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Kiki’s House of Righteous Music makes a cautious return

The Madison house venue will resume operations at half-capacity.

The Madison house venue will resume operations at half-capacity.

Photo: Kiki Schueler works the merchandise table before a show by the Freakons in her backyard on July 25. Two people are on the outskirts of the frame, facing Schueler. Schueler is in conversation with the person on the right, beaming. (Photo by Jane Burns)

Even in the best of times, there’s a lot of trust involved in making Kiki’s House of Righteous Music a beloved Madison music venue.

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House concert impresario Kiki Schueler trusts that people will pay for the shows when they reserve a spot via email (to be added to the venue’s mailing list, email [email protected]). She trusts that the music lovers who come to her east side postwar house for the basement concerts won’t trash the place. The musicians trust that Kiki, as she promises, will hand over all the money to them and not pocket some for herself. 

So it’s with a leap of faith in at least some of humanity that Schueler plans to open her basement again for indoor shows. She’ll reduce capacity, require vaccinations, and book smaller acts, but otherwise believes it’s time for the shows to go on.

“I started hearing from people and I kept saying ‘fall,’” Schueler said. “I thought after Labor Day for sure. But then Jason Ringenberg, who I love, called and I couldn’t say no. I said, ‘OK, if you’re ready I guess I’m ready.’ That’s really what dictated when I’d book my first show. I thought, ‘It’s Jason, I gotta do it.’”

Roots rocker Ringenberg, former leader of Jason And The Scorchers, will play the basement on August 27. It’s the first show Schueler booked, but not the first that will happen. That will be the Trash Mountain Trio, who will play on August 15. Capacity for the first shows will be 30, half of the usual full basement. (Update, August 11, 2021: Schueler has announced that the Trash Mountain Trio show will take place in her backyard instead of the basement, telling subscribers on her email list: “I’m as anxious as anyone to get back there, but, as it turns out, it’s just too soon. The weather looks great, so bring your chairs, your coolers, your beach umbrellas, whatever you need, and I’ll see you in the backyard!”)

“That’s a seat for everyone and I’m going to spread them out,” she said. “If it freaks anybody out, they don’t have to stay.”

The Trash Mountain Trio features Dean Schlabowske of The Waco Brothers, regulars in Schueler’s basement. When Schueler mentioned the potential show would only be at half capacity, Schlabowske was nonplussed about that.

“He said, ‘That’s OK. Half capacity is all that ever shows up for my shows anyway,’” Schueler said.

The routine for Schueler’s show is a first-come, first-served email reply when shows are announced, via email to whoever is on the mailing list. Then, people mail her a check. Now she also tells people they need to be vaccinated to get a seat.

Schueler is still uncertain if she’s going to ask to see vaccination cards. Some venues, including The Hideout in Chicago where many of the artists that play at Schueler’s are regulars, ask for proof.

“I’m torn,” she said. “A lot of people when they email me they say they’re vaccinated and why would anyone lie about that because that’s not cool. I know most of the people coming to these first shows and they’re all reasonable, believe-in-science sort of people.”

So is Schueler, who works in a UW-Madison biochemistry lab. 

It’s suddenly a busy booking season for Schueler. She has organized her third Kiki’s Righteous Session at The Sessions at McPike Park for August 13. It includes the German Art Students, Bonnie Whitmore, and Chuck Prophet And The Mission Express. It’s mostly the same lineup she had organized for last summer, which was canceled because of COVID-19. 

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Whitmore is one of the artists that Schueler watched on a regular basis during the pandemic, with the Austin singer-songwriter doing a regular virtual show with a different guest each week. 

“I saw enough streaming shows and it was close enough for me,” Schueler said. “I had a very busy musical calendar.”

Because Schueler hands off concert admission (“suggested donation”) fees to the artists and makes nothing herself, she wasn’t out money during the pandemic the way artists and commercial venues were. She found that she enjoyed being a fan for a change, until Steve Wynn and Linda Pitmon staged the Impossible Tour last winter. They played in a rehearsal space in Queens, but each livestreamed show was a simulated version of a concert at one of their favorite venues. One was Kiki’s House of Righteous Music, and though the artists weren’t there, they pretended that they were and told stories about it.

“Just that night I was like, ‘Oh, I do miss it. I forgot,’” she said. “Just pretending to be the host, I still missed it.”

Wynn will play the basement on September 9.

Schueler felt no economic pressure to get going again, but knows the artists need places to play. So, following a small run of outdoor shows, concerts No. 317, 318, and 319 are on the calendar. Her routine of house concerts is back, but the last year and a half showed her that a life filled with music that wasn’t in her basement wasn’t bad, either. 

“I was OK not doing it. I was OK taking a break,” she said. “It turns out I guess I’m just happy all the time.”

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