owner certainly didn’t, nor did my fellow bin-flippers, all of whom just seemed happy to share their longtime love of music with a guy falling for it for the first time.

Soon I became a regular, and once I dropped my brow-furrowing act and began engaging in honest conversations, I learned that many of my fellow bin-flippers weren’t just consumers of music, but creators, too. They loved fitting the needle to the groove, but they also loved making the music that would one day create that groove.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by this development. Upon first arriving in the Chippewa Valley four years back, I was immediately informed that I now lived in a place with an “unexplainably vibrant music scene.” I didn’t buy it – at least not the “unexplainable” part. Surely, I thought, there had to be a reason. And by what measure, I wondered, were people making this claim? Grammys per capita? Music festivals per acre? The abundance of open mics?

Today, I wonder if proof of our music scene’s vibrancy might be gauged by a more unconventional indicator: the fact that a guy like me could be welcomed into a record store, fall in love with the scene, and then, for reasons beyond his understanding, be asked to write an essay such as this.

I was anxious to do so, anxious to give back to the musicians who have given me so much. Previously, my primary contribution to the music scene was two ears and a willingness to listen. Though today I can offer something more – an explanation for our so-called “unexplainably” vibrant scene.

Last spring, while waiting in line to hear local superstar S. Carey perform, I struck up a conversation with the guy next to me. I’d heard he’d played on a Sufjan Stevens album, and as a fan, I was anxious to hear more. We chatted for a bit while we wove through the line, though as we approached the ticket taker, he excused himself.

“Nice meeting you,” he called before vanishing.

“Nice…” but he was already gone.

Half an hour later when S. Carey took the stage, so too did my buddy from the line. He was a member of the band, though as humble as he was, he hadn’t thought to mention it to me.

In a single encounter, he solved the mystery: Our scene’s vibrancy is a result of our musicians’ humility.

Perhaps our musicians know this lesson best, foregoing the usual self-aggrandizing trappings of the rock star life and focusing instead on using their gifts to give us one.

It’s easy to stay humble here in the Chippewa Valley. The landscape makes sure of it. From the hundred-year-old pines to the thousand-year-old rivers, every natural wonder reminds us that our time here is brief. So brief, in fact, that we know better than to waste a moment doing anything other than our art. Perhaps our musicians know this lesson best, foregoing the usual self-aggrandizing trappings of the rock star life and focusing instead on using their gifts to give us one.

Those of us who receive it have an obligation to give something, too. Not only two ears and a listen, but an interest in spreading the good word about great music when our musicians are too humble to do so.

Though I can’t play an instrument, I can sure toot a horn. And I promise you that the buzz is real, our musicians are real; tilt your ear to the valley, take a listen.

Next: Our Roots »