The Crystal Corner Bar is filled with thick, moist air on a hot Monday night in mid-April. When the Whiskey Lash All-Stars open the first of two 75-minute sets, the small crowd is hunkered down on the main side of the bar, drinks firmly in hand. The four-piece, Irish-leaning group are visible to just a few of them, especially since the All-Stars have set up directly on the floor next to one of the Crystal's famous neon-lighted glass block walls. Until one of the bartenders thoughtfully clicks off the bar's perfectly positioned TVs, an NBA playoff game gets far more play than the musicians gamboling through a couple up-tempo pub tunes.
Local bands like the All-Stars play weekly off-night gigs at area bars, clubs and restaurants for a variety of reasons. Being assured of a big, attentive crowd each time they stride onto a stage isn't one of them.
Whiskey Lash vocalist Ken Fitzsimmons, mandolin player Kevin Youngs and bass player Caitlin Gans-Oliver have made a bigger mark here in Madison and around the Midwest with party-in-a-box Irish-rockers the Kissers. But they all say their weekly Crystal gig � which passed the two-year mark last fall � is an essential part of their musical lives too. They're all trying to make it as full-time musicians. And, of course, whatever they split up from the $2 cover sweetens the evening. Nevertheless, the appeal of this low-key residency doesn't have much to do with the extra cash, either. It's about freedom: to create, to try things out, to fuck up every now and then.
"With the Kissers we've tried to be more professional, more serious," says Fitzsimmons, trying to nail down the Whiskey Lash ethos. "With Whiskey Lash it's definitely more directed at having fun. Caitlin, Kevin and I have been doing some kind of weekly gig for the last five years. It would be easy to just get lazy. But we like to learn two new songs a week, and do some country and other songs the Kissers won't ever do. And the Irish thing gets people in � it does everywhere. We take it seriously, and we have a core audience, but we try to have fun."
"When we started here two years ago, we had no idea what we were doing," adds Oliver-Gans, who at 24 is the baby of the group. "If someone had come up to us with a pair of spoons and said they wanted to play, we probably would have said, Yeah, why not? That's sort of how it still is."
That's certainly how it was when Athens, Ga., refugee Kyle Ramcy jumped on board a couple months into their amiably amorphous Monday nights. Now a tech for Verizon, he got to talking with Fitzsimmons and started showing up with his pedal steel. Before anyone had thought much about it, he was a member of the band. He was the only non-Kisser, and he was also the only one of the four who didn't have some connection to Wisconsin. As kids, Fitzsimmons and Youngs were best friends in Whitewater, and San Francisco transplant Oliver-Gans decided to check out the Badger State, in part, to hang with her cousin Ken.
Ramcy headed back to Athens for nearly a year, but when he showed up after a hiatus, he was welcomed right back into fold. These days he's the one All-Star who spends the bulk of every Monday sitting down, trying to match riffs with Youngs' skittering mandolin on the band's careering, Pogues-style reading of "Nancy Whiskey" and the devilishly sardonic "It's a Long Way from Wichita." It's his only musical outlet when the workday's done, and he says it does the trick.
"I just like playing with these guys," he says in his light Southern drawl before heading off to wipe down the strings of his pedal steel.
During their second set at the Crystal, the All-Stars show off their diversity, as well as their willingness to take some chances. The crowd is much bigger and more vocal now, and the fans closer to the stage don't hesitate to pepper the band with requests. Fitzsimmons eventually gets to most of them. First, however, he tackles the tumult of place names that form the verses of the old Phil Harris hit "I've Been Everywhere." Much of the audience doesn't seem to know this kicking chestnut, but Fitzsimmons' display of lingual dexterity provokes shouts of approval just the same.
Oliver-Gans' run-through of Elvis Costello's "Radio Sweetheart" is less assured. As it ends she smirks, "I bet you're glad that's over." Later, she says that this Whiskey Lash show offered an ideal workshop setting for a couple Costello songs she's learning for a planned all-Elvis project. With a supportive, gently lubricated audience that isn't expecting all the bells and whistles of a Saturday night Kissers gig, the relaxed, neighborhood feel of the Crystal on a Monday night allows for exactly that kind of good-natured experimentation. That's the beauty of many weekly residencies: The pressure to entertain everyone all the time just isn't there. The band has a chance to loosen up.
Bob Westfall doesn't have another, deadly serious band to center his musical life. For the last few years the 43-year-old guitar and mandolin whiz has only had his jazz-meets-bluegrass quartet, which plays a free show every Tuesday just off State Street at the Angelic brew pub. Westfall was a busy singer-songwriter a decade ago, but his days are now filled with the guitar lessons he teaches at the downtown studio he runs with violinist Chris Wagoner. A founding member of the Moon Gypsies, the dexterous Wagoner moonlights with the all-instrumental quartet along with his bass-playing wife and fellow Gypsy, Mary Gaines. But the group is Westfall's baby.
Westfall figures he's been picking at the Angelic for about seven years. This version of the quartet is the best he's led there, though. By design, it's a showcase for his mandolin skills. He also uses the group very consciously to blend Brazilian flavors with jazzy string band material that's inspired by mandolin popularizer David Grisman's lilting "Dawg music."
"What's important for me and the other people in the band is that we're playing an interesting and wide variety of music," says Westfall. "We play other gigs in Milwaukee, at Magnus, weddings, pig roasts. But this is all-instrumental, and it's always what we want to play. That's what makes it fun."
The Angelic's award-winning beers are a nice bonus, but the quartet's firmly established fan base really comes for the music and the players. "There's no one else like them in town," says a student of Westfall and Wagoner who makes a point of catching every performance he can. "An acoustic band playing music this well? There's nothing else like 'em in Wisconsin."
Another of Westfall's students doesn't just come to listen and con tricks from his mentors. Twenty-nine-year-old guitarist Chandler Fritz took lessons from Westfall when he first moved to Madison, and their musical relationship grew over the years. His on-and-off pursuit of a creative writing degree in Minnesota and a life-supporting chair with the jazz-funk Chicago band Mudita takes up a lot of his time, but when Westfall asked him to join the quartet on acoustic guitar, he didn't have to think it over.
"I didn't even play acoustic music much," Fritz muses. "I didn't even know the jazzy grass stuff. I got into the guitar through [electric genre-buster] Charlie Hunter. But when I'm playing with these people, I'm really playing with them. There's a lot of stage energy, and that's why I'm here."
Tuesdays with Westfall's quartet are even more relaxed than the Whiskey Lash All-Stars' good-time hullabaloo on Monday nights.
The configuration of the Angelic has something to do with that. A sprawling place, it offers its patrons lots of seating choices, and many of the college students, traveling businessmen and downtown regulars who come to chat and drink in the secluded booths and semi-private anterooms treat the group as background music for a night out. With no set list and, in fact, no microphone to introduce the tunes, Westfall and company encourage that attitude. Brazilian tunes flow into Gypsy jazz, then morph into a Grisman tune, with Westfall and Wagoner trading solos and goosing the set's dramatic arc. No one plays the prima donna, and if the audience is distracted, that's fine.
"It's great because we aren't playing to people who are listening to every note," Westfall laughs. "It's not a jazz gig, and we don't expect people to drop their glasses and keep their eyes on us. We'll play a Brazilian tune or something, and people will look up. But it's okay if they aren't attentive, because it is a little more laid back. People can sit in, and you can try things you might not if you were doing your �show.'
"I know most of the people here anyway," he adds, motioning around the noisy bar area. "I hate to use a clich�, but most of the time it's like playing to family."
The family metaphor works for country duo #1 Dad's Sunday night affairs at the Crystal, too. Your genial host, singer/guitarist Kenneth Burns, really doesn't know everyone in the place. He just acts like does, greeting friends and acquaintances through the PA as they mosey in beneath the neon American flag that shines its party lights from the transom.
Burns radiates the aw-shucks charm that he soaked up during his formative years in Music City itself, Nashville, Tenn. Stage partner Matthew Stratton says nothing at all � ever � as he scratches leads from his Telecaster, but from time to time he also nods in affirmation to the fellow grad students and just plain folks who sit down at the bar for a night of originals mixed in with a laundry list of classic country hits. The two compadres' embroidered Western-wear shirts and Burns' blacker-than-black cowboy hat separate them from the straight-off-the-couch duds that Crystal hardcores seem to prefer on a Sunday evening. But not much.
Like the Whiskey Lash All-Stars, the men of #1 Dad have another, much higher-profile act: local honky-tonkin' faves the Junkers. Unlike the All-Stars, Burns and Stratton came to town in search of graduate degrees first and musical careers second. Burns abandoned the poli sci doctorate program at the UW after deciding it wasn't for him (he's still working on a master's at the University of Chicago, as well as freelancing for Isthmus), while Matt is nearly finished with his doctoral studies in the UW English department.
Quick-witted and ironic-as-you-wanna-be, both of them have a passion for pure, pre-'70s country, Burns concentrating on Willie, Waylon, George Jones and other Nashville legends, Stratton going for the down-to-it Bakersfield sound he learned to love growing up in the Pacific Northwest. Then nameless, #1 Dad sprouted from the head of the Junkers on Christmas Day of 2000. "We didn't have anything to do," Burns recalls. "So we did this charity gig down at the V.A. hospital. We brought all our equipment and pretty much wandered the halls."
"We killed in the psych ward," Stratton chuckles.
In April 2002, armed with the #1 Dad moniker, which Burns had first seen printed on the bass-drum head of an upstate punk band, they followed the All-Stars to the Crystal. That was appropriate, since the Kissers gave the Junkers their first break at one of their popular Monday shows at the long-gone O'Cayz Corral. "If there could be a Kissers lite, we thought there could be a Junkers lite too," says the half-serious Stratton.
One year into the residency, both musicians are pleased to have built a steady audience. They're just as happy to have a live workshop where anything goes, including an impromptu stump-the-singer aspect of the show that allows folks to challenge Burns' encyclopedic songbook of folk, country and rock fare. Having a pressure-free performance slot every week for developing arrangements and learning lyrics has become increasingly important to them as well. "Typically, #1 Dad does new songs here first before the Junkers get them," says Burns. "It's been such great practice for us as musicians."
On Easter Sunday, Burns and Stratton are in top form. By 11:30 the Crystal is filling up, and the sinners are leaving the solemnity of the Lord's day far behind. Burns wraps his baritone around George Jones' lachrymose "He Stopped Lovin' Her Today," and a few honorary Nashvillians at the bar clap in approval. A Burns original called "Live Characters Nightly" � the title's borrowed from a sign on O'Cayz's sister bar, the Comic Strip � takes off at a gallop, and Stratton emphasizes the tune's straight-up honky-tonk mood with some reverb-heavy chicken scratch. A cigarette hangs smoldering from his lower lip, and his amp sports one of the blue-on-white "Impeach" hat bands a friend has given the band during their break.
There's some fumbling for chords, and no one ever quite figures out the riff to Sabbath's "War Pigs." But nobody's complaining. It's Sunday night, everyone's feeling right, and as usual, #1 Dad are giving the last good time of the weekend an ideal soundtrack.