One last encore: 2 of Madison's favorite groups call it quits

Jane Burns  —  5/15/2008 5:57 pm

The moment comes in every band's life, unless it hits big and stays big.

The big questions begin to loom: Is this the right path? Is the struggle worth it? Is this working?

Then there's the biggest question of all: What else is there?

Two popular Madison bands have come to that moment almost simultaneously, and their decisions will surely leave a gap in the city's music scene. On Saturday, alt-country favorites the Junkers will play their "absolute, final, they-really-mean-it-this time last reunion performance" at the Crystal Corner Bar. On June 7, Irish rockers the Kissers will say goodbye a little less permanently in a show titled "Farewell for Now" at the High Noon Saloon. The band's next-to-last performance in the Madison area will also be this Saturday, at Fitchburg Days.

"Nothing lasts forever," said Rick Tvedt, founder of the Madison Area Music Awards. "People get older and have other things they want to do. We're losing a couple of good ones."

Both bands got their start about a decade ago, emerging from the late, great O'Cayz Corral scene. Both hit the scene with music that carved a unique niche in the city. Both combined covers from their genres -- including a mutual fondness for Johnny Cash tunes -- with original music.

"It's striking that we're ending at the same time," said Kenneth Burns, vocalist and songwriter for the Junkers. "We really do have the same lineage."

Nothing dramatic has spurred the end of the two popular bands. No money disputes. No romantic squabbles. No overdoses. No drummer spontaneously combusting.

It's just life, they say. It's just time.


Many ideas conceived around a kitchen table with lots of liquor don't really go anywhere. The same can't be said about the Kissers.

Ken Fitzsimmons and his longtime buddy Kevin Young had enough whiskey that night that Fitzsimmons only remembers the idea, but not who came up with it. They both loved the Pogues, the Irish rock band that combines traditional songs with drinking songs and a punk attitude.

"It began with us literally sitting around the table, drinking a bottle of whiskey, playing Pogues tunes," Fitzsimmons said. "Then it was him or me saying, 'We should start a band, man.' "

That was 10 years ago. Fitzsimmons, Young and four others started out playing 25 Pogues tunes and moved on to originals.

"We were a fun band, we were basically going out, getting trashed and playing Irish music," Fitzsimmons said. "At some point we shifted our priorities and started concentrating on the music."

A few months after their first show in April 1998, the Kissers got a regular Monday night gig at O'Cayz Corral, the former Wilson Street club that was the epicenter of the city's music scene.

"They made Monday a viable night to go out for people for a long time," said Cathy Dethmers, who owned O'Cayz and now owns the High Noon.

After O'Cayz burned down in 2001, the Kissers took their act on the road. They toured constantly, part of the time in a vegetable oil-fueled van that Fitzsimmons owned. In 2005, they moved to Boston for nine months to try to develop a fan base in a larger city. They played their own brand of protest music, including songs called "No War" and "Captain George" in the South during the 2004 presidential election and spent time in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. They recorded three CDs, the most recent being this year's "Live Candy Ratz" live CD.

It was a fun life, but a hard life, said Fitzsimmons, the band's lone remaining original member.

"It's a battle because you have to think 'It's my music, I've got to love it, it's my art,' " Fitzsimmons said. "But on the other hand you've got to get up at 9 a.m. and get to work, sending your e-mails, making those phone calls, and think about the grand scheme."

Fitzsimmons' grand scheme includes more than music. He's getting married soon and will be pursuing an MBA in arts administration with plans to work in music outreach. Things like a permanent home, a decent car and insurance started sounding better as the years went by.

"Even though I was making very little money, I never considered myself poor," Fitzsimmons said. "I was always able to provide for myself. But I'm moving beyond that."

So are other members. Nate Palan, guitarist and banjo player, and his wife, fiddle player and vocalist Kari Bethke are moving to New York and pursuing music there.

"The Kissers have done pretty much everything we can do," Palan said. "We've gotten into a comfort zone. For me, the excitement is in writing new music and doing something new."

The band survived myriad lineup changes, totaling 16 members over the years. But when Palan and Bethke decided to move to New York, Fitzsimmons decided the time had come to end the Kissers.

"There are bands like us who have kept it going," he said. "But for me, I see a sad beauty in ending it, saying 'OK, we've done it, we gave it our best shot. We're just going to move on from here.' "


In the past five years, the Junkers have had enough reunion performances to make The Who proud. This time, however, they really mean it.

"We've billed every one of these shows as the final one, but I think people realized we were just kidding," said founding member and guitarist Burns. "But this one does feel different."

When band members meet in grad school and all have academic careers in mind, moving on to other things seems inevitable. Guitarist Matthew Stratton's pending move from Ohio to become a professor at University of California-Davis will make the reunions all the more difficult to perform, Burns said.

The Junkers carved such a unique niche in Madison's music scene that for a time it seemed as if those academic careers might have to take a backseat.

The band combines classic country tunes with its own songs written in much the same style. The big difference is that the Junkers' own tunes reflect their academic background, with witty, erudite lyrics and a sense of irony that appealed to hipsters or cowboys.

Two other original members have academic careers now, too. Drummer Thomas Crofts is a professor at East Tennessee State and bassist Dave Junker teaches at the University of Texas.

"We talked about Marx or cross-dressing or crack-smoking, funny contemporary references that you don't think of as country music and that appeals to a certain group," Burns said. "Or we can play Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings songs so country fans love us."

The band began when Burns and Stratton met through mutual friends and learned they shared a love of country music. They started with "front porch jam sessions," as Burns called them, playing for friends or other grad students.

That turned into crowded shows at O'Cayz and the Crystal Corner, and more people beyond grad students became enamored of the alt-country band that combined Johnny Cash tunes with songs about cross-dressing cowboys.

After O'Cayz Corral burned down and the Junkers were in search of a new place to play, what seemed like an unlikely spot turned out to be perfect.

"We played glorious, crazy shows at the Rainbow Room," Burns said of a former downtown gay bar. "One night we were playing, I think, George Jones' "She Thinks I Still Care' and some line dancing broke out. It was a couple gay club guys, some drag queens and what looked to be a stripper. It was just beautiful."

The band won a Madison Area Music Award for its second album, "Live Characters Nightly." The Junkers started to make inroads in other places such as Chicago when real life started to call. When Crofts chose to pursue the next phase of his career, it was basically over except for the reunion shows, Burns said.

"It was a choice that we made with some anguish," Burns said. "We did seem to have some momentum. But when it became clear that Thomas was going to move on, there was no point."

And, now with Stratton moving to the West Coast, the reunion shows will end as well, Burns said.

"If every show was as well-attended as these reunion shows are," he said, "I think we'd all quit our day jobs."


The Kissers and the Junkers share more than a similar wrap-up date. The Junkers, then called the Benders, got their first Madison club show when they opened for the Kissers at O'Cayz.

"They just both were really fun," Dethmers said. "They immediately connected with their audiences and promoted having a good time. They're certainly serious musicians, but they made it fun for everybody."

The Kissers covered Junkers' tunes on the road and even sold their CDs, too.

And neither believes the other is really going away for good.

All of the musicians that are based here have other musical projects, and in the case of the Kissers, there's a certain holiday in March that will always call out to them.

"A lot of people are going to miss them, but they're all involved in so many other things," Tvedt said. "We'll see what happens next March 17."

The bands' swan songs are "a bummer," but just part of the life of a music scene, Dethmers said.

"The music scene is pretty cyclical," she said. "Some other band will form and kind of take their places with playing festivals or playing every club in town. It just opens the door for new blood, I guess."

Jane Burns  —  5/15/2008 5:57 pm

The Junkers play their last show Saturday at the Crystal Corner.

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The Junkers play their last show Saturday at the Crystal Corner.

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