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Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2008

Music Man: The Legend of Mike Mangione

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Mike Mangione wanted out of his comfort zone.

That's why he left Milwaukee-his home for almost four years now-and spent two weeks in early 2007 living in a hotel in Lexington, Ky. At nearby Shangri-la Productions, he recorded Tenebrae, a stirring, brutally personal and critically acclaimed record that takes emotional cues from such albums as Peter Gabriel's Us and Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind.

"There's something about getting away to do an album," says the 29-year-old singer/songwriter, who plays the guitar upside-down and will perform at Shank Hall on Aug. 8. "I always joke and say, 'You're never an artist to your family and friends. You're always that idiot they hang out with.' I have a hard time feeling artistic when I'm around them."

Working with indie-rock producer Duane Lundy, Mangione and his band of musicians from both Chicago and Milwaukee (including locals Patrick Hoctor on cello and Kristina Priceman on violin) adapted to a lifestyle that revolved solely around making the best music they could, giving Tenebrae a distinct and serious voice.

"We really wanted the album to take listeners somewhere," Mangione says. "We wanted it to have a scent, like incense. Being out of our comfort zone took away all the distractions."

But now the distractions begin in earnest.

Tenebrae, initially released digitally and through Mangione's Web site (mikemangione.com) last fall, was issued nationally this week. Mangione and his five-member band, which has no official name yet, despite a yearlong effort to come up with one, have been touring intensely, playing around the Midwest and recently returning from Australia.

Mangione-yes, he is a distant relative of Chuck Mangione, the famous horn player-was born in Chicago's northern suburbs and attended Marquette University. He roamed the country before moving back to the city and getting married. He's played Summerfest and can be seen performing Tenebrae's best track, "It's Me, Not You," on "Local Live on the Drive" segments via Transit TV on buses in Milwaukee and four other cities. And all 12 of Tenebrae's songs have been licensed for various television shows (including "Road Rules" and "The Hills").

"The integrity of the music occurs in the writing, recording and production of it. How it's going to be used really doesn't bother me," Mangione says. "Fifteen years ago, doing something like this would be considered selling out. But 15 years ago, the industry was completely different. You could have a record label that had money to invest in you. Now, record labels have no money to invest in any artist. Money comes from different places at different times. As much as I'd love to be just an artist, I'm very much an artist and a businessperson."

Mangione's career as a full-time artist-slash-businessperson began about six years ago. He financed his first real tour from money earned as "Mail Boy," a non-speaking extra role in the 2004 Will Ferrell movie Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and he recorded his first album, 2005's There and Back, while splitting time between living in Los Angeles and inside a Dodge van.

Success has been slow but sure. "I know there's a reason why things have happened at the pace they have," he says. "If I'd had some success at 23 with the music I was playing then, I don't think it would have been well deserved. I'm glad I had moments of severe doubt and sacrifice."

Mike Mangione plays Shank Hall on Aug. 8 with Prestige Atlantic Impulse, a new project featuring Violent Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo.