By Nick Lauer
A huge thank you to Mile fan, Nick Lauer, for crafting a list of his 8 Magical Mile Moments!
Without a doubt, 2020 was the hardest year ever for music lovers around the world. Fortunately, 2021 has kicked off a musical redemption tour that features our very own Mile of Music as one of the headliners. To commemorate the return of Mile 8, I will be sharing my list of 8 magical moments from The Mile. I encourage you to comment below and share one of your own favorite moments as well.
1. Losing my Mile virginity
These days I consider myself to be one of The Mile’s biggest fans and yet I was admittedly quite late to the game. For Mile’s 1 through 3, I was exiled in the land of Vikings fans and “soda” drinkers so I was unaware of the groundbreaking event that was getting started in my hometown. My parents tried explaining it to me, but based on their not-so-great description (Hey Mom and Dad!), I thought it was an event like Octoberfest that closed down College Avenue and just had a bunch of small-time garage bands from around the area (not that there would be anything wrong with that). It wasn’t until I moved back to Appleton in July 2016 that I started looking into The Mile more and saw the lineup for Mile 4. I was scanning through the list of bands when I did a double-take upon seeing the band Farewell Milwaukee on the list. How could this be? I was gobsmacked to see a band that I had first heard in Minnesota on The Current radio station. I had subsequently acquired all their albums and was a big fan. Needless to say, that was the band I decided would be perfect for my first show. I saw them at The Bar and was in awe of seeing this band live in my hometown performing 10 feet away from me. Right then I was hooked.
2. The Artisanals bare it all
Fast forward to Mile 6 in 2018 and I once again found myself at The Bar for what would turn out to be yet another magical moment. On opening night, I made sure my dad (who has become my Mile wingman) and I arrived plenty early to secure a table near the front of the stage to watch a double-header of The Brothers Footman and The Artisanals. The Brothers Footman absolutely crushed their set and immediately cemented themselves as one of my favorite bands from The Mile. Little did I know that The Artisanals were about to clear that same bar (pun kinda-sorta intended). Not only was the music of The Artisanals superb, but they had a comfortable stage presence that made you smile, much like the ever-present smile on the face of lead singer Johnny Delaware whenever he is singing. They took this comfort to a whole new and unexpected level when about 15 minutes into their set lead guitarist Clay Houle Hulk-ed his shirt off and played the rest of the show topless. It was a seminal moment in the history of body positivity and this move transformed Houle into a folk hero for me and my dad. Luckily for us, this would not be the last magical moment involving The Artisanals and our new favorite guitarist.
3. An early glimpse at greatness in the making
If there’s one thing I think all of us Mile of Music fans can agree on, it is that we all sincerely hope that every one of these bands that blesses the city of Appleton with their original music will eventually “make it big.” Obviously, that’s not reality, but we can still hope. That being said, there are some bands you watch at The Mile that immediately jump out at you and show you they just might have what it takes to get really big. For me, that band was The National Parks at Mile 6. I saw their show at Washington Square, featured in the iconic photo of the band with the massive crowd behind their backs. This simply felt like a performance by a band that you would tell people about 10 years down the road when they are selling out stadiums. My personal favorite song from the show was “Esperanca.” I subsequently listened to that song about a hundred times in the three months after the show. It still is my favorite song by The National Parks. This is one of the coolest aspects of The Mile though, right? We get the unique opportunity to see bands live in an intimate setting that we may eventually hear on the radio and have to fork over a wad of cash just to see them in the nosebleed section of an arena. As a postscript to this magical moment, The National Parks headlined a show at Vivint Arena (home of the Utah Jazz) this past spring. It didn’t take long for that jump to happen.
4. Sing-a-long songs at Gibson
For every show one watches at The Mile, there are two ways to go into it. One option is you go in totally unaware of the band and its music and simply let yourself dive into the original music as it comes at you. The second option is to listen to the bands discography in advance and come into the show with at least a little bit of knowledge about the band and the songs you’re going to hear live. I typically fall in the latter category and try to at least listen to a handful of songs from each artist before I see them at The Mile. However, for Mile 7 in 2019 I took this to another level. While listening to the various bands I planned on seeing that year, one in particular jumped out at me—Mike Mains and The Branches. In fact, I was so smitten with the musical stylings of this group from Michigan that I decided to purchase the album Calm Down, Everything is Fine in June instead of waiting to buy a CD (google it Gen Z) directly from the band at The Mile like I ordinarily do. Over the next two months I listened to it constantly. As The Mile got closer, I also started to listen to their newest album When We Were in Love regularly as well. When The Mile finally arrived in August, I couldn’t have been more excited to see this band. Finally on that Friday afternoon I witnessed the band’s first set at Gibson (my favorite live venue in the city FYI) and I was blown away. If my memory serves (and being the father of three young kids it often doesn’t) they opened with “Live Forever” and I was in music heaven. It was incredible to see a band that I could sing along with in this venue that allowed everyone to hear every note perfectly. After this show I was convinced that every fan of The Mile should pick at least one band they are planning at seeing at the upcoming festival and do a deep dive into all their music. It’s a spectacular experience.
5. Moving from acquaintances to…friends?
Perhaps my favorite component of The Mile is the ability to interact with the artists throughout the weekend. It’s something that very few musical festivals can offer and this alone creates the opportunity for an abundance of magical moments. Most of the time these interactions are simple exchanges of pleasantries with the band after the show when they are packing up their gear. However, sometimes it morphs into something even more special. This was the case at Mile 7 for my dad and I with the band Wyland. We first saw them perform under the blistering midday sun on Saturday at D2 Sports Pub. Oddly enough, as soon as the show wrapped, we desperately fled the heat to find some AC and shade and didn’t have a chance to chat with the rockers from New Jersey. Fate gave us a boost though when we ran into Wyland’s Ryan and Ariella later that day in the PAC lobby as we were looking at merch. We had a pleasant talk and did our best to make them feel welcome in our humble Midwest home. Nothing too unusual about that, but then on Sunday as we were walking up and down the avenue, we passed them three separate times in front of the Red Lion Hotel and said “hi” each time. Yes, in hindsight it’s possible they thought we were stalking them, yet they were pleasant each time and you could tell they actually recognized us. During one of these encounters we chatted briefly again and they told us about their last show they were performing for the weekend at Emmetts that afternoon. Now, typically I only see bands once during the weekend, simply because I want to see as many bands as I possibly can instead of loading up on multiple shows from the same bands. However, I will always make an exception if the band personally invites us to another show. You just can’t turn the “Midwest Nice” thing on and off. Anyway, it was our pleasure to see another Wyland show despite the fact that once again we were watching this band perform in scorching heat. In fact, we were so desperate for relief from the sun that we pulled over some chairs into the shade of the porta potties to help us cool down. This led to the realization that I stumbled across the name of my future autobiography— In the Shade of the Porta Potties: The Nick Lauer Story.
6. Artists pulling a Captain Planet and combining powers
As you can see if you made it this far (I appreciate the “won’t quit” determination), each Mile has something special to it, but for some reason Mile 7 had a plethora of magical moments. Here’s another one. For the true Mile diehards out there, the weekend is jam-packed with live music and the sticking it out every day, for the whole day is no small feat. Due to this fact, Sunday tends to be much slower in terms of foot traffic downtown and attendance at the shows. Just because this tends to be the case, does not mean the bands mail in their performances. For instance, music fans didn’t get the memo that the crowd was supposed to be small and subdued for a Sunday show featuring Little Stranger on the last day of Mile 7. D2 Sports Pub was packed to the gills for one of the festival’s most popular acts. The show itself was great, but the highlight was when the band called up Pip the Pansy to the stage to have her perform on her flute during one of the songs. It’s fun to see these bands forming or at least developing friendships via their time visiting Appleton and playing The Mile. Not only do music fans come together, but so do the artists themselves. You have to love the fact that Appleton can be a conduit for this type of thing.
7. A chance encounter for the ages
Upon leaving the aforementioned Little Stranger concert, my dad and I were walking back to the car to reminisce about another fantastic Mile of Music. On our way there we noticed that the door was open for the tour van of The Artisanals. The only reason we knew it was there was because we stopped by earlier in the day to talk to our literal guitar hero, Clay Houle. I thought this would be a good opportunity to buy a band shirt as I missed my opportunity to do so after their show we attended. When we walked up, we received a warm greeting from frontman Johnny Delaware. We then proceeded to have a nice long talk with him and he couldn’t have been nicer. I did end up getting my shirt and we parted ways knowing what a rare treat it was to talk with one the artists when they were relaxing and not feeling the rush of packing up and vacating the venue. While this was the perfect culmination to the end of the weekend, I have to admit that we blew a golden opportunity. In my dad’s car we actually had The Artisanals CD and had we thought of it then, we could have drove by their tour van cranking their music. It would have been a cool gift to give, but alas you can’t win ‘em all.
8. Passing the torch to the next generation
As I mentioned earlier, my dad has always been my wingman for The Mile. Every year I give him my carefully-crafted schedule for the weekend and he comes along for the ride, no questions asked. He’s not retired yet though, so some of the shows on Thursday and Friday during the day I attend without him. For one of these shows I had the pleasure of bringing my kids. For every Mile weekend I treat it like opening weekend for hunters and am gone 90% of the time attending my favorite event of the year. It puts the burden on my wife to be a single parent for the four days (sorry Emily!) and has the kids asking a lot of questions about where daddy is going all the time. Fortunately, it worked out that on that Friday afternoon the kids woke up early enough from their naps that I was able to race downtown with them to see Sam Burchfield’s set at the Tiny House venue on the Lawrence lawn. The kids had a fun time running around and enjoying the music in their own way, but for me it was truly special. This was the moment when The Mile truly transitioned from one generation to the next. My dad and I have made it into a fun bonding experience and now I was getting the chance to do the same thing with my own kids. Not to get all Linus-like from A Charlie Brown Christmas, but at the heart of it, isn’t this what Mile of Music is really all about? It’s the perfect way to bring people together over the common love of the universal language—music. It took my Mile of Music appreciation to a whole new level and emphasized the fact that I wanted to do whatever I could to help this festival survive and thrive so it could be something that could continue to be passed down from one generation to the next.
We are blessed that Mile of Music survived the pandemic, now let’s keep this show going for ages to come!