If you listen to the lyrics of the 4onthefloor’s “Small Towns,” you’ll get an accurate depiction of the town I grew up in: one grocery store, no stoplights and yes, if you look hard enough in the right direction, a water-tower skyline. Perhaps it is the simplicity associated with these things that draws visitors to Wabasha, shooting location of the film Grumpy Old Men. What visitors may not know is its intriguing musical history.
In Wabasha, anything can happen. Nearly 20 years ago, shortly after the release of Titanic, Gaelic Storm performed in front of a 200-person crowd in the upstairs of a local watering hole on the banks of the Mississippi River, creating folklore that would later be passed down from one generation of music listeners to the next.
From 2008 to 2012, Moonshine Showcase regularly provided year-round live music to the community. An old, abandoned middle school theater was dusted off and brought back to life. The venue offered music lovers an intimate experience to listen to some of their favorite musicians, and a unique opportunity to form personal relationships with artists before, during, or after a show. The venue welcomed recognizable names such Mason Jennings, Jeremy Messersmith, Gary Louris, and many others to the community.
“When bands came to Wabasha, I treated them like my family,” said Barry Hill, proprietor of the venture and son of the local hardware store owners. “I tried to make them as comfortable as possible and most of them became my friends.” Farewell Milwaukee proved its friendship with Hill when the group surprised him at his father’s wedding reception.
“Farewell was playing at Ed’s in Winona one night and La Crosse the next,” said Hill. “I asked Ben if he would pop up and do an acoustic set. The whole band showed up and played a show; it was awesome.”
Nowadays, music listeners get their fix from polka bands, big bands, community bands, or whatever band the River Junctions Art Council lines up to perform under the bridge on Friday nights during the summer.
If you fail to catch a glimpse of live music under the bridge, your best chance to hear music the rest of the night will more than likely come from jukeboxes found in either the local bowling alley or VFW. Sure, local river rats will occasionally play at the pub or saloon, but mostly on a seasonal basis. Being a music fan in Wabasha means keeping on the lookout.
During the Riverboat Days festival this summer, I was fortunate enough to attend an event that — like Gaelic Storm and Moonshine Showcase — will take its place in Wabasha’s music folklore. Farewell Milwaukee and the 4onthefloor took Heritage Park’s stage under the bridge on Saturday, July 31.
An all-ages crowd eagerly awaited the first chords of Farewell Milwaukee, with several spectators gleefully swinging around lampposts as late arrivers scurried to gather enough for the $10 entry fee.
“Those guys are tryin’ to get a free show,” laughed guitarist and lead vocalist Ben Lubeck. “We don’t mind.”
Starting the show with three songs from three different albums, Lubeck and company christened the evening of music with “It’s Alright, It’s Ok, There’s Something to Live for…Jesus Told Me So” and “The Wallpaper’s Gonna Swallow You Whole,” establishing the mood for what would become a night full of head-bobbing tunes.
Farewell’s third song was “Figure You Out,” which will be released this Friday on the band’s new album, FM. Midway through the song, 4onthefloor frontman Gabriel Douglas showed his appreciation as he danced and waved a Minnesota flag while setting up across the park on the main stage.
Slide guitar and harmonica riffs rang into the night sky, moving couples off of blankets on the grass to the dance floor. Farewell concluded its set by rocking out to “Liar,” off their first album and “Hurt No More,” off their upcoming album.
“Thank you, Farewell Milwaukee, for burning half of your face off,” said Douglas, as attention shifted to the main stage. “The other half is about to get burnt.”
The crowd was unsure what to make of this statement until loud guitars were accompanied by four heart-pounding kick drums, and Douglas belted out the lyrics of “King of the Jungle” to begin 4onthefloor’s set.
By the time the band got to its second and third songs — “Undertow” and “Junkie” — the group’s infectious, high energy set maniacally transfixed an already electric crowd, as they followed Douglas’s every move.
“Wabasha, do you guys ever howl?” asked Douglas. “Cool, do it on this song.”
The crowd proceeded, and at the end of “Howl For Me” Douglas waved for an extended period of time and questioned the audience as to why he wasn’t crowned Miss Wabasha earlier on during the day’s festivities.
4onthefloor then warmed the hearts of the locals, performing “Small Towns” and sing-a-long “On Tuesdays.”
“Sanchez” — the first and only slower song of the set — was played near the end of the two-hour show, allowing concertgoers a moment to catch their breath.
A cover of Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” reinvigorated the crowd and set up “All My Friends,” the last song of the night — sort of. The song began as usual, but then became a megamix of covers of songs by artists such as Weezer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, AC/DC, the Beatles, Daft Punk and several others.
4onthefloor exited the purple-lit stage and, as if still mimicking Douglas’s every move, so did the rambunctious crowd, spilling into the streets and local establishments of the tiny river town.
Writer Michael Flicek, a Wabasha native, is a student at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Photographer Fletcher Blaschko is a student at Hamline University.