Independent Racket Nights: looking back at year 1 with organizer Justin Mitchell


Copper Box at IRN by Northern Mantle

On December 6, 2018, Fletch’s Tap House will host three original bands beginning at 7:30pm for the final show in the inaugural Independent Racket Nights music series.

Year one saw 19 bands play at four rotating venues including Fletch’s, O’Marro’s, Barley & Hops, and the Reptile Palace.  In terms of musical output, the series quickly established itself as the 2nd best music series in the city, sitting behind the always impressive Waterfest.

The series is returning for year two in 2019 with additional dates and venues, meaning more original music at early times (music starts at 7:30pm) for the growing racket nights fan base.

To hear more about year one, and what we can expect in year two, we chatted with lead organizer Justin Mitchell this past week:

OI – What was the best part of the 2018 season?

Justin Mitchell (JM) – Overall, I think the series helped to strengthen some ties within the local music community as well as between musicians and venues.

The coolest parts were some of the sets – the June show at Fletch’s with Noell Kaylene, Tyler & the Streeters and the Wisconsin Magic.. each one of those bands absolutely nailed it.  The Haunted Heads back at the Reptile with Solar Max was exactly what you’d hope for in a rock n roll show.  Every night in the series brought out some super creative and talented musicians both from Oshkosh and from across the state.

Last thing is that our main sponsor Bare Bones Brewing – they’ve attended every show so far, and that is pretty great.  In addition to having local craft beer, you have their head brewer or owner making it a point to attend each show.

OI – What was the most challenging part of year 1?

JM – People and friends and musicians are busy.  The series started out relatively slow, and I appreciate Shawn at O’Marro’s for hosting the first night with Steve Trier, Karate School and Nature.  Attendance was light, but eventually has grown to pretty decent numbers.  O’Marro’s hosted their second series show this past month said it was one of their best Thursdays they’ve had.  That we are continually growing is what we wanted, and I’m pretty confident we’ll keep the momentum going.

Part of the vision in creating a series is that bands would come out and support other bands during the nights they didn’t play.  For the most part, that didn’t happen with a few notable exceptions – we owe a thank you to Dean Hoffman and Steve McCabe who have attended all of the shows and helped out a bunch with sound.  At one show, someone commented that there were more Appleton musicians in the audience than Oshkosh musicians.

Its one of those things, that you hope it becomes established, sort of like an institution in the music community similar to Sunday nights with the Jazz Orgy, where going out to the event is just what you do as a local musician and fan to both have a fine time and also to support local original musicians and the programming that is working to support them.

But I understand… work, kids, finances, relationships… people are already busy with their lives and an obscure original band with unfamiliar music can be a hard sell on a Thursday night.

OI – Yah, why Thursdays?

Spy vs Spy at IRN by Northern Mantle

JM – That’s a good question and one that i’m not fully sure I’ve answered myself.  I think we looked at what would best grow the local music scene, and saw that a spattering of places already hosted shows on Fridays and Saturdays.  In addition, a lot of local bands, including the band I plan in, often have shows on Friday and Saturday out of town. And lastly, we visited each of the venues on a Thursday evening without music and saw that the places weren’t too busy. We thought we could make a difference there and that venues would support it.

That is an important thing to note – the venues are providing a guarantee payout to the bands, and for now the shows are free.  While the band payout isn’t amazing, the venues participating in our series should be thanked and recognized for helping to support the local music scene.

OI – What’s happening for 2019?

JM – A few small shifts along with added venues.  We are looking at 8 shows in 2019, broken down into two segments:  March through June and September through December.

As you know, part of the idea behind Independent Racket Nights was to continually build excitement for the annual Water City Racket Fest, which is set for February 14 through 16 in 2019. Along with Racket Fest is a little private invite only fundraising show we do in January.  So Independent Racket Nights takes those two months off, along the July and August during Waterfest.  Mike and the Waterfest team have been supportive of what we’ve been doing, so we’d rather promote and support what they’re doing than compete.

We’re also looking to feature a few additional solo artists for the opening act of the evening, so a show would start with a solo set, then a visiting or touring band, and then a closing local band.

We also want to incorporate some sort of punch card reward amazingness where by attending the shows and supporting the brewing sponsor you can earn rewards like free music, merch and brewery goods.  Something that recognizes the dedication of folks like Mo and Buck, Casey and Melissa and others that have been to all of the shows.

Lastly, we’ve added Peabody’s as a host venue.  They started a cool new series of note this summer in the sideyard and are looking to continue hosting live music.  So Peabody’s will be a welcomed part of the rotation.

OI –  I know it is early, but do you have any idea of the bands that will be performing?

JM –  Invites have only gone out for March and April, and even that is a stretch.  Pretty much everyone in my band laughs at me regarding scheduling things out as far as I try to do… but, I do have some ideas in the works for 2019.

We want to expand styles a bit.  Local bands like Attalla and The Lemurs weren’t a part of season one but hopefully will join us in season two.  We also can continue to connect better with “younger” bands in the community such as Bottom of the Lake,  Fools & Lovers and Cricket.

The final band each evening is being given more of an organizer’s role as well, helping to identify and connect with the bands they’re looking to play with.

We’re also looking to connect throughout the season with some bands from out of state that might be good fits for Racket Fest 2020.  Bands like Grandkids, Cafe Racer, Michigander, and Battlerat are all doing great things in the midwest and it would be beyond wonderful to welcome to the Oshkosh community for a Thursday night introduction and then a return for Racket Fest in February.

OI – Have you had many bands play from outside of Oshkosh?

JM – We’ve made it a point that the middle band is from outside of Oshkosh, supported by two local bands.  We haven’t ventured very far, with bands limited largely to the Fox Valley and Green Bay area.  The Tapebenders from Milwaukee are playing the December 6 show.

But Racket Fest 2019 includes confirmed bands from Minnesota, Milwaukee and Madison, filling out a schedule that features 30 original sets.

I feel we have to walk a fine line here, in that it remains difficult in our community to get folks to venture out and support new, original music they aren’t very familiar with.  There are lots of folks who want Oshkosh to be a creative, modern and engaging city, and we have more work to do to help connect the presence of a vibrant art and music scene with their vision.  I know that goes for a lot of things, and I think we can help shift the scale by providing support for local musicians and continuing to improve what we’re doing with hosting and promoting shows.

Probably the best thing to happen to the music scene in the last 5 years – aside from Racket Fest of course – is the Howard bringing in new original music and charging folks for it.  It seems clear they are largely staying away from cover band hysteria and are instead centered on offering a diversity of intriguing original music.

OI – Any preview you can give for Racket Fest 2019?

JM – We’ll be announcing bands over the next few weeks, with all but 6 of the 30 sets confirmed.  The lineup for 2019 remains heavy on local bands, but I’m very excited about the bands from out of town that will be joining us.

OI – Such as?

JM – Fine, fine. I’ll share one local band and one visiting.  You’ve probably noticed that we love the Oshkosh/Green Bay band Spy vs Spy.  Straight forward, fun and entertaining music that is well crafted and catchy.  They’ll be playing at the Algoma Club Saturday evening – Feb 16 – with bands playing from 7:30pm – 11:30pm.

We’re excited to host Nickel & Rose from Milwaukee for a full day on Saturday (Feb 16).  They play a genuine acoustic folk rich in lyrical expression influenced by American folklore, with tinges of 1930s French jazz and a sensation of a Wisconsin bluegrass countryside.  They’ll be facilitating an intimate morning session at the Public Library centered on storytelling through sound.  They’ll be heading over to Vines & Rushes in Ripon for an afternoon set, and then will be returning to Oshkosh to perform at Manila Resto at 6pm.

OI – Excellent.  Thanks for taking time to chat.  We’ll see you on December 6 and Fletch’s and again February 14-16 (2019) for Water City Racket Fest II.


About Author

Anthony Montalvo

I am a Radio-TV-Film graduate from UW-Oshkosh. I enjoy writing and keeping up with community happenings. Oshkosh Independent allows me to channel my love for music and Oshkosh and wrap it all into one.

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