Photos by Adam Rogan
A small gathering of concertgoers laugh in Theresa Simmons’ parents’ living room as Brett Newski lampoons the “Bro Country” music scene. “I’m wearing pre-ripped jeans; I drink light beer for the taste. / I’m an alpha-male country star who exists to be replaced,” the Milwaukeean indie-rocker ironically drones to his audience. Attendees relax on couches and folding chairs while sipping beer and Cherry Coke, nibbling on cheese and crackers, and taking the occasional Jell-O shot.
Snow falls on concert night, Feb. 24, discouraging travel. Simmons blames the weather for keeping some from attending, but Newski is not deterred by small crowds. In fact, he seems to enjoy the intimacy. It’s the third stop on his Sub-Urban House Tour, comprising nine shows across the Midwest in atypical concert venues, including a loft in Chicago, a vintage furniture store in Cedar Rapids, and Simmons’ parents’ house in Des Moines, Iowa.
“It’s a way to give people a different look,” Newski says. “I love playing living room shows. I think people give them a bad rap, like a Kumbaya kind of thing, but they’re actually really cool. Each one is so different, which is what’s exciting about it.”
He also gets to keep 100-percent of the ticket sales, which is a much-appreciated bonus.
“Should we get rockin’?” Newski asks, Guinness in hand, five minutes before he’s supposed to take the “stage.” At a traditional venue, going on early is unheard of. When Newski is the entire crew, staff and act, he can do whatever he wants.
Three songs in and the 31-year-old has already mentioned his Polish-Milwaukeean heritage. He was actually born in Eau Claire, went to high school in New Berlin and now maintains a residence in the city, but he doesn’t return often.
Sometimes he tours with a band, but tonight only calls for an acoustic guitar, ankle tambourine, drum pad and array of buttons and pedals maneuvered via muscle memory in his left foot.
“I’d never been to a house show,” says Jake, a muscular, tattoo-covered man who watched the concert leaning against an armoire. “I was on BandsInTown.com and was bored.”
He hadn’t heard of Newski until that day, but the two were chatting before night’s end.
“The lights at a club will blind you and you can’t see any of the people, and that really gives me anxiety,” Newski says. “You want to know what’s going on out there.”
One audience member asks if he ever takes notes on his Post-It tattoo. “That’s why I got it,” Newski replies.
After the show, Newski questions an attendee — coincidentally named Bret, with one T — while autographing two freshly purchased vinyl records: “Do you prefer Nike or Adidas? What’s your favorite number?” Playing 200-plus shows a year, Newski has figured out how to work a room.
“This is how I write things,” he says. “I come into people’s living rooms and ask people questions, making them feel uncomfortable.” The performer and his newfound fans bond in their awkwardness.
Newski’s humor is often self-deprecating. He named his 2017 LP “The Worst of Brett Newski” and sells shirts that read “DON’T LISTEN TO BRETT NEWSKI.” In conversation, his voice is a mix of timid and excitable. Behind the mic, it takes on a drawl akin to that of the late Tom Petty, one of Newski’s idols.
He went so far as to design and sell “Tom Petty may or may not be Jesus” t-shirts, but became “paranoid” (a feeling that Newski elaborates on in one of his songs) they would get him sued. Inadvertently soothing his fears, Petty’s crew bought a stack of them at Summerfest in 2017. There is now an Aaron Rodgers version.
At least half of the attendees buy some merch or a record on their way out, a skyscraping proportion compared to most concerts.
CDs are BOGO. Newski hopes that purchasers will find a new home for the extra copy. He asks buyers how they find new music. He’s always looking for ways to connect with consumers, in turn covering the cost of his next meal or road trip.
Simmons lets Newski crash in a spare bedroom. He’s made enough friends — like Simmons — on the road that shelling out for motels has become a rarity. “You’re at the mercy of the last drunk dude at the bar,” he laughs. “Last night I just slept on the couch, crust-punk style.”
“Not really, I guess,” he adds. “It was pretty clean.”
Check out the music video for the song “Ride,” off of his newest EP: The Stars are as Good as a Nightlight.