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Willy Porter Band and carisa wow Stoughton Opera House audience

Updated: Mar 12

by Bryant Switzky



Bryant Switzky
Bryant Switzky

Hey there Wisconsin music fans. My name is Bryant Switzky, and I am helping Zach to launch a new feature to the podcast. I’ll be reviewing live performances and new releases by Wisconsin musicians. For this inaugural session, I’ll be reviewing the Willy Porter Band and their opener Carisa, who performed at the Stoughton Opera House on February 15th.   



The Stoughton Opera House

First off, the Stoughton Opera House is a gem of a venue. It bills itself as “Southern Wisconsin’s Most Charming Theater,” and I’d have to agree. It was built in 1901 and is just dripping with character, including ornate chandeliers, rounded box seats, tall ceilings, and gold leaf trimming. It seats 475 and the acoustics are fantastic. 


They mostly book national touring artists, but they also have this cool space on the first level that they call the Ghost Light Lounge, which is a bar where they hire local musicians to perform for an hour before the main show.  




photo of carisa
carisa 📷by Bryant Switzky

carisa

carisa is a singer-songwriter who goes by one name, six letters, all lower case. She grew up in New York City and moved to Madison in 2021.  She had been scheduled to play the Ghost Light Lounge ahead of the Willy Porter show, but she was elevated to the main stage at the last minute. 


Bill Brehm, director of the Stoughton Opera House, introduced her to the crowd as his favorite up-and-coming singer songwriter. Her 40 minute set was full of personal songs with vivid imagery about the sky and nature. She plays finger-style acoustic guitar, often creating bass lines with her thumb that give her songs a bit of a latin flare. She draws clear influence from bossa nova, folk, and jazz. 


She has a stunning voice with a trembling vibrato reminiscent of Joan Baez. The whole sound is timeless and intimate. She played solo with her guitar, which she’s named Moonshadow. She has an under-stated stage presence, standing still, singing with her eyes closed, making it feel a bit as though you’re watching her have a private experience with her songs. carisa's set might've benefited from a bit more variation in tempo and rhythm, though the crowd was clearly impressed. 


She was playing the Ghost Light Lounge ahead of a Willy Porter show a while back, and Willy liked her music so much that he took her on tour with him. She’s also toured with former Wisconsin-based singer-songwriter Peter Mulvey, and she was featured earlier this year in The Current’s Emerging Artist Showcase in Duluth, MN. 


Carisa is a welcome addition to the Wisconsin music scene, and I expect we’ll be seeing more of her in the years to come. 




photo of Willy Porter Band
Willy Porter Band 📷by Bryant Switzky

Willy Porter Band


On to the main event, the Willy Porter Band. This was my fourth or fifth time seeing Willy since the mid 90s. 


He made a name for himself as a guitar player who eats alternate tunings for breakfast and plays with an awe-inspiring precision that makes other guitar players want to throw up their hands and quit. He’s also a gifted singer and a solid songwriter. And more than three decades into his career, he’s still got it. Though he’s pushing 60, his voice hasn't aged a day. 


He took the stage with his six-piece band to an enthusiastic crowd and played a lot of the songs from his latest record, The Ravine. It came out in September and is his 13th full-length album. 


Willy was alternating between a Telecaster and a six-string acoustic. His band included his longtime keyboard player Dave Adler. Carmen Nickerson on background vocals and percussion, Eric Madunic was on bass and background vocals, Ryan Pearl on lead guitar, and Dave Schoepke on drums. They were tight, though the bulk of the chemistry on stage was between Willy, Adler and Nickerson, who is a singer-songwriter in her own right. The three of them in particular looked like they were having a blast on stage. 


The band really showed their chops on the song The Ravine, a nine minute odyssey with really distinct musical sections with different time signatures and rhythms that change on a dime. The first time I heard the song on the album, I was impressed with how ambitious it was. You don’t hear a lot of songs that feature seven-eight time. The band nailed it live.  


Willy Porter with Carmen Nickerson
Willy Porter with Carmen Nickerson 📷by Bryant Switzky

The set had a nice range, with plenty of feel-good tunes off the new album like Fishing Shack, Where Skies are Blue, and Baseball on the Radio. 


One of my favorites from the set was Don’t Underestimate the Devil, which has this bluesy - Americana feel and super sexy slide guitar part.

 

Willy did a lot of talking between songs, telling stories about the music’s origins. One that stood out was the intro to his song Scars of Independence. As he told it, he was playing a gig a while back at Cafe Carpe in Fort Atkinson, WI, when a man handed him a note written on a napkin. It said "1773 single shot muzzle loading flint lock", which is an old rifle. The man said, “you should write a song about that someday.” Willy thanked him and added the note to his compost heap of potential song ideas. During COVID, he pulled it out and wrote a song about a boy who lived near Boston whose father died in the battle at Lexington Green that helped start the American Revolutionary War. The rifle plays a key role in the song.  


Some of the song introductions were admittedly on the long side, sometimes taking more time than the songs themselves. The audience didn’t seem to mind too much. I got the impression that there were a lot of devoted fans there who appreciated hearing the stories behind the songs.  


Willy played some of his old classics too, like Cool Water, Watercolor, and Jesus on the Grille. 


The band played several high-energy rockers too that made me want to get up and dance. This included Larry Bought a Tractor, Earthquake, and Plant a Garden. Those last two were tracks on a 2016 album Bonfire to Ash, which was a collaboration between Willy and Carmen Nickerson and was released under the name Porter Nickerson. 


Eric Madunic
Eric Madunic 📷by Bryant Switzky

 Ryan Pearl
Ryan Pearl 📷by Bryant Switzky

The band put on a terrific show, and was able to bring a lot of different elements together. One downside of the six-piece band is that the subtleties of Willy’s phenomenal guitar work tended to get lost in the mix. To fully appreciate Willy Porter, I’d recommend also checking out

one of his more intimate solo performances.


We're excited to bring you more reviews on the podcast of live performances and new releases from Wisconsin musicians. Leave a comment below and let us know what you think. You can listen to the full review on our YouTube channel and see more pictures from the show: https://youtu.be/CziZYOgQdQY.





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