The Circle A Café could be one of many indistinct neighborhood taverns that populate Milwaukee. But over the last decade or so it has become one of the city’s finest minor listening rooms/rock clubs. Open Friday through Sunday, live music runs from 8-10 PM when a DJ takes over. The half-dozen television sets are all tuned to static––the B52s would be proud. In fact, their record just might be on the jukebox, stocked as it is with vintage 45s. The walls are covered with flyers that seem to be much happier than in their previous lives on telephone poles in Berkeley, California, and Milwaukee.
Tonight the acoustic duo of John Stano and Tom Schwark hold court on guitar and mandolin. Stano has released a pair of singer/songwriter CDs (he is also an accomplished poet). You might recognize Schwark from the many bands he has played with over the decades: Frogwater, The Bluegrass All Stars, The Milwaukee Mandolin Orchestra, Les Martin and the Country Drifters, The Reedy Buzzards, and Grass, Food & Lodging. Pretty much anytime you see Schwark’s name it is worth the price of admission.
On Sunday, January 18 the small Riverwest club found listeners shaking off the Seattle blues, licking their Green Bay Packer wounds and settling in for an intimate night of Stano and Schwark’s blend of folk, blues, country and old-timey sounds. Drawing from Stano’s original material and a wealth of covers the duo settled in and played for two sets.
Stano’s “From a Rusty Cadillac” was featured on NPR’s “Car Talk” and nods to Dylan, complete with peeling vinyl roof and three curb feelers. Not unlike John Prine, Stano’s songs tell stories. He also gave away his age introducing “Other People’s Blues” referencing dropping the needle on LPs to learn his heroes’ licks. One of them was legendary fingerpicker Mississippi John Hurt––the duo covered his “Payday” as well as Tom Paxton’s “Did You Hear John Hurt?”
Schwark’s high lonesome vocals and trilling mandolin on “Rank Stranger” and “Wayfaring Stranger” effortlessly demonstrate he knows just the right atmospheric touch to add to a song. To change things up, Stano switched over to cigar-box guitar for some slide playing. But perhaps his greatest achievement was blowing harmonca to the horn section parts on the Band’s “Ophelia.”
What else? During the break between sets my conversation with Schwark is interrupted as a listener thanks him and says good night. As he walks out the door Schwark says, “That was T-Bone Walker’s nephew.”