Just as it has on every first and third Tuesday of the month for the past three years, the Americana band the Lower 5th played a show at the Up North last Tuesday.
Only this time, a lone guitar sat where frontman Luke Jorgensen would usually be.
It was a quiet tribute to the 39-year-old singer-songwriter, music promoter and audio engineer who died on Saturday, March 3 from a heart attack. Jorgensen’s abrupt passing has dealt a blow to not only Jorgensen’s family and friends, but to the city’s Americana music scene.
“It’s just a huge hole to the music community,” said Roy Elkins, the lead organizer of the Between the Waves music festival. “Especially to the folk-rock, Americana scene, he’s an icon.”
The burly and bearded Jorgensen was primarily known for his singing and songwriting for the Lower 5th, the poppy "Midwestern soul" band that has grown into a beloved local fixture. In February, Madison Magazine gave it top honors in its Best of Madison list for alternative and indie artists.
Jorgensen was also a behind-the-scenes influencer: Besides helping organize local festivals like the Whiskeyonsin Family Reunion and Between the Waves, he had a reputation for producing and engineering records, putting together shows, and mentoring fellow artists.
Those close to Jorgensen say his prominence was the result of a tireless work ethic, high aspirations and a profound spirit of generosity. He was a quiet, goofy, but fiercely driven wordsmith with a big heart and equally big dreams.
“Luke was just always motivated. He always wanted to keep going. He could never stop,” said his bandmate, Cory Swadley.
“He was one of those guys who wanted to be the change he wanted to see,” said Frank Busch, of the Americana band the Mighty Wheelhouse.
Jorgensen’s verve for music began in Sparta, Wisconsin, where he grew up. When Jorgensen was 9 years old, his father died in a car accident, according to his mother Lisa Caucutt. Caucutt subsequently signed Jorgensen up for music lessons, to honor his dad’s wish that he learn guitar.
Jorgensen hated school, but his ambitions as a musician skyrocketed, said Caucutt. He wanted to “make it.”
“He was going to be a success story, that’s for sure,” said Caucutt.
Jorgensen moved to Madison in the early 2000s, where he began playing gigs and doing audio engineering work. But according to Busch, he didn’t truly came into his own around 2010.
“I’m not sure what his epiphany was,” said Busch. “He came to me … and he said, ‘I’m gonna change my approach to this whole thing.’”
According to Busch, that meant giving more.
When he helped record albums for local artists, money was no longer part of the discussion.
“It was never, ‘It’s $50 an hour, and I’m keeping track, and I’m going to give you a bill,’” said Busch. “It was more like, ‘Let’s get the work done now, and let’s get you a record. And later on, we’ll figure out the money.’”
Later, Jorgensen would make a tradition of organizing charity concerts for families he identified that were in need around Christmas. He would deliver the diapers, toys, food and funds they collected himself, said Swadley.
In 2010, Jorgensen met Swadley, a guitarist, and the two quickly became close friends and collaborators in Lower 5th.
“Luke's and my voices had this unique way of coming together,” said Jorgensen. “We could harmonize in a way that I had never experienced before. Between Luke and I, we made one really good performer.”
By 2015, the band had rounded out its roster to include drummer Paul Metz, keyboardist Josh Smith, trombonist Jeremy Henning and bassist Audrey Pescatelli.
Thanks in part to Jorgensen’s unyielding drive to book shows and play as much as possible, the band built up a local and regional fanbase, and locked down a standing date at the Up North. The band became known for packaging heavy themes about death, grief and hope in a bright, pop-driven veneer, as exemplified on its album "Hope."
Lower 5th concerts were, for many of its fans, a joyous occasion.
“They were just so happy. That always came across at every show. They just looked so god-damned happy,” said Busch.
It was Lower 5th tradition to end its shows with a stomping, raucous rendition of the song “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” When Swadley and the rest of the band played at the Up North on Tuesday as part of a “night of healing” — alongside a roster of other artists paying respect — they kept it up.
“Almost everybody was singing,” said Swadley. “We didn't need microphones to make ourselves heard. The people who weren't singing were probably crying.”
Caucutt, his mother, said that she’ll always cherish the memories of her son’s performances.
“He would always get off the stage, and I would always just say, it made my heart swell,” she said.
Jorgensen has also left behind a fiance, Lisa Kasten. She said that she plans to live her life in a way that honors Jorgensen’s memory.
“He taught me a lot with patience, and how to enjoy every moment. He always used to say, 'You never know what’s going to happen,'” she said.
Meanwhile, Swadley said the Lower 5th is staying together for now. The group is “the last living part of Luke,” said Swadley, and he’s not ready to let that die.