Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Acorn/John Craigie/Marty Finkel; April 27, 2008; Café Montmartre

The last time I tried to go see Marty Finkel he was opening for a band called Why? at Café Montmartre. I had seen Why? before and, frankly, loathed them, but since Marty and Vid Libert (two local songwriters I really like) were both playing I decided to go anyway. As a bonus, I could always leave early. Great plan, except for that apparently loads of people, especially the college kids, adore Why? and it sold out. How ‘bout that.

I got another chance three weeks later when he played at Montmartre again. As the opener he actually got a fairly long time to play, which was nice because it allowed him to play many of the songs from last year’s self-titled release as well as some newer songs. One of those was from his alter-ego Spinning Swords. While similar to his solo stuff, the Swords are more experimental and a little nosier on CD, live it honestly wasn’t much different than the rest of his set. Marty’s boyish charm goes a long way toward making him so entertaining live, his perpetual grin and enthusiastic attitude are a good part of what makes him interesting, on stage and off. And then there were the pants, super hipster plaids that looked like they came from the Gap were actually a Savers find. And that’s charming too.

The last time I saw Marty I left only a few songs into headliner John Craigie’s set to head over to a Honky Tonk Tuesday. That was a mistake. The dude was absolutely freaking hilarious. Craigie’s songs are good enough, but it’s his between song monologues that guarantee I will be back every time he comes to Madison. And that is more frequent than you would expect from an artist hailing from California. In fact, he is so enamored of our city that one of the songs on his new record is titled “Madison Bound.” Other songs, like his talking blues about trying out for American Idol seem to indicate that he should consider the comic-musician route. For all the hilarity that ensued on stage, his CD was a bit of a surprise. Playing it straight and sober, the disc is good but doesn’t even begin to hint at the hilarity that awaits you in a club. When you see him, make sure he does “Water into wine.” It’s not even a song, instead it’s a bit of banter so hilarious he gets requests for it. Which is another good story.

The Acorn seemed a little unsure how to follow that. They insisted that their stage banter usually consisted of body function jokes and lame observations, but Craigie’s humor seemed to bring out the best in them. The decent sized crowd (who had most likely come for the openers) stayed with them, which had to make their first visit to Madison pretty enjoyable. The six person band found Montmartre’s tiny stage a bit of a challenge, but somehow they managed to Tetris together all of the instruments, giving every member just enough room to play (though the percussionist did have to crawl under the keyboard to get to his seat). Vocals were divided between two vocalists, and their voices worked well together. Even so, it was the cute little guitarist Howie who I found most distracting. With limited space he was lacking his usual microphone, but that didn’t keep him from getting his say, leaning into a nearby mike to randomly impart his wisdom. I really only came to see Marty tonight, but it was well worth sticking around for the duration.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Classic Tawnies/The Low Czars/Sheena & the Punk Rockers; April 26, 2008; The Crystal Corner

When Crystal booker and all-around great guy Joe Lambert gave me the opportunity to put together a cover band bill, I didn’t want to waste the opportunity. In addition to the Classic Tawnies who I was putting this show together for, I decided to invite the Low Czars and Sheena and the Punk Rockers. While the Tawnies aren’t quite a household name, the Czars are one of the better known cover bands in town and have proven their draw with happy hour shows at the High Noon, while also adding appeal to other less likely bills (a gig with the Drunk Drivers for instance).

Sheena and the Punk Rockers are the other hand were playing only their second show ever, and vowed to break up after it since “we all hate each other.” It was just part of the show for the Ramones tribute band, since the band members are actually all good friends. Versatile drummer Larry worked the hardest tonight since he is also a member of the Czars (as well as half a dozen other bands). Ropin’ Rodeo Nate forsook his usual sweater vest and tie for one of his two t-shirts in order to be more in character. The final punk rocker was Adam Schabow who played the part of Johnny Ramone. The part of Sheena was handled quite brilliantly by Aunt Goodness, otherwise known as Erika Lozier. While she seemed a bit nervous at first, by about four songs in (in other words about 7 minutes) she was completely into the music. I’m a casual Ramones fan at best, knowing only the handful of songs that everyone knows, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying their set, the highlight of which was an incendiary “Rock & Roll Radio.” Here’s hoping they get back together in time for the Halloween show.

What can I say about the Low Czars that I haven’t said before? They may be Madison’s most talented cover band, with excellent songwriters Aaron Scholz and Bob Koch taking most of the lead vocals on some of the more obscure rock chestnuts from the 60’s and 70’s. Peter Fatka, who can also be seen playing absolutely stunning pedal steel with bands like Goat Radio and Shakey, adds a powerful third guitar to their line-up, not to mention terrific backing vocals. Always grinning and charmingly handsome, James Leaver fills in the low end. Tonight’s set promised new songs added to their set list, but since I only know about half of what they play anyway, I’d be hard pressed to pick out what they were. I do know they pulled out one of their Monkees covers just as Gina walked in the door and she went nuts. I know more Monkees songs than the average person, but they have stumped me with their choices. Solid and spectacularly entertaining, the Low Czars are always a sure entertainment bet.

Understandably the Tawnies were a little nervous filling out the bill. After all, this wasn’t their crowd, their crowd was all over at the Majestic for the Blueheels CD release (I’m still mad at Bricco), and they worried people were going to leave. Luckily folks were having such a good time they weren’t going anywhere. Their set was going well enough; opening with Stevie Wonders’s “Superstitious” had people dancing. It hit a whole ‘nother level once Shauncey Ali showed up with his fiddle, and it might have been what kept them there till the lights came on. Songs that were entertainingly goofy before, like Blake’s “Billie Jean” somehow seemed to demand they be taken at least a little serious. Songs that seemed more in Tawny character like “Trudy” and “Folsom Prison Blues” got even better. People who hadn’t seen Shauncey before couldn’t believe he could just get up and play with them. And those of us who had, well we were yelling “Shauncey!” at the top of our lungs after every song. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, a version of “Sweet Caroline” that, well, honestly if it contained any of the original lyrics that was just an accident. Dang that was fun. Thanks to Joe for letting me do it.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Chris Mills & the New Miserable Bastards/Anders Parker; April 25, 2008; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

If the Classic Tawnies are Madison’s most cancelled band, then I am definitely the most cancelled promoter. A week before the Chris Mills/Anders Parker show that I had set up at the Regent Street Retreat management there decided that show couldn’t happen. The reasons were fuzzy at best, but at least I had a back-up location. I immediately moved it to the house where most people thought it should have been all along. It was a tough night to be putting on a show- I was up against two Kids in the Hall reunion shows at the Barrymore and sentimental favorites Splitlip Rayfield at the High Noon. Even so, a fairly decent crowd showed up to see two of the best songwriters I know.

It had been nearly three years since Chris Mills released “The Wall to Wall Sessions,” a record recorded in three marathon sessions over a snowy weekend at Chicago’s Wall to Wall studios, and I was starting to wonder if a new record was ever coming out. “Living in the Aftermath” with its vibrant comic book art was released the Tuesday before the show, but I was lucky enough to get a copy well in advance. Old favorites like “Atom Smashers” and “Calling All Comrades” were included as well as terrific new songs like the deceptively simple sounding “Such a Beautiful Thing” and the hopeful title song. Recorded under only slightly more leisurely conditions, the record still includes the strings and horns of its predecessor while rocking a little harder.

After playing in excess of a hundred shows promoting the last record Chris decided to only do minimal touring for the new record which boiled down to five shows in the UK, Raleigh, NYC, Chicago, and this show. Yeah, I felt pretty special. Adding to that feeling was the fact that David Nagler came from New York with Chris to play this pair of shows in the Midwest. Nagler is the genius behind all the string and horn arrangements on this record and the last, and I had seen him play keyboards with Chris at two shows in New York. Filling out the band was Jason Toth (from the Zincs) on drums and, of course, Ryan Hembrey on bass. They’d probably only had one rehearsal, but you never would have guessed. As opposed to his last basement show, a more subdued sit-down unplugged show, this one was all about the rock consistently energetic and engaging. Sure, there was a twinge of disappointment that Gerald wasn’t there, but Jason played his part well. Even Anders was impressed, the next morning he told Jason that he had a “sort of a Levon Helm thing going on.” His smile couldn’t have been bigger.

With a crowd possibly three times the size of the night before and every one of them paying rapt attention, Anders expanded his too-short set from the night before. He also had more to say, much of it about his drive from Iowa City to Madison. Whereas we had just headed straight back, getting back before noon, he took a more leisurely approach. That almost backfired on him. The weather which had been dark and stormy for our trip turned weird later that day, and he talked about racing a tornado along the highway (though that might have been a tall tale). The last time he had been in town he told Michelle that she had to e-mail him her requests so that he could play them the next time. Of course she was too chicken to do so and he forgot to ask the night before, so he spent the time leading up to the show in the bedroom relearning “Fast and True,” a song he said he never felt sounded right without a band. Like everything in his set, it was absolutely lovely, a perfect beginning to a great night.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Anders Parker/Doug Hoekstra; April 24, 2008; The Mill, Iowa City

Most times I road trip for the artist, but every once in awhile the trip is as much about the venue. The Mill is one of those venues I have always wanted to see a show at. My last trip to Iowa City was to see Chris Mills at Gabe’s Oasis, a legendary dump where it seemed every band I like played when they passed through. In the last couple years the Mill seems to have become the place to stop, so it didn’t take much convincing to get me to go along on this trip even though Anders next stop was my basement.

A cozy bar with a music room in the back, the Mill is set up like several of my favorite venues (the Hideout, Schubas) with one exception, the music room is huge. Which has to be great when big draws play there, but when the crowd is small it is cavernous. While Schubas warm wood and heavy velvet curtains make it feel cozy even when there aren’t that many people there, the Mill didn’t quite have the same effect. Even so, the venue was not without its charms, the fact that it felt like it was snowing outside was one of them. The first time I saw Anders do a solo show it was at Gil’s in Milwaukee where he commented that when you are in a good bar it always feels like it is snowing outside. I’ve used that criteria many times since then.

I wasn’t too surprised that the crowd was small for tonight’s show; Anders is a criminally under-appreciated artist. Probably best know for being in Gob Iron with Son volt’s Jay Farrar, his other claim to fame was as the front man for Varnaline, a band often included under the alt-country umbrella. Even so, it is his solo work that I find the most interesting, which may or may not be a direct effect of knowing Michelle. Playing solo he controls the mood masterfully, looping guitar parts on top of each other until you no longer know what is live and what is recorded. Tonight’s too-short set involved very little talking, instead he moved from one song to the next, only pausing to switch guitars. The dozen or so people responded well and listened attentively to his songs, still, the set seemed short. At least we had the comfort of knowing we would see him again the next night.

Opener Doug Hoekstra seemed to have a few fans of his own there. He had an assured stage manner that projected well even though the room was far from crowded. His songs were pleasant enough, but also nondescript enough that little of it stuck with me. He did pause to read from a book he had written. I don’t recall whether it was short stories or a novel, but the passage he read involved a washed up rocker named (generically enough) Johnny Z. The story seemed full of the sort of generic (but often best-selling) writing that pains me to read. He should stick to the music. I wanted to tell him not to quit his day job.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Taping the 30 Minute Music Hour with Andy Moore, featuring Victoria Vox and Blake Thomas; April 22, 2008; WPT Studio

Monday, April 21, 2008

The New Pornographers/Okkervil River; April 21, 2008; Orpheum Theater

Okkervil River has long been one of my favorite live bands sitting somewhere in the top 5 of a list headed by the Wrens, hands down the greatest live band on the planet. So probably no one was happier than me when it was announced that the Wrens’ Charles Bissell would be filling in on guitar for Brian whose wife was having a baby. There has long been a connection between the two bands, a split single with Okkervil covering “Ex-Girlfriend Collection” and the Wrens “It Starts with a Fall” has been rumored to be in the works for years. The Wrens even opened a set in Boston with the latter, it sounded so natural in their hands that it wasn’t till after the show that I figured out it wasn’t their song.

I can’t imagine any band ever wanting to follow Okkervil River, even bands I love like the New Pornographers or the Decemberists (who they played with a few years back at the Barrymore). Their shows are too intense, too powerful to try to follow. While the New Pornographers certainly did a fair job, it was Okkervil’s performance that stuck with me. Songs from last year’s “The Stage Names” became even more dramatic on the Orpheum’s big stage, and lead singer Will Sheff seemed to feed on the crowd’s energy. Always a physical performer, he seemed even more out of control than usual. Running back and forth across the stage, strumming his acoustic furiously, he seemed to be having the time of his life. In fact, that was true of the whole band- I don’t think I have ever seen Travis play drums with more ferocity or a bigger smile.

“A Girl in Port” and “Sloop John B” were even better live than on record, but it was their second record’s “Westfall” that really got me. A tale that unfolds from the point of view of a young man who killed a girl for no reason, in fact “it was so easy, I wanted to kill her again.” Long a live favorite, the haunting ending where he explains that “evil don’t look like anything,” which the audience usually ends up singing along with was even more powerful tonight. Charles playing the mandolin on this one was a very pleasant surprise. Throughout the song, and in truth much of the evening, I found myself watching him more than anyone else. It was pleasantly odd seeing all the mannerisms I have grown so accustomed to with a different band.

Not content with stealing the show during their set, the Okkervil boys managed to steal a good part of the New Pornographers show too. Multi-instrumentalist Scott joined them on trumpet for a song, while Will played the part of Dan Bejar on “Myriad Harbor” later in the night. I’ve seen NP play Dan’s songs without him before (“Jackie Dressed in Cobras” at the Barrymore), but apparently this one was just too purely Dan. Kathryn told us later that Carl felt like he would be doing a bad Dan impression trying to do that song. As it was, Will did an excellent Dan, and that may have been my favorite song of the night.

The Orpheum is a difficult room. I never quite know where to sit, too close and you strain your neck, too far and the sound bounces around under the balcony. While we ended up in a near perfect spot three rows back (thanks Nick!), the sound still was not good, most of their show sounded muddy and in comparison to Okkervil the band seemed a bit tired. That exhaustion seemed to evaporate when they returned for the encore, a spot on cover of ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down.” Usually I prefer a band to make a song their own, in this case nailing it was all the more impressive. They followed that with “My Slow Descent Into Alcoholism” which may be my favorite New Pornographers song ever.

While Bejar seldom makes the rounds with the band, Neko Case frequently takes time out from her own career to tour with the band, so it wasn’t all that surprising when it was announced that she would be with them on this tour. Alas, she suffered an injury in the days preceding the show and was forced to withdraw. Once again, all I could say was “Neko who?” Kathryn Calder (the one New Pornographer who has been in my basement) does such an excellent job covering both of their vocals that having Case on tour is simply stage dressing. So while I don’t care whether or not Case joins for them for the next tour, I do hope that they return to the much better sounding (and less intimidating) Barrymore.