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Milwaukee Music Scene

Lauren Wells | April 28, 2014

The History

Beginning in the 1930s, Milwaukee’s music scene was led by the king of showmanship: Liberace. A gifted pianist, vocalist, and performer, the legend hailed from Milwaukee, spreading glamour and happiness everywhere he performed. Also embracing an experimental music aesthetic during this time was Woody Herman, who led big bands all the way to the halftime show at Super Bowl VII. During the 1950s and 1960s, a more soulful sound swept through the city, with the R&B band The Esquires and jazz singer Al Jarreau. Also emerging from Milwaukee in the 1970s was saxophonist Warren Wiegratz and new wave guitarist Jerry Harrison, a notable member of the band Talking Heads. The 1980s was a great time for alternative rock bands, as acts like BoDeans and Violent Femmes, well-known for their hits “Blister in the Sun” and “Gone Daddy Gone,” gained popularity. Neo soul singer-songwriter Eric Benet also made a name for himself during the mid to late 1980s, while acts like the rock/jazz band Little Blue Crunchy Things and pop/rock band The Gufs (known for their songs “Smile” and “Crash (Into Me)”) got their start. During the 1990s, hip hop took off as hip-hop rapper Coo Coo Cal and Citizen King, an alternative rock group with a hip-hop flare, began making music while bands like The Promise Ring used this time to hone their emo sound. The millenium brought out the alternative rock group Fever Marlene as well as hip-hop rappers Gerald Walker and Rico Love, who worked with Usher, Jermaine Dupri, Jamie Foxx, and Fat Joe, among others.

The Venues

The Vogel Hall Marcus Center in Downtown Milwaukee is a great venue for plays, dances, film screenings, concerts, and corporate meetings. The 475-capacity venue has a traditional aesthetic that welcomes performances by acts like the Milwaukee Ballet, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and various Broadway and theatrical companies.
The Rave/Eagles Club opened in 1926 and is a combination of six venues, allowing six different performers to take their respective stages at the same time. Considered an official historical landmark since 1986, the venue has hosted Bob Dylan, the Sex Pistols, Weezer, Morrissey, The Killers, The Offspring, Bad Religion, the Grateful Dead, the White Stripes, Fugazi, Matchbox Twenty, The Smashing Pumpkins, Kings of Leon, Marilyn Manson, Maroon 5, Rihanna, and Ke$ha, among many others. The Rave Hall is on the main level of the venue, and plays host to larger acts like John Mayer, GWAR, Regina Spektor, moe., Tiesto, Chiodos, and Bob Weir. The Eagles Hall, formerly called the Basement and the Underground, is located in the basement of the venue, with hardwood floors that have hosted many wedding receptions. Muse, Nickelback, 3 Doors Down, and Gov’t Mule have played in this lower section of the venue in previous years. The Rave Bar is a small, intimate club venue located in the larger complex, having launched Milwaukee natives in the past. Dave Matthews Band, Nirvana, Les Claypool, Third Eye Blind, Smash Mouth, Blink-182, and Pearl Jam have all played the Rave Bar’s stage. For newer, up-and-coming bands and DJs, the Rave Vibe Room is a great space to have your music showcased. The Penthouse Lounge and the Eagles Club round out the event spaces, as the former highlights the Milwaukee skyline in a covered outdoor lounge, perfect for dancing during those warm summer nights.

Formed in 1895, the Pabst Theater is a 1,339-capacity venue packed with history. A Milwaukee landmark, the theater hosts over 100 events per year, and has hosted legends like pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, actor Laurence Olivier, and ballerina Anna Pavlova. The venue features a proscenium stage with two balconies that allow concert goers to enjoy excellent views of the show. The oldest theater in Milwaukee’s theater district, the Pabst Theater hosts concerts, comedy shows, dance performances, plays, and operas. The hydraulic orchestra pit is another added feature that allows for the space to become adaptable for different performance styles. Complete with a 2-ton crystal chandelier, the Pabst Theater’s auditorium is impressive to say the least, as it’s flanked with marble and gold leaf archways designed by architect Otto Strack, known for his German Renaissance Revival style. For varied acts like John Prine, Tracy Morgan, and Richard Thompson Electric Trio, the Pabst is the place to be.

Also managed by the same team that runs the Pabst (the Pabst Theater Organization), the Riverside Theatre and the Turner Hall Ballroom are two great options to catch some live entertainment. The Riverside Theatre hosts acts like Jackson Browne, The Piano Guys, and the popular show The Voice’s tour. The 2,450-capacity concert hall opened in 1920 and is housed in a twelve story building. A former vaudeville and film house, the Riverside was designed by architects Charles Kirchoff and Thomas Rose. The theatre has seen performances from Sheryl Crow, Oasis, Eddie Vedder, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson, among many others. The Turner Hall Ballroom, designed by Henry C. Koch, was built in 1982 in the Romanesque Revival style, and has since become a concert venue with a balcony, restaurant, and beer hall. The Ballroom books performances by Sturgill Simpson, Black Star Riders, Boris, Phox, Old 97s, and Chris Robinson Brotherhood.

The Milwaukee Theatre is a 4,086-capacity event space that opened in 1909. The venue is well known for its role in hosting President Theodore Roosevelt’s speech after he was shot during an assassination attempt. Musicians that have passed through the event center include Liberace, The Beach Boys, Johnny Cash, the Beatles, Ray Charles, the Rolling Stones, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Queen, Jackson Browne, KISS, Frank Zappa, ABBA, and the Grateful Dead, among many others.

Bands like The Pines, Alex Ballard and Sugarfoot, The Carolinas, Rectifier, and Animation (A Tribute to Rush) take the stage at Shank Hall, a venue located in Milwaukee’s Lower East Side. With excellent acoustics, a full bar, and an outdoor patio area, Shank Hall brings in great up and coming as well as established acts. This intimate venue often encourages meet and greets and poster/photo signings, allowing concert goers to interact with band members.

The BMO Harris Bradley Center, originally called the Bradley Center, is a 20,000-capacity event complex in downtown Milwaukee. Home to the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, the NCAA’s Marquette University team, and the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals, the BMO Harris Bradley Center is a well known sporting and entertainment venue. The arena has hosted acts like Diana Ross, Lady Gaga, and Taylor Swift, as well as American Idol auditions.
Opened in 1987, the Marcus Amphitheater hosts big names like Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga, Brad Paisley, Outkast, Dave Matthews Band, Zac Brown Band, Motley Crue, Fall Out Boy, and Paramore. The amphitheater is located on the south end of Henry Maier Festival Park and hosts headlining acts during Summerfest.

Every year, the Wisconsin State Fair’s main stage hosts acts like Phil Vassar, Summerland, 311, Lady Antebellum, and Alabama, among many others. When you’re done checking out your favorite show (or you’re waiting for it to begin), stop by their many food and game vendors. Don’t forget to swing by the livestock areas and pet a couple of horses!

The Festivals

Country USA is held in Oshkosh, WI every June. The festival features acts like Eli Young Band, Carrie Underwood, Luke Bryan, Brantley Gilbert, Gary Allen, and Florida Georgia Line, among many other country superstars. Camping is encouraged, so bring your tents and your cowboy boots! Every summer, Milwaukee hosts Summerfest at the BMO Harris Pavilion, hosting headliners like Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga, Brad Paisley, Outkast, Dave Matthews Band, Motley Crue, and Zac Brown Band, among others. Eleven days and eleven stages host over 800 performers and 900,000 festival attendees. Expect cold beer, fresh food, colorful merch, and live music parties every night, as this festival has been going strong since 1968, and it grows stronger with every passing year. Country Jam Wisconsin, held in Eau Claire in July, features a lineup that includes acts like Jake Owen, The Band Perry, Cassadee Pope, Thomas Rhett, Dierks Bentley, Jennifer Nettles, LoCash Cowboys, Chase Rice, Luke Bryan, Chris Young, Lee Brice, and Chris Janson. Held in Oshkosh, Rock USAis held in July, featuring hard rock headliners like Korn, Rob Zombie, Five Finger Death Punch, Slayer, and Three Days Grace. Rock Fest Wisconsin is held in Cadott every July, booking rockers like Rob Zombie, Aerosmith, Five Finger Death Punch, Sammy Hagar, Stone Sour, Cheap Trick, REO Speedwagon, the Pretty Reckless, and Steel Panther. Country Thunder Wisconsin, a festival located in Twin Lakes, runs in late July. Featuring acts like Brantley Gilbert, Miranda Lambert, Randy Houser, Thompson Square, Craig Morgan, Jason Aldean, and Gary Allan, the weekend-long festival offers fun carnival-style rides, plenty of food vendors, and country merch galore. Summer Set Music Festival, held in Somerset, takes place during mid-August. The music and camping festival features acts like Passion Pit, Big Gigantic, Girl Talk, STS9, Big Boi, Common, Diplo, GriZ, Kewella, Wolfgang Gartner, Zedd, and Conspirator. Wisconsin Metalfest features acts like Asking Alexandria, All That Remains, Sevendust, Crowd, Periphery, For Today, I See Stars, Bleeding Through, and Born of Osiris.