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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Heavyheads Up Their Game

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A cautious optimism has permeated Milwaukee’s once demoralized music scene. As local bands—through a mix of talent, vision and, perhaps most importantly, strategic self-promotion—begin to make a name for themselves and as radio stations and print publications make a more visible effort to cover the local scene, there’s an increasing sense that Milwaukee musicians may now actually have a shot at national exposure. That feeling is certainly driving The Heavyheads.

  “Even just a couple years ago, there wasn’t a lot going on in the Milwaukee scene, but now that bands are starting to get attention, it’s really motivating,” Heavyheads bassist Scott Oakes explains. “Will Phalen and the Stereo Addicts, a band that we’ve played with, are doing some great stuff, and I’m surprised with the press that they’ve received. Fever Marlene are doing great things, established bands like Maritime are touring, and newer bands like John the Savage are getting a great buzz. Whereas a couple years ago our band might have been playing our shows with no hopes of moving beyond Milwaukee, now there’s some hope that Milwaukee’s music scene might draw regional or national attention.”

  Oakes says this hope motivated The Heavyheads to bring their A-game on the five-piece’s latest record, Down at the Heels, which hones the rustic, ’70s-styled rock of their 2006 debut. This time around there are more keyboards and mandolin in the mix, as well as some stalwart backing vocals from area gospel singer Keshena Armon.

  “Our debut was really kind of a glorified demo,” Oakes admits. “We threw it together quickly just because we had eight songs we wanted to record. Down at the Heels, though, we put a lot more money and effort into. It’s just a huge step forward.”

  They recorded the album this spring in Chicago with producer Neil Strauch, who co-engineered Iron & Wine’s latest album. “We really wanted someone who would give us good feedback and be painfully honest rather than let us just run roughshod over the sessions,” Oakes says.

  The group also made an effort to freshen their sound, drawing from modern acts like Wilco and My Morning Jacket in addition to core influences like the Allman Brothers and The Band, and trying to stave off the many Black Crowes comparisons their debut attracted.

  “We’re excited with how it turned out, and I think we’re seeing a little momentum,” Oakes says. “The first couple years we spent playing in support of our debut were pretty stagnant, playing the same places for the same people. But now we’re getting some good press and some big shows. We’ve played Summerfest and RiverSplash this summer, and we have the State Fair and the Harley-Davidson anniversary coming up. We’re just hoping that the album catches on around town, and that people see we really do have something to offer the Milwaukee music scene.”

  The Heavyheads play a July 26 CD release show at Shank Hall and then Aug. 6 and 9 at the WisconsinState Fair. Admission to the CD release show includes a copy of the album.

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