The Destination: Get me to Steel Bridge
I moved to Milwaukee in January to be around music and the people that make it. It may seem wild, far-fetched or plain counter-intuitive, considering that I was raised in and around New York City, the place where music happens.
It’s The Destination, you don’t have to tell me that. But I’m not as interested in the ends of music that “make it” on New York terms as I am in certain living room concert parties, and tiny stages lit by twinkling Christmas lights.
I came to Milwaukee because a unique set of conditions and opportunities arose that made it possible for me to build my days around listening, learning and making song.
If you haven’t noticed yet, I’ll tell you: there’s a lot of musical stuff happening here — from Summerfest, to the Milwaukee Symphony’s epic orchestrations, to the commissioning club and creation project of Present Music. This is a town filled with spaces and institutions made for music: the sophisticated Uilhien Hall, the ornate Pabst theater and Linneman’s starry stage are some of the obvious iterations. (Maybe it’s because Wisconsin is so cold? Whatever the case, the musical ways we warm ourselves are part of a long tradition that seems to thrive in the Midwest in particular, right under the upturned noses of the East and West Coast.)
It’s also happening in places like the vinyl library palace of the WMSE studio and the attics of Riverwest. These spaces and their attached characters tell a story of a town that is steeped in song. I find myself relating most earnestly to songwriters and music lovers; those folks who are committed, with quiet (or loud) compulsion to reflecting the world as they know it through composition and lyrical writing.
I encountered one of these characters at Linneman’s, a Milwaukee establishment where (in my case this winter) one can seek refuge from the cold, hear great original music, linger at the bar and watch a DVD of Roy Orbison live in concert. I came to its open stage, my own songs in tow, because I was new in town and I didn’t know a soul. While playing out at Linneman’s I’ve met a priest, a fair share of crazies and a slew of talented singer/songwriters, some of them awe-inspiring.
I also met Sigmund Snopeck, one of the bar fixtures, a local musician who spent ten years touring and playing keys with the Violent Femmes, and spends many a night perched on a barstool. One wintery night at the bar, Siggy complimented my song writing, and, leveling with me, told me I should do something with it.
The “something” he recommended was Steel Bridge Songfest, an annual gathering of talented, industrious singer/songwriters, musicians and engineers from around the country, culminating in a huge concert series in Sturgeon Bay, WI.
I took his advice, and soon I will be writing to you from this very unique Midwestern musical enclave. The 6th annual Steel Bridge Songfest is one of Wisconsin’s rural summer gems, put on by the organization Citizens for Our Bridge, happening June 10-13. The “four days of music and discovery” draws in local acts and bands from around the country (and the world) to perform together on over 15 stages, for an audience of thousands.
In the coming days, before the concerts begin, I will be taking part in what’s known as the “construction zone,” a weeklong workshop of music composition and recording in with around 50 other songwriters from around the country. Every night, we play a game of spin the bottle to link up randomly for the purposes of composing. Sparks will fly as we explore what each other has to offer, to see what kind of magic and pop genius can happen when everything else falls away, and the mission is music.
Stay tuned. Or better yet, join me!
Imagine, if you can, a hotel on a quiet bay that seemingly exists outside of time and real life, taken over by the likes of a hundred rock and rollers. Days that revolve around whatever you choose to do with your freedom, your skills, your inspiration, your instruments. Lots of beers, laughter and experimentation. And practice. That’s what’s happening here.
Each room in the groovy, retro-styled Holiday Motel comes with earplugs for a reason: inspiration may come at any time.
The days work like this: roll out of bed and greet the sunlight when you can. Mill about and enjoy breakfast, one small part of the the fantastic hospitality of the people and local establishments who support Steel Bridge Song Fest. Find yourself in a string of conversations with the bright-eyed and Ray-Banned musicians, who range from teenagers to grandparents. The lobby, the motel hallways and the lawn are cluttered with a shuffling of guitars, keyboards, the boisterous energies of artists in fits of creation, relaxing in a moment of paue, or festering in writer’s block.
The whole day is our blank canvas. To it we bring our knowledge, our drama, our implements, visions and vices. Everyone is holding out for their encounter with the wild element, the magic thing that will set something in motion.
You might just find it in a group gathered and waiting for you in your bedroom.
Last night I came back to my room to such a thing. My roommate Andrea, a native Canadian and now New Yorker, who lends her stylish voice, bright spirit, expert piano skills and theory knowledge to a seemingly endless stream of projects (coming home each night when the birds chirp), is sprawled on her bed, flipping through a folio of index cards. She’s been gathering ideas for years, filing away the smallest clips and phrases, in case she ever needs content, a spark or a stimulant.
Egging her on from the corner easy chair is James and his deep dark Gibson, espousing in a sweet Louisiana accent. James is a seasoned musician, writer and performer who has toured with the likes of the Indigo Girls, and came to Steel Bridge with his wife and teenage son, himself a bright, eager contributor and fearless tuba and guitar player.
All they know about me so far is that I can sing a little of blues. James asks me to play my songs. I’ve been clutching my guitar on my bed. She’s like a best friend who has been through it all with me: she’s got my back, even if my feet are stuck dangling above the ground. I close my eyes and sing them my strangest song; The Undertow. Somehow singing for them fills me with light and concentrated ferocity, like Southern Comfort (but without the after fuzz). James talks me down to earth while I play. It is like medicine as he helps me hold on to the beat for the song, and the songs after that.
Being a “self-trained” musician has left me with holes in my skills that are undeniable. Luckily, I find myself more and more in contexts that are unpunishing and safe. Situations that instill small, potent doses of knowledge, confidence and comfort into me.
What brought me into this wild laboratory of song is a combination of luck, love and a voice that I’ve been honing and scratching away at steadily for all of my days.
In my stay here so far I’ve been busy, but there’s time built in to allow for my wonderment and preoccupation with questions. What makes someone a musician fit for this kind of experience? What even makes a person a songwriter in the first place? I’m thinking about it on the small and the large scale.
What makes us songwriters, beyond the calluses on our fingertips, our proclivity for seriousness and silliness about our art, is the want to share stories.
The song writing enterprise goes even deeper than the obvious desire for attention and validation. Behind the inclination to compose there seems to be an obsessive need to weave some sense out of mystery, some narrative out of the muddled, mercurial cesspool of life; after all, we all need something to hold on to. Music is order. We grip tightly to the songs of others that make the most sense to us.
What seems to make a Steel Bridge songwriter in particular is the willingness to do anything — gumption is what got us here. In this day and age, it takes some fierce combination of entrepreneurship, imagination, and knowledge of music to draw some degree of attention, respect and support for your work. For every one person who’s song gets play on the radio, there are about 100,000 others vying for that chance.
Even if you’ve done all these things well and come to Steel Bridge with a firm idea of who you are and what you can do, my sense is that before you leave you will have done something entirely outside of yourself.
There are people here who tour 300 days of the year. There are folks who have released over a dozen records on major labels, who’ve toured with preeminent bans. Some of these folks are people who play incredibly fine instruments, have graced magazine covers and had their travels paid for by sponsors. Then there are folks here who have only played open mics, who have never directly attempted anything like this.
The reality is that unless you know how to contribute to a good track, you will fall to the wayside and, if nothing else, have an exciting ride. The metaphorical bridge that carries you through is the faith you place in yourself and in the community. If you make it across , you just might cut a track that gets played at the nightly banquet dinner in the Ladder House bar.Your song could even end up on the annual Steel Bridge Songfest compilation album.
This whole experience is unlike anything else in the world and it is one that is cherished by everyone involved. This is a time for us to be anything.
June 16th, 2010
By Elisabeth Albeck
At Steel Bridge, we covered the gamut of what is possible to share in song. As any writer can tell you, any moment or mood can become a song. When it happens, some combination of reality and subjective imagination sear together into a sound artifact, an oral (and aural) history.
In the experience of Steel Bridge Songfest, the goal was to coalesce into inspiration and into community. The festival itself hinges on a web of potent, small communities and their commitment to each other and the event.
From the Citizens For Our Bridge organization which heads the campaign to restore and protect the old steel bridge (a source of inspiration and funding behind this music festival), to the shareholders who keep up the snazzy Holiday Motel, to organizers Melanie Jane and Pat McDonald, to the swell of locals and tourists who eagerly volunteer, it is a big loving family.
We came together to raise awareness about the importance of preserving the steel bridge, but mostly we came together to create music.
It’s almost too obvious and encompassing to try to describe what songs have the power to do. When a song hits you — chills on your skin kind of moment — it’s because there is some combination of truth and confidence in the thing that makes deep sense to you. We’re all striving to know what is true.
We live the pattern. Though I am not operating exactly as many of the other Steel Bridge musicians (some who play the guitar so fast that you can’t see their fingers), who live on the road for hundreds of days (but still have gardens in California to return to), I am part of this circle. Some of the musicians I met this week live in costumes and wear hats with feathers or sunglasses at night. Their lives are doubled: there’s what they see and do and know, and then how it is played out under bright lights in response to a constantly shifting chain of settings and faces, stories and stages, along with everything else that came before.
We are musicians: what we do is who we are.
Is this normal? What is normal? This high-octane lifestyle is acceptable for a musician. In fact, it’s practical. To “make it,” as it were, to produce and perform and sustain oneself financially as a musician, this model of living is essential. This kind of living is not for the weak of stomach (or liver): it involves constant leaps of faith, small and large.
Sometimes it’s very small…as small as trusting some chord progression that your fingers found; trusting that a harmony works the way you hear it working in your head, trusting that the bassist will show up when he says he will; trusting a stranger enough to go in the studio and make something happen that you can be proud of.
Developing into a powerful songwriter and performer comes down to the greatest leap of faith: not to doubt your style or your voice.
We have been rewarded for the trust we’ve placed in ourselves by getting to Steel Bridge Songfest (hundreds of musicians apply each year), and in being there were rewarded for the trust we placed in each other by becoming part of a tidal wave of song and performance that swallowed the town of Sturgeon Bay in music for four days. A huge stage erected on the closed Steel Bridge was our bright venue to showcase of what came out of the experiment.
We left the week-long construction zone and festival having created over 70 new songs, having performed on over 15 stages from the charming Company Store Café to the dark, moist and smoky Butch’s bar, and having exhausted and reinvented and performed surgery on the metaphor of the bridge in our writings. We left each other in a crescendo of embraces, kisses, declarations, making plans and promises to cross paths, to keep in touch, to take of each other whenever X comes to town.
This week I helped write a few songs. I sang on a number of tracks written by others. I played drums while the sun rose over lake Michigan. I shared in conversations that got right to heart of matters, performed my music and even joined the amazing Kim Manning on stage to sing the chorus of Wahnder Lust’s “Haters.”
The only song that I wrote to completion was one of my own; I’m still new to the collaboration thing. It doesn’t have any bridge metaphors, but it is about the leap…
He thought he had it
Pull a nighter, pull a nooner,
One for the vision, one for the dream.
Once he had the spirit,
(Crawled holiness back into the hole).
I said: Take the truth and rend it
I thought I heard it
Mercy on the careless believer,
Steel Bridge Songfest Wraps Up
com • June 16, 2010
Rain clouds threatened but didn't dampen musicians who sang the praises of the Michigan Street Bridge
during the sixth annual Steel Bridge Songfest in Sturgeon Bay.
"It went smoothly," said Event Director Eric Leyendecker of the festival, which ended Sunday.
Although indoor ticket sales were not yet tallied, Leyendecker estimated about 4,000 people gathered
for the free daytime weekend performances.
"We were busy here Wednesday," said Sue Meyer, promotions coordinator with the Sturgeon Bay
Visitor Center. "I think most of the resorts and motels were full."
The festival helped kick off the first big weekend of the summer in Sturgeon Bay, said Meyer, who noted
an influx of visitors.
The Songfest is almost made up of two different festivals, Leyendecker said, with open daytime
concerts and nighttime pub crawls. More than 15 stages around the downtown hosted musicians
during the "Take It Inside" portion of the festival Thursday through Saturday nights. Cover charges
varied by location, with Thursday night free for locals.
The outdoor "Take it to the Bridge" concerts were free and held on the east side of the Michigan Street
Bridge at First Avenue. New this year was a "Great Sturgeon Bay Ship Horn Soundoff," which kicked off
"Even if you couldn't see it, you could have heard it," Leyendecker said, when all nearby ships sounded
their horns at noon.
In the days preceding the song festival, some 60 musicians began writing hundreds of songs in what
is aptly called "the Construction Zone." Their songs were performed during the festival. During the year,
Sturgeon Bay booking agent and musician pat mAcdonald works to produce a new CD to be sold at
the following year's festival. Volume 5 CDs were sold this year, and this year's favorites will make up
next year's hits.
"This CD will be a really great album," Leyendecker said. "Many people said they think it's going to be
the best one yet."
Volunteers and musicians rally every year to make the event possible through Citizens for Our Bridge
Inc., a not-for-profit organization. The festival began in 2005 as a benefit concert when the group
pushed for restoration of the steel bridge in Sturgeon Bay. The Wisconsin Department of
Transportation, which owns the bridge, agreed to restore it and in the fall of 2008, the bridge closed
to begin its rehabilitation. The group continues to promote the historic 80-year-old icon through
music. Many visitors are aware of the bridge and the city of Sturgeon Bay because of the festival.
The group succeeded in placing the Michigan Street Bridge on the National Register of Historic Places in
January 2008. The steel bridge is scheduled to temporarily reopen late this year until final touches
are completed next summer.
Fred Young plays with the Chris Aaron Band Friday night at the Red Room during Steel Bridge Songfest. (Christine Nesheim/Door County Advocate)
The Delta Routine’s lead guitarist plays to a full house Thursday at the Red Room during the first night of Steel Bridge Songfest. (Christine Nesheim/Door County Advocate)
Letter to the Editor:
Festival was a great time
June 16, 2010
As a longtime resident of Sturgeon Bay, I would like to comment on this past weekends Steel Bridge
Songfest. While living here for the past 35 years, I have never attended the Steel Bridge Songfest in the
My wife and I went down by the Main Stage located in front of the Old Michigan Street Bridge Saturday,
and we were entertained by a large number and variety of music, anywhere from bluegrass, country-
western, folk, rap and rock 'n' roll. There were food tents set up in the Holiday Motel parking lot, and
street vendors up and down First Avenue; everything was very well organized. There were also
very clean port-a-potties on both ends of First Avenue.
People brought their own lawn chairs to sit on, plus there were a number of plastic chairs available for
anyone to use. I sat near the stage, and I talked to many of the musicians as they were awaiting their
turn to play. Everyone I talked to was extremely pleasant, and the music was great.
I spent most of Saturday listening to the music, and I enjoyed it so much, I went back down on Sunday
and stayed until the last song was sung.
During all the time I was there, I did not see one bit of trouble anywhere. Everyone was enjoying
themselves and getting along with each other extremely well. There was every age group
assembled there from young to old.
I am marking this date on my calendar for next year. What a great event for a small town like Sturgeon
Bay. I hope this goes on for years to come.
McMurtry highlights ever-evolving
Gannett Wisconsin Media • June 10, 2010
Musicians began arriving in Sturgeon Bay as early as Sunday for this weekend’s sixth annual Steel Bridge Songfest, which has grown from a fundraiser to preserve the historic Michigan Street Bridge into a gathering of musicians for songwriting workshops and performance opportunities.
There are three nights of indoor performances today through Saturday at more than 15 venues around the city. The free Take It to the Bridge portion of the festival runs from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday outside in front of the bridge.
Another highlight is the acoustic showcase of songwriters 21 and younger hosted 8 to 10 p.m. Friday by Tarl Knight, 14, of Ashwaubenon.
Featured youth songwriters include Liam Hall, 13, from Atlanta; Jared Johnson, 18, from Kansas City; and Door County Idol 2010 runner-up Monica Lenius, 17, a student of Southern Door High School.
All are also participating in the Construction Zone, a weeklong collaborative songwriting event that began Sunday.
Past Construction Zone participant and Door County favorite Seth Raddatz, 17, of Baileys Harbor will be performing as well as Curtis McMurtry, 19, of Austin, Texas.
Steel Bridge is teaming up with Door County Maritime Museum to orchestrate a sonic event the likes of which may never have been heard. The Great Sturgeon Bay Ship Horn Soundoff will kick off the music at the festival.
All in-port Great Lakes ships, the Coast Guard, Sturgeon Bay’s entire fleet of tugs, the Door County Maritime Museum’s newly restored John Purves tug and all three Sturgeon Bay bridges have been invited to sound their horns at noon Saturday.
The event will start with the “Great Lakes Salute’’ (three longs and two shorts), followed by a two-minute jam session in which creativity will create a cacophony of sound. Horns will stop at 12:03 p.m.
Sixteen-year-old Corinna Rae of Green Bay, who has opened the festival with an a cappella performance every years since it started in 2005, will once again perform the first song.
A Safe Ride program supplies Door County Trolley rides between the venues tonight through Saturday night, along with bus rides from and to Sister Bay and Fish Creek ($5; call (920) 743-9999 for information) and taxi service.
Songfest pass holders can ride the trolley or taxi free of charge.
Tonight’s shows are free for Door County Appreciation Night. Cover charges at shows Friday and Saturday nights vary from location to location.
A $25 pass is good for admission to all shows and provides priority admission over non-passholders. Passes are available at www.ticketstaronline.com or (920) 494-3401.
For more information and to see the full schedule of acts, call (920) 743-5605 or visit www.steelbridgesongfest.org.