Have you heard Milwaukee’s beautiful folk music?
There is definitely something happening in the world of folk and Americana music. I realize this isn’t news to anybody: that “Ho, Hey” Lumineers song has been stuck in our heads since 2012. Mumford & Sons climbed rapidly into the heart of American mainstream. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and the Avett Brothers can each pack large venues to the brim. Justin Vernon won Best New Artist at the Grammys last year for his self-titled Bon Iver release.
But there’s also something special brewing here at home, and has been for several years now. Indie folk bands (a broad term, no doubt) in Milwaukee are creating exceptional and downright beautiful music, and I encourage you to perk your ears up.
Of course, you’ve done a good job of this recently, MKE. Local super group Altos performed to a sold-out crowd at the Milwaukee Film Fest screening of Ukrainian silent film Earth, successfully making everyone present feel as though they had encountered a rare and gorgeous moment in time. Hello Death, an outfit comprised of Altos band members, enjoyed a sold-out audience as they opened for Volcano Choir at the Pabst (yet another majestic and unmatchable night of music in Milwaukee).
I spoke to members of six different local bands, each agreeing in their own way that Milwaukee is a particularly great place to make music.
Chris Porterfield of Field Report recently returned from tour, citing an observation that made him think about the scene differently.
“We were in places like Nashville and Bristol, Tennessee, where country music was born. In their folk scene, I think there’s more emphasis on instrument virtuosity.”
Which is not to say that the musicians I spoke with aren’t talented—in fact, it’s quite the opposite. But I did get a lot of “oh, I’m not really much of a [insert instrument here that this person can totally play better than most] guy. I leave that up to [so and so, who the band mate then rains compliments upon].”
Chris continued, “I think there’s carte blanche for us in Milwaukee to repurpose different idioms or archetypes of folk music because we weren’t raised in the cradle of it. Maybe there are fewer rules, and so we can pick and choose freely and mash it into a sound that’s entirely not from the South. And I think that’s good, I think it’s interesting that Milwaukee’s cool with that.”
Field Report, for one, has that reflective, big build up, fill-up-your-heart with quiet happiness sound. Hello Death has managed a uniquely dark aesthetic that feels terrifying and beautiful, like a vinyl for brooding all drunk in your hunting cabin. Twin Brother is easy, light, exquisite—coaxing your favorite memories to mind with just the right amount of twang. Buffalo Gospel feels the most country of the bunch, lilting through bluegrass-y lyrics and taking its time to feel heartbreak. Joseph Huber creates a self-described mountain sound, firing on all cylinders to bring to mind a lost recording from a wayward folk singer. And Old Earth grabs you with an ethereal strangeness that floats somewhere above the grit of traditional folk.
These bands work hard at their sound and love the work. Most have day jobs, including but not limited to: graphic design, home remodeling, fundraising, woodworking and shipping.
“I’m working so hard to only do music,” said Todd Umhoefer, the man behind Old Earth. “It’s doable, and I can feel that it’s not that far off.”
After coming out with a low place at the Old Place last year, Umhoefer cranked out messages to a couple hundred music blogs. He caught the attention of blog Song, by Toad and that same day received a call from mini50 Records of out Edinburgh, Scotland.
“They said, ‘want to do a record? It happens that fast,” said Umhoefer.
Porterfield is represented by Partisan Records, out of Brooklyn. The other groups would certainly enjoy the same break, but for the time being, they feel that Milwaukee provides a good home for their music.
“[We Can Be Horses] is our first full-length album,” said lead singer/guitarist Ryan Necci of Buffalo Gospel, “and there was a lot of local support for it. It was really unexpected, very cool. And there are a lot of great bands in Milwaukee. Until I got here I didn’t know what it meant to take pride in your scene, but I’m a big fan of a lot of bands here. What’s great is that we bump into all these people at the bars, we’re not just on stage with them.”
“I feel like every time I meet a new band, it stems off into five other bands, because everyone is in multiple projects,” added mandolin player Ryan Ogburn. “It’s a tight-knit musical community, as far as support from fellow musicians.”
Upright bassist Nathaniel Heuer of Hello Death came to Milwaukee six years ago by way of Chicago, and agrees that there’s an “in it together” idea that he enjoys.
“I got sick of the scene in Chicago,” said Heuer. “You would play a show with these other bands and they wouldn’t even talk to you. There was just a bad attitude in the city—everyone aiming to fill up spots of success. Here, everybody helps everybody. But by the same token, there’s not room for a lot of bullshit here—it’s a small city. People want to collaborate with talented musicians.”
For example, Sean Raasch of Twin Brother snatched up Heuer and three other Altos members for his self-titled full-length album, released back in May. Porterfield and Umhoefer met at a Linnemann’s open mic night back in 2006, and have remained each other’s challenger and champion. Old Earth and Twin Brother begin touring together in December. Buffalo Gospel and Joseph Huber will play a show together next month.
“Making music should be something you enjoy, a release. It shouldn’t consume you,” said Huber, who spent six years touring successfully, yet strenuously, with .357 String Band. “I just consider myself a songwriter. I enjoy writing music, writing songs.”
Can’t say fairer than that.
*Buffalo Gospel will play a MKE Unplugged show Thursday Oct. 17, at 8 p.m. The event is free. They will play with Joseph Huber at Club Garibaldi on Saturday Nov. 16. Old Earth and Twin Brother have a show at Cactus Club Saturday Dec. 7. Check in with TCD’s Milwaukee This Week column through the year for more upcoming shows from these bands.
**Of course, these bands don’t comprise the entire Milwaukee music scene. Feel free to add your favorite local bands to the comments section below.