Photo by Jessie Dallas
Since its 2010 formation, Tweed Funk has been among the most accomplished and active blues outfits in the Milwaukee area. The perennial WAMI nominee and festival fixture has spread its soulful sound throughout the Midwest this summer, playing some 30 shows since May. At the tail end of Tweed Funk’s long run of gigs, Music Notes caught up with guitarist JD Optekar to discuss the local blues scene, how the band found accomplished frontman Smokey Holman, post-summer plans and what it was like opening up for Buddy Guy.
How would you explain Tweed Funk to someone who has never heard you before?
To put it simply, we’re horn-drive soul-blues with showman style to it.
What is your opinion of the local blues and soul scene? Are there any other bands in the genre that you enjoy?
Yeah, I think on the blues slide, probably a guy that’s been standard for us – and he is more traditional Chicago shuffle-paced blues – is Reverend Raven & The Chain Smokin’ Altar Boys, just because he’s on the road 200-plus dates a year all over the U.S. and Canada. There’s not much of a soul scene, I would say. There’s the Charles Walker Band. They bounce between blues and old soul with a bit of funk.
Living in a place that’s not exactly known for its blues scene, what has the reception been like?
There is a good blues scene, but it’s $300 gigs for trios or four-piece bands, mostly playing blue collar neighborhoods and small bars. The tough thing is with a six-piece band – you know, we made the commitment to add horns – it’s like “OK. Now we need to find better paying gigs so we can pay everybody.” That has been a little bit of a challenge here in Milwaukee. In the summer, we do pretty well. But during the winter, pretty much all of our dates from the fall going forward are outside of Milwaukee.
But, you know, people are receptive to the music. We played at Jazz In The Park and we had 21-year-olds and older people just packed in front of the stage.
I saw that you’ve played over 30 shows since May. After this run, what are your plans for fall and winter?
Really, to continue to grow on the national and regional scene, we need to get back to writing original music, recording another CD and promoting it nationally. The goal is to get working on our CD and get the whole band involved. Then we’ll go down to playing about four gigs a month. We’ll go down to Chicago, Indianapolis and do some casino gigs and private parties.
How did you get hooked up with your lead singer [Smokey Holman]? It seems like he’s been doing a lot of great stuff since the late ’60s.
A friend of mine was one of the original members of the band, [and] brought him to a Thursday night blues jam we were hosting at the Painted Parrot at the time. And the first time I heard Smokey singing, I knew if I got a chance I wanted to do something with this guy because he was great. I didn’t know anything about his history at that point, but as we learned more of his history and he dug up some old photos, it’s really been a thrill to work with him. He is such an entertainer. Whether we’re in a small club or playing a big festival, he still finds a way to connect with people one-on-one.
What was it like opening up for Buddy Guy?
That was amazing. We only got the gig maybe two and a half weeks beforehand. When we took the stage – and the place held something like 1,100 people – everybody’s seat was full. We played a 35-minute set. It was short and sweet. Buddy was pretty much off the tour bus, in the dressing room and out on the stage. I think Smokey gave him a fist bump on the way out. But we hung out with the band. We got back and the next week, Buddy’s club called us and booked us there. It was one of those right place at the right time, meeting the right people kind of things.
Tweed Funk will open for Walter Trout and the Radicals at Shank Hall on Thursday, Aug. 29. The show begins at 8 p.m. and costs $20.