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Thursday, Jan. 3, 2008

A Look Back

2007 in Milwaukee music

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January 03, 2008

Although it can sometimes feel like Milwaukee's music scene is a tad predictable, 2007 will be remembered as a more eventful year than most. Here's a look back at some of the biggest happenings, controversies and trends of the year.

88Nine Radio Milwaukee's Quick Rise

After years of planning, FM 88.9 unveiled its new format in February, offering an eclectic blend of rock, pop, R&B and funk targeted at younger adults. Its playlist is considerably larger than any local commercial stations, and although some listeners were shaken by its free-form nature (and others never forgave the station for abandoning its jazz format), 88Nine Radio Milwaukee quickly found its audience. After less than a year on air, Milwaukee readers voted it their favorite station in the Shepherd Express' annual Best of Milwaukee poll. Now if the station could only stop airing those damn school-board meetings.

The Turner Ballroom's New Gig

The managers of the Pabst and Riverside theaters began booking at another historic Milwaukee venue this year, the Turner Hall Ballroom. The unfinished, timeworn ballroom bears little resemblance to its gilded siblings, but it was quickly put to good use with a busy fall schedule. With its open layout, the venue can host standing-room shows ill-fitted for the Pabst—in particular, it's welcomed a string of young, punkish modern-rock bands and more ska bands than anyone expected—and the venue provides the Pabst Theater Foundation a place to book concerts in the winter when the Pabst and Riverside's schedules are eaten up by A Christmas Carol and other seasonal commitments.


The Violent Femmes' Final Bow?

The vibe in the Violent Femmes camp has felt tense since the group ceased recording new material after the failure of their 2001 album, Freak Magnet, but Milwaukee's most famous band had continued to tour on a passive, as-booked basis until this year, when bassist Brian Ritchie filed a lawsuit against singer Gordon Gano. The impetus, of all things, was a Wendy's commercial: Gano had licensed a song to the chain, angering and embarrassing Ritchie. With the lawsuit hanging over them, the Femmes played the last of their previously scheduled concerts this fall. Fans have a sense that there won't be any more in the near future.

A "Ludacris" Controversy

A handful of conservative commentators and bloggers cried foul over Summerfest's booking of rapper Ludacris at the Marcus Amphitheater, citing his explicit lyrics and fears of violence. Little matter that Ludacris' cartoonish pop-rap songs are about as violent as a "Tom and Jerry" cartoon, local news outlets covered the concert as if it were a countdown to the L.A. riots. Despite the fear mongering, the show occurred without incident—it was a peaceful, family-friendly evening of music, short on profanity but heavy on swooning tweens and dancing grandmothers. Regardless, Ludacris' detractors probably achieved their goal. It's hard to imagine that Summerfest won't keep the fervor in mind next time it considers booking a major rap act.

Maritime Comes Into Its Own

Once dispelled as another Promise Ring side-project—and not a particularly interesting one—indie-rockers Maritime have found their groove and a well-deserved following in recent years, and this fall they released their best record yet, the tuneful, peppy Heresy and the Hotel Choir, which met with a symphony of local accolades. Some of the praise resulted from hometown pride—with long-distance bassist Eric Axelson (formerly of Dismemberment Plan) now out of the picture, Maritime feels like a true local band for the first time—but there's a genuine sense of excitement around the group, and anticipation about what they might do next.

Element's Rising Star

Perhaps no other CD release received more local attention this year than Life is a Heist, the solo debut from Black Elephant singer and rapper Element. Element's dynamic, effortlessly likable personality and her tireless networking guaranteed her ample press, but her rise is due to more than just simple self-promotion. Life is a Heist showcases a versatile talent as adept at neo-soul and underground hip-hop as contemporary rap, and Element's ability to rope in big-name guests (members of Dead Prez and Little Brother on the album, producer 9th Wonder at her release party) should come in handy as her aspirations turn national.

Oh, Bright Eyes

From lip-syncing snafus to wardrobe malfunctions, our culture loves to see train-wreck concerts, but the druggy performance of Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst at the Pabst Theater this April was just too sad to be amusing. The increasingly aloof Oberst sabotaged his elaborate stage show, attempting to toss his guitar (and himself) into the audience, and stumbling around stage until he collapsed—on his seated string section, of all places. All in all, not a promising way to kick off a tour behind a sobriety-themed album.

Late Night Hype Show's Final Countdown

In news of the sad, 2007 will be the final full year for the "Late Night Hype Show," WMSE's long-running old-school and underground rap program. Like so many rap fans of a certain age, DJ Aaron Wade can't muster the same enthusiasm for modern crunk as he had for '90s boom-bap. "I'm guessing that people aren't really into hearing a 33-year-old man complain about how terrible rap has become," he wrote on his MySpace page, echoing concerns about the genre he's often voiced on air. The show will sign off forever on March 25, its 10-year anniversary.

Bay View's Venues Get Put to Use

When remodeling fell behind schedule at the Cactus Club, Bay View's highest profile rock 'n' roll hub, two neighborhood bars graciously took in some of the bills left venue-less by the closure. It was a reminder that both bars, Club Garibaldi and Frank's Power Plant, are well equipped for live music and have shown increased interest in putting their facilities to good use. Both venues kept their live music schedules full even after the Cactus Club reopened. Those looking to further support their "Bay View as the new East Side" argument need look no further than the neighborhood's ever-strengthening music scene.