Photo by Kat Schleicher.
With the long-anticipated “Beautiful Dreamer: The Foster Project” finally upon us this weekend, a lot has already been written about the latest in the Alverno Presents series, which pays unique homage to short-lived pop music pioneer Stephen Foster. Most of the coverage highlights the Milwaukee musicians taking part in the project, which admittedly, is tough not to do when local heavy-hitters like Juniper Tar, Christopher Porterfield (bandleader of vaunted folk rock outfit Field Report) and Testa Rosa’s own Betty Blexrud-Strigens lend their musical chops to something.
However, an eclectic cast of out-of-towners are also offering their own take on the American pop sensibilities Foster helped usher in during the 1930s.
“The out of town musicians are all good fits because they're incredibly thoughtful songwriters, and in a lot of their cases, artists,” said Ryan Schleicher, Juniper Tar bassist and driving force behind the Foster Project. “They cover a pretty diverse spectrum as both people and musicians.”
While each artist garnered brief mentioned in the sidebar I wrote for the February issue of Milwaukee Magazine (page 76), the varied grouping hails from all corners of the music spectrum—including hip-hop, folk, punk and even musical theater—and each performer deserves more than a one-sentence summary to describe what they lend to the show. Among them:
Columbus, Ohio emcee Albert Shepherd, better known by his hip-hop moniker “Blueprint” cut his teeth in turn of the century rap crew Greenhouse Effect, before taking his distinct style solo in the early 2000s. Since, Blueprint has flooded the market with a combined 13 EPs, mixtapes and full-length albums, including last year’s Deleted Scenes, which came out on Atmosphere’s label Rhymesayers Entertainment last year.
“Blueprint is a brilliant emcee and producer, but also has a beautiful voice and a respect for musical history,” Schleicher said. In addition to his own work, Blueprint has collaborated with label mates Atmosphere, Aesop Rock and Eyedea & Abilities, as well as RJD2 and Sage Francis among various others.
While there’s not exactly an anthology of recorded material to support it, there’s no shortage of kind words about Bethany Thomas — or her larger than life voice — in Chicago theater reviews. Past credits include roles in Dirty Rooks and As Thousands Cheer and a supporting role of Serena in Porgy and Bess, a portrayal Chicago Theater Beat said, “[Stole] the show with her wickedly expressive singing style.” ThePaperMachete.com called Thomas “Chicago’s vocal powerhouse.” She is shown center-stage, performing a medley in this 2011 video clip.
“Bethany performs mostly in the theater and has tackled, and excelled with, challenging material,” Schleicher said of Thomas.
More than 20 of Chicagoan Robbie Fulks’ 49 years have been spent on the stage, developing his sturdy and, at time, tongue-in-cheek style of alt-country. Then again, Fulks isn’t too attached to the “country” part of that classification, judging by his vocal hatred of modern country music expressed in his kiss-off tune to Nashville, “F—k This Town.” While Fulks reached rarefied major label air with a release on Geffen records, the candid crooner feels most at home on smaller-yet-well-respected labels such as Bloodshot Records and Yep Records.
“I'm not often intimidated in social situations,” Schleicher started. “But Robbie [Fulks] and Langford are so incredibly smart, well read and hilarious that it's pretty tough to keep up with them.”
Beyond those traits, Langford adds tons of cache to the project. The Welsh punk pioneer, who was among the first to meld elements of country and folk into punk, first came into international consciousness as the original drummer of late ‘70s Leeds punkers The Mekons. After leaving The Mekons, and playing guitar for the John Hyatt-fronted band The Three Johns from the early ‘80s until 1990, Langford sidestepped convention by moving to America (Chicago, specifically) and fronting the punk-tinged alternative project The Waco Brothers. The quintet is still alive and kicking, with 10 albums to its name.
“Beautiful Dreamers: The Foster Project” takes the stage at Alverno College’s Pitman Theatre (3431 S. 39th St.)this Saturday at 8 p.m. Admission is $15. For more information on Stephen Foster or the project that will honor him, check out the Alverno Presents website.