The Destination

Steel Bridge, part 2

By - Jun 13th, 2010 04:00 am

Imagine, if you can, a hotel on a quiet bay that seemingly exists outside of time and real life, taken over by the likes of a hundred rock and rollers. Days that revolve around whatever you choose to do with your freedom, your skills, your inspiration, your instruments. Lots of beers, laughter and experimentation. And practice. That’s what’s happening here.

Each room in the groovy, retro-styled Holiday Motel comes with earplugs for a reason:  inspiration may come at any time.

The days work like this: roll out of bed and greet the sunlight when you can. Mill about and enjoy breakfast, one small part of the the fantastic hospitality of the people and local establishments who support Steel Bridge Song Fest. Find yourself in a string of conversations with the bright-eyed and Ray-Banned musicians, who range from teenagers to grandparents. The lobby, the motel hallways and the lawn are cluttered with a shuffling of guitars, keyboards, the boisterous energies of artists in fits of creation, relaxing in a moment of paue, or festering in writer’s block.

The whole day is our blank canvas. To it we bring our knowledge, our drama, our implements, visions and vices. Everyone is holding out for their encounter with the wild element, the magic thing that will set something in motion.

You might just find it in a group gathered and waiting for you in your bedroom.

Last night I came back to my room to such a thing. My roommate Andrea, a native Canadian and now New Yorker, who lends her stylish voice, bright spirit, expert piano skills and theory knowledge to a seemingly endless stream of projects (coming home each night when the birds chirp), is sprawled on her bed, flipping through a folio of index cards. She’s been gathering ideas for years, filing away the smallest clips and phrases, in case she ever needs content, a spark or a stimulant.

Egging her on from the corner easy chair is James and his deep dark Gibson, espousing in a sweet Louisiana accent. James is a seasoned musician, writer and performer who has toured with the likes of the Indigo Girls, and came to Steel Bridge with his wife and teenage son, himself a bright, eager contributor and fearless tuba and guitar player.

All they know about me so far is that I can sing a little of blues. James asks me to play my songs. I’ve been clutching my guitar on my bed. She’s like a best friend who has been through it all with me: she’s got my back, even if my feet are stuck dangling above the ground. I close my eyes and sing them my strangest song; The Undertow. Somehow singing for them fills me with light and concentrated ferocity, like Southern Comfort (but without the after fuzz). James talks me down to earth while I play. It is like medicine as he helps me hold on to the beat for the song, and the songs after that.

Being a “self-trained” musician has left me with holes in my skills that are undeniable. Luckily, I find myself more and more in contexts that are unpunishing and safe. Situations that instill small, potent doses of knowledge, confidence and comfort into me.

What brought me into this wild laboratory of song is a combination of luck, love and a voice that I’ve been honing and scratching away at steadily for all of my days.

In my stay here so far I’ve been busy, but there’s time built in to allow for my wonderment and preoccupation with questions. What makes someone a musician fit for this kind of experience? What even makes a person a songwriter in the first place? I’m thinking about it on the small and the large scale.

What makes us songwriters, beyond the calluses on our fingertips, our proclivity for seriousness and silliness about our art, is the want to share stories.

The song writing enterprise goes even deeper than the obvious desire for attention and validation. Behind the inclination to compose there seems to be an obsessive need to weave some sense out of mystery, some narrative out of the muddled, mercurial cesspool of life; after all, we all need something to hold on to. Music is order. We grip tightly to the songs of others that make the most sense to us.

What seems to make a Steel Bridge songwriter in particular is the willingness to do anything — gumption is what got us here. In this day and age, it takes some fierce combination of entrepreneurship, imagination, and knowledge of music to draw some degree of attention, respect and support for your work. For every one person who’s song gets play on the radio, there are about 100,000 others vying for that chance.

Even if you’ve done all these things well and come to Steel Bridge with a firm idea of who you are and what you can do, my sense is that before you leave you will have done something entirely outside of yourself.

There are people here who tour 300 days of the year. There are folks who have released over a dozen records on major labels, who’ve toured with preeminent bans. Some of these folks are people who play incredibly fine instruments, have graced magazine covers and had their travels paid for by sponsors. Then there are folks here who have only played open mics, who have never directly attempted anything like this.

The reality is that unless you know how to contribute to a good track, you will fall to the wayside and, if nothing else, have an exciting ride. The metaphorical bridge that carries you through is the faith you place in yourself and in the community. If you make it across , you just might cut a track that gets played at the nightly banquet dinner in the Ladder House bar.Your song could even end up on the annual Steel Bridge Songfest compilation album.

This whole experience is unlike anything else in the world and it is one that is cherished by everyone involved. This is a time for us to be anything.

0 thoughts on “The Destination: Steel Bridge, part 2”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Really enjoyed the article. Sounds like a challenging, amazing time!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I was at the Company Store last Thursday night. Like the Thursday, I was there two years ago the performances by all was fantastic. Listening to orignal music makes music worth listening to.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The Andrea and James mentioned in this piece are Andrea Wittgens and James Hall.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us