A pair of New Year's Eve gigs at the Angelic Brewing Company were supposed to cap a year in which the Mighty Short Bus ' one of Madison's hardest-working rock bands ' traveled a mighty long way from its humble beginnings at a local open-mike night in 2003.
Thanks to relentless touring in an unheated van, playing up to five shows a week in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota, the MSB sold almost 1,000 copies of its second independently released CD, Rogue Nation, in four months. Radio stations around the Midwest, including Madison's WMMM and Dubuque's KGRR, are spinning tunes from that record, and a new deal with Tinderbox Music in Minneapolis will place the band's music on up to 300 stations across the country while boosting digital distribution of Rogue Nation. What's more, a coveted slot is pending at March's South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas ' a launching pad attended by countless music-industry execs.
'All of us would ultimately like music to be what we do for our livelihood,' says lead guitarist and vocalist Nic Adamany. 'We all have that common goal of being able to say, 'I'm a professional musician.' And we're ready to do whatever it takes to get there.'
But when fans arrived at the Angelic on the unseasonably warm evening of Dec. 30, Adamany and the rest of the Mighty Short Bus were nowhere to be seen. Instead, a sign created on a home computer hung on the inside lobby door: 'The Short Bus show is canceled! Frank is having a baby!'
Indeed, lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist Frank Busch had spent most of the previous 24 hours with the MSB opening for former Blue Meenie Tim Mahoney at a Des Moines club and then driving through the night to Meriter Hospital, where he anxiously awaited the birth of his first child ' a healthy son who arrived two days early. Reluctant to back out of a gig, Busch insisted that he and his four bandmates honor their commitment at the Angelic.
Clearer heads prevailed. But the next night, MSB delivered three sets of gimmick-free, from-the-gut, all-American rock 'n' roll ' think Tom Petty, the Black Crowes and Cheap Trick jamming at a backyard barbecue ' during a memorable New Year's Eve show surrounded by a thriving fan base that's beginning to feel a lot like family.
If a band must cancel a gig, the birth of a son ranks as one of the best reasons. Or, as keyboard player Josh Smith says, 'It's one of the only reasons.'
That simple statement captures the essence of the Mighty Short Bus.
Here is a band that last July, at Oshkosh's Waterfest, opened for a Milwaukee-based covers band that was opening for '80s has-beens Loverboy. Bands with less gumption would have called it quits right then and there.
Rather, the young men in MSB ' all but 30-year-old bassist Rob Junceau are still in their early- and mid-20s ' consider the Loverboy show a career highlight, in part because it exposed the band to a broader audience. It was certainly better than playing supper clubs in Door County, a heavy-metal bar in Janesville, and Illinois dives where band members outnumber paying patrons. But it wasn't nearly as significant as opening for John Eddie in 2005 during the final days of Luther's Blues or playing a mid-afternoon set last year on Summerfest's Rock Stage.
Taking the good with the bad (and learning from both) is a lesson instilled in Adamany a long time ago by his father, Madison concert promoter and former Cheap Trick manager Ken Adamany. 'Dad's a fan,' Nic says. 'He told us, 'Don't compromise your principles about the type of music you want to make. If you really believe in what you're doing and you know you're good, go out and do it, and act like you deserve to be treated well.''
And so they have.
Despite a sound that many of the MSB's musical peers likely deem less than hip, band members are proud to carry on a classic-rock tradition that draws from jam-band and alt-country influences. And their well-chosen covers include proud versions of Otis Redding's 'Hard to Handle,' Bob Dylan's 'All Along the Watchtower,' Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' 'Mary Jane's Last Dance' and the Black Crowes' 'Remedy.'
'Nobody in this band wants to bow down to some popular form of music,' Smith says. 'What we do is real. There aren't any frills, nobody's jumping around in costumes, and there isn't a whole lot of fanciness. We just go out there and play really good music, and most people enjoy that.'
'Because we play so many shows and see people's reactions, we know that this type of music is still popular and that people really get off on it,' says Adamany. 'That just feeds what we do.'
The Mighty Short Bus released its debut CD, When the Time Comes ' a straightforward heartland-rock record with Southern flair ' in 2004. It was certainly a commendable effort for a local outfit, and one that earned the band its first of several appearances on the local-artist showcase Urban Theater. But the disc lacks the guts and grit of Rogue Nation, and it doesn't smack of breakout potential.
Constant gigging, however, helped the band refine its craft and forced everyone to undergo an attitude adjustment. 'Being out there and playing all those shows really thickened our skin and made us tougher,' Busch says. 'We've got a chip on our shoulders now. We weren't getting any attention from the media, and it really motivated us to get in people's faces a little more.'
Welcome to Rogue Nation, where that onstage aggression carried over into the studio. The album was released in late September and sounds as if it were recorded by a different band than the one that made When the Time Comes. One listen to the rousing opener, 'Fire,' will confirm that, while the polished classic rock of 'Wrong to Leave' seethes with passion. 'Run for the Hills,' buoyed by jangly guitars and a funky piano-and-bass groove, has become the track of choice for Triple M programmers, while 'Weather the Storm' builds slowly and boasts one of the album's most memorable arrangements, punctuated by Adamany's Southern-fried guitar and Smith's dramatic piano inflections.
Included among Rogue Nation's 13 songs are a pair of short interludes that display the band's gentler, jazzier side. Busch's singing has matured to the point where he's unafraid to take chances with his delivery, and the rest of the band play like seasoned veterans.
'We knew the first album would take us to a certain place, and this album is going to take us even further,' Busch says. 'This album is helping us make a lot of friends in the industry.'
For proof, stop by the band's MySpace page, where the MSB's friends list tallies more than 2,200. During the first four months after the release of Rogue Nation, the MSB racked up 3,000 profile views and almost 4,000 plays of three cuts from that record, as well as the title track from When the Time Comes.
'MySpace has really changed the game,' Busch says. 'It makes it very easy to network with people, bands, clubs and other components of the music business. It helps with booking because it is like a standardized Web site. Club owners can go to your site while you are on the phone with them and, in one glance, see your tour schedule, listen to your songs and see what your fan base looks like.'
Internet search engines have also been helpful to the band. 'If you Google 'Mighty Short Bus,' you get one band,' the singer says about the group's name, which stems from seeing ' what else? ' a short bus parked in a local McDonald's lot. 'If you Google 'Black Dog,' you'll get 50 different bands.'
Busch and Adamany may be the group's designated front men, given their side-by-side positioning, brotherly rapport, rock-star charisma and cool hair. But each member of the Mighty Short Bus brings his own charm and strengths to the music. Songs come together in spurts as the result of a group effort, usually after Busch and Adamany develop a musical and lyrical framework.
When they met Adamany at an open-mike night almost four years ago at the Dry Bean Saloon, Busch and Junceau were barely holding together an earlier covers-band version of the MSB. But after discovering kindred musical spirits, the trio recruited drummer Ben Stitgen, and a new model of the Mighty Short Bus began to take shape. The MSB played its first gig as a revised quartet in May 2003, and Smith joined a year later at Stitgen's suggestion. With nearly 400 shows behind them, the band members are clearly driving their own destiny.
Busch works as a manager at the Dry Bean about 10 hours a week, spending the rest of his time overseeing the band's evolving enterprise from its studio headquarters in the lower level of a west-side office building. He checks his e-mail at least 20 times a day, responds to e-mails from fans the MSB meets on the road, and follows up on booking leads. Occasionally he e-mails club owners 15 or 20 times, following up with as many as 10 phone calls, just to get a gig. The persistence pays off.
'I finally heard back from the Milwaukee Ale House after 13 e-mails and six calls,' Busch says. 'The owner booked five shows over the next nine months, so it was worth it.'
When it comes to offstage efforts, though, Busch is far from a one-man band. Everyone devotes generous chunks of spare time to MSB duties, creating handbills, posters and press releases. For local shows, they'll each pick three days a week to do little else but pass out fliers around town. 'If all five of us did nothing but work for the band and play shows, there would still be work left to do,' Busch says.
'A lot of people just need to be exposed to this kind of music, and that's our job,' Stitgen adds. 'You're not hearing it on Top 40 radio, so we get our faces out there and try to get as many people as possible to our shows. The next time they come back, they'll bring friends. We just keep building a reputation that way.'
The Mighty Short Bus recently began playing gigs again following a post-holiday break, which not only gave Busch a little time to adjust to fatherhood but also provided band members the opportunity to network with festival promoters, colleges and clubs they've yet to play in states like Kansas, Indiana, Missouri and Ohio.
Two weeks ago, the band booked its first gig for November, and the 2007 festival season is already taking shape. The MSB played the Flake Out Festival in Wisconsin Dells last month and has confirmed performances at the Crazylegs Classic in April and Iowa's Dubuquefest in May. In addition to the South by Southwest invitation, slots at Milwaukee's Summerfest, Madison's Freak Fest, Brat Fest and the Dane County Fair are pending, as is a series of national dates later this month supporting veteran rockers Caroline's Spine.
As with most independent bands that hit this point in their careers, the conversation among musicians, fans and critics revolves around record labels. Getting signed, after all, has been the standard by which most local-bands-make-big are measured. 'We know they are there, and we know they know who we are,' Busch says of the handful of labels that have expressed interest in the MSB. 'In the meantime, we try to act as if they don't exist.'
For now, at least, all talk of a record deal is purely hypothetical, and band members won't let it cloud their vision. It's business as usual, just as it's always been, and business is good. 'We are doing everything we can to ensure the survival and success of the band,' Busch says. 'We only get one shot at doing this, so why not put every single resource that we have into it?'