Meet Big Ben and the Brians

Published 9:25 am Thursday, June 19, 2008

Big Ben and the Brians kicked off this summer’s Music in the Park Sunday series at Edgewater Park, continuing a half-century long tradition.

Big Ben is Ben Stuart, who sings and plays tuba and guitar, and the Brians are concertina player Brian Klouse and drummer Brian Raichle.

Big Ben and the Brians’ performance on Sunday was originally the second scheduled of the 10 Music in the Park concerts for 2008 but it became the debut for this summer’s series after the June 8 concert was canceled because of rain.

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Weather was not an issue this past Sunday, as a beautiful day brought many to Edgewater Park for Music in the Park, picnics, graduation open houses and birthday parties.

“People come out and enjoy it,” Stuart said. “It gives the local musicians a chance to showcase their stuff and the people something to listen to on a Sunday afternoon.”

This was the first Music in the Park for Big Ben and the Brians, but the concert series is a 56-year-old tradition of the American Federation of Musicians Local 567. While Big Ben and the Brians have played together for about a year, Stuart has been a part of Music in the Park for about 25 years as part of a number of different bands and is on the board of the local American Federation of Musicians.

Big Ben and the Brians are one of four bands of the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, but that number will drop to three for next year’s Music in the Park after The Memories retire.

The Local 567 includes the area from Mankato to La Crosse and from just north of Faribault into northern Iowa, but it used to account for just Albert Lea. Stuart said Big Ben and the Brians perform mostly in this area, bringing their old-time style of country, polka and a little bit of rock ’n’ roll to parks, dances, parades and other various venues.

“We just have fun doing it,” Stuart said. “We play all over and have a good time. … We’ll have some people dancing, probably on the front of the stage. Usually when we play the people dance, and that makes it easier. … If you’re playing, it’s better to see people are out there having a good time.”

Stuart did say that Music in the Park was more of a concert than a dance, but by the second song, there were up to three couples at a time two-stepping and waltzing across the stage, while many others were content to simply enjoy the music in their lawn chairs with tapping toes.

“With this particular setup we have we’ve played for everyone from 3 to 90, and we try to have a little bit of something for everybody,” Stuart said. “We don’t play a lot of old rock ’n’ roll, but we play a couple of tunes. We try to keep everything upbeat and play a little higher energy. Even some of the old two steps, we bring those up a notch, which makes them a little more interesting and hopefully everyone can dance to it.”

“That’s a lot of the problem with our kind of a music is a lot of the younger people don’t know how to dance to it. They don’t know how to do a waltz or polka.”

Stuart said at some of the dances the younger people in the audience will try learning these dances, and often older audience members will try to teach them.

“You get somebody (dancing) back and forth, joking and laughing and what not, it brings everybody up. It gives you a little more energy, a little better oomph to play,” Stuart said.

That energy and oomph did not come overnight, as Stuart said it takes nearly eight months of preparation to plan Music in the Park. While scheduling is the biggest challenge with the yearly event, there are a number of other concerts for local American Federation of Musicians bands.

According to Stuart, the union of musicians used to be more powerful and is now a group of like-minded, musical people. He said there are a number of union musicians but many don’t play as often because they live further away or have other commitments.

“We still get good crowds,” Stuart said. “The number of musicians has dropped drastically. In the whole area, the number of musicians has dropped. There used to be bands coming out of the woodwork.”

Stuart said part of the reason for this is economics and another is the number of places to play.

“It used to be that three places on each block had live music,” Stuart said. “Now there aren’t places on every block and most of those are going to have karaoke or a DJ and something. Part of that is because there aren’t musicians, so it’s kind of a two-edged sword.”

Another issue such bands face is the age of a significant portion of the audience for their kind of music.

“Our target audience may not be around for many more cycles, and we’re trying to get younger people to enjoy it. It’s all we can do,” Stuart said.

But the changes throughout the years have not stopped Stuart and bands like Big Ben and the Brians from sharing the experiences with the audience.

“They’re having a good time, we’re having a good time: It’s all good memories,” Stuart said.

After a show, “I don’t want them to think ‘well, thank God,’” Stuart said of what he wants the audience to leave their shows thinking. “We want them to leave happy. We try to be upbeat and play what they want to hear, maybe crack a joke here and there. We want them to be happy and want to come back — have an enjoyable experience.”

Big Ben and the Brians play again at Music in the Park on July 27 and Aug. 10. Full House, rained out on June 8, will play June 22. The Blue Banners play June 29 and July 20. The Memories play their last Music in the Park shows on July 13, Aug. 3 and Aug. 17.