I don’t have it in me to write the usual humorous and/or celebratory introduction that goes here. Instead, I’ll instruct you to close your eyes and take deep, calming breaths for as long as you feel like doing, especially if you haven’t done so in a long time. There is nothing more important than taking time for quiet, solitary deep breathing. There is nothing more healing for your mind and spirit. Not even live music. When you’re ready, feel free to read on.
10. The Rempis/Daisy Duo | Sugar Maple | 5 September
That’s right bitches! I went to see live music in September and wow I wish I’d sniffed out more chances to do so. October, November, so many beautiful days. September fifth was a lovely afternoon. There were chairs spaced out on Sugar Maple’s patio, some in pairs, with little tables. I think there were about a dozen people there, masked except during actual gulps from a beverage. Dave Rempis blew saxophones. Tim Daisy hit things with things. The music lifted me clear out of my body into the realm where your molecules move in anticipation of the improvisations. I was near tears many times. Yes folks it was the worst show I saw in 2020.
9. Mitten Fest | 1 February
February 1st was not in some respects a lovely afternoon. After three hours of it my fingers and toes felt like frozen beans. How brave we were, less than a year ago, performing and enjoying music outdoors in the cold. I caught a set by King Eye & The Squirts and then spent time bumping into folks I always enjoy talking to, most of whom I haven’t laid eyes on since. Erin and I gave hearty WMSE introductions for fantastic sets by Saebra & Carlyle and Lauryl Sulfate & Her Ladies Of Leisure. Had I only known that within two months I’d be barred indefinitely from doing anything like this, hell I probably would’ve warmed up for a bit in Burnhearts and toughed it out for a couple more hours.
8. Garcie Peoples | The Back Room @ Colectivo | 17 January
It was a snowy, blustery night. I’m pretty sure someone I only know on twitter took my money at the door; I was too shy to say anything, not realizing that months from now, twitter friends would be the only friends I’d have any more. To be honest, Garcia Peoples put on the actual worst show I saw this year; it wasn’t terrible, but it was the kind of show that reminds me how blown away modern psych hipsters would be by Phish if Phish didn’t have all the baggage of being Phish. Garcia Peoples were like a carefully structured and formulated approximation of certain Phish jamming strategies, perfectly pleasant enough. But the reason this show wasn’t the worst is that Kendra Amalie (now known as Kendraplex) opened the show, and she fucking slew. This was my first show of the year and all I could think was ‘In 2020 I’m going to see Kendra play guitar every fucking chance I get.’
7. Beach Burial | Cactus Club | 7 March
Fuck, fuck, fuck. The year ahead looked so damn promising. The underground rock scene in Milwaukee was beginning to peak again on a lot of different fronts. You had the kinetic shoegaze of supergroup Operations, who’d just put out their killer debut album and were probably gonna take over the world. Alisa Rodriguez, one of that band’s primary creative forces, opened this Cactus Club show with a solo set as Apollo Vermouth, a guaranteed transcendent experience for anybody with drone affinities. Haunter played next, providing that bridge between dark noise and poppy hooks, before Snag came out and put the mathy/emo exclamation point into the proceedings. Then it was time for Large Print. Any time they play, I feel like when the set is over with I can easily make the case that they’re the best rock band in Milwaukee. You just can’t mess with these songs, they’re otherworldly, like the best ‘90s indie sensibilities in a completely futuristic aura all their own. Potent stuff. And then Beach Burial, a duo whose music I’ll admit it took me until this night to fully appreciate. Their off-kilter melodic and serpentine rhythmic inventions unlocked an understanding in my head during this performance that had eluded me before, even though I knew it had to be there somewhere. After the show was over, I saw a bitchin red longsleeve Beach Burial shirt behind the merch table, but it wasn’t my size. Eliot Hess, the drummer for the duo, told me their shirts were all printed on random thrift-store clothes but that he’d find something in L and get it to me. A week or so later, the package showed up at my door, and it’s one of the coolest shirts I’ve ever owned. Boy I’d love to show it off some day. As of last month, Beach Burial has called it quits. It’s a travesty that nobody’s ever gonna know about the unique chemistry these two guys achieved for a brief moment in time.
6. Wilco | The Sylvee | 9 March
This was the opening night of Wilco’s 51-date 2020 tour, which turned out to be a three-date tour. I ran into a buddy of mine and his girlfriend in the parking ramp; it was their first Wilco show, and it was a really good one, where they indulge their noise tendencies and play “Via Chicago” and “Laminated Cat” and Nels Cline makes you grateful to be there hearing “Impossible Germany” for the zillionth time because he’s taking the long way and you can’t predict right where his solo’s going to end. Holy cow were we packed in there like sardines; there was already an encroaching feeling of ‘should we be doing this?’ but for one thing, the gravity of the pandemic had not been properly conveyed by, well who am I kidding, we had no leaders. Our government, if anything, was doing its best to shield us from any awareness of what was about to unfold, and as live music fans, we were going to keep going to shows until you absolutely told us we weren’t allowed to.
5. Shellac | Turner Hall Ballroom | 12 March
This was the last show before they absolutely told us we weren’t allowed to. That live music was finished for, um, like a month or two. We were not packed in like sardines. We knew we were pushing it, even being in this room. We mostly kept distance between each other on the floor. Normally a guy who hugs people upon greeting, I half-jokingly kept my arms to myself, except for a couple friends who hugged without warning, the last public hugs I’ve ever had, for which I remain truly grateful. This was my first time seeing Shellac of North America and as everyone who knew anything about it had forewarned me, it was sick. Steve Albini and Bob Weston were delightfully chatty. My friend DJ captured the essence of the performance here, in what is to date the final regular Milwaukee concert review. To everyone I saw at this show, I miss you all terribly.
4. Chris Porterfield | The Haven Room | 26 February
The folks at Transfer Pizza worked their asses off creating this amazing performance space, and here was the unveiling. We munched on delicious food and sipped boulevardiers and it felt a lot like a clan reunion from the Altos: Earth era. Nathaniel Heuer performed solo for the first time I’d ever seen, at least; the space was intimate and impeccably suited for this type of gig. Next up was Todd Umhoefer, known to most folks until about a year ago as Old Earth; he played a short, breathtaking set of new music that, as usual, reaffirmed my opinion that he’s one of the greatest songwriters and musical craftspeople this city has ever seen. Finally, Chris Porterfield, whose new album with Field Report, Brake Light Red Tide, wasn’t out yet, gave us a preview of some of those songs. The experience, particularly “Begin To Begin”, was crushing. He even indulged my “Fergus Falls” request, a song that I hadn’t heard him sing since the Conrad Plymouth days. I am getting too emotional to write any more about this show.
3. Klassik | Shank Hall | 6 March
It takes a lot to get me to Shank Hall but I wouldn’t have missed this one for the world. This was the official vinyl release show for Klassik’s latest masterpiece, QUIET. A full-band production the likes of which we hadn’t seen before and may never see again. I remember it like it was yesterday, dinner at Maharaja with David beforehand, that warm, loving atmosphere of all the people who knew that it was important to be there, not simply to support our friends but to take in the culmination of this brilliant creative force and these incredible songs. Ugh, what a production it was, bringing home the notion of shutting out the world in order to find peace within, then spreading that message of peace, forcefully, joyously, through art, spilling yourself out onto the stage and connecting with people, slowly changing people, bringing people together. It’s going to happen again some day. Some way.
2. Ravi/Lola | Circle A Café | 31 January
It was a winter’s night like any other. You open the door, walk up those couple of stairs, turn to your right, and there’s Paul Setser, taking your five bucks with a smile. How silly it never occurred to me that this could be the last time I’d ever see him. God damn it. Now, I’d seen Ravi/Lola plenty of times before, I’d seen everybody in that band a bunch of times before in various conglomerations of the Activities Records clique, one of the creative collectives that has made a lot of the Milwaukee-est music so far this century, that makes me so incredibly proud to call this city and Riverwest in particular my home, and that has made Circle A my dearest neighborhood hangout for so many years. But I had never seen Ravi/Lola play like this before. The magic in that little room on this night, the way Casey Seymour’s peculiar retro-baroque-chamber-pop tendencies were brought to life with this particular ensemble, usual suspects in less-usual roles, was ten times more powerful than I ever thought this group was capable of being. You give a band enough time together, united under a distinctive visionary, and you’re going to get these kinds of results if you’re patient enough. I had foolishly underestimated Ravi/Lola’s potential. They were a force of nature on this night. I dearly hope that spark remains, that the Circle-A energy survives this maddening, heartbreaking defeat we’re currently living through. I can’t think about this any more right now.
1. Mr. Bungle | The Warfield | 13 February
Good God this is painful. Why am I doing this to myself? To think that we got on a plane, flew to San Francisco, spent almost a week exploring the city and the surrounding beauteous countryside with hardly a care in the world, the ocean, the forests, the mountains. That we entered the hallowed halls of The Warfield on the 50th birthday of heavy metal itself and witnessed the once and possibly future greatest band on the fucking planet rip through a mind-boggling set of punishing and hilarious music like no other band could ever do. To think that if they’d scheduled these shows for even a month later…they might not ever have occurred. The most dearly anticipated band reunion of my life.
I hope we can all do more of the things we love in 2021.