Milwaukee Magazine caught up with Milwaukee-based Dead Horses and violinist Elizabeth Warne to find out what it’s like getting chosen to play with The Who and represent the city and state.
Dead Horses’ Surprise Opening GigMilwaukee-based folk duo Dead Horses features singer Sarah Vos and upright bass player Daniel Wolff. In the past few years, the band has made waves around the city and state thanks to its impassioned, relatable lyrics and simple yet dynamic sonic tapestry. Last year, they released their latest album, My Mother the Moon, with veteran Wilco producer Ken Coomer.
The band has spent much of last year and part of this year touring the country in support of the album. They also have been working on new music.
“We found time this year to go into the studio and self-produce three singles, including ‘Birds Can Write the Chorus’, which premiered via 88Nine Radio Milwaukee a few weeks ago,” Vos says. “Two more singles from this project are yet to be released, and the culmination will be a physical EP tentatively scheduled for next February. Dan and I are excited about what the next full-length project will be like, and I can’t wait to start collaborating on it!”
Despite their recent rise of profile, it was a complete surprise for the band that The Who even considered them as opener for the Alpine Valley show. The duo attributes it to “the power of Google.” As they tell it, a high-ranking member of Live Nation who promotes The Who discovered them through a simple search for “Best Band in Wisconsin.” Some of the band’s most recent press and music were among the search results.
When the band’s manager Rebecca Ottman first received the invitation, she almost thought it was spam. She didn’t tell the band about the opportunity until almost a month later when she knew it was likely to confirm.
“The offer to open for The Who was a complete shock,” Ottman says. “I do think the entire thing is very unusual, the idea of a company like Live Nation…taking the time to Google search for ‘local’ support. I didn’t ask too many questions…and barely believed it in the first place.”
“I think the whole thing feels pretty surreal for us all,” she says. “We were down in Baton Rouge, LA having our first experience trying crawfish, when I saw a missed call and then a 911-text from our manager, which was really frightening. Needless to say, we were in shock when we heard the offer to be direct support for The Who at Alpine Valley.”
“I think it speaks highly of The Who that they chose a band native to the state to open for them,” Vos continues. “It’s an incredible opportunity for Dead Horses and we’re thrilled to be representing Milwaukee and Wisconsin! We’re putting together a larger ensemble, including a percussionist, flautist and cellist to fill the 37,000-capacity amphitheater, as well as writing new arrangements for the occasion.”
Wolff recalls the hearing Who songs such as “Baba O’Riley”, “Pinball Wizard”, and “Won’t Get Fooled Again” frequently on the car radio as a child. But it was “The Simpsons” that made him really connect with the band.
“My first meaningful experience with The Who came from being an avid watcher of ‘The Simpsons,’” he says. “The Who was featured in a 12th season episode entitled ‘A Tale of Two Springfields.’ The November 2000 episode featured classic Matt Groening caricatures of The Who, which included still living bassist John Entwistle, working to help reunite the recently divided city due to a class war.”
“At the cusp of the feud, Townshend windmills straight into the opening riff of ‘Won’t Be Fooled Again’ which crumbles a dividing wall and brings the dancing city of Springfield back together to enjoy the live performance. This coincidentally also happened to be the time in my 11-year-old life when I was begging my parents for guitars, drums; anything to start a band with. Without much hesitation, they obliged. Thank you, Mom and Dad…and Matt Groening.”
They’re also excited about playing at Alpine Valley for the first time. Wolff says it feels “absolutely insane to have the opportunity to perform at such an iconic venue here in Wisconsin.”
“But, to be honest, I won’t truly believe it until I see it,” he says. “I’m speechless and incredibly excited to take it all in.”
Locals can also catch the band September 14th at the Pabst Theater.
Wisconsin Backs The Who
For her part, Warne is excited to back The Who for a second time, after playing with them at in Chicago in May.
“As a classically trained violinist, it’s always fun to back a famous band,” she says. “It’s our chance at 15 minutes of Rock Star fame!”
Warne, who works with the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra among other things, has been a fan of The Who for much of her life.
“I have ‘Baba O’Riley’ on my iPod to accompany me running,” says Warne. “When I was in high school, our theater department competed with a one-act play in which they crafted a really cool opening scene with a strobe light set to the opening busyness of that tune. It was the perfect song for that scene, and it stuck with me. Other favorites are ‘Who Are You,’ and ‘Pinball Wizard.’”
“For this tour, ‘Eminence Front’ is a fun arrangement to play. Also, on this tour, the orchestra doesn’t play on ‘Behind Blue Eyes,’ so getting to watch and listen to that one from the unique vantage point of backstage is pretty special.”
While the nature of playing in a large orchestra didn’t lead to much time to “interface much with the band,” she has fond memories of playing with The Who in Chicago.
“The May 21st show at Tinley Park in Chicago was a very cold day!” she recalls. “The temperature never rose above 53-degrees. Someone in the band during sound check did nickname us the “Tran Siberian” orchestra: we ended up keeping our coats on for the show and warmed our hands on the stand lights!”
Warne appreciates when rock bands branch out and try something different like playing with an orchestra.
“It’s wonderful when these legendary bands do something different and special with their music for their fans,” she says.
It’s not her first time backing a rock band. In 2011, she was part of an 18-piece ensemble that backed Cheap Trick during their two multi-week residencies at the Northern Lights Theatre at Potawatomi Casino. Cheap Trick was performing their “Dream Police” album at that time.
“A number of us slated to play at Alpine Valley for The Who were a part of that residency,” she says. “I love it when rock bands want to collaborate and add that element of richness that larger ensembles provide, in terms of filling out the harmonies, and all of the different colors that orchestral instruments provide.”
It also allows them to let loose more than normal.
“We pretty much just sit down and play; that’s what we’re trained to do,” says Warne. “But certainly, playing rock is more laid back, and grooving along with the tunes is certainly welcome.”
As the contractor for this show, she had a big role in selecting the members of the orchestra.
“I’ve hired my A-list ‘dream team’ orchestra for this event,” says Warne. “I’m sure that these players will knock it out of the park, and I’m really looking forward to sharing this concert experience with them. Also, I can tell you that I finished the hiring for this concert in less than a week. It feels good to get replies to a job offer with seven ‘yeses’ in a row, followed by six exclamation points. There are many members of this orchestra that are thrilled at the opportunity to get to back The Who.”
The Who’s music is very accessible for orchestra players, according to Warne. She says that the “charts they’ve orchestrated are all very accessible and sound really good.”
“The only one for me on first violin that’s a little ‘notey’ is the ‘Baba O’Riley’ arrangement; all of the opening trill-type stuff in the synthesizer part has been given to the violins.”
The prospect of playing Alpine Valley Music Theatre for the first time also excites her.
“Growing up in Appleton, I remember my older siblings making the trek to hear their favorite bands,” says Warne. “At capacity, it could be a pretty big crowd. I’ve backed up other name entertainers at arenas, but I think those only max out at 20,000 or so. My understanding is that Alpine can accommodate over 40,000.”
“To me, growing up in Wisconsin, it was the Woodstock of the state. I’m too young to have experienced Woodstock, and I just learned that The Who was there! It’s very meaningful to get to play with rock and pop legends. To me, it’s like touching music history.”