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Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008

2008: The Year in Milwaukee Music

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Though it hasn't put the city on the national radar, there has been a crucial sea change here over the past two or three years: After a long period of neglect, Milwaukeeans have begun paying attention to their own music scene again. Newspapers and magazines large and small have started covering local music with fervent thoroughness, while Web sites and blogs are showering musicians with needed encouragement and promotion. Now, there is even more than one radio station open to airing local music, a modest accomplishment that nonetheless seemed infeasible as recently as 2005. In part because it finally has the support system it deserves, Milwaukee music flourished in 2008. These are the trends and stories that defined the year:

The Rap Scene Coalesces

In the early '90s, nine unknown rappers banded together to form one of the most successful enterprises in rap history, the Wu-Tang Clan. It was a smart example of branding that two sects of Milwaukee's hip-hop scene sought to replicate this year, as a dozen mostly fledgling upstarts from the scene united as House of M, a superhero-themed supergroup, while another half-dozen or so aligned themselves with Royal Fam, a label with not-so-modest hopes of becoming Milwaukee's answer to Roc-A-Fella. House of M provided a bold, memorably gaudy introduction to some of the city's youngest, rawest talent, while Royal Fam was responsible for one of this year's strongest local rap records, Prophetic's Mo Profit, Mo Progress. As an added bonus, both camps found a comfortable hub to host their shows, thanks to the Stonefly Brewery, which has emerged as the backbone of the Milwaukee rap scene. It is one of the only near-East Side venues with the guts to regularly book hip-hop.

Band Breakthroughs

Though Wisconsin's biggest music success story this year came not from Milwaukee but rather Eau Claire-in the form of the ever-lauded Bon Iver-plenty of local bands made names for themselves, too. With their lavish, 10-piece throwbacks to vintage soul, Kings Go Forth became an instant live draw and 88Nine Radio Milwaukee regular, also inviting national (and international) interest. Their novel three-part male harmonies could make them a hot commodity in the flourishing soul-revival craze. Meanwhile, Atlatl emerged from nowhere to earn similar airplay with their uplifting fusion of riffy jam-rock and squirrelly indie-rock, and two eccentric rock bands, John the Savage and The Celebrated Workingman, gigged locally at a breakneck pace but always managed to draw a crowd. The all-ages scene produced too many young staples to list them all, but two stood out in particular: Pigs on Ice for their brainy art-punk and multi-sensory live shows, and We'rewolves for their willingness to sandwich themselves on any bill that would have them.

Old Favorites Go Strong…

Milwaukee's scene cherishes its vets more than most, and this year two of its biggest luminaries made good on their legacy. The Gufs celebrated their 20th year together with a series of concerts with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, while the BoDeans reunited with producer T-Bone Burnett to record Still, their most realized album in a decade.

…Except the Femmes

Crippled by litigation and infighting, the Violent Femmes nonetheless returned to the studio this year, but the resulting single, a cover of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," feels less like a fresh start than a last breath. "I believe this may well be the last thing the original trio has recorded and quite possibly THE last thing the original three will ever record," Jeff Hamilton, the honorary Femme who produced and performed on this session, wrote in an e-mail to the Shepherd.

End of the Road

With their rock-star looks, oversized sound and Christian-rock leanings that could have made them a fortune if they'd played them up, Northern Room promised to be a Goliath of the local rock scene for years to come, so it was a shock when the band quickly and cleanly called it quits this fall. Similarly, with their hooky, bluesy rock, Appleton's Wildbirds attracted more national press than most Wisconsin bands could ever dream of, but that group also folded this summer. Less surprising was the long-coming breakup of Milwaukee's hardcore pioneers Since By Man. Flanked by their peers and successors, they signed off with a glorious final concert in April.

R.I.P. DJ Rock Dee

Friends and acquaintances rallied at a benefit concert this August in memory ofDJ Rock Dee, whose sudden death will sting for years to come. Though known most recently as an amiable, knowledgeable host on Radio Milwaukee, Rock Dee had also been an early pillar of the city's hip-hop scene, anchoring it at a time when it was even harder to book a rap show than it is today.

All-Ages Venues Bloom

Joining the young but venerable Borg Ward, a new crop of D.I.Y. venues emerged this year to join the perpetual fight to bring all-ages music to Milwaukee. The Vault and The Dipping Station were the most visible among them, emerging as some of the city's busiest live-music destinations, but the abandoned corpse of the Echo Base Collective remains a stark reminder of what could happen if these venues run afoul of city code. In April, that arts space was accused of hosting a rave, raided by police during a small folk concert, slapped with $1,000 in fines and subsequently shut down.

The Turner Hall Holy Grail

It's easy to see why the repurposed Turner Hall Ballroom doesn't book the same number of local shows as the city's corner clubs: With its 900-person occupancy, the ballroom is too vast for most Milwaukee acts to fill. That's part of its allure, though, part of what makes the rare local shows it books a destination event for music fans and a prestigious achievement for its few chosen headliners, which this year included some of the city's most esteemed bands, like Maritime, Decibully and Fever Marlene. The ballroom provides yet another opportunity for local bands in a city that just years ago sorely lacked them.

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