I’ll Drink To That

Posted February 27, 2018 by meisen
Categories: Divertissement, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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I’ve always liked the camaraderie of sharing a good drink with friends and family. It’s one of life’s pleasures. Work hard, take care of business. You got to do all that. But these off-duty moments while sharing casual talk and small intimacies are experiences I savor.

All the better I can report, Dane County is in the midst of an unprecedented burst of creativity in brewing, distilling and winemaking. Lots of  opportunities, in other words, for folks like me to share the fellowship of an adult beverage.

As I wrote in an Isthmus cover story:

Just go strolling on Madison’s near east side. Late this fall I was out walking the dog one night when I stumbled upon — in a tucked-away industrial court — the brand new $1.2 million State Line Distillery, 1413 Northern Court. Glory! Founder John Mleziva even allows dogs in the tasting room. (And quite the room it is: An artfully designed space with weathered barn lumber and a great piece of abstract art representing whiskey making by Madison’s Leslie Smith III.)

As Fred Swanson points out, a Madison “Beverage Row” is busily taking shape on the east side. A 15-minute walk from State Line sits the Old Sugar Distillery tasting room, 931 E. Main St., which offers a full sampling of its whiskey, rum, brandy and specialty spirits. Or how about perambulating to Bos Meadery, 849 E. Washington Ave., for its fermented honey drink? As for craft breweries, you can’t swing a dead cat on the east side without hitting a growler: I count 10 eastside craft beer tap rooms.

Drive a little farther out and you find Dancing Goat Distillery in Cambridge and Driftless Glen Distillery in Baraboo. And if you head south or go west in Madison and Dane County it’s more of the same. Lots of brew pubs, a smattering of distilleries and more wineries than you would think possible in our cold climate.

Hey, it’s a good thing. And not just because Wisconsinites enjoy a good buzz. Whether it’s a distillery, brewery or winery, all of these makers are idiosyncraticspecific in their missions, and forceful in staking a claim to the Wisconsin terroir. Yeah, it gets down to our identity. And when you consider how so much of small town Wisconsin didn’t share in the economic recovery, and is losing its best and brightest young people to big cities, championing local identity seems no small matter.

Brian Cummins, who founded Great Northern Distilling in Plover, near Stevens Point, makes this case. He points out how Great Northern is one of six beverage makers in the Central Wisconsin Craft Collective producing beer, wine and spirits — all within a 30-minute drive of one another in Point, Plover, Amherst and Rosholt.

Take the tour. They’re proud of their work.

“We’re part of the new creative community,” says Cummins, underlining how quality of life goes up for everyone in a region when there are such artisan producers. “It’s something to point to that makes their towns unique.”

Creative placemaking is what keeps young people in the community, he adds. “For us in central and northern Wisconsin, we need to maintain our millennials. It just can’t continue to drain to Minneapolis, Madison and Milwaukee.”


To read more (and to learn how a great tasting event called Distill America has led the way), please go here.


Wynonna to Kamasi: Favorite 2017 Shows

Posted January 9, 2018 by meisen
Categories: Music, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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I’ll just spill it out…some the musicians whose concerts I enjoyed most in 2017:

Jon Dee Graham. Steve Reich. Herb Alpert and Lani Hall. Wynonna. Hayes Carll. Frank Catalano and Jimmy Chamberlin. Yo-Yo Ma and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Alejandro Escovedo.  Andrew Cyrille and Bill McHenry. Sinkane and Bassel & The Supernaturals. Kahil El’Zabar and David Murray. And most of all: Kamasi Washington.

As I explained in my annual Isthmus roundup:

Somehow I saw around 100 live shows near and far in 2017. That’s a record in the 12 years I’ve been chronicling my annual listening habits. What follows are my 16 favorite nights.

To be upfront, these impressions are a fan’s notes. I’m not a critic or a musician and have less technical musical knowledge than your typical four-year-old Suzuki violin student. But I love being in the musical moment, and I have wide tastes. Like other concert nerds, I’m willing to travel for tunes; so you’ll see some shows are within hailing distance of Madison.

To get the full 5,000-word treatment, please go here.

Big Ideas For A Startup Culture

Posted January 9, 2018 by meisen
Categories: Development, Education, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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Yikes, I’m late in posting this story from October 2017.

Consider it a postscript to my two-part series on the “Two Wisconsins”. In researching how Wisconsin might create a vigorous 21st century economy I sat down with startup maven Troy Vosseller. He had  strong, specific ideas. The piece begins:

The question put to the venture capitalist was: How do you juice up the Wisconsin startup scene when the state is judged the absolute worst in the nation for fostering new businesses?

Troy Vosseller, 32, who’s a sure-footed Madison entrepreneur, was in an expansive mood as he held forth on the evils of non-compete clauses and Wisconsin’s bad-news rankingfor startups by the entrepreneurial-focused Kauffman Foundation.

He also made a forceful case for upgrading and expanding UW-Madison’s computer science program, arguing that Wisconsin is critically short of tech talent.

We were in the temporary Gorham Street offices of gener8tor, the new-business incubator Vosseller runs with partner Joe Kirgues and others to nurture the ventures they invest in. Next spring, gener8tor moves up to Madison’s signature spot for startups — the new StartingBlock complex on East Washington Avenue.

“I can’t name a single venture-backed startup founded by any ex-employee of the Wisconsin Fortune 500 companies,” he tells me. These companies include giants like Rockwell Automation, American Family Insurance, Northwestern Mutual, Harley-Davidson and Johnson Controls.

“Yet if you look at robust startup ecosystems like Silicon Valley’s it’s extremely common. You have people who, say, worked at Yahoo who have a great idea, leave their job to create their own company, have their ex-manager who made a lot of money in her own startup invest in theirs, and later the company is bought by Microsoft or who knows who.

“The virtuous cycle continues in those ecosystems,” Vosseller explains. “It’s commonplace. Yet here in Wisconsin I can’t think of one example [of a startup spinning off from a major corporation]. This speaks to a cultural risk-aversion we have, but some of the blame also rests with corporate restrictive covenants.”

Ah, yes, the non-complete clauses that Epic employees face when they leave the Verona campus and have to cool their heels.

To read more, please go here.

The ‘Two Wisconsins”…On Radio

Posted November 2, 2017 by meisen
Categories: Development

Tags: ,

I spent 20 minutes or so discussing the “left-behinds” of the Wisconsin economic recovery with co-hosts Veronica Rueckert and Rob Ferrett of Wisconsin Public Radio’s Central Time program.

You can hear it here.

A Better Wisconsin Growth Strategy

Posted October 25, 2017 by meisen
Categories: Development, Politics, Tech

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I wound up writing two Isthmus cover stories on the Wisconsin economy. In the first piece I detailed how our recovery was starkly incomplete. Sure, the overall economy led by Dane County had bounced back from the Great Recession. But too many of us were ignoring a less pleasant reality: There is is a broad swath of  economic “left-behinds” in rural Wisconsin and inner-city Milwaukee.

My second story outlines an economic strategy that could turn things around.

The problem is that the state’s commitment to manufacturing, even with its smart nod to high-skilled manufacturing, is one-sided and overwhelming. Part and parcel of the yesteryear economics that holds up the chimera of mining as the savior of northern Wisconsin.

And consider that the Foxconn package is the costliest manufacturing subsidy project in Wisconsin history by a factor at least 10. And that payback in new taxes generated by Foxconn, assuming the campus develops as proposed, won’t come until many of us are dead and buried. No less than in 2043, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau….

Here’s the point: Government does best when it sticks to the basics. Infrastructure! Education. Transportation. Safety. Health. Parks. And if it does incentivize certain economic behaviors government should do so carefully and in a way that provides public good and not private payoff.

And there has to be a vision. Or as hockey legend Wayne Gretzky famously put it, you need to skate “to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” That isn’t happening. Wisconsin tenaciously holds on to the economics of nostalgia.

You can find the details here:

Wisconsin’s “Left Behinds” Are Ignored

Posted October 14, 2017 by meisen
Categories: Development, Politics, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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The Badger State’s celebrated comeback from the Great Recession has been incomplete. I argue in the first of a two-part series in Isthmus that rural Wisconsin and inner-city Milwaukee remain mired in economic and social pain:

Call it “the two Wisconsins,” as the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance presciently did in 2006 when the nonpartisan budget group documented Wisconsin’s split reality even before the Great Recession soundly fractured the state economy into winners and left-behinds.

Today, while Dane County booms and the bigger cities in the Fox River Valley and western Wisconsin prosper, the rest of the state is largely mired in a downturn that is a recession in all but name.

Wisconsin is not alone. This dichotomy is also America’s story, as the Economic Innovation Group, a centrist research group in Washington, D.C., first documented in May 2016. The EIG study — widely ignored and fraught with political implications, as pundit Harold Meyerson has argued — detailed how painfully limited the economic recovery from the Great Recession (the magnitude of job destruction earned its adjective) was compared to post-recession periods in the early 1990s and early 2000s.

“The 1990s recovery was powered by small counties, small cities, rural areas. It was very much a grassroots recovery where the entire U.S. landscape experienced a blossoming of enterprise,” says Kenan Fikri, EIG’s research and policy manager.

The early 2010s’ recovery was brutally asymmetrical. By the time the U.S. economy pulled out of the recession, the split was extreme between America’s prosperous and left-behind counties.

So it is in Wisconsin. My story tries to define the problem and suggests that our political leaders have yet to come to grips with it. You can read more here.

pat mAcdonald’s Long Game

Posted June 26, 2017 by meisen
Categories: Music, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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For years, I’ve thought pat mAcdonald (that’s his idiosyncratic spelling)  is a musician of lasting merit. The kind whose recordings will be played 50 years from now and whose songs are a good bet to be revived decades from now by musicians not yet born.

Last summer, when I was having a casual drink at the Weary Traveler in Madison and chatting with bartender Josh Harty, who’s a stellar singer-songwriter in his own right, I learned that mAcdonald  had a bad case of cancer.

That’s when I decided I had to profile him. I wanted to shine a light on his work.

Here’s how my story started in Isthmus:

Oh, he’s lost a few things during 40-plus years of living the Bohemian life of a musician. For instance:

— That Mussehl & Westphal musical saw, the renowned Cadillac of musical saws. The young Pat MacDonald bought it in 1974 in Fort Atkinson from Clarence J. Mussehl himself, then a nonagenarian and long-ago vaudevillian, who tossed in a free lesson.

— That autographed album the great country tunesmith Billy Joe Shaver gave him in Nashville in 1973 after hearing MacDonald’s demo songs at singer Bobby Bare’s music offices: “To my friend Pat MacDonald: the last of the great songwriters.”

This scrawny long-haired troublemaker from Green Bay was all of 20 at the time, knocking around Madison, making music to survive after an unsuccessful try at drug dealing. His future was not yet clear.

At some point in the intervening decades of countless moves — including his 1984 journey from Madison to Austin with wife and musical partner Barbara Kooyman in their soon-to-be celebrated band Timbuk3, and later his sojourn in Barcelona, to lick his wounds, after their marriage and band broke up — he lost the damn saw and his records.

But not much else, it turns out. “I’m kind of a pack-rat,” mAcdonald says over coffee recently in Sturgeon Bay, in picturesque Door County on Lake Michigan. “Who could throw out a Christmas card that was sent with love?” We’re at his 18-unit retro cool Holiday Music Motel, an improbable but genius choice as a base camp for a cultural shaman like him. And, yes, note the typography of his moniker. Tired of the habitual misspelling of his last name as “McDonald,” he now labels himself pat mAcdonald.

Who’s to argue with this single-minded artist? Especially when in the space of 24 hours I meet three musicians who, trusting their instincts, packed up from good lives in San Francisco, New York City and Madison to be part of mAcdonald’s creative circle in this out-of-the-way port city.

These artists — and a whole bunch more from across the country — will be front and center at the Steel Bridge Songfest June 8-11 that mAcdonald puts on annually in Sturgeon Bay. (For details see page 18.)

“This place is like a dream incubator,” bassist and longtime Madison blues stalwart Tony Menzer tells me. It’s late night, and he’s packing up after backing a powerful blues singer named Cathy Grier at the Stone Harbor Bar across the street from the motel. Menzer put in 10 years with Clyde Stubblefield and 15 years with the Westside Andy-Mel Ford Band. Three years ago, at mAcdonald’s invitation, Menzer bailed from Madtown and moved his music equipment business from a Madison storage facility to a rambling warehouse showroom that mAcdonald and his investors own next to the motel. But I digress….

It’s legacy that weighs on pat mAcdonald’s mind, and we eventually get around to the spook in the breakfast nook. It’s not just that he turns 65 in August, but that 2016 found him confronting Stage 4 cancer — non-Hodgkins large B-cell lymphoma — and 10 months of on-and-off chemotherapy that exacted its own toll on his body. He’s now in remission and getting stronger.

That face-off with cancer — “It’s hell going through that shit,” he says matter of factly — has compelled him to not just put his creative work in order but to advance it, while there’s time.

To read more, please go here. Alternatively, the story can also be found on the No Depression website. I also wrote about mAcdonald in a recap of my favorite concerts .


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