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Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012

Sugarfoot Is Back

The return of classic Americana rock

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The '80s and '90s were special for Milwaukee music—an era when bands grounded in classic pop-rock songwriting (and often with an Americana accent) thrived on the city's East Side alt scene. One of the best, Sugarfoot, is returning to the stage after a 12-year absence.

Alex Ballard (vocals, guitar), the band's keystone, has regrouped with two of his old band mates, Jim Eannelli (vocals, guitar) and Victor Span (drums), and a newcomer with the cryptic handle of H (bass). When they said farewell at Festa Italiana in 2000, Sugarfoot seemed to be on a roll. Why did they stop?

“All these pressures,” Ballard replies, recalling the miles they logged between festivals and clubs around the upper Midwest. “It got hard to tour around everyone's schedule. The band was like, 'We don't want to drive eight hours to do this anymore.'”

Sugarfoot left behind one of Milwaukee's great albums of the era, 1999's Take a Picture. Each song was a memorable freeze frame of an emotional moment, sung with heartfelt harmonies over a solid country-rock rhythm punched up with sharp guitar solos and the lonesome echo of pedal steel. Take a Picture was comparable to those superb early albums by Sugarfoot's Twin Cities contemporary, The Jayhawks.

The revived Sugarfoot has led a ghostly existence for the past several years, recording in various studios and emerging for a tryout at Linneman's earlier this year. “Vic said we should make a record in a real studio,” Ballard says, “so we went from my home studio to Smart Studios in Madison—but the long drive was impractical. Then we worked with Bob Friedman in a variety of Milwaukee studios, and we'll finish it at my place.”

Ballard hopes to release the new album by year's end. “I'd love to say I've forged into bold new territory,” he says. “But I'm content to look backward rather than forward. The songs we're finishing now sound like they came out one year after our last album.”

Ballard has lived in several cities known for music, including Seattle and Detroit, but for him, Milwaukee was the best. “It was very strong in the DIY, post-punk period,” he recalls. “A lot of people were moving to Milwaukee—musicians from Indiana and as far away as Massachusetts. All of those transplants came to a great music scene that had been here since the '70s. With Die Kreuzen and Plasticland and the Violent Femmes, it was a happening scene with examples of bands that went from here to some kind of stardom. Most of all, everyone here was supportive and open.”

Sugarfoot performs Aug. 25 at Shank Hall with The Blinding Lights.
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