How does Pat McCurdy keep raking in the fans in Madison? McCurdy likes his status as a mini-cult hero
by Stephanie Kurtz
He just may be one of the most popular Midwest performers that almost nobody's heard of. In fact, college students from Madison and beyond flock to him in a sort of magnetic trance, having formed a mini-cult in his honor. They wear shirts with a caricature of him plastered on their back. They record his shows and sell bootlegs. They know every word to every one of his songs and they honor him by bringing shots of his favorite liquor to him on stage. Some say they have been coming to his shows for years, though they admit they don't remember how they first heard of him.
Pat McCurdy. Does the name ring a bell?
Maybe not, if it's been a while since you took your last college exam. But on a Tuesday night, he's one of Madison's sure bets for a good time. McCurdy, a Milwaukee performer who blurs the lines between musician and comedian, has watched his career evolve in Madison over the past 10 years. "Any local music seems to burn out really fast," McCurdy says over a sandwich before a recent Regent Street Retreat show. "But it hasn't happened to me yet." He performed at the Funy Business Comedy Club once a week for almost eight years before moving his show to the Regent Street Retreat, 1206 Regent St., two years ago.
McCurdy has been the frontman for three notable Milwaukee based bands: Yipes!, which reached moderate regional success in the early 1980s, The Men About Town and the Confidentials. He embraked on a solo career in 1987.
McCurdy's Tuesday shows at the Retreat begin at 9:30p.m., assuming he makes it there on time, and doesn't get sidetracked on the walk over from State Street where he usually eats dinner and shops for CDs beforehand. "The walk helps me clear my mind," he says.
When he finally does arrive, the Regent is already buzzing with fans. While they might have shied from the front of the room in lecture halls just house before, at the Retreat they position themselves as close to the stage as possible. Sometimes, like bookends, they sit on the sides mimicking McCurdy's every move.
For the $4 admission to his show, McCurdy fans are treated to various pop culture references from Pokemon to a streaker at a Badger football game. McCurdy gets his fans to sing along, even if they thought they never could, to silly ditties such as "Groovy Thing."
He takes them back in time with a compilation of songs from the '70s and '80s. He even flips his untamed ponytail and gives fans a hug when they are brave enough - or drunk enough - to set foot on stage and dance along. But becuse of the energy and insider appeal, his shows can be intimidating for those who haven't experienced them before. McCurdy admits that newcomers may feel like outsiders at first. But it doesn't take long to grasp his catchy lyrics. And once you get it - he's got you.
Audience members, heavily weighted by 20-something males, memorize the lyrics word for word, sometimes better than McCurdy himself. It's as if they are relishing the fact that they have been let in on a little secret.
Despite McCurdy's popularity among the college-age crowd, and his longevity in Madison, there has been little press about him locally and he doesn't advertise.
So where do these herds of McCurdy followers come from and how do they hear about him? "Hopefully, word of mouth works," McCurdy reasons. The weekly attendance at his Regent Street Retreat shows is testimony that it does.
"His shows attract a minimum of 150 people and at some shows there are up to 400 people," says Steve Horn, entertainment coordinator at the Regent Street Retreat. "He's helped business quite a bit."
People are either hooked or disgusted as he strums his guitar to tunes that range from wacky to crude. Love him or hate him, people stick with him to see what he'll do next. Sometimes his silliness overshadows his talent. McCurdy really can play guitar and he is a clever songwriter. He has opened for bands, including REM, the B-52s, the Beach Boys, Foreigner and the Kinks. His musical influences range from Bruce Springsteen to the Beatles and Elvis Costello. For his efforts, McCurdy was awarded a 1998 Wisconsin Area Music Industry Award for Stage Entertainer of the Year.
He performs daily - often twice a day - at Milwaukee's Summerfest. And being a University of Wisconsin-Madison alum "with a communcations arts degree about a hundred years ago," McCurdy says he likes to make regular appearances at the Memorial Union Terrace. His CD, "Pat In Person" was recorded live on the Terrace.
McCurdy, who prefers to call himself "timeless" rather than give his age, says his act is still developing after an 11-year solo career. Traveling is a major part of McCurdy's daily routine and is one of his main muses. Song come to him when he is reading, watching TV in a hotel room, and especially when he is driving. And he spends a lot of time behind the wheel.
He and his accomplice, a man who goes by the name of Pipe Jim, take turns at the wheel of their Ford van. Pipe Jim also helps McCurdy on stage by flashing the lights, checking the sound and supplying piped-in music when McCurdy decides to take a time out on stage to contemplate the crowd. Besides Madison and Milwaukee, McCurdy regularly performs in Chicago, Green Bay, La Crosse and Minneapolis. Previously he traveled on college tours, playing everywhere from Alaska to Florida.
"It makes you appreciate Madison so much beacuse I must have played 200 to 300 colleges and none of them can hold a candle to here," McCurdy says. His hectic schedule can mean two shows a day and 350 shows a year, but McCurdy says he never loses his energy or motivation.
In fact, he hopes to add two CDs to his growing resume within the next year (he already has seven CDs). He intends one album to be guitar-pop and the other to be "goofy, funny songs."
His newest fascination is the current Top 40, which was evidenced by a recent performace that incorporated imitations of the Backstreet Boys, Hanson, 98 Degrees and other 90s boy bands.
McCurdy says he plans the first five or six songs of the night, but the rest of the show is mostly improvisation He takes requets. He socializes with the audience. Before long, the room can start to feel like "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" with fans fluttering in synchronization with preestablished dance moves and repeating lines from past shows. By the end of the night, few escape his hilarious sarcasm.
One show ends with the fan favorite "Sex and Beer." The audience is on it's feet. Many fans attempt to hold themselves up without stumbling. They stop dancing on stage at McCurdy's request for a group hug.
Music just doesn't get much more communal than that.