Since Chris Kroeze’s runner-up finish on NBC’s “The Voice” last December, the Barron resident has seen his career ascend to new heights. But at the same time he’s staying in touch with his roots.
Kroeze has played a host of venues throughout west-central Wisconsin the past few months, including Aquafest in Rice Lake, Lake Martha Days in Osseo and Country Jam outside of Eau Claire, where he performed twice during the festival.
That run of performances in the region and across the state continues for the hometown hero. On Friday he’ll appear at Big Top Chautauqua near Bayfield, and the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis is on his schedule Monday. Plus, Kroeze will deliver two local shows on Saturday, Aug. 10: at Ashley for the Arts in Arcadia and at Chippewa Falls’ Pure Water Days.
Chatting by phone this week from his home, Kroeze talked about why he enjoys taking the stage in these parts.
“This is where all my support has come from,” he said. “This is where a lot of my fans are and people who love my music, and it just made sense on a bunch of different levels just to keep stuff kind of close to home for now because that’s where the people are right now for me.”
The audience response has confirmed the wisdom of that approach.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “It’s a ton of fun. It’s pretty cool to see how excited people get when we come out on stage and just to have that captive of an audience for each show every night. It’s something I’ve always wanted to have. It’s just so crazy.”
While the crowd responds enthusiastically throughout the show, a solo segment has been particularly well-received.
“I do a little section of the show where I let the band take a break, and it’s just me out there with an acoustic guitar, and people really like that,” he said. “It’s a lot like what I used to do, and kind of like a throwback, so people really seem to like that.”
Kroeze’s knack for winning over an audience became clear during his run on “The Voice.” It started when country music superstar Blake Shelton chose him for his team, and he continued to make the cut during succeeding early rounds. In that span Kroeze impressed with renditions of songs such as the Beatles’ “Let it Be” and the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See.”
Different type of show
Actually, Kroeze noted, the pace of his schedule isn’t that different from pre-“Voice” tours, on which he often played more than 200 concerts a year.
“The number of shows I think is probably less,” he said, “but they’re a lot bigger shows and bigger crowds, and a lot more captive crowds and just a lot more polished, I guess is what you could say.”
In addition, he is able to present a different type of performance.
“Before I was playing five, six, seven nights a week sometimes in the summer, but it was literally running from bar to bar,” he said. “This is exhausting too, but this is a lot more rewarding. It’s a lot more fun — I feel like I can be a lot more creative, and I have the extra time to do that.”
Fortunately for local fans, Kroeze said he expects to continue gracing the area with his talents.
“It may be less in the future, but at the same time I have no plans on moving away from here so I’m always going to live here, and so being able to play close to home is always something I’ll be doing,” he said.
In fact, Kroeze’s latest single, “Better on a Boat,” speaks to his love for the natural beauty of this area.
“You know, people from Wisconsin, Minnesota, anyone up north in this region of the Midwest knows we’ve got three months,” he said. “We’ve got June, July and August to really get out there and do that kind of stuff.”
That understanding reminded him of wisdom his father passed along when he was a child: “Even a bad day fishing is still better than a good day at home.”
Reflecting on how the song conveys a kick-back-and-enjoy sentiment, he added, “There’s just something about being out on whether it’s a fishing boat or a pontoon. ... It’s kind of a good weather, good time song.”
“Better on a Boat” comes from his self-titled album, which was released in February. The reception for the project has made him “very happy.”
“I don’t know how many copies we’ve sold, but we’re selling a lot,” he said. “A lot of streams on Amazon and Spotify and all that. That’s one of the most important things in the industry right now is getting music on people’s phones. So that’s been going really well.”
Country and rock roots
While Kroeze obviously has grasped how the contemporary music scene works now, it was during a different era when he came to love music and hone his abilities, creating a sound that blends traditional country and diverse influences such as roots rock.
“Basically my musical upbringing was we didn’t have the internet and Spotify and iTunes and YouTube and all that stuff,” he said. “My dad had a big huge drawer full of cassette tapes, and that was all the stuff I learned to play music to. A lot of that was Hank Williams and Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline and all those great classic country singers.
“But also there was AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses and Nazareth and the Band with Levon Helm and Lynyrd Skynyrd and all that kind of stuff. So it’s all kind of a big mix,” he added with a laugh.
When it’s suggested that versatility helped his cause during “The Voice,” he replied, “I don’t think it hurt just because if they threw me a country song one week I’d do that, and if there was a rock song I’d do that. I was just kind of open to whatever.”
Summing up those sentiments, he added, “I just like good music. I don’t really care if it’s country, rock, pop or whatever. I just like good music.”
Asked the most important thing he learned about making music from “The Voice,” Kroeze answered with no hesitation.
“Connecting with my crowds at my shows,” he said. “The live performance part of it is, in my opinion, the most important part of all of it. Recording is really cool … but especially in this day and age recordings are meant to get people to come out to the live shows.”
Once they attend, Kroeze and his band then can make their case, “making sure that when people do come out that we put on the best possible show we can,” he said, “and make sure they leave thinking, ‘Wow! That was a great time. I want to go again and maybe bring some friends.’”
While Kroeze sees the value of standing in front of a microphone and singing songs, he has come to believe an entertaining stage presence plays a crucial role.
“These people have spent their hard-earned money to come see us,” he said. “Their energy magnifies my energy and so on and so forth. The more they’re having fun, the more we’re having fun, and it just kind of snowballs.”
Return to Pablo
In the near future, Kroeze expects to continue touring — “I honestly look at my schedule every week and see where I’m going” — but he also is looking forward to returning to Pablo Center at the Confluence’s RCU Theatre in Eau Claire. Last March Kroeze played three sold-out shows there, and on Dec. 20 and 21 he’ll perform concerts that feature Christmas-themed tunes among other selections.
“Just to get a bunch of people together and have a good time near the holidays is always a good thing,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll have some new original music by then, and hopefully a completely different show than what we did the last time we were there. And hopefully we’re a year’s worth better.”
To be sure, Kroeze emphasized his gratitude for the experience at the marquee performance space downtown.
As he explained, “When we started talking to the Pablo about doing it, I said, ‘How many seats is it?’ And they said, ‘1,200,’ and my immediate reaction was, ‘Jeez, I don’t know if we can sell 1,200.’”
So he was especially pleased at the warm reception he received. “When we walked out on stage, those people just went nuts,” he said. “It was so much fun. That’s one that I’ll remember forever.”
Which is maybe another way to say home is where Kroeze’s heart is.