For all the sound, lights, color and action that Decadent Cabaret has produced for going on four decades, numbers tell important parts of its story as well.
For starters, the local organizers of the regional band celebration are presenting the 40th annual Decadent Cabaret beginning Thursday at The Metro. Then consider the number of bands taking part: 35. And another metric seems on point: the 25 minutes each group or solo artists gets to spend on stage — which is the way it’s always been throughout its illustrious history in the local music scene.
“The only boundary you have in this show is that it’s a 25-minute set,” said Joe Gunderson, one of the event’s current organizers. “You get 25 minutes to do whatever you want to do.”
Gunderson’s two fellow organizers are Brent Kuechenmeister and Duane Kebschull. Gunderson and Kuechenmeister are both musicians who are playing this weekend as well as making sure Decadent Cabaret runs smoothly. Gunderson will be taking the stage with the Jaggernauts, Stair Across and FM Down, and Kuechenmeister is part of Giants of Midgard and Outlaw Renegades.
Kebschull handles all the technical aspects of the show, including another important number: the 15 minutes for tear-down and setup between acts so the festivities keep running smoothly.
“Twenty-five on, 15 off,” he said.
Asked how he handles such a responsibility, Kebschull immediately cited “a very, very good crew.” He also pointed to careful planning. “If you saw the spreadsheets, the grid for it, it’s rather interesting.”
The genres of rock, bluegrass, folk, indie, country, alternative and electronic musical styles are represented over three days.
In a hallmark of how supportive of the local scene Decadent Cabaret intends to be, an event news release, written by Anastasia Vishnevsky, eloquently says: “There are no opening acts; all bands are featured headliners.”
“It’s very diverse genres,” Gunderson said. “We’re really proud about that. We’ll get metal and folk. We’ll do anything we can so that people have a chance to play and be a part of it. We’re not genre specific on any level.”
Gunderson emphasized the wide participation that musical diversity enables. “We wanted everybody to feel that they were a part of it so the festival could become bigger.”
Being able to amass nearly three dozen bands to carry on a tradition for four decades suggests Decadent Cabaret stands tall amid the Chippewa Valley’s reputation for musical prowess.
“There’s no question about it,” said Gunderson, who began playing on the local scene in the mid-’90s, when Decadent Cabaret hit the stage at Stones Throw or, as it was known at the time, the Cornerstone.
“And I was truly blown away by the experience and the professionalism of the local, original music scene,” he said. “I couldn’t get over how great it was. It was a really good period of time for the music scene when I got into it. There were a lot of different genres of bands doing a lot of different things in the original vein, and it was just a great time to grow up in it. And I was just blown away by going to it and seeing all those bands perform.”
Kebschull agreed. “There’s so much more to Eau Claire’s music scene than what gets attention in the media,” he said.
To the best of Gunderson’s recollection, 2006 was the first year of two nights. The third night was offered about nine or 10 years ago, he said, although initially the first night featured acoustic performances. Three nights of full bands were “probably within the last five years, it would be safe to say.”
And they don’t have trouble filling the slots.
“We feel the three nights is a good barometer about what’s going on around here and the people that really, truly want to be a part of this thing,” he said.
According to the festival news release, Decadent Cabaret began in 1980 as an alternative to UW-Eau Claire’s Viennese Ball. Co-founders Stephen Katrosits, Jeff Olson, Paula Gorski and Mark Anderson wanted to throw an “art party” with a band playing to celebrate a weekend of local music and camaraderie.
The first Decadent Cabaret took place in the basement of American Legion Post 53 on Water Street. In subsequent years, it moved to The Brat Kabin, the Unitarian Church, Stones Throw, The Golden Chair, The House of Rock until it closed in 2017 and beginning last year at The Metro.
Wild costumes became the order of the night, although Gunderson said that’s less true these days. However, that spirit lives on, Kebschull pointed out, through the Torch Sisters aerobatic troupe making their return this year, production effects and visual art provided again by Artisan Forge Studios.
In fact, he pointed to a description in the news release he thinks accurately sums up the event: “Halloween-meets-Mardi-Gras-meets-music-video musical spectacle.”
“That is literally what our vibe is this year,” he said.
Organizers expect, to present another telling number, 300 to 500 people each of the three nights.
“We’ve had some people fly in from out of state just to come to this event too that used to be in the scene and they remember coming to the show,” Gunderson said. “And that’s our goal. We wanted to get the word out and spread it like how special this event is.”
Asked why Decadent Cabaret is worth so much effort, Kebschull responded, “Just seeing the people’s reaction,” noting the elation of the audience and the passion and effort of the musicians.
He also gave a specific example of when that effort pays off. One year, when Decadent Cabaret was at House of Rock, a band wanted to do a tribute to Spinal Tap, the satirical metal band immortalized in a 1984 film. The musicians wanted to include the scene in which a miniature Stonehenge drops down on the stage.
“I had it set up and that thing lived in plain sight on the ceiling every night of the event, and nobody caught it,” he said. “And like clockwork it dropped down where it was supposed to. Just those little moments make it so satisfying.”
Adding to the exuberant atmosphere throughout the weekend, the organizers said, will be the fact that it’s a cathartic escape from the weather.
“It’s a wonderful event that everybody knows spring’s right around the corner,” Gunderson said.
As Kebschull put it, “We’re bringing it all together and in the dead of winter and we’ve all been snowed in and we feel helpless to Mother Nature. ... We’re going to put on a show and let people forget all the crap for a while.”