Many of the 800 bands playing Summerfest 2014 have been booked for months.
But Doozey,Eagle Trace and Marie Wise-Hawkins just found out they were playing the Milwaukee music festival a couple weeks ago.
That’s when the three acts — Doozey and Eagle Trace from Wisconsin, and Wise-Hawkins from California — were selected as the three finalists for the third annual Land the Big Gig competition.
The nationwide talent search, co-sponsored by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Tap Milwaukee website, as well as Summerfest, Robert Haack Diamonds,Noah’s Ark and K-Nation Entertainment, or KNE, invited bands and singer-songwriters around the country to submit video auditions, and the general public to vote for their favorite acts.
The three finalists will perform at the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard on Thursday in front of a panel of judges including former Milwaukee residents and “American Idol” finalists Danny Gokey and Naima Adedapo; Summerfest Vice President of Entertainment Bob Babisch and Dave Willems, president and founder of Willems Marketing in Appleton and co-founder of Appleton’s Mile of Music festival with singer-songwriter Cory Chisel. Gokey will also host Thursday’s finals.
The bands are competing for a $20,000 grand prize, a $5,000 second-place prize and a third-place $2,5000 prize. All three acts will win recording time and songwriting and mentoring resources from KNE, a chance to be featured on the KNE New Music Stage Compilation CD, and a bonus 30-minute slot on the KNE New Music Stage on Friday.
“This is major for our career,” Wise-Hawkins said. And that’s a sentiment shared by all three finalists.
The third time was the charm for Doozey.
The Appleton pop-rock band has entered the Land the Big Gig competition since year one in 2012.
“The previous years we made the top 10, which gave us hope, and it was kind of disappointing when we heard three other bands made it,” said bassist Ryan Patterson, 22.
But this year, Doozey is one of those three bands.
“When I talked to my mom, she called me at work and I couldn’t understand her. She was screaming and crying the whole time,” said frontman and rhythm guitarist Andy Van Dusen, 23.
So how did Doozey make the cut after two previous failed attempts? Patterson credits the band’s unofficial marketing manager.
“We got my grandma involved,” Patterson said in all seriousness. “She told a lot of people (to vote) and told a lot of family members, and it branched off from that.”
But to Doozey’s credit, the fan base and accolades have grown since the band of three Culver’s employees (and Van Dusen’s school friend Michael Moede, 23, on lead guitar) started up in October 2010, inspired by bands like Weezer, blink-182 and Motion City Soundtrack.
“We all share the same dream of wanting this, and the chemistry among all the bandmates, I never experienced with any other band,” Patterson said.
They started off as a cover band, but Van Dusen kept writing more and more originals — enough for the band’s debut album “Almost Magic.” Released last year, it was nominated for best pop-rock album by the Wisconsin Area Music Industry association’s awards this year.
“To have something that started out in my head to becoming something where I’m plucking strings on my guitar, to end up being something that people recognized and liked, we’re all blown away by that,” Van Dusen said.
The guys in the New Berlin band Eagle Trace have gone to Summerfest for all 11 days for about the past six years.
“We’ve seen so many bands play, and we were always like, ‘One day, we want to play a stage,'” said bassist Jackson Borgardt, 18.
That day happens Thursday, when the alternative rock band competes in Land the Big Gig.
An actual band of brothers, the Borgardts were inspired by acts like Arctic Monkeys, Kings of Leon, Foo Fighters and Oasis.
They were also inspired closer to home. They got their talent from their father, who used to play in a Christian rock band, Jackson Borgardt said, and some of their musical tastes from their mom, who worked in radio for over 25 years. Mom’s brother Mike Stefaniak also was an inspiration; he’s better known in the Milwaukee scene as Mike Benign from the power-pop band the Mike Benign Compulsion.
Finally about five years ago, oldest brother Max, 25, started playing guitar.
“My senior year of high school, I decided to pick up an instrument, and I figured Max was already playing guitar, so it made sense to play bass,” Jackson Borgardt said. “Cass (18) a month or two later wanted to play too, so he picked up the drums.”
Eagle Trace, named after the street they grew up on, became a band in 2011, with Broderick Coning, a student of the Borgardts’ music teacher, on guitar. But they had no lyrics and no singer.
“We looked for a few months, put ads up at Cascio and guitar stores around town, and when we booked a gig, my brother Mitch was like, ‘I’ll give it a try,'” Jackson Borgardt said. “We knew he was a fantastic writer — he was going to go to school for film writing — and his lyrics were spot on, but we had never heard him sing before, not in choir or anything. But it just clicked.”
From there, Mitch scrapped his plans to go to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and stayed with the band. Eagle Trace released two EPs in 2012 and played a couple of local festivals and the House of Blues in Chicago last August.
“To be honest, if it weren’t for music, we would probably all head in separate directions,” Mitch Borgardt, 21, said. “It has been our common ground that sort of brought us all back together.”
Los Angeles’ Marie Wise-Hawkins might have the upper hand on the Land the Big Gig competition: She has a Big Gig veteran in her corner.
One of her guitarists, Chris Pucher, also Wise-Hawkins’ co-worker at an L.A. Guitar Center, played with Land the Big Gig finalist Flavia and the Red in 2012. He’s the one who told Wise-Hawkins, 25, to enter the competition this year, after forming her band about a year ago.
The great-granddaughter of an opera singer, Wise-Hawkins, 25, has “been singing ever since I was a little girl. I grew up on country music: Dwight Yoakam, Martina McBride, I grew up on Elvis.”
She even played country legend Patsy Cline in a production of “Always…Patsy Cline” at the Canyon Theatre Guild in Newhall, Calif.
A songwriter since she was 15, Wise-Hawkins says her work with her band is “a fusion between classic and contemporary country music.” The band released its first single, “All I Need,” in February.
“If we were to win the grand prize, it would allow us to record more and tour more,” Wise-Hawkins said. “We had no idea we’d be in the top three. It’s a blessing in itself for sure.”
IF YOU GO
What: Land the Big Gig finals
When: 5 p.m. Thursday
Where: Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard
Tickets: $11 noon to 4 p.m. weekdays; $18 after 4 p.m. & on weekends (ages 11 & older), $6 seniors 60 & older & children 3 to 10 (all times)
A LOOK AT LAST YEAR’S WINNERS
? Grand prize winner Hydra Melody, the hyperkinetic, Tex Mex-flavored alternative rock band from San Antonio, Texas, spent its winnings on a two-week tour with alt-rock band Third Eye Blind last fall. It signed a publishing deal last summer and is recording its debut album in July, with a tentative November release, said frontman Jordan Berlanga.
?After seven years, Nashville country bandthe August, last year’s second-place winner, is on a hiatus, said frontwoman Jacky Dustin. “Three of the four of us are getting married in the coming months, and real jobs have gotten in the way,” Dustin said. Bassist and songwriter Wojtek Krupka has also been touring with another project, Los Colognes. But the August still has its winnings in the bank, which it hopes to use to fund a record.
? Last year’s third-place Big Gig winner, Milwaukee rock bandIndependent Idols, will be back at Summerfest, showing off its pop-leaning, danceable new material, at the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage at 12:30 p.m. July 3. The band recently started recording a new EP and used its winnings to pay off some bills and upgrade some equipment. “Morale went through the roof for sure,” frontman Ryan Charles said. “That was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had, to walk out on that stage and see hundreds of people in front of you.”