Sunday, September 21, 2008

The evolution of a live music scene and the revival of a music festival

Once upon a time I was an undergrad at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Marquette (MU) is located in the heart of Milwaukee, a real city campus. As a freshman at MU I would go to house parties and sneak into the bars that did not check ID's on most weekends. At that time, MU did not have an active Greek scene at all, so the parties and events that we attended where hosted by the University, local bars, or students who lived together in houses.

I guess I took it for granted that there was always live music around. The University did a great job hosting 'Grill Concerts' every Friday afternoon in the basement of the Union bringing in regional and local acts including the Violent Femmes, The Bodeans, firehose, and many others. At the MU bars and house parties though, it was bands comprised of MU students providing the soundtrack. I would guess that my freshman year I saw no fewer than 10 different MU bands play at multiple events. At the end of my freshmen year I attended the student run music festival we knew as Jigglesfest.

Here is some back story on the event with more accurate facts and names filled in:
Jigglesfest Back Story:
Originally started in 1986 100% by students as a reaction to MU canceling Spring Block Party. Anthony 'Tony' Caroli (class of 1986) was the original founder and he performed in a band called the Peasants which included Tony, Tom Luke, Dave Wolff, and Chris Foos. Also performing at that first show were Surrender Dorothy and MCBO (both bands which returned with their original line ups for Jigglesfest 2008) The event was originally known as Mr. Jiggles Spring Jubilee and was held at the Mitchell Domes.

When Tony graduated the torch was carried by a series of people, most notably Dave Tills (class of 1988) and the festival continued through the 90's moving locations as it grew. In 1991 it was estimated that Jigglesfest drew over 3000 students to Lake Michigan's Rod and Gun Club for what was likely the events largest crowd.
The Old MU Scene
This atmosphere for live student music at MU is one of the things that lead to the start up of my band, R. Mutt in 1988. From 1988 through the mid 1990's we played regularly in Milwaukee and Chicago and surrounding areas but we always had shows back at Marquette and continued to play with new younger bands as they emerged. Some of the groups from this time are still around making music while others have broken up as members have moved on to other music projects. Bands and performers that we had the pleasure of playing with during this time include: Surrender Dorothy (still playing and recording music today,) Freezone and Wolfgang Green (featuring Pat Greene, acclaimed SF Jazz Guitarist and instructor,) The Eisenhowers (early project of Ike Reilly of the Ike Reilly Assassination,) Big Sky (Joe Panzetta and Peter Mulvey project,) Blue Utah (Kevin Blackwell of Sassparilla's first band,) Southbound (still active Milwaukee band,) The Gufs (still active Milwaukee band,) and Moloko Shivers (whose members have gone on to The Cocksmiths, Willie Porter Band, and The Boogiemen.)

At any given time during this period in the late 80's and early 90's there were no fewer than 10-15 MU bands actively playing out. Bands like Ventriloquist Cat, Grotto Sandwich, The New Aviators, The Eisenhowers, Radioactive Sludge, MCBO, Big Mother Gig, Fuscia Boys, Domino Theory, Groovus, Last Call and others joined forces and split bills to create a vibrant music scene. If you went to MU and played an instrument you were probably in a band or at least sat in with one of these bands. When people went abroad for a sememster, someone from another band would fill in. When your guitarist graduated and moved to Georgia for post grad, there was someone younger waiting in the wings to step in. I was lucky enough serve brief stints playing bass in both Big Sky and Surrender Dorothy in addition to playing in R. Mutt full time.

Bars like Thoma's, The Glocca Morra, Hurricane's, Theo's, The Green Tree and the Avalanche hosted music from these bands and houses would charge $2-$5 for "All you can drink/Two Band" parties in their basements or back yards. These shows were not 45 minute sets littered with Louie, Louie and Wipeout. By and large they were serious sets of music including original music and plenty of experimental jamming covering blues, jazz, and rock. Some shows at Thoma's would feature two bands and have music run solid from 9:00pm until 2:30am as the two bands traded off playing time. People would leave the bar at the end of the night dripping in sweat and exhausted from dancing.

Reviving Jigglesfest
Fast forward to 2007 and my band was preparing for the release of our latest album, 'Heptane' about the same time Surrender Dorothy was prepping 'Three Days in Chicago' for release. In the midst of an email string with Linda Bloszies (lead singer of Surrender Dorothy) I signed off "See you at Jigglesfest 2008."

Now sometime in the 90's Jigglesfest had ceased operation. I am not sure if it was lack of interest or perhaps a poor hand off of the organizing responsibilities, but it was officially dormant.

Linda proposed that we get in touch with some of the current MU bands and see if we could bring it back to life. Surely as alumni we would get the support of the University and we could host some type of battle of the bands to figure out which current MU bands would play. Setback #1 - No one at the University was really interested in talking to us about this event at all. Setback #2 - We could not find a single band at Marquette. Linda and I continued on with the planning assuming we would eventually connect with MU bands. A string of emails out to our old friends found us with 4-5 older bands willing to get back together and return to play. In fact, two of the bands that played at the first Jigglesfest were willing and able to pull together their original line ups to come back for the show. We were also able to get committment from Freezone for a reunion which would pull 2 players from the East Coast, Pat Green from California, a guitarist from IL and their original drummer from the UK.

Around that time we lucked into a great relationship with the team that runs Bradford Beach which provided us a location along with sound, permits and a great stage.

Eventually we connected with the college radio station, WMUR, and found a group that was not only interested in helping us find bands and promote the event but also in learning more about the older scene at MU. They got us in touch with three great MU bands, Planet Dastardly, The Nodes, and New Wave Bossa Nova.

The show happened September 20th and the music was beyond great as was the weather and turn out (although, very light on MU Students.) As the day wore on I found it amazing that the current MU bands had never met each other. In some cases they had not even heard of each other. I spoke with these guys and they reflected on the lack of places for bands to play, difficulty finding locations for practices, and a student body not terribly interested in live music.

Photos from Jigglesfest (new and old) found here

Music is important work.
We have been invited back to Bradford Beach to do Jigglesfest again in 2009. I hope that this will help breath life back into MU music and give current students a reason to make their scene work.

It is funny, but listening to talk about current challenges and barriers brought back memories of our struggles back when the scene was vibrant. Part of being in a band is getting kicked out of your practice space, having your power cut when house parties are shut down, getting a flat on the way to a gig that will not pay enough to cover your gas, landlords threatening to kick you out of your house, skipping a test because you have a chance to play in Madison, playing on crappy guitars, broken down amps, snares held together with duct tape... You fight through all those things because music is important.

You only need to hear your band's name chanted once to realize that you don't do it for the babes or the money, you do it because you love the music. You do it because you love being in a band.