Friday, January 9, 2009

The Mark Joseph Project

The Music and Musicians

I'm not at my best on weeknights but, finding myself with a rare Friday off, I decided to break my 9:30 PM bedtime rule and last night ambled down to The Mousetrap, in Eau Claire, to check out some live music. The Mark Joseph Project was highly recommended by my friend and WHYS DJ, Gary Schmaltz, and though I was tired—just coming off of work and only staying for the first set—I'm glad I caught them.

This four-member band plays a mix of funk, blues, and reggae, covering songs like: “Going Down The Road Feelin' Bad” a traditional song revived by The Grateful Dead; Mark Knopfler's ballad, “Shangri-La”; Willie Dixon's “Hoochie Coochie Man” ala Muddy Waters; Bob Marley, and a healthy sprinkling of original songs. The Mark Joseph Project is mostly composed of members of Down Lo, a band with some international recognition and a popular local following, reported to be “on hiatus.” But they just can't stop, ending the set with a Down Lo reggae/hip-hop fusion classic, “In Our World.”

Mark Joseph Grundhoefer's strong lead was reminiscent of the classic '80s “hair jam-band” guitar solos. With his long, unruly hair, humorous, knowing eyes and cool on-stage presence he casually worked the audience, maintaining professional distance while letting us in on the secret that is The Mark Joseph Project.

Bass player, Dan Sebern, rumored to double as a bartender at the Mousetrap, looked cool and comfortable, his great mop of curls making him appear even taller than he is as he riffed off Mark Joseph's lead. Retiring near the end of the set, Dan gracefully yielded his position on-stage to veteran Down Lo bass player, Ryan Nielsen, who finished off the set.

Drummer Beau Brantner, dark and intense, never missed a beat. I've often felt that drummers are musical “unsung heroes,” being the glue holding the music together but often unappreciated—indeed, even unnoticed—by the unschooled. This certainly described me, until I dated a drummer, and I'm now constantly amazed by the dexterity and energy drummers extend with little accolades from the fans. Like Dan, he was also with The Ultimate Frisbee Orchestra and currently plays in Bill and Dan's Excellent Adventure.

Last—but certainly not least—on keyboard is another Down Lo member, Will Nissen, who occasionally stood from his keyboard and grabbed his saxophone. Will exudes energy and while there is no question that all these musicians are passionate about their work, I got the impression that Will really enjoyed putting it out there. I love keyboards, feeling they add complexity and texture to any song, and Will did not disappoint; my only complaint is that I did not hear enough of him.

The Venue and Audience

For those who've yet to visit The Mousetrap, it will feel oddly familiar to~ahem~people of a certain age. It is long and narrow with pool tables in the back and a rear door leading to an outdoor smoking area with heat lamps and a TV set. The stage is an afterthought, divided from the bar by a partial wall, and if you want to really enjoy the music you have to stand, which will also force you to boogie a bit. It feels, to me, like a throw-back to the bars of the '70s and '80s, with an occasional Dead song on the juke, adorable young hippie chicks, happy in patchouli, and dread-locked guys in tie-dye who have no qualms greeting each other with enthusiastic hugs. There's no doubt that The Mousetrap is a place I would have lived in had I been in the area during my twenties. While The Mark Joseph Project audience and the denizens of The Mousetrap are younger, I wouldn't let that stop 40+ music enthusiasts from checking it out; the bar has a robust local music scene, and the audience is welcoming and friendly; they're much more likely to hug than to bite.

Finally, for those, like me, in recovery I have to add a warning: the drinking/drug culture is pretty overt and if you're just cleaning up and jonesing for live music, you would be better served checking out the local coffee shops or theaters.

All in all, it was a great show, and I'll definitely go see The Mark Joseph Project again.


Down Lo:

Guitarist and producer Mark Joseph Grundhoefer:

Downer's Grove:

The Mousetrap:

Gary Schmaltz, AKA Poppa Bear:

WHYS Radio, 96.3:

*Editor's Note*

My thanks to Beau Brantner, Drummer Extraordinaire, who wrote and corrected me on some bogus facts: I used the word "Ultimate" instead of "Excellent" when citing "Bill and Dan's Excellent Adventure," and improperly stated that Beau and Dan also played with Downers Grove. Beau wrote: "I also am not a member of Downer's Grove, although have sat in on percussion a couple of occasions and both Dan and I are good friends of the band."

My bad.

Beau went on to say that The Mark Joseph Project, "has only performed these 2 occasions (at the Mousetrap) and has never formally practiced. Also, what was performed last night was the Eau Claire form of the project and performs in different incarnations with Mark being the only consistent member in different locations. FYI - On Down Lo's MySpace is the schedule of shows."

Wow! They've never practiced as the MJP?

I hate getting facts wrong, though it's sure to happen again. If you see something incorrect, please, please write me at:

Tomorrow I'll be writing about Matt, Tony and Kari Rongstad at the Acoustic Cafe, and Downers Grove at The Snout.

Catch you later!


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