Victoria Shoemaker and Peter Phippen take music making seriously, but as they demonstrate in the two-piece band Virginia Steel, good fun goes into the art as well.
As a measure of that, they don’t mind comparisons to famous twosomes such as Sonny and Cher, the Smothers Brothers and, of “Hee-Haw” fame, Buck Owens and Roy Clark, all of whom elicited laughter while they made well-loved music.
Another iconic group, Violent Femmes, also came up during a conversation with the Eau Claire-based musicians, but not because Virginia Steel sounds all that similar to the trio’s brand of acoustic alt rock. Rather, in a reflection of their musical abilities, Shoemaker and Phippen were invited to perform briefly with the Femmes during their concert before about 4,000 fans Aug. 14 at Surly Brewing Festival Field in Minneapolis. Shoemaker played classical flute and Phippen played a Ken LaCosse shakuhachi (bamboo flute) as part of the boisterous Horns of Dilemma, the group’s accompanying ensemble.
“The cool part about the Horns of Dilemma is that it’s built up of friends and musicians that the band knows in whatever city they’re playing so it’s a constantly changing group of people,” Shoemaker said.
Accompanying the Violent Femmes and playing covers and originals as Virginia Steel are just two examples of Shoemaker and Phippen’s multi-instrumental talents. Phippen has earned nominations for Grammy, International Acoustic Music and Native American Music awards, honors he’s received for his performances and recordings with traditional flutes from around the world. He also played bass for the rock band Airkraft, which was together from 1982 to 1995 and earned regional and national notice.
Shoemaker also is an accomplished flutist, earning a Bachelor of Music degree from Chicago’s VanderCook College of Music, where she studied classical flute and piccolo performance. She also has worked with teachers such as Phippen as well as Tim Lane, professor of flute at UW-Eau Claire. Besides her performances, she teaches and on a variety of instruments to students of all ages at the Eau Claire Music School and at St. Joseph Catholic Schools in Boyd and Cadott. She has received nominations for the 2017 and 2018 Wisconsin Area Music Industry People’s Choice Award for Best Music Teacher in Northwest Wisconsin.
When they first formed Virginia Steel about a year ago, they got some valuable input from an audience member. They had asked an agent to attend one of their shows, and afterward he told them, “‘You guys are boring as hell,’” Phippen recalled, smiling. “This is our first gig. And he goes, ‘I can’t book you anywhere.’ And he started naming the rooms ...”
“‘You’ll get booed out of these places,’” Shoemaker said, completing the quote.
The advice, which they ultimately appreciated, gave them something to prove. “We’re both a little vindictive, both a little passive aggressive,” Shoemaker said.
So they altered their approach, as Phippen described.
“We threw the stools away; we stood up,” he said. “We bought all wireless everything ... running around screaming and yelling. … We just upped it.”
“We talk to the audience more,” Shoemaker added. “Well, I yell at the audience.”
As a part of making their show more interactive and spontaneous, they frequently take verbal jabs at each other — and maybe their listeners as well.
As Phippen pointed out, “We do better when the audience is real close to us because they can hear her snide comments to me — in the middle of the song.” Both musicians smiled when Phippen said that, demonstrating the spirit in which the teasing is intended.
That approach met success earlier this summer at the Northern Wisconsin State Fair’s Leinenkugel Pavilion in Chippewa Falls.
“We weren’t that close to the audience, but we were still talking to them and they were yelling at us back and having a really good time,” Shoemaker said. “But they sat and they watched like it was a performance in a theater.”
After the NWSF gig, they found the inquiries from venues picked up noticeably.
Country to rock
Their music ranges from country to the roots of rock ’n’ roll, and they do take requests, but they try to focus on music that isn’t among the most often played selections.
“If somebody’s doing it, we go the other direction,” Phippen said.
The nature of the band allows them to vary the night-to-night performances, sometimes on an impromptu basis.
“We have a song list,” Phippen said, “and I’ll look down and I’m like, ‘I ain’t playing that song tonight. I’m not in the mood.’”
“At least at that moment,” Shoemaker interjected. “Maybe later he’ll call it up again when I’m ready for another song.”
Phippen acknowledged that puts pressure on Shoemaker, considering the varied instruments she plays: flute, saxophone, drum and guitar, and she also sings on songs such as her original material.
Typically, Phippen plays rhythm guitar, bass and sings, and he also sometimes plays flute.
Their opportunity with the Violent Femmes came through their flute-playing expertise. Brian Ritchie, the group’s bassist, also happens to be a master of the shakuhachi. They had met Ritchie when the Femmes played at Eau Claire’s State Theatre in 2017, and he returned to perform at the 2018 World Flute Society Convention, which UW-Eau Claire hosted.
“He’s just relaxed and calm,” Shoemaker said. “And you sit and talk to him, and if you didn’t know who he was, like if you met him in a grocery store, you wouldn’t think he was the bassist for the Violent Femmes.”
“You wouldn’t know he was a rock star, which he certainly is,” Phippen said.
Initially, Shoemaker and Phippen planned just to attend the Aug. 14 concert, watching from backstage at Ritchie’s invitation and for which a fellow flutist, Bobb Fantauzzo of the Twin Cities, had been invited to join the Horns of Dilemma.
But on the day of the performance, Ritchie let Shoemaker and Phippen know they would be Horns of Dilemma members for the show.
When they got backstage beforehand, Phippen asked for specifics of what they would be playing. Ritchie took out one of his flutes and gave a quick preview, followed by these instructions: “He goes, ‘Then, when the drums start going nuts, you guys just go ape,’” Phippen said.
When Shoemaker is teaching, she can draw on her varied musical experiences, such as the Violent Femmes show, although she said she offers students a consistent message: “What I try to do as a music educator is instill in all my kids — I call my students my kids ... an appreciation for the creation of music whether they grow up to be professional musicians or not,” she said. “I want them to know what it takes to get there and be able to understand what goes into it. And then as they’re working on different skills and as they’re playing understand that while there’s a lot of hard work to be done, it can be fun as you’re working and as you’re performing.”
That’s readily apparent at Virginia Steel gigs.
“The audience can tell we’re having fun,” Shoemaker said. “They crack up at us all the time.”
To which Phippen added, “We show up, we open the door and start setting up our gear, the show has already started, the people are laughing at us.”
The good-natured verbal sparring to which he alluded may not be easy to capture in the print format of a newspaper — but that just offers another incentive to catch one of their shows.