Sunday, March 30, 2008

Jens Leckman/The Honeydrips; March 30, 2008; Old Music Hall

Funny how things work. After not having been to the Barrymore in months I was there two nights in a row. I hadn’t been to a show in the Old Music Hall, located on campus at the bottom of Bascom Hill for years, and yet here I was a second time this weekend (the previous day I had come to watch the live broadcast of Michael Feldman’s Whad’Ya Know featuring the only band that matters, Blueheels). They frequently feature campus theater productions here, but I had to wonder why they don’t have more concerts. It’s a spacious room with good sightlines, and despite its age still quite dignified. In fact, my only complaint was that it was far too warm, and that combined with a comfy seat and an insanely long wait between opener and headliner, I occasionally found it hard to keep my eyes open.

The last time I had seen Leckman he was entertaining a field full of people at the Pitchfork festival in Chicago. While I object to almost everything about the pretentious music tastemaker’s website, from their condescending reviews to their we’re always right attitude, they do a pretty good job selecting the acts for their annual festival. On that day, Leckman’s sunny pop was perfectly matched to the day and to his all female backing band, complete with horn section, all clad in white. Apparently he didn’t have quite the budget for this tour and had to leave the horn section at home. Instead his pair of string players (one of them Madison’s own Marla Hansen) and rhythm section were joined by the only other male on stage, a flamboyant dude working the laptop (which filled in for those missing horns among other things). So over-the-top was his performance that it was hard not to watch him.

Leckman however did an excellent job keeping our attention on him. Not only was the set full of ridiculously catchy tunes, he was also a wry storyteller with an excellent sense of humor. When he pulled out an odd looking stringed device he explained that it was an African folk instrument. He then told us how inevitably as he passes through security as he travels he is questioned about it, when they doubt his story they look it up on Wikipedia. Confirmation of its existence is usually followed by a search for “Jens Leckman.” It’s amusing, and more than a little troubling that our nation’s security hinges on a user written Internet encyclopedia. Another amusing story preceded “Nina, I can’t Be Your Boyfriend.” An old friend had invited him to visit her and just before they went to her parents’ house for dinner, she informed him that they were engaged. Despite wanting to help her out, he decided he couldn’t serve as her cover story so her parents wouldn’t suspect she was a lesbian.

He returned for the encore to do a solo song before breaking out the dance-inducing “Candy Cane,” which had every one on their feet. The first to jump up was super fan who had come from who knows where for the show, and Jens greeted him warmly. He was also the first to participate in the airplane dance, which seemed odd until the band also joined in. I had hesitated to go to this show, but a pair of free tickets from the Onion convinced me. Thanks Onion, it was pretty cool.

Oddly named opener the Honeydrips, a fellow Swede, turned out to be just one guy. He took the stage precisely at 8 with a guitar around his neck and a laptop in hand. He plugged in the laptop and proceeded to sing along with the prerecorded tracks on it for the next four or five songs without touching the guitar. “I don’t need the guitar for this one,” he claimed before setting it on a stand and finishing without it. A bit like the Magnetic Fields without the charm, he was at least entertaining until he finished his set with two overly dramatic songs sung in Swedish. No worries, Jens had charm enough for both of them.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Blueheels on Whad'ya Know?; March 29, 2008; Old Music Hall

Friday, March 28, 2008

Stars/Martin Royale; March 28, 2008; Barrymore Theater

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Gary Louris/Mekons; March 27, 2008; Barrymore Theater

It was a tough decision, the Weakerthans at the High Noon, Dietrich Gosser at CafĂ© Montmartre or this show. I’d wanted to see the Weakerthans ever since listening to marathon amounts of their smarter than Fountains of Wayne pop in Michelle’s car, and any time I get to see Dietrich is a treat, but ultimately the memory of the Mekons’ laugh-so-much-it-hurts show at the Pabst last fall won out. For the second half of this interesting double bill, former Jayhawks leader Gary Louris took the stage with his backing band Vetiver. When Louris decided to make a stop in Madison, the local promoter gave him the choice of which bill he wanted to be on. I’m guessing Louris has seen the Mekons before.

Jon Langford is always an entertaining performer, whether playing with one of his numerous side projects or as the interesting half of the Waco Brothers, but it is with the Mekons that he really seems to let it all hang out. Sometimes a little too literally. Demonstrating more energy and endurance than I would have guessed he had, he danced like a maniac for the entirety of a song, somehow managing to not sound winded when he took a break from his hip hop inspired flailing. Not only were his quick moves on display, but also his quick wit. After Sally mentioned “mice in their embroidered waistcoats” (which has to be code for something), Langford claimed that he was going to have to go masturbate. While the comment made most of us uncomfortable, it caused one woman (who had to be about 50 and old enough to know better) to yell “I’ll help you!” Nonplussed, Langford quipped, “Mom? I told you to wait in the van.”

Just as they were in Milwaukee back in November, the band sat in a semi-circle on stage with a single microphone at the front of the stage. Langford claimed initially that it was a monument to a member who had died, but it soon became obvious that it was a spotlight area where a member could step forward to perform. In addition to Langford’s version of “So You Think You Can Dance,” Sally and Lou also stepped to the front. At one point the four men all moved to the mike while the women were dismissed. Sally of course refused to go, and could be seen covering her eyes for much of their overblown sing-along. As much as Langford was the amusement highlight, it is always Sally who is the vocal highlight, especially on the swaying “Wild and Blue.” Her perfect country voice, high and clear, is even more surprising given her salty mouth.

The Mekons are a tough act to follow, and I wasn’t sure Louris was going to be able to do it. In fact, I’m not sure he thought he was going to be able to either, but he surprised me with a solid set drawn from the Jayhawks decade plus career and his solo record. Assisting him in this mission was his backing band Vetiver, who was also his opening band on other stops. The Vetiver boys could have been the Jayhawks fifteen years ago, scruffy looking and totally adorable, and a killer band. Predictably, the crowd got most excited over the classics from “Tomorrow the Green Grass” and “Hollywood Town Hall” (always my two favorites) like the aching “Blue” and the hopeful “Waiting for the Sun,” while the newer material was less pedantic than it seems on CD.

Sure, those other shows would have been great too, but I recall a note I made to myself from the last show, never miss a chance to see the Mekons, especially when they are playing with someone like Gary Louris who beat the hell out of Danbert Nobacon.