Sunday, June 20, 2010

So, I went back to the old neighborhood

Southwood School (at night, duh)
Originally uploaded by V'ron
I grew up in a town called Country Club Hills, which is in the South 'burbs of Chicago, about where I-57 and I-80 cross. It was a good place to grow up. Schools and parks within walking distance, but yanno, it was still the 'burbs and I'm fundamentally a city mouse. So, you may remember that I blew off my high school reunion in favor of the Vertebrats' reunion, but when a call for an old CCH reunion was put out, and I learned that a lot of the kids from the mid-70s Southwood Junior High gang would be there, I couldn't resist.

This had potential to be a bust. I'm normally about playing it by ear and keeping things loose, but "Noon to 8, park changed a the last minute, everybody bring a dish to pass!" was just a little too loose for me. No rain plan, only one port-o-let and god only knows when Midnight Express was gonna play, (much less where they were supposed to plug and and who was gonna run the PA and, oh yeah, who was gonna bring the PA....) Who was Midnight Express? Why, they played at my 8th Grade Graduation! They played at my high school Freshman Mixer! They played at every 4th of July right before the fireworks in Wulf Park, which is misspelled in Google Maps, BTW and they brought acoustic instruments (and a small battery pack) to power the keyboard) over to Atkin Park yesterday and they played there too. They played "Smoke On The Water" back then and they played it yesterday. And they played a selection of tunes from the era and we all kind of realized how old we were.

My childhood best friend (who I haven't talked to in 30 some odd years) was there earlier in the day, and in some respects, it wasn't like anything changed. We both grew up and ended up being into (what's now being called) alt-rock (we did run into each other at the Pretenders show in Champaign in '81, agreeing that Chrissie Hynde was the coolest woman we had ever seen) and we both have this affinity (that i can't explain, but regular sixthstation readers know about this) for Blue Oyster Cult. And she gets Hawkwind! I thought my husband was the ultimate Hawkwind fan, but this girl? Flew out to England to see 'em at a festival because Dave Brock couldn't leave the country.

Susan had to leave earlier in the day, right about when all the other kids from our era were just starting to show up. There were probably 10-15 of us scattered through the day, but there were people I was glad to see. It was like trying to get caught up with the plot of Glee when you only just started watching during the second season (Will Schuester was married to some chick who faked a pregnancy to keep their marraige together?!?!? How'd we miss that?) It was like each of us had 30 seconds to summarize 30 years, oh, there were a few uneasy moments. ("Didn't you have a brother/sister named so-and-so?" "S/he died/flipped out/had an operation and has never been the same.") Admittedly, I was more out of it than others -- many of these folks have kept in way better touch with each other than I did, but I was still amazed at the razor sharp memories we all had, and actually, moments that I could still remember from my youth. Some of us had peaks and valleys: one friend suffered a stroke (and he's doing fine, but he admits "it's just not the same after a storke") there's been weddings (and divorces), sudden deaths of people our age, our kids making us crazy. In short, we all lived lives, and we have great memories of what was a generally collectively good childhood.

I think I approached this with some trepidation because, well, I wasn't exactly Marcia Brady, Most Popular Girl, but as I confirmed yesterday, none of that shit matters now. I also learned that I wasn't the only person who remembers certain people as bullies (oh, let's say it, so-and-so really was a major prick!) but we could just as easily laugh it off now. And the stories we collectively told (somebody would start a story and we'd help each other fill in the details) of various notorious classmates, teachers, and other people in our lives. Oh, and that softball league! The Country Club Hills Girls' Softball League! Funny how time clouds memories:
"The Sunshines were great."
"No, the Sunshines sucked. The Pink Panthers were the team to beat."
"And we beat 'em," said a member of the Violets.
"No, the Sunshines were good, really."
"Well you beat us, the Radicals, once," I admitted. "And we were way too ashamed to go to Dairy Queen afterwards because we'd have to tell people we were beat by the Sunshines."
And then there was a healthy dollop of Let's Confirm Once and For All Stories We'd Always Wondered About:
"Hey, whatever happened to Miss Notorious Teacher? Didn't she have a thing with Johnny GoodlookingStudent?"
"Nooooooooo! Are you kidding?!?!"
"I was in a bar once a few years later in High School when Mr. Nerdy Administrator recognized me and tried to hit on me!"
"Remember that time we walked out of school?"

That's how it went. We told lots of stories and had a good time, and it was worth the drive down from Milwaukee. And as I had tweeted, I couldn't have asked for a better night to fly my car up the Dan Ryan expy, up the Edens, windows down, stereo cranked, taking in everything I loved -- and still love -- about the Chicago area in general. It was a perfect summer night, capping off one of, come to think of it, hundreds of perfect summer days in Country Club Hills. This one just happened to be yesterday, not 40 years ago.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Start of the Summer Festival Season

Nighttime Blue Angels
Originally uploaded by V'ron
The scene: it's Friday night, after a long week at work, and my grrlfrien Mary Jo wants to drink. Sorry, have the kids (that's what living with a 2nd shift husband will do for ya) but how about a kid-friendly experience? The nighttime air show! There's a nighttime airshow, follow by (what else in Milwaukee) fireworks! So, what the heck. Brave the lakefront/downtown traffic and see if I can actually get a parking place and let's go, kids! MJ will meet us there. And believe it or not, I secured a close, free, safe parking place. I'm not going to tell you where, but enought to say it was really close to what turned out to be the best place to watch the air show -- just east of the North Point Water tower. The fireworks were right in front of us, and we could see the skydivers and their sparklie things, and watch each of them land on the same spot on Bradford beach. MJ joined us right at the end, and we had a smashing game of glow-in the dark frisbee afterwards. Summer is here!
So we're driving over the Hoan Bridge to get home and there's PrideFest. "That looks fun," Stella observes, seeing the crowd at the main stage, obviously yukking it up with Kathy Griffin. "Can we go?" Hmmmm. I think these kids are ready for PrideFest. I needed to explain to them what a drag queen is, and then I had to have the whole conversation about why PrideFest even exists. So we went on Saturday, a dreary cloudy day decorated up by, as many put it, the best people watching ever. I was amazed that the haters weren't out there protesting. In fact, there were some Christians who were proclaiming their pride in their gay children. (Now that's what I suspect JC had in mind.) There was a band called Shanda out of Brooklyn made up of gay, Jewish twentysomethings (my Jewish companions reminding me that "Shanda" is Yiddish for "Shame") that brought to mind a sort of east cost version of Sleater-Kinney, with an added violin and less harsh vocals. I liked them. Lead singer and violinist were the strong points. Proud mom moment number 1: having to explain to Stella why PrideFest even needs to exist, becasuse as Stella observed, "This is just like a regular festival with regular people and everything," (albeit a bit more colorful). Proud mom moment number 2: Sammy being fascinated by Miss Pride Fest: "That's really a boy?!? I can't tell." He looked for clues, but a six year old does not know what to look for. Instead, we paid a visit to the henna tattoo artist, we stuffed ourselves on festival food and watched a belly dancing troupe. The kids enjoyed the sky glider but were too pooped out to stay for Patti LaBelle, which is a shame. Plus, the opening comic for Patti LaBelle was getting a little inappropriate for kids (this, from a mom who lets her kids watch portions of Tarantino films....). I'd heard Miss Patti was tremendous. Next time.

Wake up kids! It's time for Locust Street! We didn't make it to the beer run, but we got there in time to catch a bit of Lovanova's set, and they started the day off on a progressive note. What started as an difficult-to-communicate idea in Paul Kneevers' head is growing into a viable, loungy, proggy act that's fun to listen to, even without a light up organ. (Instead, Kneevers figuratively lit up his head with bright orange hair dye.) Locust Street regular Sigmund Snopek brought his own bar to the Klinger's stage, and we were set.

If I were booking the Linneman's stages, though, I would have swapped some of the outdoor acts indoors and vice versa. Case in point: Heidi Spencer. Talented singer-songwriter with a distinctive voice (think: Amy Winehouse, sober) whose style is more coffeehouse than outdoor drunken hippiefestival. That would have fit in nicely with Jim Linneman's dark, twinkly lit band room, where it would have been protected from the roar of the Blue Angels above. I would have put the honky-tonk sounds of Dyna Flow and Her Roadmasters outside, along with the Outlaws-sounding reverie of the Grand Disaster. The former is definitely a party band that fits the feel of this classic Riverwest festival perfectly. The latter has really come into their own in the past year, finding their voice, and delivering great storytelling punkified western/country (note that I put the W word FIRST). That's their niche: the storytelling angle that makes one recall both the Outlaws (in two-guitar dueling), and Johnny Cash (in their storytelling style). Or maybe even Southern Rock, but that would have you calling for "Freebird" and that's just not their style. But they're all nice punk boys, too, which is why I've been following this band's progress and am a fan. Where would I have put the Danglers in all of this? I could watch them in jail, but they were outside, begging the rain to lay off (and it did!) and taking us on their usual trip through jazz, psychedelia, and acid rock. After the Danglers was another outlawcountry punk band called The Wildbirds whose music fit their scraggly, edgy appearance. I liked them and will definitely check them out again.

Later on on the Lakefront stage there was a dissonant, angry, syncopated combo called Boy With Bosoms that, while not exactly a festival party band, really laid down a groove of intense too-conscious-to-be-emocore rock. Not my thing, but good at what they did and should build a following. An earnest group of chaps called Glenview Lane played in front of Saylece's and had great, hard pop that I enjoyed while the kids played in that little garden park. But I didn't see as many people I knew there. Maybe last year's shooting scared them off, but I'm here to report that (probably as a result of last year's incident) the place was crawling with cops and it was a fairly laid-back time. It's summer in Milwaukee, and it's off to a great start.

feedback, originally uploaded by V'ron.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Funeral for a friend

She's being modest, but Stonie Rivera has done a lot of the heavy lifting for the memorial to Tess, which will be this Friday night at the Uptowner. Here's the latest in terms of what will be going on during the evening.


There will be a compilation video put together by Dave J of Tess' video moments that will be shown between bands.

Thanks to

  • Edgar Allen Cash for donating the PA
  • Dr. Chow's Love Medicine for equipment
  • Mark Shurilla for equipment, Mics & stands
  • Steve Johnson for the venue
  • Stonie Rivera for managing the band lineup and securing venue and incidentals.
  • Wes Streater for Funeral Arrangements. Tess will be interred on Tuesday, 6/22 at 1:00 pm at Southern WI Veterans Memorial Center in Dover WI (near Union Grove). As he was a US Navy Veteran, he is entitled to be honored with a military gravesite.

The lineup for bands so far for June 18 at the Uptowner is comprised of musicians who have played with Tess throughout the years. It's by no means a complete list of his musical partners, but will be a wonderful and varied backdrop for stories and memories about the man:

  • 9:30: Laurie & Jessie Kern
  • 10:00:.La Ghostra Nostra
  • 10:30: Mark Shurilla Band
  • 11:00: Edgar Allen Cash
  • 11:30: Rob McCuen Band
  • 12:00: Dr. Chow's Love Medicine
  • 1:00: TBA.....OPEN JAM

Come raise a glass, share a story, and remember a Milwaukee music legend.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Quick Tess Update

Confirmed: a local celebration of James "Tess" Tessier's life will take place at the Uptowner, (Center and Humboldt) on Friday night, June 18. More info as we get it, but I think it's safe to say that it will begin sometime after happy hour and last through to closing time....

Springtime Roundup into Summer

Light organ
Originally uploaded by V'ron
Gee, just how LONG has it been since I blogged? Too long, friends, but I’ve seen and done some fun stuff:

  • How much does the Milwaukee Ballet rock? This is how much: their production of Peter Pan was engaging and compelling enough to inspire two six year old boys to exclaim “It was awesome” afterwards. It didn’t hurt that the story was full of pirates, boys who could fly, an adorable puppy dog and a likable Wendy making sense of it all, but still. You had no spoken dialog, music that, while comfortable, wasn’t something the boys recognized, and a story line you really had to pay attention to and presumably already know. (The boys had caught wind of the Disney version.) Yes, I took Sammy and his best buddy and they were wonderfully gentlemanly enough and even said “excuse me” as we slid our way through the row to our seats. We got to see the impish Marc Petrocci play the title role (originally the Friday performance was going to be his off night, but the other guy got sick…) and yeah, this is one of those parts that seems to be written for him. And I’m glad I got to see one of the fabulous Tatiana Jouravel’s last performances with the Milwaukee Ballet, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I looked through next year’s season book, and she’s not pictured. A little digging around, and, well, at least we’re not losing her to some other ballet – apparently she’s retiring from full-time ballet. What a loss for us. Still, this company rocks, and the fact they could attract and keep an elegant, world class talent like Jouravel through to the end of her career pretty much underlines that fact.

  • I – and a pile of other parents – took our girl scouts camping the weekend before last. That 80 almost 90 degree weekend. That weekend we couldn’t find a red cross certified lifeguard so that we could go swimming. Still, the nights were cool, and we cooked almost all our meals over an open fire, coming home, smelling like a fireplace and exhausted from staying up all night in a tent. I passed out by midnight, but the girls? It was like a weekend long slumber party.

  • Before the memorial day really kicked in, I ventured out to Club Garibaldi to once again check out the loungy/rocky sounds of Lovanova, this time for a CD release party (oh, and vinyl too – they had it all on a genuine vinyl with an Album Cover and everything!) and they were as wonderfully tight and delightful as they were the first time I saw them. Paul Kneevers has added a touch of fun kitsch to his Hammond organ – this time a screen implanted with lights that went on and off in time to the music. They have a strong element of jazz fusion going here, but it’s good, mid to late 70s jazz fusion, not that sucky jazz fusion the emerged in the 80s that everybody hates. They keep the suckieness factor out by bringing in guests (on sax and violin) that actually add to the music – particularly fun was bringing in the Danglers' Jason Loveall for a piece that ended up sounding like you just got off the plane in Istanbul and turned on a boombox.

  • Esh the Singer
    Originally uploaded by V'ron.

  • They opened for a relatively new afro-beat group called Tristan Royalty Squad that had peaks and valleys for me. Peaks: Esh the Singer – marvelous voice, compelling stage presence, and flat out physical beauty. She’s got those huge, “Look at Me Cos I’m Lookin’ At You” eyes that make every word she sings pop, even when she’s just tapping percussion instruments together during a break or intro. Also like the huge percussion section (required in an afro beat group) and almost metronome-like unshakablity that delivers on their promise to keep an audience dancing all night. Valleys? I could use a little more dynamics, both in rhythm (pretty much the same tempo and time signature all night) and in volume (pretty much on medium all night, too). As such, since I was a little too tired to dance, they didn’t hold my attention too long for just the music. But again, this is a powerhouse dance party band (an early song had the refrain, “Ain’t Nothin But a Party” – that’s exactly what they promise and deliver. So once you get folks on the dance floor happy, a consistent tempo and volume will keep them there. And it’s the kind of dancing you can do in a niteclub, with your slinky dress and high heels, which made this a really good pairing with Lovanova.

  • Stayed home on Sunday to watch the Indy 500 and I’ll just echo the thousands who believe that Indycar should have a Green-White-Checkered rule and shut up now.

  • Hit Cool Waters with the kids on Monday. Monday was a great day to go because it was grey and dreary, but it was still muggy and warmish, so it was a good temperature to go swimming. As such, since it didn’t look like a good day to swim, it wasn’t packed and we could have lots of fun hitting the waterslides and the tube slides without waiting 15 minutes for a turn. They’ve got some helpful lifeguards who would actually give kids a ferocious pushoff the tube slide – I mentioned to one, “You’re gonna have some ferocious pecs by the end of the summer,” which I guess is sort of the point in LifeGuard world, eh?

  • And finally, I took the kids on a walk near the lakefront that involved climbing down (and back up) a huge cliff. "That was some adventure," Stella said afterwards. It was the kind of thing that reminded me how old I'm getting to be, but how young these kids keep me.

Coming up: a huge summer of really good outdoor, kid-friendly and FREE musical offerings in the country parks and other venues. As far as I’m concerned, the season starts with Locust Street festival, with favorites including the Danglers, Dyna Flor and Her Roadmasters, the Grand Disaster, Matt Hendricks, Lovanova, Drugs Dragons and a bunch others on the stages.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

He Was The Walrus

I was just about to sit down and get all caught up with wonderful Milwaukee culture when I saw the FB posting from Lars -- James "Tess" Tessier, AKA the Walrus, died today. We've lost another Milwaukee music legend to cancer, dammit.

This obit is a bit hard to write for me. Tess and i were roomies in the early 90s (we weren't in a "relationship" -- we just shared the rent in a two-bedroom place in Riverwest over this 100-year old landlady). Let's just say we're not the kind of people who should have been roommates with each other and leave it at that. We didn't part amicably, but we since became civil to each other and even evolved back into friendliness. I'd pretty much lost touch with him in recent years, only hearing about his status every now and then from a mutual acquaintance or friend.

One thing I never lost however, was my respect for his musicianship and admiration for his deep knowledge of my favorite ever genre of rock: garage rock (and all its sub genres -- surf, cycle, psychedelia, etc). His old job in the record department at the old Radio Doctors gave him access to all the Nuggets and Pebbles compiliations and he'd pretty much memorized them all. As such, if a garage band needed a drummer or a guitarist or a singer who knew the most obscure of one-hit wonders by some band out of Akron or Timbuktu or East Troy, he was at the ready.

I first came across him when he was looking to fill out an incarnation of his band, the Silverbeats. He'd recruited my friend Dan Mullen to play lead guitar, and Mullen had rounded up a terrific, metal-rock drummer (who understood the power of garage) named Mike Hughes. (and I sometimes wonder if Tess resented the fact that I pretty much stole his rhythm section -- Mullen and Hughes -- to form the first incarnation of my first "real" band, Loblolly -- but it's not like they stopped being Silverbeats to do so.) I think Tim Kern might have sat in on bass for a while with them. Together, the Silverbeats cranked out sets of great garage rock -- brilliant covers coupled with Tess' own compositions that ranged from angst filled teen anthems to almost folky trippy wonders that would have been Donovan-worthy. (His tribute of Frank The Pepperoni Man remains one of my favorites -- a folky psychedelic paean to that Brady Street denizen hollering "Pepperoni! Cannoli!" over a guitar filtered so many times it sounded like a harpsichord.)

Oh, God, as all Milwaukee "characters" went, he was ripe for parody. We all called him the Salad Tosser when it came to describing how he played the drums. Everybody I know can whip out their impression of Tess, usually sounding like an aging James Stewart on quaaludes. There was even some major skits and sketches devoted to him: the phony radio spots for The Walritis Foundation, the Trash Fest video: The Tess Files (in a very X-Files way, detailing how Walritis had infiltrated the United States). God bless him, he sometimes laughed it off, sometimes he just observed them in that "hmmmm, curious" way. Still, if a person's life can be measured by how many great (and fun) stories he generated, Tess' spirit -- for better or for worse -- will be with us for a long, long time.

I can't for the life of me find the pictures I shot of the Silverbeats, but I'll keep looking, because those represent how I want to remember Tess. At his best, he was a musician ready to pick up and play, especially gifted with the steel guitar and the straight up guitar, but he could get behind a drumkit and toss the salad with a controlled fury. Those Silverbeats days were as a time when I knew him as a gentle soul (who never really stopped being gentle,despite our differences). He'd later gone on to be in a number of equally great bands: Laurie Kern's Petals, or with one of the best overlooked surf bands in town, the Alewives (with Paul "the Fly" Lawson, Tim Kern, and the late, great Davy Jones). He sat in with Nicole and the Educators for some of the most memorable sets you ever saw in Riverwest. This is the Tess I remember, this is the Tess I'm sad to see pass.