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10 Stories That Shaped Milwaukee Music in 2009

Jan. 6, 2010
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In just the past several years, a support system coalesced around Milwaukee’s music scene, with venues, radio stations, promoters and cheerleaders offering new opportunities and a bigger spotlight for local musicians. Newly nurtured, the music scene flourished in 2009, closing the year stronger than it had been all decade. As a result, 2009 was marked with success stories big and small, with the promise of more to come. Here are 10 of 2009’s biggest Milwaukee music trends and headlines:


Collections of Colonies of Bees Erupts

Milwaukee’s instrumental post-rock quartet Collections of Colonies of Bees was beginning to make a name for itself nationally before its high-profile collaboration with Bon Iver critical darling Justin Vernon, but the project sure expedited the process. Their collaboration as Volcano Choir became one of the best-reviewed experimental albums of the year. The hope now is that some of the interest around that album, Unmap, spills over to Collections of Colonies of Bees, the group’s many side projects and the Milwaukee post-rock scene in general.


Jaill Signs to Sub Pop

Jaill wasn’t a band that many in Milwaukee would have pegged to score a contract with the prestigious indie-rock label Sub Pop—in fact, they weren’t a band that many in Milwaukee had heard of, period. Sub Pop hand-selected the group on the strength of its latest album, There’s No Sky (Oh My My), and plans to release the band’s next album this year. As with Volcano Choir, there’s hope of a halo effect. Should Jaill create a market for more agreeable, unpretentious Milwaukee garage-pop and rock ’n’ roll, the city is prepared to meet the demand.


Kings Go Forth’s Big Deal

Kings Go Forth’s album release party this July at the Turner Hall Ballroom was well promoted, well attended and well received. Now if only there had been an actual album to release. The band had a good excuse for the absence, though: They’d just been signed to a three-album deal with David Byrne’s Luaka Bop Records. It’s a coup for the label: Kings Go Forth’s soundtrack-friendly retro-soul promises a big return on the investment.


Prophetic Finds a Backer

Prophetic can count a big supporter in his court: superstar producer Pharrell Williams, who has tirelessly advocated for the Milwaukee rapper. Rap music is littered with the failed careers of similarly well-supported potential next-big-things, but Prophetic is frankly a better rapper than most of them. While Williams is putting Prophetic’s CD into all the right hands, the rapper has been busy honing his craft, growing more skilled with each release.


Milwaukee Rap Finds its Voice

Prophetic is the horse to bet on right now, but the rest of Milwaukee’s stable is pretty impressive, too. This year saw ambitious releases from House of M, Lab Partners, Sose, JC Poppe, Panic, Streetz and Young Deuces and Pacino. Some of these artists have national ambitions, but most are just content to contribute to the local rap scene, which has seldom been more vibrant, friendly and collaborative than it is right now. Some of the credit goes to DJ Madhatter’s Miltown Beat Down producer battles, social events that have helped unite Milwaukee’s historically segregated rap scene.


There’s Always Room for New Festivals

Milwaukee makes the most of its limited warm weather, squeezing in as many free outdoor festivals as logistics will allow. This year saw the addition of some great new ones: The Cream City Music Festival in the Third Ward; a Pabst Blue Ribbon Fourth of July concert in Bay View (featuring headliner Stephen Malkmus), and WMSE’s Radio Summer Camp, a weekend-long series of concerts topped by a free daylong show in Cathedral Square Park.


Danny Gokey

Say what you will about Danny Gokey, but he’s been a boon to the city. His stint on “American Idol” brought Milwaukee tens of thousands of dollars in free publicity, and he remains committed to his hometown, using his celebrity to raise money for local charities. Cynics snickered at news that Gokey was pursuing a career in country, but they shouldn’t dismiss him so quickly. As a devout Christian, he has a deft understanding of the values and politics that drive contemporary country music listeners.


Wilco’s Extended Stay

For the better part of a week, Milwaukee rolled out the red carpet as Wilco made the city its playground, headlining a pair of shows at the Pabst Theater, photographing the quirky cover of their record Wilco (The Album) in front of Mader’s Restaurant, throwing the opening pitch at a Brewers game and then running the Racing Sausages race in costume. If only all Cubs fans were such gracious visitors.


Live Music Flocks to Bay View

The Bay View neighborhood’s nightlife grows more bustling each year, and in 2009 the neighborhood hosted more live music than ever. In addition to longtime venue the Cactus Club, sometimes venues like Club Garibaldi, Frank’s Power Plant and Café LuLu were as active as they’ve ever been, and a new venue joined them: The Bay View Brew Haus, a spacious brewery that’s now one of the neighborhood’s biggest concert spaces.


Milwaukee Does SXSW Right

Most years several Milwaukee bands make the trek to perform and network at Austin, Texas’ massive South by Southwest music conference. This year more than a dozen did. The strong turnout was yet another sign of the increased aspirations and ambitions of the Milwaukee music scene.


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