A.V. Club Milwaukee – Stephen Foster Event

beautiful dreamer

“Beautiful Dreamer” explores the waking life and music of Stephen Foster

by Joshua Miller
January 30, 2013

When Stephen Foster set out to make a living solely as a musician in the 1800s, no one had yet done it successfully. Even in the grips of rough living conditions and alcoholism—which ultimately lead to Foster’s death at 37—he remained steadfast in writing songs true to himself and what he saw going on around him. Songs like “Oh! Susannah,” “Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and “Hard Times Come Again No More” set the foundation of American popular music.

“You can’t really be a songwriter curious about the craft and not run into Foster’s work. It’s inevitable. He’s the American archetype,” Field Report’s Christopher Porterfield says. Porterfield is one of the performers playing at “Beautiful Dreamer: The Foster Project” at the Pitman Theatre this Saturday, February 2.

With Juniper Tar serving as house band, “The Foster Project” also features performances from Jon Langford (MekonsWaco Brothers), Robbie Fulks, Blueprint (Rhymesayers), Betty Blexrud-Strigens (Testa Rosa), and many others.

For Ryan Schleicher, bass player for Juniper Tar, the initial idea to do a show examining Foster’s life and music came up while talking to Alverno Presents director David Ravel. “David and I spend a fair amount of time together over drinks discussing art and music, particularly how people experience art and music, and how collective experience informs art and music. At some point, this led David, and by transference, me, to Foster,” Schleicher says. “Foster is really the first American musician whose musical input and output—what went into the songs and how those songs were experienced—we can dissect.”

While Juniper Tar’s residency at Hotel Foster last year sparked Schleicher’s interest in backing other performers, this event takes it a step further: examining someone else’s life work. With so many ways to dissect Foster’s life, Schleicher says there are “no parallels but every parallel” when connecting the dots to today’s independent music scene. “What most appealed to me is that there are so many different ways to examine Foster’s music and his life,” Schleicher says. “You can talk about common culture, race, generational influence, beginnings, endings, rock-star life, and rock-star death. Foster represents a lot.”

Juniper Tar and the guest musicians will seek to interpret, re-imagine, and examine the richly adventurous and complex legacy of Foster. Porterfield says he gained more appreciation for Foster after he joined the project. “I found a song of his that he published under a different name that resonated with me lyrically. I also wrote one about a desperate period toward the end of Foster’s life,” Porterfield says.

“I had been familiar with some of his songs for years, but this project made me sit down and absorb a lot of his work and life, and put it into context with his times,” Porterfield continues. “He was really trying to do huge culture shifting through his art. He treated the characters in his songs with dignity, and there was a hopeful, redemptive undercurrent through a lot of it that I think he needed to say to get himself to believe, as he lived a tragic life.”

This adventurous curiosity was one thing Schleicher looked for in guest musicians. “All the artists involved have a long history of being intellectually curious and extremely thoughtful in how they present music,” Schleicher says. “Well, that and the fact that I really respect and like their music.”

With so many unique voices contributing, there was no one method taken in examining Foster. “For the songs that Juniper Tar is tackling without any input from the guest musicians, me and [bandmates] Aaron [Schleicher] and Chris [DeMay] each tackled a song or two and brought them to the band with our individual vision. That’s really important to this show,” Schleicher says.

“It is by no means about what I think you should think about Foster. It’s about how a varying group of people interpret and/or respond to Foster. I relayed to everyone a few concepts that I found fascinating, but I also made sure to relay that my concepts are just that: my concepts. If anyone else had another idea, all the better.”