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Scenes From Arte Para Todos's Opening Night in Walker's Point

Pleasure Thief, Siren, Shle Berry, Tontine Ensemble and others led a night of stunning performances

Apr. 28, 2017
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It’s a sign of how far Arte Para Todos has come that nobody is mispronouncing "Arte Para Todos" anymore. Just three years in, Milwaukee’s annual four-day concert crawl/arts education fundraiser has taken on the air of a local holiday—concertgoers Thursday night routinely greeted each other with a convivial, completely genuine “Happy Arte Para Todos!” Even the chilly weather did little to dampen the fun of ping-ponging from venue to venue on foot, passing friends and familiar faces while trying to take in as much music as the night allowed.  

My night began at Radio Milwaukee’s posh Pittsburgh Avenue studio space, where Tigernite were headlining the station’s lineup in the 7 p.m. That’s an odd time to be seeing those glammy hard-rock true believers—they’re more of a 10 p.m., after-three-beers band if there ever was one—but the early time slot and very sober crowd did little to tame their performance. Backed by three band members who each look and perform like Guitar Hero avatars, singer Molly Roberts spent much of the set airborne, flailing her purple hair and kicking her Chuck Taylors whenever an especially exuberant riff hit.

Over at the Var Gallery, against the backdrop of the space’s must-see annual 30 x 30 x 30 exhibition—30 artists each displaying 30 thematically related pieces—Milwaukee rapper Shle Berry was cracking up a very amused crowd with her swift, ridiculously entertaining set. She’s got a presence that’s all her own, as indebted to stand-up comedy as hip-hop; if Cameron Esposito tried to rap and turned out be surprisingly great at it she might sound something like this. Shle elicited the kind of participation from the crowd that even rappers with 10 times her following struggle to get, effortlessly prompting them to wave their arms, clap their hands, turn on their cell phone flashlights or sing along to her hopeful songs about crushes and broken hearts.
Shle was followed by the artist of the night I was probably most excited to check out: Chakara Blu, a Teflon-tough Milwaukee rapper who’s been filling her Soundcloud page with magnificently fierce tracks for the last year or so. She rarely raised her voice during her short set of cloudy, trap-tempoed hip-hop, but she didn’t have to. She was all presence, strolling the stage territorially and contorting her face into a hardened, Biggie Smalls grimace whenever a beat particularly connected. 
A short hike away at The Local, the revived corpse of the late, iconic Milwaukee goth bar Club Anything, a decent crowd was lined up to check out Pleasure Thief, the witchy, R&B-shaded solo electronic project of NO/NO singer Cat Ries. Don’t mistake the project for a whispy, Altered Zones-era throwback, though. The name implies denial, but if anything the sound was all about indulgence: enveloping sounds, sinfully pointed melodies and booming rhythms that were only magnified by the club’s sound system. It was a bass-lover's dream. Ries’s choreography made for a striking visual spectacle as well. Positioned behind a trio of candles, she led a one-woman séance, striking a series of deliberate, geometrical poses with shades of Shiva and Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. I’ve seen bands play arenas who haven’t put as much thought into their staging.

The coed R&B/pop/hip-hop trio Table For Four followed with a considerably lighter set of bright, puppy-dog soul. In the Chance The Rapper era these kinds of happy sounds are becoming more common, but even so their relentlessly positivity was still a sight to behold—this group was so high minded they made P.M. Dawn sound like a hate group by comparison. They closed their set with a cover of “True Colors,” further hitting home that spirit of love and inclusivity.

A block down at Gibraltar, the invaluable new jazz club at 538 W. National Ave., the Milwaukee Americana outfit Sugar Ransom & theworkersparty warmed the stage for the Tontine Ensemble with a set of tight licks and dramatic, whiskey-soaked laments. Tontine Ensemble upright bassist Barry Clark began his improvised string quartet’s set with an unusual preface: “Art is completely subjective, so however you feel you want to be a part of this performance, please be a part of it.” As best I can tell, nobody took him up on that offer, though if somebody from the crowd had by chance wandered on stage and just started randomly plucking away at a Jew’s harp or something, it’s easy to see how the quartet would have just rolled with it. The four musicians were in constant call and response with each other, and at times seemed to be in a competition to see who would squeeze the most sound out of their instruments, which they plucked at, bowed, stabbed, strangled, caressed and abused. It was an intensely physical performance—a couple members removed their sweaters and jackets mid-song to cool down—yet somehow despite that flurry of constant motion, the quartet never overcrowded each other.
Meanwhile, back at the Var Gallery, powerhouse singer Siren was absolutely bringing it during a solo acoustic performance. Over the last couple of years she’s proven herself one of the local music scene’s most valuable collaborators, lending her voice to all manner of projects, and although most listeners tend to associate her with soul and R&B, this kind of folkier environment is where she shines brightest: just a small stage, an acoustic guitar and her massive, intensely emotional voice. Remarkable.
Pleasure Thief’s Cat Ries must not have had much time to hang out at The Local after her show there, since her band NO/NO was playing a headlining 11 p.m. slot back at Anodyne Coffee’s Bruce Street location. The stage was decked out with decorative cutouts from Kristina Rolander and live visual projections from WC Tank for the occasion, and the cumulative effect made their set feel like a sort of fucked-up prom—which was fitting, given NO/NO’s revisionist take on '80s synth-pop (imagine My Bloody Valentine covering Echo and the Bunnymen’s Porcupine, or a John Hughes teen movie re-edited by David Lynch).
All in all my night spanned five venues (six if you count Brenner Brewing, where people gathered and hung out before the shows as they picked up their festival wristbands)—remarkably, none of which existed just five years ago. Riverwest and Bay View may have the reputations as Milwaukee’s live music hot spots, but as Arte Para Todos’s brilliantly curated opening night demonstrated, Walker’s Point is giving those neighborhoods a run for their money these days.

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