An old photo illustrates how much the Sounds Summer Concert Series has grown.
The image, on the website (tinyurl.com/ltyoh6g) of presenter Volume One, depicts the series’ first ever concert in 2006 at Phoenix Park. The all-ages crowd of about 100 people seems engaged, and the band pictured, the Space Rangers, appears on stage at the scenic location on the banks of the Chippewa River.
Compare that with pictures from more recent years, or, even better, head downtown on a Thursday evening this summer for one of the shows. Needless to say, a spot close to the front will require a much, much earlier arrival than would have been necessary all those years ago.
Nick Meyer, Volume One publisher and founder of Sounds Like Summer, described the photo in a phone interview, noting the sparse attendance, the trees in their early stages of growth and the not-yet-completed farmers market building. Things have changed, he said, from the perspective of the series and downtown development.
“It’s gotten to be a full blown weekly festival down there,” he said, estimating an average evening crowd size at about 2,000.
In the spotlight
Chippewa Valley-based musician Jim Pullman, who has performed multiple times for the series, said the crowd is one of the draws for musicians.
“I always look forward to playing at Phoenix Park!” Pullman said in an email. “If the weather is nice you are pretty much guaranteed to play in front of 1,500-2,000 people. The crowd at Phoenix Park always has such a positive vibe. I think everyone is genuinely happy to be at such a great outdoor space, enjoying local music, after the long cold winter.”
Pullman often takes the stage leading the Jim Pullman Band, although this year he will perform solo on June 20; Stare Across and John Buxton Experience are scheduled for that night. The series also features Pullman Aug. 22 in the Rattlenecks, with Eggplant Heroes and Travis Lee also performing that evening.
The initial expectation for the series, Meyer said, was that average nightly attendance could grow to perhaps 700 people.
“Once we started adding food and the art pieces and the sponsors and things like that, it became more festival-like,” he said.
All the bands offered performance slots must meet two criteria:
• They must have a local connection of some kind, such as being based in the Chippewa Valley or having someone in the band who is a local native or former native.
• They play original music.
“We try to have a good third of the bands be new if they can be,” Meyer said. “You don’t have to be like a long-term, established band to get a slot in this. We want this to be a spot where you see somebody for the first time maybe.”
The series features a wide spectrum of genres, including indie rock, jazz, bluegrass, folk, some country — even a klezmer band has had the spotlight.
“Sometimes if there’s a hard rock or a metal type of band we’ll have them do acoustic sets, which has been really cool,” Meyer said. “So it makes it a little more approachable to everybody, and their fans get to see them in a different capacity.”
With three bands on each night of the series, music fans have been able to enjoy hearty servings of local music.
“Fourteen years in now, there is a much bigger percentage of the population of this community who has been able to be exposed to original music coming out of this community,” Meyer said. “I think previous to this series … certainly there was outdoor music here and there, but this certainly kind of blew it open on a scale that was a much bigger scale than this community had regularly seen in the past and certainly in a free capacity.”
Besides exposing many local residents to lots of music, the series also has given numerous local bands a showcase in front of a sizable crowd.
“There aren’t many opportunities in this area to play for 2,000 people, so it’s really cool to be able to get in front of a mainstream audience that way,” Meyer said.
“And obviously not everybody is there 100 percent for the music; they’re there for friends and family and the whole scene and the vibe. But we’ve just heard countless stories over the years of people who kind of discovered local music through this series and ended up going to more traditional venues a little bit more often once they see some bands they discover that they like.”
Pullman said the series has helped spread the word about his music.
“I often get comments from folks that they have seen my bands perform at Phoenix Park,” he said, “and as a result they come to see me perform at other venues in and around the Chippewa Valley.”
By the numbers
It would seem the downtown area as a whole has reaped benefits from the series, to judge by the heavier traffic and more scarce parking spaces. That speaks to what Meyer described as Volume One’s goal of creating events that “shift the culture in some way.”
“We want to do stuff that’s of the level that it can actually impact how people experience this city,” he said. “I think the concert series is the biggest and best example of that in that the culture of a Thursday night in the summer in downtown Eau Claire is very different than it was 15 years ago before this thing existed.
“I think there is much more of a ‘Let’s just go downtown; there’s always stuff happening’ that flows from this event and people on the streets and people in the restaurants and the bars and the ice cream parlors and everything else,” Meyer continued. “And certainly along the trails and the riverwalks and stuff.”
In the time Sounds Like Summer has been running, other warm weather concert series have sprung up locally and in neighboring cities such as Altoona, Chippewa Falls, Menomonie, Durand and Fall Creek.
Especially encouraging, Meyer said, is that those efforts also seem to be thriving.
They’re all doing well,” he said. “It’s like this community just embraces outdoor music of all genres and all kinds in a big way. And I think that’s a really cool thing to see. Nobody’s taking anything away from each other.”
Call it a picture of success — a group shot.