Monday, February 16, 2009

The Electric Range

It's been over a month since I posted, but that doesn't mean I haven't been out and about, seeing live music, and with each band I see, I feel more guilty about not writing about them. I like doing this, I like approaching band members with my little yellow pad and pen, asking questions, finding out more about them. Unfortunately, I know I can't continue to do this if I don't follow through with what I say I'm doing, which is writing this blog, and my discomfort has reached a tipping point. It's time to come clean.

I've been trying to analyze why I'm having a hard time keeping this blog up and have settled on two explanations:

1)I've backed myself into a corner and posting felt like a class paper; I'm notorious for procrastination with classwork, and will often write blogs instead. In this instance, I'm SUPPOSED to be writing blogs so I've resorted to reading copious amounts of fiction.

2)The original concept was that I would be as unbiased as possible, writing about each band from a remove, finding the best in them, reporting on that, even if they really didn't trip my trigger.

Then I saw The Electric Range and all thoughts of unbiased writing went out the window. You see, I'm not a musician, can't read music, am totally unschooled and don't know a flat from a whole note. What interests me is personality, the band's presence on stage and how they interact with the audience: I dig the entertainment factor. I work as a counselor. I'm a people-watcher. I'm attuned to the way people meet the world. It's utterly fascinating to me. And The Electric Range offers just about everything I could want in a band.

The first time I saw them was at the Sheeley House on New Year's Eve. I came with Dwight Dario, a man I'd met several years ago, and whom I'd been casually dating. He's a professional musician—a drummer—and produces events in The Cities. Dwight hit the music scene in the early '70s, making a name for himself playing with Greg Brown, Patrick Hazel and Bo Ramsey. He didn't crash and burn behind drugs and sex and rock 'n' roll, understanding how valuable consistency and reliability are in his field and has since produced events for big names like The Stones, Lyle Lovett and Big N Rich (to name a few), and travels internationally as a drummer with Big George Jackson's blues band.

I was a bit nervous about bringing him: I'd never seen these guys and had only Gary Schmaltz's assurance that Jeff White, the band's front man, was “good.” Gary, a DJ at WHYS radio, hadn't yet steered me wrong, but still, this was lil ol' Chippewa Falls...

I needn't have worried; The Electric Range rocked and Dwight thoroughly enjoyed himself and was even asked to sit in on the drums for James Ignacio while James blew his sax. Dwight's left-handed and James right-handed, but the song went off without a hitch.

So I was pretty excited when, on January 16th, I headed for Jensen's Bar in Chippewa to catch them again, and they didn't disappoint.

Here's the thing: this band is FUN! Jeff plays acoustic guitar, is tall and slender, sports a kind-of ratty cowboy hat and greets the audience with adorable dimples and smile full of mischief. He's energetic, rocking and bouncing on stage; he likes what he's doing and is not ashamed to let you know it.

In direct contrast is Frank Aragona, the electric guitar player. Frank is slender, preferring more formal attire, with a craggy, stone-like face and a black, round-brimmed hat. And oh-my-god can he play. His stage presence is riveting; he reminds me of a wind-up doll, playing the guitar with his whole body: a guitar player's version of the moon-walk. He's totally influenced by the great jam bands of the '70s and can play a solo with the best. He plays behind his back, with his teeth, and—at one point—ran the neck of his axe, strings down, against a speaker...and it was good!

James Ignacio plays the drums, adding a raucous, almost-out-of-control feel, grinning with delight.

And Tony Campbell, laid back and pony-tailed, stays in the background, playing his bass, grinning at the other's antics.

And there were antics. James, as mentioned earlier, plays the sax, and at one point he put down the sticks, grabbed his horn and wandered the bar, flirting, putting his head against an older woman's breast as he blew his solo. James is irrepressible and his good-natured delight adds to the dynamic. Frank also stepped off the stage, solo-ing on Sympathy for the Devil, a song he introduced as “One of the best rock pieces ever written.”

They played The Hollies, The Wallflowers, Tom Petty, The Beatle, Ricky Skaggs, Fleetwood Mac, Steve Goodman, The Cure, The Police, Johnny Cash and Dylan, and while their covers rock, their originals are just as good. Jeff's innate mischievousness shows itself most on his original songs, like “All I've Been Thinking of Lately is You,” and he makes the covers his own, adding unusual instruments: on SOS he played the slide whistle, and at one point blew his harmonica into an old telephone receiver rigged up as a microphone. He also played the Thereman, a black box, about the size of three stacked paperback books, with antennae sticking out. He didn't touch the Theremin, just held his hands close the antennae, producing a weird, atmospheric sound during Helter Skelter and Whole Lot of Love. Very, very cool.

But, as I mentioned earlier, it wasn't just about the music, it was also their interaction with the audience and their personalities. One thing I really like about these guys is how much the like the women in their lives. Frank's stone-face lit up when his girlfriend walked in, giving her a big kiss without missing a note and his music got even better in her presence. His face shone with pride when she got up and started dancing. James and Jeff obviously adore their wives (Jeff just got married, like two days ago, in Costa Rica), shamelessly singing love songs to them, cuddling and kissing between sets. I just think that's sooooo cool. Over all they emanate a contagious enthusiasm and love-of-life that's reflected in their music.

This was like, the fourth time, they'd all played as The Electric Range. Jeff and James play together regularly as The Sidekicks, and Jeff just cut a CD. They can usually be found at The Sheeley House's open mic on Tuesday nights. James has a blog titled Weekly Doses in which he posts a new song every week; a labor of love, illustrating his dedication to his craft.

Tony plays with blues Captain Walleye and the Nightcrawlers and a new band called Quadrant 4 whose first gig is at Sheri's Chippewa Club in Durand on February 27th.

Frank also plays with Convicted, The Blues Incident with Gary Dupree and The Danger Band.

The Electric Range attracts some cool people, adding to the good time. I met a woman named Kitty who is also trying to promote local music on her blog. John Nielson introduced himself and as we talked I found that not only is he a guitar player, but is himself a patron of local musicians and he and his wife throw a Summer Strummers party every July that sounds like one big jam. I was pleased to be invited. He can also be found at The Sheeley House's open mic and plays more formal gigs there, at Glenloch in Chippewa and at other area pubs.

Finally, Jensen's Bar and Grill was a pleasant surprise. Located in downtown Chippewa, it has changed hands at least three times since I've been in the area, and I hope this time the place is a success. The bartenders are open, friendly and welcoming and after paying for my first club soda and lime I got the rest of my non-alcoholic drinks for free. There is a coffee pot at the end of the bar open for anyone who wants got grab a cup, the clientele was fun, and the space was great for live music. I couldn't help but giggle at the poster on the wall advertising “Buckets of Bacon” from 6:00 to 9:00 AM. Only in Wisconsin.

In short, these guys rock; they're at the top of my favorite local music list. Catch them: you won't be disappointed.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Open Mic At Sheri's Chippewa Club

The Music

On Sunday, January 11 my friend, Catya, and I headed to Sheri's Chippewa Club for their Blues Open Mic. Yeah, yeah, I know, three bands in one weekend is a bit excessive, as evidenced by my tardiness in blog posts; typical all-or-nothing addict behavior. Catya isn't a regular participant, but had heard that some of her friends from The Bear Creek Band and The Love Buzzards Blues Band would be playing and, having written some new material, she wanted to try it out live. I was pretty excited; I know Catya's work from Davy Jones and the Jones Tones, and always love it when she takes the lead with them, playing a couple of her original songs. She has a trio and plays with Sue Orfield, but I've yet to catch her in either of those bands. Sunday night I was finally going to get a bigger dose of her.

It took a while but finally she hit the stage, with Tim Caswell on lead guitar and keyboards, Rich Sickels on drums--both of The Love Buzzards Blues Band, Adam on harp, and a guy named Mark on bass. Catya brought her bass but said she always ended up playing it and this time wanted to play guitar; she was grateful for Mark's presence. What can I say? They rocked.

The first time up they did four of her songs: That's What You Do To Me; Just Can't Stop; How You Get To Me, and her most recent, Fickle Wind. These are professional musicians and their impromptu performance did not disappoint. As with Downers Grove, I understood that playing was the end to the means and the audience almost unnecessary; they played with controlled joy—simply for the pleasure of it all. Even the bass player—previously sitting in the corner of the stage—perked up, standing, becoming more engaged.

Tim stood, tall and straight, fingers dancing along the neck of his guitar, Rich—looking like a pirate with a temporary eye-patch and black curls falling over his forehead—made the drums in front of him appear small as he attacked them with enthusiastic vigor, and Adam blew harp like a demon. Catya's voice was true and strong and her songs amazing. I could write more—much more—about Catya, but my bias for my friend would be too obvious. Suffice it to say that even if she hadn't become my friend, I would still be in awe of her talent.

Catya sat through the next set, catching up on musical affairs with her friend Rich Sickel (at one point they asked me for a piece of paper so he could write down a newly-conceived lyric) as a different arrangement of musicians took the stage. Harmonica player, Adam, lead the group through songs like Tom Waits' “Temptation,” Old Crow Medicine Show's “Rock Me Mama” and Robert Johnson's classic, “Sweet Home Chicago.” Then Catya, Rich, and Tim took the stage again, accompanied by Dan Callan, head of the Bear Creek Band—who had been running the sound system—on electronic keyboard and the organ. Rick, on drums, led off with Junior Wells' “Messing With The Kid,” Tim followed, belting out Sonny Boy Williamson's “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” striking familiar chords with me as I remembered deceased Grateful Dead drummer, Pigpen, and Catya ended the set with one of my favorites, her original song, “If We Never Kissed.”

My bedtime on work nights is usually about 9:30 and I didn't get home until 11:30. I was tired the next day, but have no regrets breaking my bedtime rule that Sunday. It was—most definitely—worth it.

The Venue

Sheri's Chippewa Club, in downtown Durand, is a great place for music. The space is loosely divided in half, with the bar and pool table on one side, and the stage area on the other. There are tables and comfortable couches for music aficionados and cameras aimed at the stage stream images live to televisions scattered throughout the bar. I just think this is sooo cool! They offer a blues open mic on second Sundays, a country open mic on third Sundays and they stream shows live over the internet (check out the bottom of this entry for the link). The stage is plenty big, equipped with an organ, and while I know nothing about this stuff, their sound-system looks pretty comprehensive. On top of all this, they serve fabulous burgers and when you go there, you've gotta try their “Chippewa Chips.” This bar is most definitely a labor of love, created by music lovers for music lovers.

Recovery Note

I would never have come here when I was doing dope: too much focus on music and not nearly enough on getting drunk or high. This was my first visit to Sheri's and don't know what it's like other nights, but it felt pretty darn solid and safe, challenging my recovery not one iota. That said, it is a bar.

Next up: Jeff White and The Electric Range



The Bear Creek Band

Bear Creek Dan

The Love Buzzards Blues Band

Sheri's Chippewa Club

Sheris' Webstream Site:

Davy Jones and the Jones Tones

Downers Grove

The Music

My first thought was, “Oh my god, they're babies!”

After saying good bye to our friends at the Acoustic, Jacq and I headed for The Snout in Chippewa Falls to check out Downers Grove. We headed for the back of the bar, finding seats close to the band. My initial response was soon corrected, for while the bass and keyboard player look pretty young, it's apparent that the drummer has some maturity. And they certainly don't play like kids. Their style is kind of jazzy-funk with lots of instrumental pieces and a waa-waa guitar.

Drummer Mark Krohberger plays with a single-minded intensity, and while Jacq thinks he looks like Silent Bob, with his brown eyes, dark hair, and baseball cap, to me he looked like he could be playing for Cake, fitting well with their aura of blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth-ness. He is also the lead singer, belting out both cover tunes and originals—again with intensity—shining-on both Chippewa hecklers and a fickle sound system.

I met guitar player John Nietz at The Mousetrap where he cued me in to tonight's gig, and while he admitted to having a cold then, he didn't act sick Friday night. He played with classic garage/jam-band style complete with floaty riffs. John, along with Dan Sebern, bass player on The Mark Joseph Project, also plays with Bill and Dan's Excellent Adventure.

Leaning close to my ear Jacq said, of Brandon Hertz, keyboard player, “He's so Ray Manzarek! Even his facial expressions are like his!” Jacq is younger than I by about six years, and I was a bit embarrassed that she knew what The Doors' keyboard player's name and what he looked like and I didn't. I guess my teenage Dead Worship years were a bit single-minded. Still, I think I know a good keyboard player when I see one (Donna Godchaux rocked!), and Brandon struck me as very good. Brandon is also a DJ for local radio station WHYS, hosting “The Extended Set” Wednesdays from 8:00 PM to 10:00 PM.

The bass player looks like the youngest member of the band, but thought of Matt Seymour's age were soon eclipsed by his superb playing. I'm a tyro in musical knowledge, but I don't ever remember seeing a bass player playing like a lead-guitar before. His hands looked huge as his fingers spanned the frets and his face angelic as he stared into space, channeling the music muse through his body and out his fingers.

As mentioned before, a lot of their music is orignal heavy on the instrumental; I particularly liked the song, Silent Sounds: “It kills me when you walk away....” They also covered other songs, most notably the Chili Peppers', “Falling Into Grace.” And they neatly diverted the Chippewa Falls hecklers' cries of “Free Bird!” with a nice rendition of Pink Floyd's “Dark Side of the Moon.”

The Venue and Audience

The Snout is one of those townie places where people plop down at the bar for “just a couple” and end up staying for decades. The audience didn't appear to be overjoyed with the live music scene and it was here that I really clicked into what musicians do: they're driven. They play because that's where their passion lies and sometimes it is simply enough to play. An appreciative audience—while wonderful—isn't necessary. I understood perfectly: I write 'cause that's what I do. If people read then that's great, if they like what I write then that's wonderful, but I would still write without these elements. This is what I saw with Downers Grove.

Recovery Note

The Snout is a hard-drinking bar and unless you really want to catch a specific band for specific reasons, it's probably best avoided in early recovery.


Downers Grove

Drummer Mark Kronberger

WHYS Radio, 96.3 FM

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Rongstads

The Music

Friday evening found me at a table at the Acoustic Cafe listening to the Rongstad Family. Tony and Matt, a father and son duo, sat side by side onstage, comfortable with both each other and the audience as Tony, the patriarch, strummed his guitar and the tones of Matt's smooth, mellow saxophone filled the room. I know Matt through his work Irie Sol, an amazing local band; both Matt and Irie rock, and if you haven't caught them yet, you are soooo missing out. At the very least, you should check out their CD, titled, “Solstice” on CD Baby or iTunes.

Most of the songs were originals, written by Tony; beautiful acoustic tunes in classic folk tradition, transformed into dreamy melodies as the strains of Matt's sax rode the air. Other songs included the traditional ballad, “May The Circle Be Unbroken,” Dylan's “Don't Think Twice,” and songs by Glen Hansard. During one of the original songs my friend, Catya, nudged me; “He's playing a baritone guitar; you're going to want to note this.” I'm not a musician or musically trained and was glad she was there to explain the rich sound that guitar offered. Matt switch up between three saxophones, playing his “Baby Sax,” or soprano sax, during Hansard's “When Your Mind's Made Up” and the flute for “The Water is Wide.” The connection between Matt and Tony is apparent, but it isn't just about the music: it's about family, love and mutual respect.

This connection was again apparent when Kari Rongstad took the stage. Her choice of music was edgier—girl-style—singing John Prine's “Angel From Montgomery,” and Taylor Swift's “Romeo Save Me.” My two favorites were Joan Osborne's “What If God Was One Of Us” and Warren Zevon's “Don't Let Us Get Sick,” the latter of which she sang with her friend and guitarist, John Picket. Kari's performance was a bit tentative at first, but as she gained confidence her voice rang with maturity and authenticity. Through it all was her father, tending the equipment, his pride very evident.

The Venue and Audience

The Acoustic Cafe lives up to its name, regularly hosting live local music. I don't know if it was the music, my mood, the tiny Christmas lights and local art decorating the walls and windows, or being with good friends that graced The Acoustic with a hint of magic Friday night, but I had a spectacular time. The audience was attentive and respectful, consisting of a mix of hip teenagers, well-dressed 30- and 40-something adults, and endearingly scruffy collegiate-types.

Recovery Note

While The Acoustic serves beer it is not a “drinking venue.” If I were still drinking and shooting dope I would avoid The Acoustic like the plague because it just isn't the kind of place that promotes wretched excess. I am constantly reminded of how good it is, today, to be clean and sober, for I know nights like Friday just wouldn't be possible if I were not. I highly recommend The Acoustic Cafe for those in recovery and who are, like me, live music fans.

Tony, Matt, and Kari's show ended at 10:00 PM, and my friend Jackie and I then headed to The Snout in Chippewa Falls to see Downers Grove. I'll write that up about extremes!


Acoustic Cafe:

Matt Rongstad:

Tony Rongstad:

Kari Rongstad:

Irie Sol:


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!