"I can be your constellation or a common vagrant. My soul is ageless, forever young, without the aid of facelifts. I'm just planning on slaving in the basement, waiting for my creations to cause revelations amongst the planet's patrons." — Gavin Theory, “Dreamer”
Music has a way to pause, pass, and parse time. This struck me last month as I was reflecting on the life and death of Gavin Soens, a longtime friend of this newspaper who passed away in Portland, Oregon at the age of 27 after a two-year battle with cancer. He went by many names — most notably Gavin Theory, but I always loved his personal rune symbol, a stick figure with boxes for hands, feet and head that can still be found in hallways and alleyways around La Crosse.
If you knew Gavin, you probably remember him like I did, on-stage, brown hair tussled over his brow, microphone clutched in a forehand grip, head nodding to bombastic woozy beats — almost always his own and distinctly ahead of his time. Gavin was the production maestro behind Hives Inquiry Squad, a hip-hop duo that formed in Kenosha but took root in La Crosse about five years ago. That group changed the tenor and sound of this town faster than anyone I ever knew.
It’s startling to think about, but Gavin lived in La Crosse for fewer than two years. Yet all those late nights at the Joint, Bluffland Bloom and Brew, Loungin’ in the Arts and “the Second Supper House” are some of my most vivid memories. Out of a dormant hip-hop scene, Gavin and fellow MC Lucas Dix took it upon themselves to make their music an event. Every show featured new songs, boundary shifting beats, risky, confident improvisation, and a sense that no place else in the world was as special as the room we were in that night.
Yet I look around La Crosse today, and the Joint, Bluffland Bloom and Brew, Loungin’ in the Arts and the Second Supper House are no more. Could it only have been five years? I remember when you could hardly find a tile to dance on at the Popcorn Tavern. The Joint, which was birthed as a biker bar, was packed for live hip-hop on Wednesday nights. National bands rolled through the Vibe, and Bluffland — which has been reincarnated as the Root Note — had an amazing anything-goes aesthetic where you could see rap, bluegrass, folk and electronica all in the same night. There were summer shows — all those Bandit County Fairs, the sublime Loungin’ in the Arts, the infamous party at Pettibone — and packed houses even in the dead of winter.
And then I think about Gavin — and how he’d scoff at me for acting like a clichéd Baby Boomer right now. It’s not hard to wear rose-tinted spectacles, but the music in this city is as vibrant as it’s ever been. We just need to get out and listen to it.
The rise of T.U.G.G. and Porcupine have been some of the more encouraging developments of the past half-decade. These bands work hard, hone their craft, deserve their accolades, and are great inspirations in the scene. And whether or not you’ve noticed it, there’s also a blooming crop of young artists, ready to make this city as musically vital and even more diverse than it was in my mid-aughts heyday.
Click Track kicks out angular dance-rock with just two musicians and the enviable tendency to unveil loads of new material each show. Nimbus has seized the baton from a rich jamband tradition, but their exploration and boom-bap precision reaches rare heights. On a younger tip, Neon is cultivating a well-deserved fanbase with the sort of savvy few people ever display in high school. 1,2,3 Walrus whips fans in a frenzy, Fayme Rochelle wails with an original twang, Bryan Zannotti blasts behind every kit, the Disabled act as elder statesmen, and Dave Orr is the glue to this city. Then there all the rappers, noise artists, basement rockers, Warehouse slayers, bluesmen, metal heads, banjo pickers, free-range horns and open mic all-stars that constantly turn out to spread the joy of music (and whom I hope don’t feel slighted if I don’t mention their name in print).
But the real trick — what separated Gavin Theory’s La Crosse from that of today — is bringing everyone together for the show. In the past five years, the local music scene has evolved in all sorts of fascinating ways. Our musicians seem more polished, plugged in, and less inclined to group-think than I remember from the past. Thanks to the Internet, local bands cultivate an original voice and land high-profile gigs from Minneapolis to Milwaukee. But when it comes to the essential energy of a “scene,” we seem fractured. Crowds are down everywhere, and whether that’s due to a depressed economy or fans’ reluctance to take risks is a perpetual conversation in empty clubs.
But Second Supper: The Free Press is here to lift the scene up, and I want to use this column as a call to action. This town has fantastic venues of all types, the sort of spaces that would be the envy of cities twice our size. We have classic rock clubs and beautiful band shells, all-ages hangouts, classy rooms, vacant spaces crying out for PAs and outdoor areas waiting to be taken over.
Last month I went to the Mid West Music Fest in Winona, and I don’t think I’ve ever attended another festival that was better planned or reflected finer on a city. If you had the gumption you could see a hundred bands at a dozen venues, all within walking distance in a charming downtown. The music came from all different genres and bands from different states, but the Coulee Region acts were given a platform to shine — and they seized the opportunity before music-hungry crowds.
This is what La Crosse should aspire to. We need to come together, and we need to branch out. I remember planning those lineups for Loungin’ in the Arts. We woke up to death metal, heard some folk, grooved to prog-jazz, saw Hives Inquiry Squad when the sun went down, and listened to experimental electronica all night. Those were great days, and we were all there together. With a look to our history and a scan of our present, we can be there again.