Music is like a campfire. A music venue is like a campsite and the firepit is the stage. A pop song is a predictable four-log campfire: you sit close, it warms you at just the right temperature, it crackles, and the flames dance and wiggle in the wood. You experience it again and again because you connect with it deeply. Going further with the metaphor then, Country Music is a campfire with a beer and a fiddle. K-Pop is a little fire made of electric sparks and neon. Punk Rock burns down the campsite and sets your car on fire. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a forest fire that destroys you, me, and everybody around. Then sends all of us to heaven, where we are reborn as angels made of starlight.
So, I can get into Jazz from time to time. A jazz trio sits at the campfire with you, the fire starts–a familiar tune like, say, “Take On Me” by 80s band A-ha, and the fire progresses. But then the Jazz Players take out some tongs and fire pokers and start moving the logs around. The trick is that once in a while they move the logs back to their near-original position, and Presto! There’s your familiar song again. The fun is in watching them work, the familiar and unfamiliar constructions they make.
Trying to guess how they’ll get back to the original tune… or fire logs… or something. But that’s Jazz. It’s malleable and it too, can occasionally melt your face off.
The Joe Policastro Trio started their set with “The Jet’s Song” from West Side Story. Then they did “Take On Me” by A-ha. “Our take on Take On Me,” Joe said to a knowing audience groan of dad-humor. They did “(Oh Lord) Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” a song made famous by The Animals, but Joe centered it back on an earlier version by Nina Simone. I swear when he got down on the high end of his upright bass, his bowing did a pretty good mimic of Nina Simone’s vocal character.
The Joe Policastro Trio is Joe on Upright Bass, Mikel Avery on Drums and other percussive sound effects, and Dave Millar on Guitar. They played to a room of 50 that included mostly Boom/X-ers, old proper Boomers, and a sprinkling of Millennials. The show took place at the Slowpoke Lounge and Cabaret in Spring Green, Wisconsin, on December 17th, 2022.
The Slowpoke Lounge and Cabaret is run by partners in ownership Michael Broh and his wife Stacy Wood. Stacy, in glasses and a red coat, welcomed people in. It was 5 degrees outside with a healthy breeze blowing. Michael, who is also a production manager at American Players Theatre, a few miles southeast of Spring Green. On this Saturday night, Michael worked the room, co-bartended, and did the lighting and sound board for the band in the back “Cabaret” side of the building. The front “Lounge” half of the building has a wood and brass bar on the left and plenty of cozy furniture, earth-toned vibes for intimate conversations on the right.
Deeper in, a large LP Album music library–alphabetized, and an honest to God record player spinning music for Slowpoke’s pre-show clientele. I got the feeling that if you were a trusted regular customer, they might allow you to pick a record and play some music, but if they hear a needle, “scratch!” You’ll lose record-handling rights for a week… or a month. I don’t know how forgiving I would be if the records and player were mine. (I’d be like: “Jerry, you scratched my original 1977 Star Wars soundtrack! You’re cut-off for life!!”). There is a big octagonal table beside a floor-to-ceiling shelf of board games and novels for loan: Trivial Pursuit and Backgammon; new games and old. Across the room is a wall-sized chalk board that lists the live bands and events for the coming several months: bands, poetry night and open-mike night. These all appear on Slowpoke’s events and calendar page on their website as well. The back half–the Cabaret theater space–is spare, blue hued, and modern. Cabaret is very “Let’s get down to business and do this show.” The stage is large enough to accommodate an eight-piece band comfortably. The JP Trio fit themselves cozily front and center.
Slowpoke’s logo is that of an art-deco turtle and its motto reads: “Easy now, stay awhile… Kick back, chew the fat, and ease your burden.” Slowpoke’s menu offers snackables so I ordered a build-your-own plate that included crostini, goat cheese pepperjack, Hook’s one-year aged cheddar, sliced soppressata, sliced chorizo, and hummus. I took the snack plate and a Guinness back into the Cabaret and found a seat with a table. The band began with the playlist, and I happily munched during their first set. I admit I was worried I was crunching the crostini too loudly, so I made sure to only eat during applause. Crostini crunches loud.
I scoped the band on the internet (and implied my nerd vibe via previous Star Wars reference). So it was with great rapturous surprise that I found out the Joe Policastro Trio recorded an entire album of West Side Story covers, as well as an entire album of movie themes!! Armed with this knowledge, I gathered up the courage to corner Mikel the Drummer and Dave the Guitarist during the set break and complimented them on the show so far.
“This is not a request,” I gushed, “but I saw you guys do a cover of the theme from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. That’s just… amazing.” I then did a mind-blown gesture.
“We’ll do it,” Mikel said immediately.
“No, you don’t have to…” I said.
“No, it’s cool. We’ll do it.”
Dave added, “It’s probably already in the set list.”
“Ohmigod you guys,” I fan-boy’d. We talked a minute more about other movie themes. But then it was time for the second set. Christmas came early.
Joe began, “Well, we don’t usually take requests, but this next tune is from the 1961 black and white samurai film Yojimbo by master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Much applause followed. “Usually when I introduce this song the audience is like ‘Akira-what?’ But originally composed for a full orchestra with an extra complement of traditional Japanese instruments.” The band readied. “This is how three guys do it.”
Other set standouts included an original tune called “No Idea” that reminded me of Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts songs. If the Peanuts were older and getting into trouble – like shoplifting and stealing cars. “Falling” from the TV show Twin Peaks – in honor of the passing of the show’s composer, Angelo Badalamenti. “I Feel Pretty” And a beautiful mash-up of Eric Satie’s “Gymnopedie” and New Order’s “Ceremony.” And they did an epic take on the theme from “The Godfather” where Joe got the theme to go as low as low can go – making it rumble in the listener’s chest.
Many more tunes were played. Each of the two sets lasted about an hour and ten minutes. The audience gave the trio a standing ovation at the end. On the way out I asked Mike Broh, Slowpoke’s head honcho, about the Beer Garden – currently closed because of the bleak mid-winter.
“It’s an enclosed outdoor space. APT tries to reuse their sets, but when they can’t or they need to make room, we’ll use some set pieces and put them in our Beer Garden,” Broh explained. “We have a piece back there from ‘(August Wilson’s) Fences’ among others.”
He indicated Pam the bartender (she made my crostini platter earlier). “Pam also works at APT as a Charge Scenic Artist,” Pam waved. “She painted many of the set pieces we have in back, as well as the full wall mural on the building’s outside wall.”
We parted, and I went outside to check the wall mural. There, I ran into Mikel the Trio’s drummer. “That was great,” I said. “Thanks again for Yojimbo.”
“No problem,” he said.
“So, that was a pretty good response from a little old lounge in Spring Green, Wisconsin.”
“Yeah. You know. It all depends on the ownership. We’ve played bigger places, and gave it our all, in Chicago or elsewhere and got nothing. This here (at Slowpoke) was great. I play in a couple of other bands, and it’s the same everywhere. If the ownership is in a bad way, or if they’re… jerks. It bleeds down into the attitude of the employees. Then into the clientele.”
“People get combative?”
“No. More like… sour. Cynical.”
“Not even that. People with positivity in their character get through tough times… or if they go out of business, they still carry that good will with their customers. And they take that positive vibe to a new venue or venture in the future. Customers and fans will follow them there. Word gets around.”
“Wow. Yeah. I’ll have to think about that,” I said. Not dismissively, though. I honestly began running through all the small businesses and business owners I’ve ever worked for. I think his theory scans.
Mikel the Drummer dropped some insight on me. It made me think of Michael the Slowpoke Lounge and Cabaret co-owner/manager/bartender/soundboard tech still inside running around, working the room, thanking people for showing up, and transitioning back into Lounge-mode. His burden didn’t seem so burdensome because it looked like he was having fun. Slowpoke’s customers sure did. Pam and Stacy too.
Thanks for reading.
Writing and Photography By: Matthew Schumann