MSO Pops opens with Under the Streetlamp

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2017.18 Season, Guest Artist, Pops

A quartet of Gen Xers singing the soundtrack of baby boomers’ lives for an audience that spans four generations. It’s not a simple formula for success, but it has worked for Under the Streetlamp.

The close-harmony group, along with their seven-piece band, will perform this weekend in a pops concert with the Milwaukee Symphony at Uihlein Hall. The foursome, which grew out of off-night gigs for the Chicago cast of the musical Jersey Boys in the late ’00s, specializes in the “radio songbook” of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, but “we get three or four generations of people coming to see the show, and that’s really incredible,” said member Shonn Wiley.

“Three PBS specials later, we’re now playing with the Milwaukee Symphony, which is pretty awesome,” Wiley said. “Being the guest of a world-class symphony is a great experience. You get to hear the strings, and it just fills the music out.”

“It’s a different and unique experience to have a 60-piece orchestra behind you,” said singer Brandon Wardell. “It adds a complexity and sophistication to the music that’s already there. It makes it sophisticated and intricate in the way a symphony can be, but it’s also accessible.”

The name of the group (which also includes Eric Gutman and Christopher Kale Jones) comes from a line in Jersey Boys, evoking the era when music-making might happen on a summer night in a city neighborhood “in the humblest of spotlights,” Wiley said.

The group’s playlist harkens back to the era when radio stations played a much wider variety of music, from country to R&B to hard rock. “It was a collision of cultures,” Wiley said, “and the only place you could find it was on the radio. It was a gathering spot that doesn’t exist anymore.”

“We pick songs that we can add our own sound to,” Wardell said. “We don’t do straight rips of anything.” Frequently, the singers listen to every recorded version of a song and try to incorporate multiple elements that they like. Their music director and bass player, Pat Williams, will then put together a chart for the band. “It’s a retro-cool thing now to actually play instruments,” Wardell said, instead of relying on electronic sampling.

The foursome lacks a true bass singer, but “baritone is about as low as we really need,” Wardell said. “We can all sing high. I’m the soprano, probably.” It’s not a joke; he has sung women’s vocal parts in the choruses of Broadway musicals. “I wanted to be a tenor, because that’s the lead guy,” he continued, “but that requires a baritone-tenor, not someone who’s super high.” But over the years, he found music directors “who said, ‘Your special skill is really interesting, so let’s use it.’ That pushed me into what I’m doing with this band.”

Wiley, whose background is split between singing and dance, serves as the group’s choreographer. Similar to the musical arrangements, he looks for movement that is rooted in the period of the original but adds something new. “The movement is there to support the music,” he said. “We don’t want to distract from that.”

Under the Streetlamp began with the music of the baby boomer era, but they will not necessarily stay there. As demographics shift, Wiley is talking about adding artists of the 1980s such as Billy Joel, Huey Lewis, or Cyndi Lauper.

“We want to grow and find new directions,” Wardell added. “There are hundreds of fantastic songs, and we play 20 or 25 a night. But we’ll always make sure our core audience hears ‘Blue Moon.’”

The foursome all grew up hearing the music of the period from their parents, and it served as a bond. Now, “it means a lot that we have that kind of power to bring families together,” Wiley said. “It’s their lives, and this music is so powerful. We’re grateful we have that opportunity.”