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MILWAUKEE — Betsy Ade’s nervousness was palpable.

The last week for Ade and the other five members of the Racine-area band Well-Known Strangers had been a whirlwind of long nights, practices, new faces and excitement, all leading to the Land the Big Gig competition at Summerfest on Thursday night.

Despite the nervous excitement, members of WKS couldn’t help but smile, even laugh, as they ascended the stairs to the back stage area of the Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard Stage. They were accompanied by their two competitors, Juice, from Boston, and Honey & the 45s from Chicago. The three bands watched as the night’s headline act, Jack & Jack, performed a sound check.

“I’m ready to play,” said Ade, the lead vocalist for WKS.

The bands were ushered to a small backstage room, which quickly appeared even smaller as gear was carted in. After moving all the gear, WKS and the other bands were taken to the VIP area, where they received passes and were set free.

“We need you back by 2,” said Adam Weidman, the Land the Big Gig manager.

The band dispersed. Some went back to the hotel and some home, bassist John Kulas stayed to watch a band from Kenosha. Although the band members went separate ways, they all agreed rest was needed — most had not slept well the night before. It was 11 a.m. They had three hours.

The band's origin 

Well-Known Strangers only officially formed just over a year ago. In that time, the band has become a family and support group for the members, including co-creators Betsy Ade and Joe Adamek.

“You add in people that really care about each other, that takes it to another level,” said Adamek.

Adamek is tall. He sports a buzz cut, reminiscent of his days in the military, and has a serious face often broken by large smiles and laughs. Adamek can often be heard describing his time with WKS, and their success, with the words “humbled” and “honored,” but the two words seem to fit Adamek well, too.

Adamek has found a foundation in the band that is reflected in both the music and the companionship. WKS’ song “Release Me” tells the story of Joe’s fight with cancer, a fight he eventually won.

Betsy Ade has found the same support from the band as Adamek.

Resistant to the spotlight, Ade has found herself the center of attention. Ade, who works with Adamek to write most of the band’s material, has found unprecedented support from the band, her girlfriend and the WKS community to write her own songs.

Together, Ade and the other members of WKS produced songs that garnered attention, and it was the same songs that would ultimately land them a spot at Summerfest.

The performance 

At 2 p.m. Thursday, the band returned to Summerfest. They had three hours till the show, which started at 5. They would be the first of the three Land the Big Gig bands to play.

At 4 p.m., after nervously energizing with food and drinks in the VIP area, the band began to set up. A crowd was gathering that would eventually exceed 1,000 people. Green, blue and white “WKS” shirts worn by friends, family and fans flashed through the audience; WKS had the hometown advantage.

At 5 p.m., the band stepped on stage to perform. The bands each played three songs. WKS chose to play “Mirror,” their new single “Splinter” and “Revolution.” The crowd loved it. Cheers, claps and laughs greeted them at the end of their last song. After a critique by the three judges, they walked offstage.

It was time to wait.

WKS watched as Honey & the 45s performed next; then came Juice. All three bands performed well and nervousness was nearly visible backstage as the three bands waited to hear who won.

The bands were called out on stage. Third place was awarded first.

“Honey & the 45s”

Next came second place.

“Well-Known Strangers”

A giant $5,000 check facsimile was brought to them. The real checks would come later. The band looked at each other with a mix of elation and a little sadness. They hadn’t taken last place, but they hadn’t won.

Backstage, WKS took some time to process. Texts from friends and family expressed happiness, dismay and excitement; but all agreed, the band had played well.

Although Summerfest was over for WKS, their rise to success wasn’t. For now it was time to rest and prepare for the Fourth of July in Racine.

The band began to load their gear into their van.

“It was a good day,” said Adamek.

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