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Miles Nielsen on his own road

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There are rock n' roll gigs like the Hollywood Bowl and "Live at Budokan."
Then there's the homespun itinerary of Miles Nielsen, son of Cheap Trick guitarist-vocalist Rick Nielsen. He plays an ethereal mix of pop and folk-rock that travels well.

On Christmas night Nielsen and The Rusted Hearts headline Mary's Place in downtown Rockford, Ill. Last weekend they were at the The Lift in Dubuque, Ia.
New Year's Eve? Nielsen is at Cranky Pat's Pizzeria and Pub in Neenah, Wis., near Appleton. That's a long shot from Dick Clark's Big Apple New Year's Eve.

Miles Nielsen and The Rusted Hearts in Blasthouse Studio A, Madison, Wis. (Photo by John Adams)

"I love secondary markets," Nielsen said earlier this month before a show at the Lodge at Four Lakes in west suburban Lisle (pop. 22,000). "Sometimes they're a little hungrier. We do Wausau, Wisconsin. Neenah. People hang with you all night. And because there's not 17 music venues in the city, you're it for live music. You just hope you play stuff they're into. I love those towns............"

.......Nielsen, 35, has broken into the Chicago market as an opening act at Schuba's and Lincoln Hall.
"Chicago's tricky," he said. "There's so much going on. On at any given night there's five shows I want to see. Chicago's not 'show up ten times and play; you're going to have a following.' You have to work at it. What are you doing to stand out? I'm hoping its our live show and our songs. You have one night--you have to prove it. And when people come out they left being a part of the experience, which is a big thing for me.
"When you don't have a connection with your fans you're missing out."

Do the backroads of Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa define Miles Nielsen and The Rusted Hearts as a Midwest region rock band? The economical power pop of Cheap Trick, the Bo Deans and the radio hits of John Mellencamp have an unmistakable heartland flair.
The open-aired pop music on Neilsen's 2009 debut "Miles" is the same way.

"The Festival" is my favorite track.

"I think we have an international sound," he said. "That's not arrogance, but we've been playing our instruments and writing songs for a long time. If we're not good enough to appeal to people in Europe or South America, we're not good enough to play here. We take our live show seriously. We're not going to cheat our fans."

Live music and radio airplay is more of a struggle than when Cheap Trick was scaling the charts in 1977 with "So Good To See You" and "I Want You To Want Me."

Nielsen said, "Back then you could play seven nights a week. Live music was a real entity. Not every club had a DJ and Touch Tunes. Cheap Trick, those guys were touring six, seven days a week all over the midwest. They were making bank. They had a full crew, full P.A., before they got signed to Epic. For us, you're looking at Thursday, Friday, Saturday if you want to stay in the Midwest. Maybe some Wednesdays."

In a separate interview on Dec. 22 (his 62nd birthday) his father Rick Nielsen said, "We played all those small towns, too. I don't know what he makes or what other bands make. I know in L.A. you have to pay to play a lot of places. We never did that.
"We didn't get paid that much, but I remember one Christmas through New Year's we were in Jackson, Mississippi and played a place called The City Dump for six nights. We'd drive all over the country to play and that's where we got our chops down. Some bands today have 'The Sophomore Jinx.' We broke the jinx on every record. We never ran out of stuff after the first record because we were playing four sets a night. But Miles is working all the time.
"To me, he's a working class hero."

Last July Miles Nielsen headlined the underrated Kickapoo County Fair, the Midwest's largest organic food and sustanibility festival in La Farge, Wis., west of Madison. The annual festival is in the hills of the Kickapoo Valley in the beautiful Driftless region of Wisconsin. "It was great," he said. "Good food and great drinks. Someone there liked my music. I went back to do some writing since I like the area so much."

Here's Miles and "The Crown."

Midwest life does inspire Nielsen as a songwriter. "There's something about winter that wears on you," he said. "Songs tend to come out when you're feeling low and need some time. You huddle up by the fireplace and start writing. For me, writing just happens. The last song I wrote I was out on a porch in Viroqua, Wisconsin (in the Driftless region) having a drink. This cat was wandering through my legs. I'm not a cat guy and I started writing 'Dear Kitty, why do you want me?' It turned into a song called 'Kentucky' that I'm going to put on my next record (due out in April, 2011)."

His musical tastes are all over the map. Nielsen likes the one-hit pop wonder of the New Radicals "You Get What You Give." "Every time I hear that song it gets me," he said. "There's some Phil Collins I like. Strip away the '80s production, which I'm not a fan of , and there's some good songs in there. Currently I like Gary Louris from the Jayhawks and Cameron McGill and Joe Pug from Chicago. (the city, not the band.)"

Having been born and raised in Rockford, Nielsen was a fan of the Rockford Lightning who played between 1986 and 2006 in the old Continental Basketball Association. Their home base was the downtown Metro Centre.
"I used to go when (former Bull) Stacey King was the coach," he said. "We don't have the team anymore. We're reinventing the wheel in Rockford. The industries that supplied us with 80 percent of the jobs are gone.


"Chrysler is the only thing and that's in Belvidere. Thankfully they're back in production. They're expanding and that will create more jobs." Chrysler Group is spending $600 million in Belvidere while adapting Fiat's World Class Manufacturing System. The plant employs about 2,300 workers and will roll out a new compact car in late 2011.
Nielsen said, "We're lucky. It was looking like Chrysler was going to go away too. We were the highest unemployment rate in the whole state, 23 percent."

Conversely, Nielsen has great business acumen. During the course of our interview process he promptly returned e-mails and offered thoughtful answers to questions--including those tiresome inquiries about his father.

"If someone is taking the time to write me and be interested in what I'm doing, I'm interested in what they are doing," he said. "Its a mutual thing. Staying on top of it will put you ahead of the next guy. Its professional. Its my job. The whole rock-star thing of showing up two hours late and all that is a model that isn't really working anymore."

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.


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This page contains a single entry by David Hoekstra published on December 21, 2010 2:43 PM.

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