By Jessica Steinhoff
This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of experience WISCONSIN.
Milwaukee venues like the Pabst Theatre, Turner Hall Ballroom and The Riverside host big-name bands at wallet-friendly prices, but smaller venues are the best places to find many local acts. Here are five that feature great artists, fun atmospheres and some of the friendliest crowds you’ll ever meet.
Located just south of downtown, in trendy Bay View, this bar brings an appealing mix of local and national talent to its stage. Recent lineups have included Field Report, a Milwaukee-based folk project with ties to Bon Iver; Metz, a killer noise-rock band from Toronto; and Maritime, a local group featuring members of the Promise Ring and the Dismemberment Plan. The vibe is a bit like that of Chicago’s Empty Bottle, but more intriguing: guys dressed like lumberjacks in a space dotted with desert-inspired decor. hang out near the concrete bar for insider tips on local bands to check out.
Frank’s Power Plant
This Bay View hangout teems with conversation starters, from wall-mounted motorcycles to a jukebox stocked with BB King tunes. Shows here are often five bucks, and a generous pint of craft beer is about the same. Even better deals can be found on PBR. Buy a round for the band that’s playing, and you’ll be friends for life.
Riverwest Public House
An enduring home for artists and other creative types, Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood is filled with appealing options for visitors who love people watching. In addition to bringing in bands like Jaill, a local psych-pop band signed to sub Pop records, Riverwest Public House is a haven for anarchists, hippies and others seeking a better world through activism. A co-op, the bar is owned by its members, so it’s a reliable source of local culture and gossip. Head across the street to Cocoon Room for more great concerts in a co-op setting.
Linneman’s Riverwest Inn
With an open mic each Wednesday, this institution is known for nurturing neighborhood talent. It feels like a cross between a beer hall in Germany and the hideout in Chicago, and there’s music nearly every night of the week.
The Miramar Theatre
This venue near the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee offers one of the most diverse lineups in the entire city, catering to fans of bluegrass, pop and hip-hop. It’s become a magnet for electronic music fans in recent years, hosting shows by folks like bass sensation Kennedy Jones and the dance music purveyors Gladiator.
While you can see acts from around the country at many of these hangouts, there are some local groups definitely worth checking out as well. Here are eight that you must see when you visit.
- Heidi Spencer and The Rare Birds
This group’s namesake possesses a voice that’s positively haunting. It travels to places that are undeniably dark, exploring their corners to find beauty and meaning — and a spot on the roster of Bella Union, the record label that Beach Houses and Laura Veirs call home. this journey unfolds with help from layers of guitar, piano and strings. Music history enthusiasts will hear hints of the British folk tradition, but there’s a strong strain of Americana as well.
This synth-pop act is sure to make fast fans out of tame Impala enthusiasts. their grooves are eminently danceable, integrating spacey reverb and bongo drumming with ease. just try to stop singing “Getting Older,” the opening track on their 2014 album, “Maximize Your Faith.” the best cure is to hear it in its natural setting: a Milwaukee club.
Forget hushed ukulele solos: here’s an indie band that really rocks. Featuring members of other great Milwaukee acts like Space Raft and Call Me Lightning, this talented bunch goes straight for the jugular on 2014’s Turn It On. Vocalist Ashley Smith can channel the yeah yeah yeahs’ Karen O, but she’s got a swagger all her own, amplified by rip-roaring guitars and bone-rattling drums. saucy, sexy and thoroughly badass, “Xoxxx” must be witnessed live.
- The Sugar Stems
Jangly 1960s garage rock and dynamic 1970s power pop fuel this band’s imagination. Whether they’re spazzing out in “next to you” or getting introspective on “Million Miles,” they’ll melt your heart while teasing out your craziest dance moves.
- Hugh Bob & The Hustle
Even if you’re not a country music fan, don’t be surprised if this band catches your fancy. their self-titled debut album pays tribute to the motley characters who hang around many Midwestern dive bars. hold onto your hat if they play “Milwaukee Man,” a wild ride of a song about a scrappy country band living in the city.
- Vic & Gab
This sister duo landed a track on MTV’s “Skins” a few years ago. Ever since, their dreamy indie pop has been cropping up in all sorts of interesting places, from political rallies to the vans Warped tour. their live shows are a fine pick for a first date or a gathering with longtime friends.
- The Cavewives
The Cavewives make classic rock new again, in ways Robert Plant would certainly dig. Frontman Michael Marten doesn’t just sing; he crows and croons so passionately that he might burst into flame at any moment. In addition to picking up where led Zeppelin left off, the group explores Beatlesesque melodies on “Waking to a Dream” and “She’s Gone.”
Kellen Abston, aka Klassik, makes smooth, delicious cocktails out of hip-hop and old school jazz. a Pharrell Williams vibe can be detected in some of Klassik’s material, but he goes places Pharrell seldom visits: speakeasies and the love boat, for starters.
This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of experience WISCONSIN. Some of the written details may have changed since the article was published.
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