NewPort Shores restaurant on the lakefront in Port Washington is the place to be on Thursday nights if you like listening to new and experienced musicians experiment with their music.
An open mic night hosted by 16-year-old Will Pfrang of Port Washington plays to packed houses and may include a blind musician who plays the piano and sounds like Stevie Wonder, a Green Bay man who has his own band but likes to try out new songs on the Port crowd or a young singer perfecting her stage presence after gaining success among her peers.
Heading it all is a polite young man with blonde touseled hair and a freshly scrubbed look who’s been playing guitar since he was 11 and writing his own music and lyrics for two years.
His parents, Charlie and Julie, are well-known in the community theater world — Charlie’s Mark Twain is a popular one-man show — and are their son’s staunchest supporters.
“Thursday is my night out,” said his mother Julie, who arrived late last week because her younger son was at a rehearsal for “Oklahoma!” being produced by Lakeshore Productions in Random Lake.
Will will miss this Thursday’s open mic night because he will be on a family vacation, but next Thursday, June 28, the event will also be a fundraiser for the Paul Watry Memorial Foundation and Scholarship Fund.
A variety of donated items, services, gift certificates, sports memorabilia and tickets, including seven tickets to the July 4 Milwaukee Brewers game, will go to the highest bidders during live and silent auctions. The items are on display at NewPort Shores and silent auction bids are now being accepted.
Will, who is a junior at Port Washington High School, reminds the Watrys of their son Paul, a gifted musician who died Aug. 16, 2007, two days after he was injured in a hit-and-run crash and shortly before his 18th birthday and the start of his senior year at Port High.
“This is the type of thing Paul would have loved. He would have been the one running it,” Paul’s mother Agnes Watry said.
Will knows about Paul and benefited from his legacy. He was a member of the Port Catholic School guitar club, which was started when the Watrys donated guitars in memory of their son, who also attended the school.
The guitar club, Will said, provided the opportunity to learn from his teacher and to play with and help others.
“I was helping people who were just starting out,” Will said. “I was only playing a year or two when I started writing music. I was influenced by the Catholic school, what was happening there and going to new places.”
Will’s love for the guitar started when he received, at age 11, a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar for Christmas. He took lessons from guitarist Michael Hecker.
“I changed to acoustic when I was 13 or 14 because I like the sound better and it’s easier when I’m playing alone,” Will said.
In 2010, Will was the youngest musician to attend a songwriter school in Lyons, Colo., which concluded with a music festival featuring John Prine, Norah Jones, Darrell Scott, Vance Gilbert, Amy Speace and other well-known musicians.
“It was a week-long school. It’s the reason I write songs,” Will said of the encouragement he received from the instructors and other singer-songwriters. “It just seems to come naturally.”
One of his favorite songs is “Bye, Bye Blue Skies,” which he wrote while on a high adventure camping trip with his Boy Scout troop on the Namekagon River in northwestern Wisconsin.
“We had rain every day. It’s basically about being out there and knowing the rain is coming because you can see the clouds building,” he said.
Will approached John Weinrich, owner of NewPort Shores, about hosting an open mic night after going to similar events in other communities to get experience being in front of an audience.
His first appearance was by chance when he and his father were in Green Bay and heard there was an open mic that night at the Harmony Cafe hosted by Bobbie Rivers.
“We got there about 9:45 p.m. (it ended at 10 p.m.) and I asked if I could get up and play a song,” Will said. “After I finished, Mr. Rivers said,
‘That was great, play another one.’ I ended up playing four or five songs and Mr. Rivers asked me to open for an original songwriters showcase the next week.”
Will also performed at open mic nights at Living Hope Church in Saukville, the Plymouth Arts Center and places in West Bend, Fond du Lac and Green Bay.
Will opens his show, which starts at 8 p.m. and goes until 10 or 11 p.m., by playing a few songs. Then he introduces the other musicians who sign up for slots. Sometimes he plays with them before giving up the stage.
“If someone is just starting off or even if they’ve played for 30 years and don’t have the confidence to get a show together, this is a really good environment where you can play your music and be in front of an audience,” Will said.
Will plans to record his first CD this summer.
Image Information: Will Pfrang performed on NewPort Shores outdoor stage before introducing other musicians during open mic June 14. Photo by Dan Laurence