Friday, May 6, 2016

The Great and Tragic History of Rock Music in Wisconsin

Above all, even more than photography, my true passion is rock music.  I was raised on it.  I could name all 5 members of Fleetwood Mac and all 4 members of Led Zeppelin at age 10.  And the roots of rock music run deep in Wisconsin. 

The inventor of the electric guitar, Les Paul, was born in my hometown of Waukesha, and Prairie Home Cemetery has a wonderful grave marker for the innovator.  But that's not all that Wisconsin has added to the history of rock music.  Some of it is fantastic and some of it is truly tragic.
There are many bands that were founded in Wisconsin, including The Violent Femmes, The BoDeans (from Waukesha), Garbage (from Madison), Citizen King, and Bon Iver as well as Justin Vernon (from Eau Claire).  One of the most famous albums of the 90's was partly recorded in Madison, at Smart Records: Nirvana's Nevermind.  That's because the band's producer, Butch Vig, was born and lived in Madison.  A few years ago, the Wisconsin Historical Museum had an exhibition on Smart studio which featured a poster from that recording.

A documentary on Smart Studios was recently released, produced by Vig entitled "The Smart Studio Story" and features music by, not only Garbage and Nirvana, but Smashing Pumpkins, Death Cab For Cutie, and Killdozer.  The film has been showing around Wisconsin since April and will show at the Mile of Music Festival in Appleton in August.

But, along with the successes, Wisconsin has seen many rock n' roll losses.  In 1967, Otis Redding died in a plane crash in Madison's Lake Monona.  Monona Terrace has a plaque dedicated to the soul legend.


And, in August 1990, guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan, along with many of Eric Clapton's band members, died in a helicopter crash after leaving the East Troy arena Alpine Valley due to excessive fog. I'll never forget where I was when I heard the news, on the way to summer marching band practice. On a lighter note, I had the great privilege to see Pearl Jam at the same venue in 2011 for their only U.S. concert to celebrate their 20th anniversary.

But prior to that tragic event and years afterward, Wisconsin has been home to the largest music festival in the world.  Milwaukee's Summerfest is 11 days of nothing but incredible music acts descending on our state, often before they become major stars.  And every year it gets better.  This year's performers include legends Willie Nelson, Billy Idol, Cheap Trick, Blue Oyster Cult, Sting & Peter Gabriel and Def Leppard as well as Fitz & The Trantrums, Ray Lamontagne, Barenaked Ladies, Elle King, Milky Chance and Luke Bryan.

The Marcus Amphitheatre is the main venue on the Summerfest grounds.  Recently, many stories have come out about Prince since his passing last week.  One of the nicest stories was when he played the Marcus Amphitheatre, and how he was so impressed with the venue, he made a public statement about it.  Thanks to his kind words, the Rolling Stones opened the festival last summer and Sir Paul McCartney will play there this year.

I know Wisconsin may not be as cool as California, New York or even Chicago, but I think the fact that we're smaller lends itself to a more close-knit music community.  Whether you're into rock, country, pop, folk or jazz, there is a festival for you, especially as we near the summer months.  For more Wisconsin music festivals, click here.


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