In a scene as relatively small and contentious as Milwaukee’s, certain people, places, or things can get saddled with bad reputations. Even if these reputations are deserved, The A.V. Club here in Milwaukee strives to look past the negatives and focus on the positives. In this installment of In Defense Of, we prepare for Friday’s Peter Wolf Crier/Retribution Gospel Choir concert by sticking up for the oft-maligned venue that’s hosting the show, Shank Hall.
The bad rap: Shank Hall may be one of the city’s longest-running rock clubs—it opened in 1989—but these days it’s something of an odd duck. Not quite as small and gritty as the Cactus Club, but not quite as large and posh as the Pabst Theater, it occupies a hazy music-venue middle ground. It also tends to host an array of off-brand acts few would consider relevant or cutting edge: tribute bands, moldy singer-songwriters, and the seemingly unstoppable Pat McCurdy, who plays Shank Hall so often he might as well keep his own toothbrush and bath towel in the men’s bathroom.
But perhaps the primary source of Shank Hall’s bad rap is its owner, Peter Jest. Notorious for his hard-nosed booking practices and nasty dustups with competitors, Jest is a polarizing figure within the Milwaukee music community. His supporters see him as a savvy businessman who has successfully kept his doors open for more than 20 years, while others simply see him as a colossal pain in the ass.
The good rap: Say what you will about its owner, but it’s hard to deny that Shank Hall is one of the better sounding venues in town. The 300-capacity club is tailor-built for one thing, and one thing only: music. It’s only open for shows, and tickets to those shows are affordable and easy to come by. Likewise, the bar is well-stocked and more reasonably priced than bars at higher-end venues. The countless 8-by-10 band photos lining the walls are a testament to just how many top-tier groups have played Shank before making it big—including Smashing Pumpkins, Wilco, and The Hold Steady—even if the photos give the place a faint mid-’80s-comedy-club vibe.
About Shank Hall’s frequent acts: It’s true that many of them won’t be making music critics’ year-end lists (sorry about that, U2 Zoo), but when quality performers do show up, there’s no better place to see them. Artists like Bob Mould, Frank Black, and Cracker have all played Shank in recent years—punk legend Mike Watt stops by April 16—and the club’s small, comfortable, and intimate setting beats watching from nosebleed balcony seats any day.
As for Jest? He seems to have quieted down in recent years, and reports of his meddling are harder and harder to turn up. That could all change in a heartbeat if another midsize venue ever tries to set up shop in Milwaukee. (Jest has been openly critical of the Pabst Theater, and put up a stink about a planned House Of Blues in 2005.) But for now, the sometimes-prickly club owner appears content with working—and excelling—within his particular niche.