The brewer’s choice
Milwaukee is the band that will make Sacramento famous
The first thing you notice is the sound. It is rootsy without being redundant, straightforward without being boring and emotive without being over-the-top. It reminds you, perhaps, of Tom Petty and Wilco but also of Dinosaur Jr. and Life’s Rich Pageant-era R.E.M.
The second thing you notice is that some of the members look vaguely familiar, and so it should be; the band’s lineup includes former members of Sacramento favorites Far and Deathray and of San Francisco quartet Crumb.
The whole effect is that of familiarity: They must be old friends you have forgotten. The music is as comfortable as a Saturday night in the suburbs. The Chevy has been partially dismantled. You are smeared with engine grease, and the can of Schlitz is cold in your hand. The label reads “The beer that made Milwaukee famous.”
The label is important because it is from this that the band borrowed its name, a name that, according to guitarist and principal singer John Gutenberger, “has nothing to do with anything.” But the name does elicit a certain feeling, one that, despite relatively warm and sunny Sacramento, seems to call out for scarves, hats and the ever-present can of beer.
It is true that Milwaukee’s name came from a beer can, but the band is so much more than that. It is one of the most vibrant bands in the Sacramento area, a band that combines the best elements of roots and indie rock to form a sound that is musically straightforward and emotionally strong.
Gutenberger and drummer Chris Robyn are veterans of the local scene, having performed with Jonah Matranga in Far. The breakup of Far led to Matranga forming his own project, onelinedrawing, and gave Gutenberger and Robyn the shot in the arm necessary to start their own band. “It made me justify the breakup more,” Gutenberger said. “I had other things I wanted to do, anyway.”
Milwaukee is rounded out by guitarist Norm Wolfe; bassist Mike Dugan, formerly of San Francisco quartet Crumb; and keyboard player James Neil, formerly the drummer for Deathray. Each member contributes to the band’s overall sound in a unique way: Neil’s keyboard gives the songs a texture not unlike his work in Deathray, Dugan’s bass solidly backs the songs, and Wolfe’s guitar palette moves between a buzz saw and soft electric chording. Robyn is generally known as one of the loudest drummers in Sacramento, but he also is known as one of the best, and Gutenberger’s vocals and guitar playing are solid and emotional without being saccharine.
In order to capture the band’s dynamic sound in the studio, Milwaukee turned to some old friends, Dana Gumbiner and Victor Damiani of Deathray, by recording in that band’s studio, Brighton Sound. The result is …in sounds, Milwaukee’s debut full-length. “We recorded 13 songs and decided that we didn’t like a handful of them,” Gutenberger said. The result essentially boils down those initial songs to eight strong pieces, including the standout track, the Wolfe-fronted “Trying to Pull Through,” an explosive ballad that just as easily could have appeared on another album that straddles the line between indie and roots rock, Wilco’s 1996 release Being There.
The good news for fans and the curious is that the tracks that did not make the final cut are available for download at www.milwaukeetheband.com, along with 19 song demos and a Christmas song recorded for a compilation last year. It’s worth your time to visit the site. Or, better yet, check out the band live, in a setting that demonstrates how good the band can sound.