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Venue Visit: Frets and Friend’s cozy, vibrant vibes

Continuing to highlight local performance venues, this column’s second installment shines a spotlight on a mellow northeast Green Bay haunt

By Matty Day

Sweetalk performing onstage at Frets. Chris Rugowski photo

On University Avenue, nestled into a mile-long stretch of shops, restaurants, grocery stores and sports bars is a small grey building, utterly inconspicuous—if not for its brightly-colored front door.

For nearly a decade, Frets and Friends (2105 University Ave) has provided its distinctly stimulating mix of music, art and camaraderie to northeast Green Bay.

In separate conversations with co-owners Henry Gille (who also books the venue’s music) and Trevor Commons (who also co-owns Ned Kelly’s Pub on Washington Street and Amphora Wine Bar on Broadway), neither owner could summarize a single reason for what keeps Frets and Friends rolling.

Perhaps its formula lies in its name: a fanciful combination of talented musicianship and affable clientele.

The venue is colloquially referred to simply as Frets—as in the metal strips on a guitar’s neck. Even though “frets” is synonymous with worries, between its staff and customers, both Gille and Commons said Frets has a notably laid-back climate. 

“It’s an eclectic, diverse, fun atmosphere that feels ‘homey,’ if that’s a word,” Commons said.

Local music fans will recall the building’s past identity as IQ’s, which featured a particularly unreserved dance floor and attitude, positive traits that are alive and flourishing at Frets.

Perhaps the magic stems from the building itself. Frets’ capacity is a cozy 87. The on-stage action is visible from its U-shaped bar, even though the stage is just a step higher than the dance floor. The setup practically assures connection between patrons and musicians.

Gille said some of Frets’ musical highlights have come courtesy of bands Purgatory Hill, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, Soap and Burnt Toast and Jam.

Gille said he’s open to booking any genre of music, but Frets primarily hosts bluegrass, jam bands, rock and roll, Americana, country, blues and the occasional punk band.

Some nights at Frets feature a single band playing from 9:30 pm until the bar closes, splitting up their sets with a couple of short breaks. Other nights have multi-band bills.

Standard at Frets, though, is the lack of cover charge for its live music. This allows for patrons to pop in at will and check out bands they’ve never heard of, without having to pay, further fostering the venue’s carefree vibe.

This author can attest, from both on- and off-stage experience, that when the stars align at Frets and the music and crowd hit that sweet symbiosis, the aura nears bona fide transcendence. If there’s a commonality to the varied bands that play at Frets, it’s their high-end musicianship and ability to induce dancing—to real, live music, no less—with little-to-no pretense or self-consciousness.

Gille and Commons both said Frets’ Open Mic Night on Wednesdays at 9 pm is a significant piece of what makes the venue special. It’s hosted by singer-guitarist Augie Barnhart (of local bands the Liver Killers and Augie’s Blues Experiment) and backed up by singer-bassist Alex Kinstetter (of the Chocolateers) and drummer Tony Greene (recently of the Bar Tab Band).

Gille said the night is typically more of an Open Jam, in that patrons often sign up to sit in with the house band, though many solo performers and full bands take to the stage as well.

Musicians commonly hang out at Frets in general, Gille said. The talent and spontaneity on hand on a given night make for countless thrills, especially on Wednesdays per their unscripted nature, with host Barnhart embodying the best of Frets’ dynamism.

Gille said that like all music venues, Frets was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and is still working toward fully bouncing back. Many of the bands he’s historically booked would often play in Green Bay on their way to and from other Midwestern venues, many of which have yet to resume full operations which is “disrupting the whole flow.”

Commons and Gille both said how much they appreciate their regular crowd of not-so-regular free spirits.

“Being at Ned (Kelly)’s, I often get asked by out-of-towners, ‘Where do locals hang out?’” Commons said. “I always say Frets.”

Still, with walls adorned with concert posters and local art, it’s apparent Frets’ identity, energy and enduring magnetism emanate from its live music culture. 

Though Gille is confident Frets’ music calendar will continue to fill in, he said their Open Mic and loyal bar patrons have sustained the venue’s far-out vitality. One might say Frets has gotten by with a little help from its friends.

Musicians and music lovers alike can sample the ambiance any given Wednesday for Open Mic Night, or on Friday, Feb. 25 for Stalgic, The Sinner and The Saint, Tiny Voices and Radio for Pets.

Matty Day has been a gigging musician for 15 years, performing with Cory Chisel, Muddy Udders, the Foamers?, the Priggs, J-Council and more. You can reach Matty via email at [email protected], on Twitter @pollutedmindset or on his website matthewtday.com.

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