After a long drought during COVID-19, the music is back


B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

Chad O’Brien and CASHED rocked Whitewater Music Hall in June.

By Wednesday afternoon, the chairs had already started to appear on The 400 Block in downtown Wausau. There weren’t a ton of them. But they were a welcome sight after a year of absence from the 400 Block. 

They of course were set up for the first Concert on the Square series. The members of Madison-based Pacific Coast Highway mulled toward the middle of the stage as the new Wausau Events Director, Alissandra Aderholdt, took the stage to announce the band and kick off the first concert in nearly two years. 

One of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic was the near disappearance of the music scene. While there were pockets of music in places that could handle it outside, some of which came with controversy, and some streaming shows here and there as musicians struggled to find a way get their music out and hopefully find a way to continue their revenue streams, for the most part the scene really fell off. 

Vaccinations started in earnest earlier this year, and it gave folks some hope of things returning to normal. As of this writing, nearly half of Marathon County residents who are authorized have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Cases have dropped to lows not seen since very early in the pandemic. The numbers of confirmed cases have flattened even as numbers of negative cases continue to rise. 

Mask requirements stayed in place, and then, seemingly over a pretty short period last month, they started to disappear or become optional only. Mask sightings started to become more rare. 

So when would the music come back? Wednesday night’s concert seemed to send the signal that, yes, music is open for business in the Wausau area again. It seemed clear that the music scene has been kicking back into gear over the past month, and venue operators and musicians City Pages spoke to agree. 

But that scene might look a bit different going forward. Like many things such as where people work, or how they buy products and restaurant meals, music could look a little different going forward. 

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B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

Pacific Coast Highway played the first Concerts on the Square since before the pandemic.

A year of reflection

Chad O’Brien was a little lost when the lockdown happened in March 2020. His Wausau band CASHED formed in 2019, and hadn’t been around that long when the lockdown started. He had been touring with other musicians on the west coast as a solo artist and just returned when the lockdowns were announced. 

“When it happened, we sat back a minute,” O’Brien told City Pages. “We needed to relax and take some time to figure this out.” 

O’Brien and his fellow band members spent the pandemic focusing on writing and recording music. “In a way it was a blessing because it gave us time to focus on what we need to get the album done.” 

CASHED just released its first album, Breaking the Mold, at a show at Whitewater Music Hall earlier this month. 

They’re not the only band to focus on recording. Adam Greuel, frontman for Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, released a solo album called Quarantine Tangerine, inspired by his time spent fishing and staying isolated. Greuel was also on tour just prior to the COVID lockdowns. 

“The music industry kind of got hit by it first to some degree,” Greuel said in a podcast interview. “South by Southwest canceled and I remember saying to a friend ‘I wonder if this is the first of  months of things being canceled?’” 

Knowing he would go stir crazy otherwise, Greuel knew he needed to focus on a project and thought he could come up with some material that would resonate with people. Quarantine Tangerine was the result of that. Greuel also partnered with comedian Charlie Behrens on a musical project. 

And Harold Melo, formerly of Substyle, started working on recording projects, including working on an album with John Pearson that is due out this year. 

Billy Bronsted, a country-style crooner based in Wausau, also has his eyes on both an album and tour. 

Like O’Brien, he had just come back from a tour when the lockdowns struck. It was a sobering position to be in, and ultimately proved to be sobering in a literal sense. Bronsted spent some time in Colorado where, he told City Pages, he changed his lifestyle and quit drinking. He’s reached six months of sobriety and returned ready to play. “I needed to hit rock bottom,” Bronsted says.


B.C. Kowalski/City Pages

Billy Bronsted returned to Wausau from Colorado ready to work — and there has been plenty of work for him.

“For me it’s a double whammy,” Bronsted told City Pages. “I’m back in this state and have a substantial amount of clean time, and I’m ready to play. I’m more ready to work than I ever have been in my life.” 

And venues have been ready to have him work. Bronsted says he’s been playing every weekend, often multiple shows, and that’s even extended into the workweek. Bronsted’s Americana-style crooning can be found on several albums and EPs already, and he sees this as a time to grow. Bronsted had just purchased a vehicle that he and the other members of his band, The Loot, can ride in on the tour. 

Live shows 

A number of Concert on the Square attendees on Wednesday enjoyed the show from the city’s first parklets, built outside Malarkey’s and Townies. 

Built as a sort of portable bar-like wooden structure and decorated in flowers, it’s the first like it in the city. It’s also part of the new approach that Malarkey’s is taking to music. 

“Things are bouncing back and there is a hunger for live music,” says Malarkey’s owner Tyler Vogt. But that looks differently for Malarkey’s — he’s been hosting a lot of singer songwriter, folk style music, and everything has been outdoors-first, Vogt told City Pages. 

And, music has started running earlier. Mostly gone are the 10 pm shows that used to be common at the live music venue. Start times at 8 pm are far more common, and the music tends to cater more to a restaurant audience, Vogt says. A look through City Pages Big Guide shows much earlier shows at music venues in general than in the past.

That’s partially because the crowd is different. Before the pandemic, music-goers would cram into a crowd near the corner stage to listen to music. People aren’t doing that anymore, Vogt says; instead, they tend to find places to sit and listen from where they’re seated. “I don’t know if the late-night crowd is out in the numbers they were in 2019,” Vogt says. 

Whitewater Music Hall had its first live music return April 23 with the River Valley Rangers, but it has really been in the last month that live music has become a regular on the music hall’s schedule. 

When the lockdowns from the pandemic started, Whitewater Music Hall had been open less than a year. The owners barely had started building momentum and getting the hang of booking acts, which can be a very complicated process, when they had to shut everything down, says owner Kelly Ballard. 

But today the music hall is being flooded with requests to play. So it’s a matter of what shows they can put on with the staff they have available. Many larger shows are looking out to September, and that’s likely when the music hall will start having music inside again, Ballard told City Pages. 

For now, music is being held in the biergarten, and June was nearly booked full with acts, including CASHED’s album release party, Good Night Gold Dust, Brad Ballard’s (one of the music hall’s owners) album release party, and shows from Buffalo Galaxy and Aaron Kaplan rounding out the rest of the month. 

Ballard says they’re planning to replace their open mics with a house band on Thursdays featuring special guests every week. It’s meant to be like the radio shows back when radio was the main source of entertainment, and similar to what Art Stevenson and High Water used to do in Portage County. In fact, Art Stevenson will be helping out, Ballard says. 

Sean Wright, Executive Director of the Grand Theater, says they’ve noticed a trend in people being eager to return to live shows. “After 15 months of being dark, pivoting to online, scheduling, rescheduling and rescheduling again, it’s exciting to see in-person shows on the calendar that we expect to happen,” Wright told City Pages. 

The Winter Dance Party will be the first in-person show on the Grand’s Theater, followed by Shayna Steele as part of the theater’s 10×10 series. 

Building the schedule wasn’t easy, Wright says; both for venues and for booking agents. There were two years of reschedules to account for, for one thing. 

But, Wright says, data shows patrons are eager to get back to all the shows they’ve enjoyed, whether it’s music, theater or other performances. “If there’s any real change, we are seeing patrons who are buying tickets to some shows and artists they don’t know as well, just because they’ve missed live performances so much,” Wright says.

The music continues 

Pretty much everyone interviewed for the story agrees the music has finally returned. Based on looking at the crowds gathered at The 400 Block, that seems like the case. Though perhaps more spread out than they would have been before the pandemic, crowds were enthusiastic when the first notes started playing from Pacific Coast Highway.

The music is back.