Mickey’s booker Liz Granby looks for a safe path forward

The essential Willy Street bar is holding off on reviving indoor shows in an effort to put community safety first.

The essential Willy Street bar is holding off on reviving indoor shows in an effort to put community safety first.

Photo: Appleton, WI punk trio Tenement is shown adjusting their instruments moments before their set at Mickey’s Tavern on September 9, 2014. (Photo by Steven Spoerl.)

Many frequent show-goers in Madison might recall Mickey’s Tavern being their last live music before the lockdown. For musicians, the memory of stacking chairs outside to clear enough room for a show inside might even inspire some fond nostalgia. Hearing the next band starting at a Mickey’s show—and weighing whether you really want to leave a perfect outdoor patio table hang—before beelining to the front room is a routine procedure for local music fans. 

While Mickey’s is known for more than just live music—it’s also got Sexy Fries, rooms of colorful couches, and a classic brunch and tap list—it will be hard to feel that Madison’s music community has fully healed until Mickey’s doors are open once again for free late-night shows.

In August 2020, albeit without live music, folks got a taste of Mickey’s Tavern for the first time since the pandemic began. Biking down the Capital City path along Williamson street, it’s hard to miss the newly built outdoor bar and large yellow mural by local artist American Trash Corp. The mural faces the Yahara River, located on the other side of the original patio fence—a tantalizing resting spot that now seems both familiar and excitingly new.

The new patio, situated in Mickey’s former parking lot and large enough for about 10 tables, was built as part of the Streatery Program to allow for more outdoor seating and social distancing. Winter inevitably threw a wrench in the return to Mickey’s when a COVID case spike caused the tavern to close down once again. Both patios, as well as the inside bar and dining areas, returned this May as vaccination rates ramped up and the initial mask mandates wore off. It seemed like a return to live music at Mickey’s would be around the corner. 

Liz Granby, an absolute force in the local music community, has booked music at Mickey’s for the last 15 years. Anyone going to Mickey’s after 10:00 p.m. during live music would see Granby—along with James Hayes, who sadly passed on March 16 of this year—at the door, and/or working sound, keeping things safe and in check. Granby, who has been bartending at Mickey’s since its reopening, has set up residencies for a few local musicians to play acoustic outdoor sets.

Ced Ba’etch—whose unique guitar fingerpicking style combines Americana, country blues, and French pop Chansons—was the first musician to return to Mickey’s back in June and is playing the patio every second and fourth Wednesday. Also holding a residency on Mickey’s patio is Boo Mullarky, “The Amazing One-Human Jug Band,” every second and fourth Thursday. Blues guitarist Catfish Stephenson performs every second and fourth Saturday. 

Residencies for musicians and artists can be extremely important and assuring for working performers and Mickey’s outdoor performance ensures a safe way to accommodate music outside, weather permitting. Of course, these acoustic outdoor Happy Hour shows, as refreshing as they may be these days, are not all that Mickey’s is known for. A void has taken form in the space that was once reserved for Mickey’s late night rock, punk, and metal shows.

Granby expressed a few concerns, all of which are probably familiar to anyone booking shows during this time. The most obvious is maintaining safety protocols in a still-ongoing pandemic. Granby shares that “at first we were really paranoid about social distancing and all that kind of stuff, so it took us a little while to get our footing,” but that the outdoor acoustic shows have been going well. There was also some confusion regarding the legality of requiring patrons to prove their vaccination status.

Granby says that she and other Mickey’s employees “were all under the impression that it was illegal to ask for vaccination proof,” before noting that she heard venues like Robin Room, High Noon, Majestic, and others had started requiring proof of vaccination for entry. 

Once other venues started requiring vaccine cards, Granby started booking indoor shows for the fall. Only a few days later, the county mandated masks once again and Granby’s stance changed. When imagining what Mickey’s would be like at a packed show when everyone had a drink in their hand and would pull down their mask, Granby was resolute. “I don’t want to be responsible for having even one case come from Mickey’s because of a policy or a show that we put on.” Granby continues, “The rug [was] pulled, again, from underneath my feet.” 

An exterior shot of Mickey’s from winter 2008. Photo by Caylan Larson on Flickr.

An exterior shot of Mickey’s from winter 2008. Photo by Caylan Larson on Flickr.

Out of concern for the safety of Mickey’s employees, patrons, and performers, Granby canceled the fall indoor shows but is keeping the acoustic outdoor residencies in place. The question of having amplified shows outside comes to mind, but reveals its own set of concerns.

Madison Common Council Alder Brian Benford advanced a proposal this summer that would have banned music from outdoor Streatery venues within a certain distance of a residential property. While Benford ultimately withdrew this resolution, the conversation around live, loud music in residential areas still continues. Granby walked Tone Madison through the options for outdoor amplified music: “Having a full rock band in the indoor patio—it would take up too much seating. It would probably happen in front (on the Riverside, Streatery patio), but the sound just goes across the river. We had one DJ for our Pride Fest and we got noise complaints. It wasn’t even that loud.” 

Anyone in the position to crank out as many shows as Granby does at Mickey’s has a lot to consider. 

“I have gone back and forth with my feelings of almost guilt with not booking shows,” Granby says. “I get asked every day when music is coming back and I feel like I’m letting people down… I know ultimately that I’m not. I feel I have this responsibility to keep the Mickey’s machine going and that’s why this feels kind of shitty. I know I’m not the only person who could do it but I got lucky to be in the position to work there.” 

Returning to Mickey’s this summer—live indoor shows or not—has been a treasure for so many folks in Madison. Holding on for the return of loud, late night shows as this community continues to heal will be worth the wait.

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