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Studio Milwaukee Session: Willy Porter Band

Jen Ellis

Willy Porter is an indelible part of Southeastern Wisconsin, like tap rooms and lake-effect snow — as enjoyable as the former and as steady as the latter. Both were on full display for this Studio Milwaukee Session with his band, most notably in the overflowing audience’s response to the music and the message.

The crowd’s size itself was a response. The Radio Milwaukee members with the foresight to show up early quickly filled every seat in our performance space, leaving the rest to happily linger in the back as Porter launched into selections from recently released album The Ravine. The musicianship never faltered, punctuated by Porter’s fretwork and Dave Adler’s ever-present enthusiasm on keyboards. But it was the stories Porter told about the songs that solidified the connection between those on stage and those seated (and standing) in the crowd.

After album opener “Change Your Mind,” Porter chatted up the audience while prepping his guitar for “Your Honor” — a track inspired by The Baker Center in Boston and its namesake, Harvey Humphrey Baker, a judge in the early 1900s “who many years ago had kids coming before his court,” Porter explained.

“And he said, ‘These aren’t bad kids. They just need help.’ So with vision, he decided to set up programs for them. And his work continues today in the form of this great psychological outreach. As a survivor of ADHD, this song works very well for me.”

While it unfolded, heads bowed and eyes closed across the audience in a collective moment of reflection. It was as though they were taken back to a time when they weren’t at their best as Porter sang:

So your honor, I don’t have much to say in my defense
My mind was off off on vacation I guess 
There’s something wrong
I need someone to help me find my way
Help me keep these wolves at bay
Help me find my better self

It was a heavy moment to match an album that emerged from a similarly tough place. As Porter explained during the mid-set interview, Mike Hoffmann — his producer going back to 1994’s Dog Eared Dream — died during the project’s development, “so it took a minute to sort of recover and gather up the reins. But the band really stepped up, and they said, ‘You gotta finish this, man.’ So it was really kind of beautiful, the way people stepped up and helped out.”

After filling in a few more blanks about the album’s message, Porter and company lightened the mood a bit with a song “about agricultural envy” and finished things with an off-air performance of the multi-movement title track. Clocking in at over nine minutes, the song is a nostalgia-fueled roller coaster and served as a fitting end to a session that touched a lot of different emotions.

You can listen to the on-air portion using the player at the top of the page, become a member today to score an invite to our next Studio Milwaukee Session and pick up Porter’s new album on Bandcamp.

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Set list

  1. "Change Your Mind"
  2. "Your Honor"
  3. "Larry Bought a Tractor"
  4. "The Ravine" (non-broadcast performance)