The Vortis Diaries: A trip to Milwaukee | WBEZ
Skip to main content

Jim DeRogatis

The Vortis Diaries: A trip to Milwaukee

Some gigs are better than others.Vortis hardly ever has a bad time playing, per se. But sometimes, events in one of our lives conspire to cast a pall over the evening—though the band is supposed to be our outlet from such stresses—while other times, the best of vibes can be ruined by any number of external factors.

Though we had heard great things through the underground grapevine about Milwaukee’s Circle-A Café; we had a stellar time during our last Wisconsin road trip a few months ago; it had been entirely too long since we last played Brew City, and the newly-wed Mary Elusive had baked the seasonal treat of pumpkin-cranberry cookies to sustain us during the 90-minute drive, things did not start out promising.

Circle-A is a tiny neighborhood bar that makes the late, lamented Ronny’s look expansive: It is perhaps one-third the size of the back room at Schubas, and though the hang space is doubled by the outdoor “Booze Grotto” (a very nice touch), that didn’t do much good on Saturday as the winter chill set in.

The décor is inviting enough: Classic punk album covers and fliers for shows you wish you’d attended line the walls, seven-inch singles cover the ceiling, and the odd guitar, clarinet, or antique radio is suspended here or there. The staffers are friendly, the between-sets music is top-notch (Flaming Groovies, yeah!), and the cool old bar keeps the fine local microbrew Klisch flowing generously.

Bands set up on the floor in a small space right next to the door, the P.A. is minimal, and because of the neighbors, the live music is restricted from 8 to 10, meaning short sets and quick turnarounds. But Vortis has long since learned to cope with those sorts of challenges. It really was the opening act on the three-band bill with our pals the Cathy Santonies that sent things spiraling downward for a while.

The club’s booker had added the Paramedics to the lineup because they’re local—or as local as suburban Brookfield can be, serving as the Schaumburg to Milwaukee’s Chicago—and he figured that it would help with the draw. But the trio had neglected to tell him that they and all of their friends are underage. The 17-year-old musicians were legally allowed to play, since they were working, but they had to leave as soon as they were done, and none of their friends could get in.

Undeniably earnest and friendly enough—“We’re really excited to be playing with the Cathy Santonies and Vortis,” they announced during their set. “We Facebook-friended you guys!”—the Paramedics needed nothing short of euthanasia. It would be difficult to enumerate all of their life-threatening illnesses, but a brief diagnosis is necessary, not only to explain the abysmal side effects to all involved, but in the hope that, being young, perhaps their lives still can be saved.

The bassist-vocalist not only brought two basses to the gig (dude, bass strings don’t break!), set up in a snazzy stand the better to show them off, but he ran his axe through no fewer than nine effects pedals and multi-processors—and still had to stop mid-set to twirl the knobs to get the sounds he wanted.

The guitarist had just as many gizmos for his rig, of course, and the drummer clearly loved his shiny new China crash cymbal way more than is healthy (and no one should own one of those obnoxious-sounding trash can lids, anyway). He also augmented his kit with colored lights set inside all of the drums, and, needless to say, carried his own rug so that neither they nor his bare feet would have to touch the grungy club floor.

 All told, the threesome must have had more than $10,000 worth of brand new gear with them—a veritable Guitar Center’s worth of back-room inventory. Yet even this could have been forgiven, if only they’d employed this Rush-worthy arsenal for good instead of evil.

Overly influenced by the cannabis-drenched rap-metal-reggae wanking of 311, the Paramedics flowed from one clichéd jam and indulgent flurry of tasty licks to another, droning on… and on… and on. They ultimately played for more than an hour—and this with a two-hour window for three bands!—barely stumbling on an original musical or lyrical thought the entire time, except when it was one that was beyond-belief outrageously bad.

No kidding: One song called “Sex Playground” actually featured the call-and-response invitation of, “I say ‘sex,’ you say ‘playground.’ ‘Sex… !’ ‘Playground… !’” While another, a maudlin ballad called “Graduation,” was a saccharine meditation on those glory days back as high school drew to a close—all of, you know, five months ago.

“This really is a great place,” one frequent denizen of the Circle-A assured us during a sanity-preserving break out in the Booze Grotto. “But I’m sure most of the regulars walked by, heard these guys playing, and just kept going.”

Even more obnoxious than the Paramedics, however, were two of their admirers who were able to get in: one a sh*t-faced noodle-dancing drunk kid who insisted on getting right in your face—hewasaveryclosetalker—and spouting the most banal b.s. imaginable, and the other a suburban dude in a tie, checkered Converse sneakers, red pants, and a ratty mop of dreadlocks who kept shouting out how brilliant the band was (“Dudes, you are cooler than Frank Zappa!” he gushed after the show) while bumping into and stepping on everyone else’s toes as he maneuvered to get the perfect angles for capturing it all on his cell-phone video.

Thankfully, there was an upside to these obstacles to joy. They enraged the Cathy Santonies—all except for Mojo, who really is too kind a person and just kept saying, “They’re young”—and they played one of the most ferocious sets I’ve seen them deliver, with some hella-strong new material, Radio tearing through a killer Tina Turner cover, and Jane Danger sneering at and mouthing the nastiest of cuss words to Close Talker and Dread Dude throughout the set. (They ate it up, unaware how close she was to inflicting physical violence; Jane has been known to indulge.)

As for Vortis, the group worked out its frustrations the way it usually does. We came. We rocked. The 20 or so diehards who stuck it out comprised a healthy crowd, given the confines of the place, and they seemed to appreciate our attempt at musical catharsis. In fact, the gig marked the first and to date only time that Vortis ever has experienced the bona fide enthusiastic demand for an encore.

Some gigs are better than others. And in the end, the Circle-A was a damn good one.


Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.