Smile Politely

Beatlesque Cosmic Americana with Miles Nielsen

Photo of musician Miles Nielsen cropped from the shoulders up. He is wearing a black hat. He is has a gray beard and is smiling while playing guitar behind a microphone.
Miles Nielsen on Facebook

Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts are coming to the Rose Bowl Tavern in Urbana this Saturday, March 4th, and we should expect the “free-wheeling” front man to put on a very entertaining rock show. Miles Nielson (son of Cheap Trick guitarist, Rick Nielson) spoke with me this week to discuss the impact of the pandemic on him personally and professionally.

I asked Nielsen how he defined free-wheeling. “I don’t like doing the same thing every night on the road,” said Nielsen. “I like to keep it lively. Maybe I’m playing with the crowd, or writing an impromptu song about an audience member. We just got done rehearsing five songs from the second half of our last album, and now we have those in our arsenal to slip in here and there during sets. I don’t know how bands can tour for nine months playing the same setlist every night. That doesn’t seem very interesting to me.” 

His band’s latest album, Ohbahoy, named after Nielsen’s childhood imaginary friend, was released just prior to the pandemic, and the band never really had a chance to tour in support of it. “We probably only played four shows that featured those songs,” recalled Nielsen, “but despite that, we’re doing more of a greatest hits tour with some songs off Ohbahoy and even some new songs we’ve been working on.”

Nielsen and his band are warming up for a huge tour he hopes to announce in the coming weeks. He and the Rusted Hearts will be hitting all corners of the country soon, after they wrap up this mini Midwest tour. There is one place he expects to be playing in August that is perhaps the best kept secret in the music festival world: Mile of Music in Appleton, Wisconsin. Nielsen has played the festival three times prior, and has nothing but glowing things to say about it. 

“Yeah, there’s nothing quite like Mile of Music. It’s incredible how much music they pack into such a compact area,” remarked Nielsen. 

Mile of Music features all-original music in the town of Appleton for four days every August, and seemingly every bar, church, park and street corner having a stage and P.A. It features over 200 bands playing over 900 sets of original music, and all of it is free.

“They’ve always been tremendously nice to us, and we can’t wait to get back. I think we’ll be playing Jones Park [the biggest outdoor venue at the festival] and another large venue that weekend,” said Nielsen.

I asked him about his influences. Were they as straight-forward as one would assume growing up around a huge band like Cheap Trick?

“Oh, definitely [Cheap Trick] had a huge influence on me when I was younger, but I also remember my mother playing a Kate Bush LP on our porch, and thinking how much I liked it,” remembers Nielsen. “When I was a bit older, and picked up the guitar I remember gravitating towards Hendrix and Zeppelin a bit more. Some of the earliest songs I learned to play were ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Foxy Lady.’”

I also asked Nielsen if during his late teens and early 20s if he had a rebellious streak and listened to music drastically different from his dad’s band. “I always appreciated that music, but I did develop a taste for bands like NWA and Eazy-E at that age. Back then, growing up in a small town, there wasn’t much else to do [other] than drive around the town blasting gangsta rap with your buddies. There was nothing quite like having some great speakers in your car and cruising around with the windows down playing that music,” he said. “And sometimes at karaoke, I’ll decide to get up and do one of those songs. I recall more gangster rap lyrics that someone my age probably should,” joked Nielsen.

I asked Nielsen how he feels about genre labels, a necessary evil in today’s digital music landscape:

“I don’t know. I’ve heard us described as Folk Americana, but I’m not sure if that’s because we play the same instruments as folk musicians,” explained Nielsen. “I consider us more Rock Americana, but if I could pick one to describe us it would be ‘Beatlesque Cosmic Americana.’ Nothing really describes us better.” 

Nielsen is a very creative artist, and has other outlets he discovered during the pandemic. In an effort to generate a little revenue, and stay connected to his audience, he and his wife did livestreams. However, just playing songs every week waned after a while, and spontaneously one night, they invented alter-egos, Uncle Gary and Aunt Dottie, from Wisconsin, and they immediately became a hit. 

“One night I think we’re having some technical issues, and I just decided to break into this character I had in my head,” said Nielsen. “My wife saw what I was doing and wanted to take part, so Uncle Gary and Aunt Dottie were born. We didn’t know how folks would respond, but the response was extremely positive. It grew pretty big, too. My character would slam Busch Lights constantly, so the local distributor started bringing cases of Busch Light to our house for ‘Uncle Gary.’ Even a friend with a tequila company was sending us liquor to feature on the livestreams. That’s when we knew it was getting bigger than even we could handle,” remarked Nielsen. “When we were in lockdown, it was difficult to find different creative outlets, and that one was really fun for us.”

The popularity of these characters may be a reason for them to return to livestreams in the winter months when touring has slowed down. You can follow Nielsen on Facebook for notifications when Uncle Gary and Aunt Dottie might return.

Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts
Rose Bowl Tavern
106 N Race St
Sa Mar 4th; doors at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m.
Tickets $10 in advance, $15 at the door

Music Editor

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