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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Bluegrass Season

Where to find ‘mountain music’ this summer

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When the bluegrass sound hit in the mid-1940s, its popularity soon spread beyond the South. But the genre is still viewed as more of a seasonal enjoyment in the North.

“It’s not as much of a year-round thing as in the South,” says Dale Palecek, president of the Badgerland Bluegrass Music Association, which was started by Wisconsin bluegrass artists 16 years ago. “It’s thought of as something you see at summer festivals and fairs.”

Wisconsin summer festivals have always been supportive of bluegrass and its crowd-friendly appeal. Bluegrass legend Del McCoury will headline the Potawatomi Bingo Casino stage at Summerfest on June 27, for example.

But Palecek says there is also a thriving base of year-round bluegrass fans and musicians in southeast Wisconsin. Palecek estimates there are about 20 bluegrass-related bands in the area. This includes not only seasoned vets like the Sawdust Symphony, but also younger bands like the high-school-aged trio Inland Moss.

People’s definition of bluegrass varies, including subgenres like “jamgrass” and “streetgrass.” Regardless of which variety, Palecek notes bluegrass’ ongoing appeal through the generations.

“There’s a musicianship to it, there is melody, and a skill of picking that has a lot of energy to it,” Palecek says. “I know when I started playing in my 20s there was an energy that drove me to it. There’s simplicity to it and at the same time a complexity, so you can play it on any level.”

One place to catch live bluegrass on a regular basis is at the Bremen Café for its “Midweek Mountain Music” night. Musicians Colin O’Brien and Chad Witty share the stage along with other musicians every Wednesday evening.

On a recent Wednesday, O’Brien took the stage, strumming his guitar while Witty picked away on the banjo. To say the atmosphere was low-key would be an understatement. An eclectic mix of older hippies, younger college kids and delinquent-looking juveniles were all hanging around casually in Bremen Café’s simple setup. The small stage itself features water pipes running up one side of it, and a backdrop made of a dull beige curtain that looks like it came from granny’s house.

O’Brien played guitar, violin and banjo, sometimes playing along on a harmonica or tapping out the rhythm with his foot on a rectangle of wood hooked up to an amplifier. O’Brien and Witty rolled through songs like the classic “Big River Blues” while a group of four people improvised a square dance, hooting and clapping. The set list came naturally, with the musicians discussing what to play next as they went along. They covered the “Bullfrog Shuffle” by Bela Fleck and a song by old-time Appalachian folk musician Hobart Smith. They played “Banjo on my Mind,” which O’Brien also plays with his band Salt Creek. The two players trotted through a fun set of easygoing bluegrass, displaying their familiarity with the art of toe-tapping music.

Besides summer festivals and small venues like Bremen Café, bluegrass fans can find more “mountain music” if they seek it. For example, there is a bluegrass jam at the Borders bookstore in Fox Point on the second Sunday of every month.

“It’s out there,” Palecek says of local bluegrass. “You just have to look for it.”

Midweek Mountain Music is free and hosted at the Bremen Café every Wednesday at 10 p.m. You can find out more about local bluegrass, including a calendar of events, at www.badgerlandbluegrass.org.

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