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BWW Reviews: Stephen Wade Sings of 'Street Joy' at The Rep's Stackner Cabaret

Passion and intensity flow from historian, folklorist and musician Stephen Wade when he arrives at Milwaukee Rep's Stackner Cabaret this winter. On Sunday's opening night, Wade, as writer and performer, carries his work accomplished from more than two decades into this unique performance The Beautiful Music All Around Us. The stage production creates a collage of foot tapping banjo or guitar music, photographs and storytelling into one vibrant evening of "Street Joy."

"Street Joy," as Wade might explain his exhaustive collection of history and music, revisits the backstory and recordings made by hundreds of unnamed musicians dating from the Civil War and taken from the Library of Congress Field Recordings beginning in the 1930's. Musicians who literally played on the streets, in churches or even prisons, and include Mississippi's 12-year-old school girl Ora Dell Graham, Chicago's famous Casey Jones and the chicken who sat on his head when he performed, Mae West, and a runaway bride from Virginia who escaped her strict father, Texas Gladden. Composers, singers and primarily banjo players or fiddlers who would have been long forgotten without what is now named the Library of Congress' Archive of Folk Culture, and Wade's belief in the ""the life and achievements of all peoples in the United States."

On the Stackner's intimate stage, the award-winning Wade breathes life into these musician's storie---their personalities, their lyrics and melodies such as "Shortenin' Bread" or "Tom Dooley," even the first lilting measures of Aaron Copland's famous opera "Rodeo." Photographs projected on a screen behind Wade illuminate these private histories while Wade embellishes their unknown names with the facts and myths surrounding their lives.
An accomplished and life-long banjo player, Wade picks and stomps through the notes and melodies woven into the audience's memories. Strains of familiar tunes resonate in the Cabaret while merged with Wade's enthusiasm and his exceptional banjos to elevate these street musicians to their rightful place in musical history.

The vintage banjos, collected by Wade from these musicians who actually played them, transform into vital instruments of extreme beauty in his hands, the notes fast and clear when his fingers quickly pluck the strings. Whether he plays the instrumental "Wabash Blues" sings the haunting "Diamond Joe," written and recorded by a prisoner named Charlie Butler, or reveres Doc Hopkins and his tribute to a tragic mining accident in the "Coal Creek March," Wade pays tribute to these street musicians who made a "way out of no way," to play their music because the muse mysteriously called to them.

The production coordinated by The Rep's Brent Hazelton condenses the legacy of Wade's 2012 nonfiction book "The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience," although his performance focuses on resurrecting the joyful ballads and melodies from this past. While the audience will wish there could be more banjo music played by Wade, the evening honors humble beginnings embodied by the Nashville Washboard Band, a group who "transformed everyday objects into music...fusing the historical into the personal." Wade clearly understands in his performance and writing "the indivisibility of art and life."

Appreciate and revel in this remarkable production combining history and bygone music that features ties to Milwaukee. Several of these street musicians were first recorded at Grafton's Paramount Records initially founded in the 1910's. An exuberant celebration of banjos and the folk music radiating from these fabulous instruments, The Rep's perfect winter treasure, The Beautiful Music All Around Us reveals art and life intermingle in what Wade might call miracle songs and stories of renewal.

The Rep presents Stephen Wade's The Beautiful Music All Around Us at the Stackner Cabaret in the Patty and Jay Baker Theater Complex through March 15. Meet Stephen Wade, who will autograph copies of his book available at the Stackner Cabaret after attending a performance. For further information or tickets, please call 414.224.9490 or visit

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From This Author - Peggy Sue Dunigan

Peggy Sue Dunigan earned a BA in Fine Art, a MA in English and then finished with a Masters of Fine Art in Creative Fiction from Pine Manor College, Massachusetts. Currently she independently write... (read more about this author)