BY Paul Van Auken
A few days before he was to make his network television debut on “The Late Show with David Letterman”, Jeremy Messersmith played in Oshkosh.
Not at Waterfest, the Grand Opera House, or even The Reptile Palace.
No, the Minneapolis-based Messersmith—whose latest album Heart Murmurs is on Glassnote Records, home of mega-selling Mumford & Sons—played in the sideyard of UWO professor Misty McPhee’s house near campus as part of what he calls his “Supper Club Tour”, which he has done intermittently since the fall of 2012.
For Letterman, he had a string quartet and five other musicians, and the band started loading in its gear and soundchecking at 3:40am. His performance was likely seen by a few million people.
At Misty’s sideyard, it was just him and his acoustic guitar, his wife and the t-shirts and records she later sold. They rolled in at about 7:00pm, after getting a tour of the Grand Opera House from board member and sideyard co-host Alex Hummel.
Soon after, the few dozen ticket holders started to arrive to share a meal—featuring schwarma chicken and rice, homemade hummus and pizza, several salads, loads of delicious desserts, and a mess of microbrews—with him ahead of the 8:00 show time.
Among them were two college students from Minneapolis who spent the day exploring locally, visiting Oshkosh Public Museum and later raving about their time in our fair city. Another pair of Minneapolitans had spent the previous days making stops at various small Wisconsin breweries, including one in the beermaking couple’s house that featured homemade pretzels. David (had I known I’d be writing this article at the time, I would have gotten full names and more quotes, like a real journalist) poured me a pint from a Central Waters growler, the style of which he couldn’t remember. But it exemplified the communal vibe that the sideyard show fostered.
These out-of-staters were joined by nearly 40 others, most of whom were from the area, including the majority of Oshkosh CD Club, a small group of music fans that has gathered every other week or so since 2009. During this time they have reviewed nearly 90 albums, including Messersmith’s previous release, The Reluctant Graveyard, whose 8.5/10 rating places it third all-time.
Several club members attended one of the first Supper Club shows in Madison in 2012 and then a full-band Messersmith show at the High Noon Saloon there last winter. After seeing an announcement that he was seeking a venue for a show in this vicinity, they pitched Oshkosh to Messersmith’s agent. The group had decided that McPhee’s house was most appropriate, and after seeing photos of the yard, the agent agreed.
When most people had eaten their fill, they took seats on the grass, on chairs they brought, or on hay bales scattered around the beautiful, perennial-filled yard on a gorgeous August evening. Messersmith took a seat on a bench under a crabapple tree that a husband and son of CD Club members had previously strung with holiday lights. After petting McPhee’s dog Toby and saying a few words about why he was playing in such a setting, Messersmith deadpanned, “If you wanna be on Letterman, you gotta play Misty’s yard.”
He then launched his warm acoustic guitar and folky tenor into a set of literate, tuneful indie pop, stopping to take requests and questions, including several prepared ones from David, who after receiving his answers said, “Thank you, Jeremy – this is a treat.”
This sentiment was echoed by numerous others, who took Messersmith’s advice to finish the desserts at the conclusion of the show and enjoyed being able to chat a while longer with the singer and their fellow potluckers.
“Fantastic,” said Steve Bentivenga. “It was such an intimate way to do a show.”
Hummel, who referred to it as “slow” music (as in, “slow” food), noted, “As the music industry gets bigger and bigger and musicians’ stars seem to rise faster than ever—at meteoric velocity—it’s nice to know there is an artist who still makes a commitment to dive into neighborhoods and backyards and share his talent. This was truly a treat, and it was something else to break bread with Jeremy Messersmith. Incredible artist. Wonderful ‘neighbor.’”
I shared a haybale with McPhee, who was noticeably giddy throughout the evening. According to her, “Nothing brings people together like excellent music and excellent food. This show was abundant in both.”
Take that, Letterman. ν
Paul Van Auken is a sociology and environmental studies professor at UWO who loves music and community.