All photos by Adam Rogan
Live music has been heard at the small-ish Bay View venue for more than a century, and it used to be a country bar — hence the desert-themed name. But it became a Milwaukee alt. rock hub in the last 20 years after Eric Uecke, a bartender-turned-owner with no relation to Bob Uecker, took over.
With a capacity of only 200 and a penchant for soon-to-be-signed acts, The Cactus Club is one of the best places in the city to see the bands that could soon find themselves smothered in notoriety and Rolling Stone reviews.
The Cactus Club’s setup is superior to that of most bar-music venues.
Too often, bands blast their so-so tunes so loudly right next to you that it’s impossible to have a conversation over a drink. On the other foot, sometimes the band is shoved into a corner where nobody except an obligated friend and one drunk guy care to listen.
With The Cactus Club, bands play in an adjacent separate room from the bar.
Having a physical barrier between the drinks and the music allows concert attendees to give their full attention to the band. And someone looking for a peaceful beverage or a chat with a bartender can have that whilst music fans get their kicks in the other room.
It’s the best of both worlds, if you’ll forgive the cliché.
The Cactus Club is similarly immersed in the progressive discourse of Milwaukee.
It played host to a meeting for the Milwaukee Women’s Art Library in January. Fundraisers for Planned Parenthood and The Trevor Project (an LGBTQ-suicide prevention nonprofit) were hosted there in 2018, as was an “I Voted” election night party. It publicly showed solidarity with Milwaukee’s undocumented immigrants in late 2017, and earlier that year took the symbolic non-risk of holding an all-ages show in a city where that can be legally tricky.
A lot of Cactus Club’s recent momentum (as its last three years may be the Club’s busiest ever) can be owed to the mentality and leadership of Kelsey Kaufmann, a native Milwaukeean who has worked at Cactus since 2011 and became its event coordinator in 2016. She was recognized by 88Nine Radio Milwaukee as the Milwaukee Music Ambassador of the Year in fall 2018.
It’s probably good that Cactus Club hasn’t been able to physically grow much in its history — the building is now more than 100 years old. Now, it can fit as many as five or six shows a week without running on empty, with regulars that stretch from beanie-wearing 20-somethings to mid-50s graphic designers.
The Cactus Club easily retains its “artist-run” identity; Kaufmann, for one, is part of the heavily synthesized Rio Turbo.
Another benefit of that mentality is price control. Few shows cost more than $12.
And you only pay the cover charge if you actually enter the music side, where head sound engineer Alex Pekka Hall actually makes the effort to make bands sound good, rather than simply adequate.