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Photography book captures South Side landmark

Whether or not it was lifechanging, Philip “Philo” Kassner’s first encounter with a South Side landmark became a second encounter and then a third—until the preoccupation turned into his recently published photography book, Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall: The Return of Rockabilly.

Many of us still remember the place as Art’s Concertina Bar, a long-running polka club with walls covered in decorative squeezeboxes. By the time current owner Andy Kochanski purchased it in 2007, the old hall had seen better days. Kochanski shifted musical course, retaining a polka night but transforming the concertina club into a venue for a certain kind of retro Americana, including surf instrumental bands, blues and—especially—rockabilly.

Philo, who had exhibited occasionally in Milwaukee galleries but never anticipated assembling a photography book, was drawn to Kochanski’s by a poster in a coffeehouse for a rockabilly show. “I walked in the door of the bar and it was incredible,” he recalls. “It reminded me of the way music used to be many years ago. I was hypnotized by the music and the appearance of the place. I just had to photograph it! The people were so interesting. I was initially more interested in the audience than the musicians.”

The softcover book is largely composed of full-page photos of the folks Philo encountered at Kochanski’s, including such musicians as The Carpetbaggers’ Stetsonwearing Matt Tyner and saxophonist Mary Rodgers of the Uptown Savages along with many unidentified audience members. The pictures were snapped inside the dark club without a flash. “I’ve always been interested in low light—pushing the film to the maximum,” Philo explains.

“A flash will change the way the eyes perceive things. Flashes would also have disturbed everyone in the bar, blinding the musicians. I wanted to blend in and not call attention to myself.”

Philo will sign copies of his book 7-9 p.m. March 3 at Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall, 1920 S. 37th St. Honky Tonkitis and New Orleans’ Michael Hurtt and His Haunted Hearts will perform afterward.

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