A huge thanks to Mile fan, Scott Peeples, for taking on the grand challenge of writing some of his favorite Mile memories! Chances are, if you’ve been to Mile of Music or a Mile-related event, you’ve seen Scott.
Remembrances from Appleton’s Mile of Music, 2013-2019
By Scott Peeples
Mile 1 – 2013 Inside the Bent Keg (then known as Mill Creek) on a Sunday afternoon listening to a rock band from Milwaukee (The Delta Routine), I was wondering what I was doing in a bar . . . on a Sunday afternoon. It was the tail end of 22 hours of music I’d heard over four days at Appleton’s first Mile of Music festival. My favorite new band that first year was Communist Daughter. I discovered the magic of Rodney Crowell, an Americana/County superstar who I’d really never heard of and I rode the fledgling Mile of Music bus with the Dead Horses, who’ve since gone on to national acclaim, including opening for The Who. After first hearing her sing as an Appleton teenager, it was great to see how high then 29-year old Melanie Flannery (Mel Flannery Trucking Company) could fly after moving to New York. In addition to music on a Sunday afternoon, notable that was the diversity of women-led bands, including an all-woman surf band called the Wild Ones. One of my favorite songs from the inaugural Mile of Music was Crowell’s “Closer to Heaven,” a fitting theme song for the first year of a music festival that overnight transformed Appleton into a new music mecca in the Midwest.
Mile 2 – 2014 “I didn’t know what I was missing until I got found.” That line, from a song by the Brooklyn band, “Swear and Shake,” summed up my feelings about Mile of Music 2. Swear and Shake was the break-out band from the first year, the band that epitomized the vibe the Mile was trying to evoke that I had somehow missed in my first go around. But there they were, on Day 1 (Thursday) of the festival and I was essentially hooked on the festival right from that moment on. I found myself through the guitar virtuosity of Charlie Parr, the unbridled, midnight enthusiasm of the ear-splitting Sc Mira from Canada and the train-wreck energy of Richie Ramone, former member of the 70s punk band that kept popping up as a guest performer singing the same goofy song. Guided by the musical genius of Cory Chisel, I enjoyed the Avett Brothers-like excellence of Cereus Bright, the sheer perfection of Robert Ellis’ “Sing Along,” the bright innocence of the Madison pop-duo Seasaw, the wild irrelevance of Ruben, and the dance inducing ecstasy of the folk/rock band Matrimony from North Carolina. Best all-around performance that year came from The Crane Wives, a Michigan band that, like Swear and Shake, became a Mile of Music favorite. But Ruby Amanfu had the most emotionally lifting performance at the “Songs Before We Go” showcase on Sunday night.
Mile 3 – 2015 While singer songwriter/Americana acts are the primary enticement for the Mile each year, the unexpected blast and scream of Me Like Bees at the end of the first night of Mile 3 was sheer bliss. Instead of going home after the Rolling Stones tribute, we made our way down College Avenue for the proverbial one more show and encountered the whirl and crunch of the band led by enigmatic queen bee Luke Scheafer, one of the greatest bands ever to pollinate the Mile-hive. Other highlights came from Rachele Eve, whom I encountered at Jim’s Place on a Saturday afternoon. Because of the push of the crowd, I ended up standing just two feet away from her for most of the 50-minute set. Her haunting rendition of “Harold Moon” still resonates with me. The most talented act from Mile 3 was undoubtedly the Milk Carton Kids, a big name act that packed the Lawrence Chapel. And then there was (and is) the Durty Leprechaun, the perfect non-traditional music venue for quirk prog band, Har-di-Har. They only performed one set, at midnight, and Tony Gonzalez and I were there to see it. I have not been to more than two or three Mile shows there in seven years but I ruminate about the experimental dream pop duo from the Twin Cities every time I walk past it.
Mile 4 – 2016 So determined to see Cedarwell after tasting just a few tunes from them at Miles 1 and 2, I put them on my meticulously planned schedule three times, and ending up seeing two full performances (11 a.m. and 11 p.m. in the same day) from the dark folk-pop project, unique for their whisper to scream dynamics and literally pulling from their tool kits to play guitar. I discovered Beth Bombara, now one of my favorite artists of all time, at Mile 4, and Geri X, a polar opposite, in terms of stage presence, but equally compelling. The diversity of women-led acts, of many genres, is one of the most fulfilling and wonderfully consistent parts of the Mile of Music. Lowland Hum and the Lowest Pair (pun intended, apparently) were also highly skills but wholly unique husband and wife duos that tickled my ear drums at Mile 4. But the greatest moment of 2016 came in the visage of Jonny Fritz, who led the super-trio (with Cory Chisel and Robert Ellis) in their women empowerment anthem, “Hummingbird.” The song itself was brilliant but only slightly more spectacular than witnessing Fritz’ glee as he announced it to the Houdini Plaza throngs who lapped up every syllable.
Mile 5—2017 It had already been a fulfilling Day 1 of Mile 5, when several friends and I sauntered into the beguiling darkness of Gibson Music Hall at 10:40 p.m. to experience the orange leisure suited antics of Country music rebel The Kernal. Hearing ditties like “Knock-Kneed Ballerina” and “The Old Taco Bell,” we laughed and were buoyed by his sartorial (lack of?) splendor but at the end of the set what held it all together was the gritty perfection of the songs. The next night, I watched Americana rock and roller, Andrew Leahey and his band, the Homestead, shake up the Appleton Beer Factory. But the enduring memory was the short conversation (and photo op) afterwards. I was intrigued because he was also a writer for Rolling Stone Magazine and a survivor of a life- threatening brain tumor. Joanna Samuels, from California, and J.S. Ondara, a Bob Dylan-influenced troubadour from Nairobi, Kenya played perhaps the best acoustic sets of the festival, The Fast Romantics (from Canada) had a thousand people dancing to “American Love” during a late-night outdoor show at Spats and the life-affirming clown party that was Carrie Fussell and her band, Calliope Musicals, transformed Washington Square into a love fest. Harpooner, the quintessential band of Mile 5, was evidence that those who stay ‘til the final curtain falls will be rewarded. Their late-Sunday morning show at Fox River House – a nod to the Electric Light Orchestra with a potent shot of Americana – was simply sublime.
Mile 6—2018 Many a Mile of Music enthusiast has laughed watching me jog, even sprint, down the street during the festival. It is, of course, “the mile” of music, and sometimes that’s how far one needs to travel to get to the next best show. But another form of transportation, the bicycle, made the third night of Mile 6 an momentous night of adventure. Accompanied by fellow biker, Tony Gonzalez, we zipped from the nightclub eloquence of Julia Haltigan at McGuinness Pub to the funk-rock sounds of Luthi at the Red Lion Paper Valley Hotel and to the off-avenue indulgence of The Crane Wives (led by Kate Pilsbury and Emilee Petersmark) at Riverside Bar and Grill. As thunder started to roar and rain to trickle down, we raced from Between the Locks, up a “secret” pathway behind the old Michael’s Restaurant and back to McGuiness, narrowing averting the torrential downpour. As we slid our way to the front row, Phillip-Michael Scales silenced the boisterous crowd with his heartfelt eloquence and rapid-fire truth telling. When the show ended, it was 11 p.m., already a late night but not for two Mile 6 bike riders. Still to come were Good Night Gold Dust, Me Like Bees, Audiodacity and, a 1 a.m. rescheduled show, Melodine, to close out the night. (Lizzie No was a performer I did not see that historic night became my favorite from Mile 6. With her beauty, grace and style, the singer/songwriter/guitarist/harpist from Brooklyn captured my attention from the first note she played at Mile 6.) As we walked our bikes down College Avenue at 2 a.m., we encountered a newly married couple and the last vestiges of their wedding party. There were beaming with newly married euphoria but, inexplicably, were also interested in knowing what this Mile of Music thing was all about. So whad’ ya want to know about Julia, Emilee, that bee band and Phillip-Michael Scales?
Mile 7—2019 Bottles of Stone Arch root beer in hand, Albert Park, Paul Reiser and I left the Music Maker Lounge at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in time to catch the first (12:15 p.m.) show of Mile of Music at Copper Rock. Walking down College Avenue, we were met by Sunny War, who intriguingly asked, “You can drink on the street in Appleton?” A shared laugh segued into her jaw dropping performance. Inspired by the likes of blues artist Robert Johnson, the former L.A. street busker showed off her banjo claw hammer playing, crisp but crackly singing and between song humble admission of her troubled teen years that belied it all. Along with brilliant new artists – Cicada Rhythm, Claire Kelly, Birds of Chicago, Tristen, Wyland, Sway Wild and Seth Glier stood out – the now familiar sounds of Beth Bombara, Andrew Leahey, The Artisanals, Michelle Mandico, Lizzie No and Them Coulee Boys evoked lush, euphoric memories of Miles past. The struggle is real; each year, the balancing act of choosing old (returning) or new is confounding. Girl Blue put on the most epic show of 2019, a huge, spectacularly lit display of showmanship and empowerment at the newly renovated Jones Park stage. Less opulent but no less intriguing was Ben de la Cour, the Americanoir Cowboy Jack Clement enthusiast with no tolerance for disinterested table talkers. When he played “Uncle Boudreaux Went to Texas,” you got the de la Cour side eye or a tongue lashing if you stuck around long enough for the song to end.
The Mile of Music is not a place for old friends to catch up, not during the performances anyway. Listen up. Enjoy the music, the songwriting, the passion these artists have for their craft. The Mile of Music may be the best thing that has ever happened to Appleton. And it’s all ours!