Shank Hall Turns 25
Popular music hall bridges the gap between barroom and ballroom.
After a sold out rock show on a frigid October night, dozens of eyeballs scan the venue’s Persian-blue walls. Photos of past acts, autographed and framed, litter the painted brick. Miniature mobs point out and debate familiar names. Alanis Morissette played here as a Canadian nobody.
The Smashing Pumpkins sold this place out years before Lollapalooza. Jimmy Cliff journeyed 1,800 miles for a few sets on the simple, black stage. Indie-rock legend Uncle Tupelo serenaded a crowd in 1994 then came back in 1996 as Wilco. Victor Wooten, John Scofield, Megadeth, Buckethead, John Paul Jones, John Entwhistle…there are literally hundreds.
Are these live music fans standing in New York’s historic Bowery Ballroom, the eclectic Fillmore in San Francisco, or maybe Philadelphia’s trendy Electric Factory? No these people are at Shank Hall, Milwaukee’s longest operating music venue.
Staving the sonic appetites of local music audiences since 1989 more than 100 acts pass through the Stonehenge replica doors each year. It bridges the gap between barroom and ballroom boasting a modest capacity of only a few hundred. However in the wake of serious economic setbacks, shifting market trends, fickle consumer expectations, and intense industry competition Shank Hall is set to celebrate its 20th anniversary this November.
While other entertainment hubs around town rely on a myriad of aggressive advertisings and glitzy gimmicks to attract cliental Shank Hall owner Peter Jest credits one trait above all others towards the club’s longevity. “It has a good reputation for being a dedicated live music room. You don’t see pool tables, dart machines, or TVs. Artists come here and see we have professional staff and sound. There’s not a bad seat for sight or sound.”
A native Milwaukeean Jest’s professional entertainment career begins in the early 1980s as a concert promoter at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. After a few years he graduates to business owner purchasing the small nightclub formerly known as “Teddy’s”. The next step is applying the perfect name to the place. He decides on a fictitious Milwaukee venue from the rock-mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap.
“When the movie came out I saw it with my friend and I said boy if I over open a rock club I got to call it Shank Hall because it would be a great in-joke for musicians.” While England’s loudest band has never cranked it to 11 on the Shank Hall stage Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest did hold a press conference in May of 1992 sporting full-rocker-garb.
In the last two decades Jest has become somewhat of a local celebrity. Feuding exploits with fellow club owners and local reporters fuels his reputation as a hard-line, no nonsense competitor. What some people may perceive as grudge Jest chalks up to differing business philosophies.
“I try to stick up for what can hurt or harm the business and speak my mind when someone’s trying to do things that are wrong.” Regardless of people’s preconceptions of the guy Shank Hall’s lastingness trumps critics. “You look back twenty years at who’s been around and who’s not been around. There are people in here that we’re probably five or six years old when we opened.”
Dreadlocked twenty-somethings toast brown Schlitz bottles against highball glasses of a graying, scholarly couple. They are four of the 300 capacity crowd who’ve just spent a few Friday night hours taking in some live cuts. A slew of representatives from The Silent Generation through Gen-Y assemble in the unassuming brick clad building almost nightly.The diverse human makeup found inside the walls of Shank Hall is a reflection of the surrounding neighborhood.
Nestling between a middle-eastern restaurant and tattoo shop the modest music room is surrounded by Queen Anne and German Renaissance architectures synonymous with the Brady/Farwell area.
Beginning as a Polish and German saturated precinct in the 1870s the area transformed into a heavily Italian populated ward by the early 1900s. Nowadays the community is one of the most diverse and densely populated the city meshing blue and white collared workers, students, artists, and traditional immigrant fixtures into a few dozen city blocks.
In a part of Milwaukee that’s been labeled immigrant safe haven, counter-culture epicenter, and transitional neighborhood in less than a century Shank Hall remains a critical constant. “There’s got to be at least 40-50 places doing music in the last twenty years that have closed.” says Jest.
The club’s durability is a huge selling point for musicians looking for a space to showcase their craft. Local rock trio Ian and the Dream gigged several opening band slots before earning headliner status this past summer, a formula Jest pitches to most emerging groups. Front man Ian Abrahamson enjoys just playing the stage. “I’m glad there’s a place like this in Milwaukee that’s in it for the bands, in it for the music. It’s nice to have a place where bands can make a profit from people going out to see shows not just going out to get a drink.”
Spectacular as it may sound in the city of brew Shank Hall operates exclusively as a live music room. In the past the club offered all ages shows but the underage crowd rubs Jest and his neighbors the wrong way. “We don’t want to annoy the neighborhood by having kids running around.
We used to do all age shows in the early nineties but they would just paint graffiti and shop lift across the street. It just got to where it was like babysitting for 300 kids.” Through compliance with residential standards the clubs never been issued a noise citation or received a neighborhood complaint according to Jest.
In its almost twenty-year lifespan Shank hall’s encounters it’s share of peaks and valleys. The building suffered extensive fire damage in 1992 from a smoldering cigarette. Yet today it is one of the few indoor spaces lighting up is allowed. It was a favorite Midwest stop for the late Warren Zevon during his epic touring years. In 2008 Milwaukee Magazine listed a performance by legendary singer/songwriter/producer Nick Lowe in the top five shows in the city’s history“It’s a nice place with a lot of history. That makes it appealing for bands to play there,” says Abrahamson.
For the anniversary Jest welcomes back a few personal nostalgic acts.On Nov. 6 Semi Twang will reunite taking the stage 20 years to the date after being the first band to headline Shank Hall. Blue in the Face, billed as the first group to sound check the then unopened venue, performs on Nov. 7.“I think it’s a very special year,” explains Jest. “We’ll just keep doing shows. People want to see quality shows and we’ll keep trying to get bands to play here doing quality working together to get people out for a good time.