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Musical cup of comfort

Bremen Cafe: A hidden entertainment gem of Milwaukee's Riverwest

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By Ashley Voss

 To the casual passerby, the Bremen Café façade is anything but stimulating. Weathered burnt red and tan shingles clutter the exterior, the screen door hangs lifelessly by its hinges until strong gusts of wind force it into motion. Its only hint of self-promotion comes not from tacky neon signage, but instead from modest paper fliers taped to its large picture windows. This hidden gem at the intersection of Bremen and Clarke does little to stand apart from its neighbors in Milwaukee’s bohemian Riverwest district.

But maybe that’s the point.

For those who venture beyond the bland exterior, the Bremen Café meshes unlikely companions, giving a sense of comfort to even the weariest of travelers. A senior citizen cowboy, adorned in leather fringe surfs the Internet as wisps of his cigarette smoke intertwine with the pungent aroma of a caffeinated roast that fills the air. A middle-aged man in an awkward canary-yellow cardigan enjoys a steaming mug of coffee with two children. College-aged women with blond highlights and oversized hoodies trade gossip amid a frame of cherry red walls and a display of rich oil canvases of swirling primary colors. Patrons of all kinds, young or old, locals or area newcomers are welcome in this café-by-day, live music venue and bar-by-night.

“We’re really committed to the Riverwest neighborhood,” Bremen co-owner Jon Anne Willows says. “This has been a so-called revitalizing neighborhood and it’s a really tight-knit community. People are, you know, trying to make things grow and flourish here.”

First opened in 2002 as a short-term business venture to fund the start-up costs of free arts publication Vital Source magazine, the café has since stumbled upon “accidental” success and fast become a local favorite. Constantly evolving to suit crowd tastes, over the years, the Bremen has morphed from a coffeehouse merely serving hot beverages and baked goods, to an art gallery displaying the brightly colored masterpieces of local artists, to nightly live music hotspot, with a weekly lineup including Open Mic nights, blues Tuesdays, bluegrass Wednesdays and more. The café even attracts national acts like Sally Timms and Peter Case to its stage.

Although it’s not an aesthetically pleasing performance space, bearing weathered dark paint and worn carpet, standing a humble three feet above the floor level, the Bremen stage offers performers a chance to vocally command the attention of their audience.

“This place is known far and wide for being acoustically perfect,” Willow says looking toward the resilient stage that has remained in place since she and business partner Mehrdad Dalamie first opened the establishment as a coffeehouse. “If your voice carries, you can stand up there and sing un-miced and you’ll carry perfect pitch to the back of the room.”

Constantly in tune with the tastes of their eclectic patrons, Willow, a University of Iowa grad, says she and Dalamie, do their best to promote area talent in their establishment, which caters to a diverse clientele of the music-loving “give me a bottle of beer or some whiskey” variety rather than the “Redbull and vodka” bar crowd.

“We do support local music a lot. We’re really glad that so many people in Milwaukee go out to see music and that’s great,” Willow says. “We’ve also been really fortunate that there are a fair number of national acts that tour and want to play smaller places—you know, more intimate places.”

Milwaukee-based folksinger Heidi Spencer is one talent who has benefited from the welcoming atmosphere of the Bremen. The 32-year-old musician — who has been playing shows in the area for more than 12 years — says she has met varying degrees of success in the “tough city” because of the melancholy themes of her songs.

“Some of my shows are really good, some of my shows are really bad. Like five people would come or 60 people or 100 people would come—I gave up on understanding why,” Spencer says.

Between sips of her morning coffee, Spencer’s voice becomes a bit livelier as she discusses her experiences with the Bremen Café and the warmth shown by Dalamie, who has given her reason to feel accomplished.

“They put me on the jukebox—I feel like that’s my success,” she says with a muted laugh.

The jukebox she speaks of is part of a recent addition to the Bremen, the centerpiece to its Sapphire Game Lounge, where customers can listen to the tunes of their choice as they shoot darts, engage in a rousing game of foosball or even brave the classic 80s arcade game Centipede for the bargain price of 25 cents.

As Willow showcases what the placid blue recreation space has to offer customers, she too struggles to hide her excitement about the “absolutely amazing” selection on the musical treasure trove. Factoring in the wide-ranging musical tastes of the clientele as well as their own, Willow and Dalamie compiled a repertoire that could tell the story of the various neighborhood personalities, spanning the musical spectrum from the Violent Femmes and The Who, to Prince and Public Enemy, to local artists such as Spencer and fellow performer, Matt Hendricks.

Music has been a vital part of Green Bay native Hendricks’ life since his days of playing trumpet and saxophone in the school band. But it took a life-changing accident for him to finally pursue music as a serious career.

In 2001, the blues singer’s vehicle was struck head-on by a school bus that ran a red light, leaving him with many questions as he battled through months of rehab.

“I started thinking, ‘What if I had been killed that day and not been revived? What would I have regretted? When you go up to the pearly gates and you’re looking back on your life,” Hendricks says, “I would have regretted not following this to a career and really pursuing it because I’ve always worked these shitty jobs … I wanted to do this full time.”

Hendricks started small, recording his album Ghetto Blues Hotel, as the name implies, from the couch of a room in Milwaukee’s Shorecrest Hotel and playing intimate venues in the Milwaukee area, including the Bremen Café.

Although these days Hendricks is playing monthly gigs at Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago and planning to take his act on to an international audience in France this winter, for nearly two years Hendricks was a Tuesday night spectacle at the Bremen and still remains faithful to the café music scene.

“The thing is, music today is so different. You don’t have to rely on labels. Put it out yourself,” he says. “You can do it nowadays, where a kid makes a tape in his basement, gets 500 copies made and hits the road, books all the coffee shops from here to the West Coast, comes on back. Probably doesn’t make much money, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about getting out and playing.”

Likewise, Willow is a firm believer in the atmosphere offered by her quaint establishment nestled in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood. From front to back, each room of the unpretentious corner café holds its own charm, intricately weaving together people of all backgrounds: cowboys in leather, family men, or young adult scholars. All can enjoy arcade mastery, acoustic tunes or simply a warm cup of comfort and a place to unwind.

As she discusses the café from a table in the front room, where objects as dissimilar as German impressionist-inspired art, a "Caddyshack" dancing gopher, Newcastle and Point Special harmoniously coexist, the Bremen’s formula for success becomes clear to Willow.

“Well, just look at this place. What sets it apart is that you can’t say what it is,” she says of its multi-faceted appeal. “It’s a little bit of everything—it’s hard to define. I don’t know if that’s a positive, it may not even be positive at all.”

She adds with a laugh, “I don’t even know of anybody that would be able to come in here and go ‘You know what, I was at this other place and it was exactly like this.’”

A visiting musician plays to a packed house at the Bremen Cafe

Photo courtesy of Jon Anne Willow

Click here to learn about Bremen Cafe performers and events
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