By Joey Tayler
Made in Milwaukee wants you to think Milwaukee is cool. And if, like me, you already think Milwaukee is plenty cool, Made in Milwaukee wants you think Milwaukee is even cooler than that. Halloween, a ten dollar cover, and $3 PBR Tall Boys brought out a younger, more enthusiastic downtown crowd than the bored cocktail sippers who yawned with me through last November's MIM bash, a dull menagerie of faux-hipness that staged a succession of mediocre hip-hop acts around art displays and a vintage runway show.
I still say you can't call your event "Made in Milwaukee" without Pat McCurdy and a few giant cheese wheels, but Saturday night felt a lot more like home than last year's event, even with a naked pixie spray-painting herself Mardi Gras colors in Turner Hall's balcony. Yes, the art was back (I bought a series of funny postcards depicting animals clashing with modern inconvenience by Chad Edwards), and so was the drawn-out fashion parade starring deer-in-headlights amateur models. There was also more lousy rapping and some kids breakdancing, during which I went upstairs to take a ... uh ... closer look at the painted chick. Come on guys, let's stop pretending: Milwaukee does not have a hip-hop "scene," and shows like this aren't going to make one magically spring to life. You want to showcase Milwaukee's locally-owned clothing shops? Fine -- just keep the fashion show under twenty minutes, or get a DJ who has more creative moves than setting his iPod to shuffle. And finally, don't sign up local rock that DOES fit the Made in Milwaukee bill and then schedule them in the margins -- thanks to that drawn-out fashion show and the classic Wisconsin Hasidic reggae of surprise opener Matisyahu, Rocksposure pals Will Phalen and the Stereo Addicts barely had time to unpack. I'd never seen WPSA in a venue Turner Hall's size, but the music in their brief set was plenty big. It helps that the Madison band is bigger now too: banjo/slide guitarist Doc Holliday's shimmering twang has added a welcome new texture to WPSA's sound, underscoring Phalen's country-folk songwriting and matching lead guitarist Andy Gulotta with a formidable sonic counterpart on the band's expansive jams. Yeah, sure, I know a couple of these guys. So what? That doesn't mean I'm wrong -- this band gets better every time I see them. I wish I'd seen more of them Saturday, and judging by the crowd I wasn't alone.
Milwaukee's the Championship fared somewhat better: 7 songs if my notebook's not lying, drawing from 2008's superb "Midnight Golden" and June's "Moving at the Speed of Darkness" EP. Seeing the Championship at an event called Made in Milwaukee begs the question: is this the city's best band? Right now they've got my vote, and the drive to carry that mantle across state lines. "I've never wanted anything more than I want this/So what do we have to do to get some respect?" sang Joe Crockett on set-opening, road-as-home rumination "The Highway," which couldn't help sounding a bit like a lament for more stage time given the circumstances. Crockett is among the least "alt" of Wisconsin's many alt-country songwriters, singing the working class blues in a voice that glides between Cash's end of days rumble and Jim James' yelp. "Ferris Wheel" caught Crockett struggling to kick-start a lonely 2AM bender, shuffling from a closed bar to a liquor store, wondering, "Why do I act this way? And what here makes me stay?" Like any good Springsteen acolyte, Crockett wants out of his nothing home town but can't muster the nerve to leave. Instead he picks up a bottle and spins around in place, moving without going anywhere.
Live, the Championship pump up Crockett's weary foreboding with pure "River"-era Boss muscle, runaway pickups charging down highways littered with broken hearts and battered dreams, some pre-leather pants My Morning Jacket sheen on the bumper and the fuzz in the rearview mirror. If the songs from "Moving at the Speed of Darkness" are any sign of things to come, I wouldn't be surprised if the Championship's next stop was "Nebraska" territory. There's nothing cute about the Lolitas on "Heartbreakers" -- "they'll tear your heart out, boy," warns Crockett in a beaten-down mumble that knows what for. "Black Clouds" closed the set with rolling thunder guitars and Crockett glimpsing danger on the horizon. "Black cloud's gonna hide the sun/We gotta keep moving on" he warned before fleeing the stage. Unfortunately for titular headliners Great Lake Swimmers (hailing from my favorite city in Wisconsin: Ontario, Canada), most of the crowd headed for the exits as well. No offense to GLS or the Great White North -- both of whom make lovely music -- but where the Championship goes, Milwaukee follows. I hope Made in Milwaukee keeps that in mind next year.
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