My 24th year class reunion

24 years, stuck on our lives
Originally uploaded by V'ron
Yeah, as Betty Blexrud-Strigens quoted me, "It's like being at a class reunion where you actually like all of the people." Somebody else had called it "The Punk Prom." Whatever you wanted to call it, the Atomic Valentine show was less of a show and more of a big party where people we didn't even know were still alive (much less in town) came out of the woodwork to send off not just a record store, but probably a piece of our youth.

We got the sitter settled in, and made it to the Miramar just in time to catch Mark Waldoch's set (and were told we missed a quick set from the Squares, which I was sad about.) Lots of people had kids old enough to actually bring in, rather than leave with a sitter.

Our kids aren't old enough for the Mighty Deer Lick, who was up first. The Deer Lick are one of the few bands on the bill that are still playing together regularly. Dan Franke flew in from Texas to join the fray, and Dave Reinholt reminded us (while footage of them from the "old days" was run behind them) that they didn't really change in all these years. Still snotty, still tight, still Deerlick. That was pretty damn comforting.

Up next was the wonderful power punk pop of the Etiquette, who, while not exactly from the Milwaukee Music Class of '91, still fit in wonderfully with all of this. They seem to have picked up the Milwaukee trademark of a great pop hook with edge and reminded me a bit of a tougher Green Day -- edgier, but with that great sense of headbanging hookieness. They aren't that much younger than most of the bands that played, but they looked it -- and had an endearing sincerity that made me ask myself why I hadn't caught them before.

Milling about all night were denizens of the scene, many of whom also played in a bazaillion bands. The sound (at least from the audience) was pristine, the stage managed like clockwork by organizer Damien Strigens. I suspect part of that was also due to a level of cooperation from all the bands that comes from maturity. No prima donnas tonight, nobody hogging their time, everybody cooperating to make this show come together and work.

Cherry Cake, fronted by Steve Whalen and backed up by some of the best players in the city, was up next. They didn't even do "Mrs. Wilson," the song they had on the Badger A-Go-Go CD that Atomic Records put out, and I'm kind of glad: I thought that was their weakest song anyway. Instead, they cranked out a pile of songs that were great emo, long before the term was coined (and co-opted). Whalen hasn't lost his dramatic onstage delivery (did anybody think he would?) and bassist Keith Brammer still plays his instrument slung so way below his knees I wonder how he doesn't have back issues at our age. I really regret not capturing George Morales on my camera, but he hid in the shadows all night while putting smiles on everybody's faces, glad to see him out and playing.

Time to remember how stupidly and criminally overlooked by the industry the Lovelies were. I've said it before and I'll say it again: only unfortunate timing can explain why these made-for-4AD women didn't get signed and at least be nationally famous. They had the presence and vocal overtures of the Breeders/Hatfield/Muses/Belly crowd, but they were just darn better in many respects. Liv wrote great, catchy melancholy songs (she still does), she and Barb Endes harmonized flawlessly, and frankly, they both had better voices and stage manner than all those other Boston-based girl bands combined. And last night, they had a packed room of appreciative fans to confirm it.
Behind all these bands, in the meantime, was a light show unmistakably courtesy of PakaPaka, a great little group consisting of Jerry Fortier, Reuben Fortier and Dale Kaminski. PakaPaka has evolved over the years -- 4TA used to provide psychedelic light shows for Plasticland using analog projection units; they've moved to digital and they're using digital as a great tool rather than a crutch to add a great touch to rock (and other) shows.

"What just happened?" a friend who wasn't around in the Milwaukee scene in the late 80s/early 90s asked me when "Bob and Joe" finished their set. "Who was that?"

Oh, that was, for all intents and purposes, Die Kreuzen, I told him. They weren't on the published bill, but by the time they hit the first few chords of "Seasons of Wither" everybody knew what was going on. I was kind of expecting "Elizabeth" too, but you can't have everything. Instead, they ended their short surprise set with a great take on Cheap Trick's "He's a Whore" and as evidenced by my friend's reaction, everybody in the room knew something special had happened. I knew something special was happening some 20 years ago -- shameless name-dropping here, but Pam Rake and I had been out on the town when she dragged me into a studio to hear her friends mixing down a song. Although I wasn't quite in the mood for the usual tediousness of mixing down a song, I knew that night I'd heard something that was going to be special -- it turned out to be the mixdown of "Seasons of Wither." I'm sure lots of people in the room had similar flashback stories to tell each other. This one was mine. Thanks, Pam.

The other notorious unannounced band of the night, Couch Flambeau, turned in an equally short but powerful set, ("Helvetica" of course, plus a new song and some other tight tunes). And it was good to see Rockhaus Rusty banging it out on the drums. I just have to know where the heck Neil Socol found this themed bass (and when the hell else would be possibly been seen in public with it.)
Wow, I'd forgotten just how powerfully emotional yet still rockin Sometime Sweet Susan could be on their night and the Susans did not disappoint. It's like they never left. These guys were a great power trio and their songs were epic, anthemic, and stuck in people's craws. And they were the first band to actually be a little self-effacing about the whole scene, as singer/guitarist Jim Warchol rattled off a few prices he'd paid for a few collectible albums (yes, our generation still calls them albums). He was also the first guy on stage to reference the age issue, as he admitted after a particularly athletic run (in my favorite onstage quip of the night) "Uh, I think I pulled something."

OK, you either like noisy music or you don't. I have to admit, I'm not the biggest fan of noise bands, but if I'm going to do it (especially since I married a guy whose band started out as a noise band), I could be doing worse than Boy Dirt Car, who put the industry in industrial music. And they were sonically arresting and visually stunning. They established a drop-forge-like rhythm and kept it going from there, reminding their fans why they're some of the foremost purveyors of the genre, and giving the others a crash course in it. Unfortunately, this was also the set during which the --quelle horror-- beer ran out. Miramar proprietor Bill Stace, ran out and got hold of plenty more cases, which satisfied the needs of the people who stayed, but between the challenging sonic boom in the theatre, the lack of beer for only a couple of minutes, plus the fact that, well, lots of us are in our 40s, and had babysitters to pay and shuffle home, the crowd thinned.

And that's a darn shame, you people who left, because not only did you miss an compelling end to a Boy Dirt Car set, but you missed the reunion of Liquid Pink.
I've written this before, Peder Hedman is a gifted songwriter who turns a lyrical and music phrase well, delivers it convincingly and backs it up with a band (comprised of Kaminski and man-about-town Rob McCuen) that understand that power of a great garage tune. They opened with an audience favorite, "Freight Train Home" and of course piled into "Danelectro," (my personal favorite, besides "The Day You Went Insane" which they didn't do) and showed off Hedman's songwriting versitality on "Oh Louise."

In the back of the theatre, Atomic owner Rich Menning handed out grab bags filled with unclaimed consignments from the basement. I have to admit, I never heard of most of the bands contained in the bag I got, except for Jerry Grillo, with a CD of standards like "Georgia on My Mind" that I'm looking forward to playing. Actually, I'm going to listen to them all. That's kind of what Atomic was about: giving local bands a chance, immersing people into the hidden jewels that comprise the Milwaukee local music and culture scene. (Shit, that's kind of what this whole blog I write is about!). Rich Menning's store -- like many independent busineess in many of the towns I've lived in -- lit a fire under all our butts to keep the scene hot. We have a challenge now to figure out how to keep it burning without the comfort of a bricks and mortar meeting place. After last night's well-organized party, I'm convinced we still have -- both in talent and moxie -- what it takes to rise to that challenge.

One final end note: I shot about six gig worth of "film" (like many people there, I still use old slang to refer to digital things: "albums" "rolling tape" "film") of the show, and I'm dying to see how other people documented this event. If you comment, or email me, I'll be happy to publish a list of all the documentation I know about.


Anonymous said…
thank you for this. I really enjoyed reading it since I had to miss it. Can't wait to see the footage. With all the filmmakers in this town, I'm really hoping someone will make a documentary on the history of Atomic.

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