So long, Slim

Wisconsin Slim to give his final performance Friday

Posted: Thursday, July 02, 2009

The end of a music era will climax in the early hours of the Fourth of July as former Juneau one-man dance band Wisconsin Slim exits the stage for a final time.

Courtesy Of Gunther Jose Frank
Courtesy Of Gunther Jose Frank

Wisconsin Slim, the musical alter ego of Bellingham, Wash. resident Joel Bergsbaken that was spawned in Juneau 10 years ago, will play his final show beginning at 10 p.m. on Friday, July 3, at the Rendezvous.

"I wanted to end it in Juneau because that's where it started and that's where the crowds have been the most fun," he said. "I've really enjoyed playing up there."

After 10 years of playing his unique style of classic Delta Blues on a home-crafted mishmash of instruments, Bergsbaken has decided it's time to lay the Wisconsin Slim era to rest as he takes his musical interests in a new direction.

"Down South I'm involved in a few other bands and I had to put something to rest," he said.

The Wisconsin Slim sound came into being 10 years ago when Bergsbaken was playing some old country blues at a party with singer Collette Costa. Bergsbaken recalls Costa wanting to perform together at open mike at the Alaskan Hotel & Bar, but because it seemed people often ignored the performers there they opted to perform in the Concert in the Park series at Marine Park instead.

"People really liked it but they didn't dance," Bergsbaken said of that first public appearance. "For me this music is really dancing music but I think people hear slide blues and it's some sort of soul-searching endeavor rather than get down music."

Not long after that a friend gave him some kick pedals for drums and he began to experiment with the sound.

"I attached one to a garbage can and tried playing with that," he said. "I called Costa up and said you've got to hear this."

There was no way the boisterous Thursday night open mike crowd could ignore the booming sound of the trash can drum, so they decided to try it out at the Alaskan Hotel & Bar.

"As soon as the garbage can came in a bunch of people came out on the dance floor," Bergsbaken recalls. "I said, 'Oh, that's all we needed was some little domino to tip.' And than suddenly everybody was like 'Oh, this isn't sitting down and drowning your sorrows music, this is actually dance music.'"

From there the Wisconsin Slim sound took off and began to evolve. He became a well-known performer in the Juneau music circuit before moving to Washington in 2003. He has since returned to Juneau to perform about 10 times to packed audiences.

His musical menagerie now consists of a 1930s Dobro guitar amplified by a CB radio microphone, a harmonica, kick pedals with screwdrivers attached that pound out rhythm on metal garbage can and bucket drums, and an old telephone operator's headset from the 1930s that he uses to bellow out crackling country verses.

"It's old country blues, but it's kind of a mix between country blues, hip-hop DJing stuff and punk rock," he said. "These are all old songs from the 30s and the 40s, which is great because they are a lot of the same dance beats that you'll experience in a club now."

Bergsbaken said he uses his experience as a DJ to drop in and out the different instruments to add different musical dimensions to each song.

"I like mixing that element and keeping the same song fresh while people want to dance to it for a while," he said. "You can't just deliver it straight for six or eight minutes and expect people to keep dancing."

Bergsbaken said Friday's performance will be his last time on a Juneau stage for the foreseeable future as he pursues other musical endeavors in Bellingham.

"I'm definitely not hanging it up because it hasn't been fun," he said. "Part of it is hanging it up because it was fun and kind of ending it while it's still really good. I don't want to be, 'Oh, that guy again.' It would just be kind of nice to tie it off with a nice bow while it's still good and while I work on some other music down south with some other folks."

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