The east-side music venue hopes to get a fresh start this summer with a new music booker and gameplan.
The music venue and bar at 2262 Winnebago Street has announced a new name: The Bur Oak. The sturdy, sensible name is a nod to some of the neighborhood’s mightiest trees, and like the venue’s previous logo, features a bur oak leaf. It’s also an attempt to move on from the venue’s initial name, “The Winnebago.” The owners, who are white, admitted last fall that this was an inappropriate name because it is a derogatory term for the Ho-Chunk people and borrowed from another Indigenous language.
The music is starting back up soon, under a Dane County reopening plan that allows businesses to operate at 25 percent capacity. For The Bur Oak, that means 33 patrons maximum at a time. Its first show under the new name will be on June 19 with Madison-based guitarist and singer Cedric Baetche, known around town as a painter, bartender, and half of the ever-charming swing duo Mal-O-Dua. Unlike the initial business model—a venue, a restaurant, and a daytime hangout all in one—The Bur Oak will pretty much just be open when there’s a show. The staff is also inviting local activist and community groups to use The Bur Oak’s space for free on Monday nights for political discussions and benefit events, in a program called “Social Justice Mondays.”
Brothers Jake and John DeHaven opened the business in spring 2019 under the name The Winnebago, formally the Winnebago Arts Café, taking the name from the street. The place had a lot going for it—a painstakingly renovated building (previously the Sons of Norway lodge), excitement about a new independent music spot on the east side, a healthy mix of local and touring acts, plus ambitious plans for food, drinks, and coffee service.
But pretty early on, the venue’s owners were also hearing concerns about the name. While a business has no power over the street name itself, it turned out that “Winnebago” is a bastardized, derogatory term for the Ho-Chunk people, translating roughly to “people of the filthy water.” Madison sits on lands stolen from the Ho-Chunk. In October 2019, all this blew up publicly as local bands, venue staff, and other local residents called out the venue. The owners issued an apology, pledging to announce a new name by January 1, 2020. They switched over its web presence to the placeholder name it’s been using since, “The Venue on Winnebago St.” Shortly after, the DeHavens laid off most of the venue’s kitchen and service staff.
Nibiiwakamigkwe, an artist and Madison resident of Métis, Onyota’a:ka, Anishinaabe, Cuban and waabishkiiwed (settler or white) heritage, was among the first people to to contact the DeHavens about issues with the initial name. Not long after the venue first opened, Nibiiwakamigkwe sent the venue’s Facebook account extensive messages about the history of the name and the broader history of Indigenous people in the area. They welcomed the name change, but remained wary.
“The name they chose was not theirs to take. It belongs to the Ho Chunk as a part of their history in this region and Nebraska. It’s connected to my people: Winnebago is a name in Anishinaabemowin. It was never theirs. I’m glad to see the name change; it’s a good start to understanding the cultural landscapes of Tee Jop (so-called Madison),” Nibiiwakamigkwe told me this week. “I’m still concerned that they took over a year since I originally contacted them to make the change and that they decided to announce their new name during a time when the attention needs to be on Black Liberation, police brutality against BIPOC, and greater societal change. There are other music venues I’ll be more comfortable frequenting as a Native and Latinx person.“
A few blocks away, Tone Madison‘s partner organization, Communication, had a brush with the “W” in November 2019. The east side all-ages venue had booked a show with a New York City band called Winnebago Vacation. The show was set up before the controversy over The Winnebago’s name became public, but announced a few weeks after. Communication’s booking team asked the touring band to change its name, and the touring band eventually just pulled out of the show. Tone Madison, Communication, and Half-Stack Sessions also held the opening-night show for 2019’s Infamous Local festival at The Winnebago in September 2019. After the problems with the venue’s name emerged, our three organizations did some research and decided to make a donation to Wunk Sheek, an organization that serves Indigenous members of the UW-Madison community.
The Venue on Winnebago St. kept hosting shows through the end of 2019 and brought on new music booker, Toffer Christensen, who runs his own promotions company, T Presents. A Madison native, Christensen also headed up Live Nation’s Madison operations for a brief period between 2017 and 2018. T Presents also at one point toyed with the idea of opening its own venue on East Washington Avenue, but developers chose instead to work with Frank Productions, eventually building The Sylvee. Around the time Live Nation bought a controlling interest in Frank Productions, Christensen left and focused again on his own company. T Presents has booked shows around the country and at several Madison venues, including the Barrymore, Monona Terrace, the Wisconsin Union Theater, and Liquid.
New Year’s Day came and went without a new name. In a February Capital Times story, Jake DeHaven said that renaming the business turned out to be more complicated than he had thought. In March, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down performing arts venues across the country. Christensen began canceling and rescheduling shows, as music bookers everywhere grappled with uncertainty. Finally, owners rolled out the name change Tuesday morning, in a Facebook post.
Christensen is ready to test the waters again, and the venue’s calendar for summer and fall is starting to fill out. Christensen will continue to head up booking while also working on other shows for T Presents. His brother, Andrew Christensen, is coming on as a manager, and Ashlee Miller will remain on staff, heading up private events. Corey Lockett, a former manager at the Majestic, is head bartender, and Will White will be working on facilities and maintenance. The DeHaven brothers will be less involved in the day-to-day operations, but still own the place.
Toffer Christensen says he also remains open to working with other promoters and local bookers on programming “As we know, the business is all relationship-based ….I’m not a control freak,” he says. “We still want to support local bands and we’ll do national bands.”
The venue has made some small changes inside, including adding a box office and more insulation. It will use a mobile app for safe food and drink ordering. The in-house kitchen and daytime coffee service probably aren’t coming back any time soon, but the Burr Oak will be bringing in some other food from local businesses, namely pizza from Fraboni’s, Babcock Hall ice cream, and tamales from El Sabor de Puebla.
For now the venue will be open Thursday through Saturday. That is a tough business proposition, especially at reduced capacity. Christensen thinks the ample space in the listening room and on the stage will help performers and patrons maintain safe distances and feel more comfortable going out again.