There must be a Milwaukee rule that at every local club show there’s a familiar face – one you just know you’ve seen at a handful of other concerts – because with- out fail there always is. You may only remember this individual for obstructing your view or spilling a drink on your sort-of- clean shirt. But sometimes a person just keeps showing up over and over, and you think, “Hey, this stranger must have good taste.” Then at some point – maybe because you’re armed with some liquid courage – you spark a conversation and become friends.
These random connections help explain why Milwaukee shows can feel like big house parties. Even if the people there aren’t friends, they’re at least aware of one another. And they all show up to experience something collectively. Space is cramped, beer is owing, and music is loud. Sometimes, that’s all you get and that’s enough. But other times, you can see a performer who changes the way you think about the world, and there you are, standing 5 feet from them. It’s this – the thrill of discovery – that keeps me and all the others coming back to the clubs over and over again.
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The local music scene can seem like a tight- knit community, to be sure, but it’s one with an open thread. If you go to enough local shows, you will build friendships or even a band of your own. You can see those bonds and the shared passion for live music in these photos by Joe Kirschling, a local photographer who became drummer of Milwaukee group Cairns after shooting one of its gigs. (He also plays in Sin Bad and Saebra & Carlyle.) It makes me nostalgic for the time when we could gather openly. When we would have to push in between people to stand next to our friends or when we would spend days rubbing the stamp off our hand. I look through these photos and look for the people I recognize.
It’s also a reminder that those serendipitous personal connections have been severed for the time being. Random strangers aren’t coming together to have their first awkward conversation, forming relationships and maybe a band. It’s not just that the music scene has been unplugged, but that it’s been frozen solid, waiting to be unthawed.
It goes without saying that we lost so much this past year. And while there are more important aspects in society that are still to be sorted, I am itching to see a live performance again. Actually, I am itching simply to be in a crowd again – crammed together in a back room or a basement or that tiny area on the other side of the bar. I am itching for an accidental connection, even if it’s just to have another drink spilled on me.