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Sipping On Whiskey Ditch

Ever heard of a whiskey ditch? 

According to musician Simon Hedeen, the term comes from Montana. There, early pioneers made rye whiskey, which they would serve up with a scoop of slushy snow from the nearest ditch.

This mixture was the drink of choice of one of Hedeen’s friends – aptly nicknamed “Montana” – and later, the namesake of Hedeen’s band. Whiskey Ditch picked its moniker under pressure from an entertainment magazine that needed a way to refer to them.

It was a decision the group didn’t take too seriously.

“We thought, ‘No way is this band going to last,’” Hedeen said with a laugh.

But last they did. Since forming in 2010, Whiskey Ditch (in varying iterations) has been playing danceable rock covers from Johnny Cash to Blink-182, mostly in the vicinity of its Green Bay home-base. The current rendition of the band features Bill Bilsky on drums, Todd Nault on lead guitar, Hedeen on rhythm guitar, Greg Muller on keyboard and Ryan Manthei on bass; the latter three members also provide vocals.

Judging by the band’s sound, you wouldn’t be able to tell its original members began playing music later in life (by musician standards – they were all in their late 20s or early 30s when they learned their first few songs together.) Hedeen, for one, taught himself guitar because he could see himself doing so in retirement, and thought he might as well get a head start.

“Why do I need to wait another 30-plus years to pick up a guitar when I can try right now?” Hedeen recalled thinking. “I might be halfway decent at it by the time I get to retirement.”

Another factor behind his decision was a Door County band, Mullet Hunters. Seeing how much fun the band had during shows – and becoming friends with the members over the years – propelled Hedeen towards performing.

A St. Paddy’s Set

Whiskey Ditch will rock alongside The Paul Hanna Band during the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration at Kitty O’Reilly’s Irish Pub on March 16.

This double-feature show, which Whiskey Ditch started playing around 2015, has become a St. Paddy’s tradition at Kitty’s. The crowd has gotten bigger and bigger every year since Whiskey Ditch started playing Kitty’s St. Patrick’s celebrations, Hedeen said. This year, the bands will play in a tent on the side of the building to give themselves and the audience more breathing room than they had at previous shows.

During the extended performance, two bands take turns onstage, transitioning between their sets seamlessly, Hedeen said. At the end of every hour-long set, Whiskey Ditch will start its last song, and when it’s about halfway through, the other band will join them and start playing along. Then Whiskey Ditch leaves the stage and the other band finishes the song they started. After an hour, the cycle repeats.

“As an audience, you get to see one band for an hour, then another band on the same stage for an hour,” Hedeen said. “It keeps it fresh [with] different approaches to songs.”

This unique setup benefits the bands too. It helps them fill a six-hour performance window, which would be exhaustingly long for just one band, and retain their audiences, who tend to leave venues when bands are on break.

Band members just have to make sure they don’t party too hard between sets, Hedeen said. But, it being a St. Paddy’s celebration in northern Wisconsin, the audience tends to drink enough green beer and Guinness to go around; Hedeen joked that they can track the progressively festive mood from the stage.

St. Paddy’s concerts at Kitty’s end with a bang, Hedeen said. To wrap up the evening, the two bands pick two or three songs to play together on one very full stage.

“It’s probably not as perfect as one band playing, but the bands love it and the audiences love it,” Hedeen said.

A bagpiper will kick off the music at Kitty’s on March 16, 12 pm. Then Whiskey Ditch and The Paul Hanna Band will share the stage 1-7 pm. Kitty’s is located at 59 E. Oak St. in Sturgeon Bay.