House music – Isthmus | Madison, Wisconsin

Kiki Schueler, the reigning maestro of Madison house concerts, will mark her 400th show on July 21 with the Louisiana-steeped Kevin Gordon. He’s the sort of rootsy singer-songwriter (and published poet) she’s championed for the past 19 years at what she proudly calls Kiki’s House of Righteous Music. (KHoRM to her fans.)

You might guess that someone with her music sensibility was based in Austin or Brooklyn or Atlanta, but, no, Schueler, 58, comes from Tomah in central Wisconsin and lives in a modest tucked-away home on the east side from where she bikes 11 miles back and forth down busy East Washington Avenue for her day job at a UW-Madison biochemistry lab.

“It always takes one crazy person to make things happen in the arts,” observes Dane County’s arts administrator Mark Fraire. People like Schueler survey the field, sense something important is missing, and doggedly make it happen.

She’s not alone riding the DIY road in Madison. Anne Katz and David Wallner have sponsored “Our House” folk concerts for 13 years. Tom Ferrella and Dave Stone, tapping into the Chicago and beyond scene, have launched a wildly successful avant-garde jazz series. Their BlueStem nonprofit has hosted more than 400 shows at music clubs in Madison.

As for Schueler, well, she has the famous basement stage. Tricked out with vintage band posters she’s either liberated or been gifted, the room is warm, intimate and blessed with a fine soundboard. Musicians love it.

They keep the door. All of it. Tickets run from $10 to $30. Admission is capped at 50, including 10 SRO spaces. Pre-show, Schueler cooks for the band. (Her specialty is tofu or chicken served with a spicy peanut sauce.) Post-show, the musicians are welcome to spend the night. “Sometimes they drink all my beer, but that’s why it’s there,” she says.

When I reach Jon Langford, a lifer rocker who achieved borderline fame with The Mekons in the late 1970s, he is in New York prepping for a gig at The Bitter End. At first he was skeptical about house concerts, he admits. “Just the idea to be in someone’s house with a kind of captive audience seemed terrifying until we actually did it,” he says. It turns out to make perfect sense. But it takes someone totally unique like Schueler to open up their home like that.

“It’s a really generous act to say: ‘Come in to my house!’ It’s very trusting. It creates a totally different atmosphere compared to a commercial rock club or a festival. I’ve come to really love it.” 

Madison-based singer-songwriter Josh Harty simply says, “Musicians want to play at Kiki’s because it’s everything a venue is supposed to be: It’s run by someone who loves music and who wants to share that love with her audience.”

Robbie Fulks, an ever-droll country artist who, like Langford, is a KHoRM favorite, wins the gold ribbon for best metaphor explaining why music fanatics love house concerts: “It’s like buying your fruit from a roadside stand instead of Whole Foods,” he said. “The experience is small scale and personal. It’s real locavore.”

O’Cayz Corral, Cathy Dethmers’ legendary punk club on Wilson Street, played a critical role in shaping Schueler’s musical aesthetic. Schueler grew up listening to stadium rockers. (Foreigner was her first big show in La Crosse.) Even when she worked in music-rich Texas at a research lab, she was drawn to the amphitheaters to see Eric Clapton and Paul Simon.

When Schueler moved back to Wisconsin in 1994 to be closer to her family (she has six siblings), it was O’Cayz that pulled her into the world of smaller, intense club performances. Three days before the club burned to the ground on Jan. 1, 2001, she saw a knock-out Calexico show there. 

She launched KHoRM in 2005 with a show featuring Tim Easton, a prototypical under-appreciated singer-songwriter. She learned the concert ropes through experience. It took her two years to present her second show.

For sure, Schueler does things her way. She books only music she likes. She won’t book a band she’s never heard. (“I learned that lesson the hard way.”) She rarely works with other promoters save for annually curating a night at The Sessions at McPike Park for Bob Queen. This year it’s Aug. 9 and features The Great Lake Swimmers, Rosie Flores and Josh Harty.

She is very much a live music monster.

Schueler speaks highly of the shows at the North Street Cabaret, The Bur Oak, the Stoughton Opera House and the emerging Mineral Point Opera House. She thinks nothing of going to Milwaukee for tunes (she loved the recent Joe Jackson show at The Pabst) and especially to Chicago for shows at Schubas Tavern, Thalia Hall and The Hideout.

Langford calls Schueler “the ultimate enthusiast.” He tells the story of performing in an outlaw country cruise in the Caribbean. “I was walking on the deck, and — gasp — there was Kiki. She’s full of surprises. She always turns up. I’ll be at a gig in Chicago, and she’ll come up and poke me in the ribs.”

I can report my own unexpected sighting: At Café Carpe in Fort Atkinson for a rare show by the great pat mAcdonald. Schueler was taking it all in with the biggest of smiles. As if life and music couldn’t get any better.

As for the 400th performance, Schueler wants it known: “There will be cake! That’s the one thing I do with the century shows.” The more serious question is what the future holds? She says she has no plans to retire anytime soon.

When I wrapped up a second interview, I asked a throw-away question: Why hadn’t she recorded the shows? Well, hey, I got that wrong! She has from the very beginning with the musicians’ approval. That spun my head, because it’s a helluva archive, and it hasn’t reached the web yet.

What is she going to do with the video? “I don’t know yet,” she says. “I always tell people it’s for the documentary. But it’s not like there’s one in the works.” Not yet at least. 

The Kevin Gordon Trio plays at 6 p.m. on July 21 at Kiki’s, 1326 MacArthur Road. Doors open at 5 p.m. The suggested donation is $20. Make a reservation at Note it’s BYOB.

Kiki’s Top-10 performers by number of appearances, 1995-2024

Jon Langford: 26

Jon Dee Graham: 25

Robbie Fulks: 25

The Bottle Rockets: 11

Walter Salas-Humara/

The Silos: 9

Will Johnson: 8

Micah Schnabel: 8

The Flat Five: 7

Anders Parker: 7

Gurf Morlix: 6

For a Q&A with Schueler click here

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