Friday, May 30, 2008

Firewater/La Scala/Post Honeymoon; May 30, 2008; Empty Bottle

According to a certain kind of logic, we can thank President Bush for the new Firewater record. Fed up with the current administration, Tod A. left the country in the wake of 2004’s election results. While spending time in Europe, he came up with the idea of traveling to areas of the world that aren’t your usual tourist destinations armed with a microphone and a recorder. The percussionists that he recorded from India, Pakistan, Turkey and Israel became the backbone of his first record of original music since 2003 (a covers record was released in ’04). As the songs formed around the beats he started looking for a label to put the record out. Who would have thought that it would end up at Bloodshot, a label better known for Americana than for world music. Thank you Bloodshot for taking a chance on one of the most exciting and innovative records of the year.

When the time came to tour The Golden Hour Tod was faced with the dilemma of finding a handful of musicians to replicate what he collected from all over the world. Surprisingly enough, he found most of them on MySpace, which explains the diverse group of musicians on stage with him tonight. The only name I actually recognized was that of Skeleton Key, the New York based band who loaned out their bass player Erik Sanko for the tour. I’ve always been fan of Skeleton Key and their eclectic percussionist who would bang out rhythms on everything from a red wagon to a gas tank, and I wasted no time asking Sanko if they would ever be interested in playing the basement. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

The showy percussionist of this band, Johnny Kalsi, came from England where apparently he plays arenas with his 24 piece band and is friends with Angelina Jolie… Tod sure was lucky to get him. Lead guitar and drums were likewise ably handled. But the show was stolen by Reut Regev, a brass player from India (but who calls NYC home now). The horns are nearly as important as the percussion on these songs and she had an arsenal of weapons at her disposal. In addition to the normal-sized trombone that she played on most songs, she also had a soprano version which was absolutely as cute as it sounds. She also brought out a giant-sized flugelhorn for the heavy duty stuff. Her skill was impressive, the horns sounded warm and expressive. Oh yeah, and she was totally gorgeous.

With all of that going on, Tod had his hands full trying to stand out. He managed that by summoning a whirlwind of energy for their too short set. When he wasn’t playing guitar, he was shaking a pair of maracas as if his life depended on it. Most of the time he was just a blur in a super cool T-shirt (which turned out to be from some Asian baseball team). With the time and effort that went into making this record, he can be forgiven for concentrating most of the set on those songs. Still, it would have been great to hear some of the earlier stuff, especially “So Long Superman” from The Ponzi Scheme, the song that got me into them in the first place. This record’s equivalent of that is “Three Legged Dog,” with its classic line “Y'know my father thinks I'm lazy 'cause I ain't got no career
And my mother thinks I'm crazy, and my sister thinks I'm queer,” though I admit I preferred it without the woo hoo’s nicked from “Sympathy for the Devil.”

It had been a long, long wait since their last tour, as Tod says in one of The Golden Hour’s songs, “it’s weird to be back.” Maybe, but we sure are glad you finally made it back. What a strange trip it was.

Openers La Scala were well-chosen if perhaps a little too similar to the headliner. Imagine the offspring of a Firewater/Franz Ferdinand fling and that pretty much nails it. While the combination is entertainingly listenable, I found myself wishing they had their own identity. Chicagoans Post Honeymoon were the witty duo who opened the show, though more than that I don’t really remember.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cribshitter/Shanghai Party Boss; May 30, 2008; High Noon Saloon

A few months ago at a High Noon happy hour, Karl asked me what he would have to do to get me to review a Cribshitter show. “Change the name,” I responded immediately. I was serious, but he just smiled. I went home and I listened to their MySpace stuff. While it was pretty raw, it was just off beat enough to lure me in. And let’s be honest, Karl is adorable enough that I will go see any band he is in, even if it is only once.

“It’s a thin line between clever and stupid,” lead guitarist Nigel Tuffnel postulated in the cult-classic Spinal Tap. No one knows that better than Cribshitter. They straddle that line, occasionally falling awkwardly off one side or the other. “Hot Sauce in My Pussy” is about as far on the stupid side as one could reach, while “War Torn Vaginer,” even as it was sweetly sung by tuba player Danika, landed only slightly inside that mark. She was also the vocalist responsible for the most straight-ahead and melodic of their tunes, “I Love How He Loves Me,” (which she sang wearing a surgical mask she acquired during a trip to Urgent Care earlier in the day). The cover of Tom Petty’s “Yer so Bad,” definitely clever, as was whatever that Cher thing was all about. Having a tuba in the band, definitely clever; it’s a creative and interesting touch, and way cooler than having two bass players.

It’s hard to keep track of what exactly is going on at a Cribshitter show. Was that tune only thirty seconds long on purpose? Was every band member actually playing the same song as the others? Are those bursts of noise, gone before you can even figure out who, where or why, annoying or brilliant? It all depends on who you ask. Karl told me that one fan told him he enjoys Cribshitter shows for the same reason he enjoys NASCAR, for the crashes of course. While my friend found it offensive, I was strangely entertained by the whole thing, perhaps there is something to that NASCAR theory.

On another night the rants about how “Jared is Different Around Girls” and how “We Fucking Suck” might have annoyed me as well. Tonight I just grinned and didn’t take any of it the least bit seriously, which I am pretty sure is exactly what the band is doing. In fact, my only real complaint is that the Power Point presentation which accompanied their set was difficult to make out against the red curtain. Since there is a screen on stage I had to wonder why they didn’t use it. Then again, that wasn’t all I wondered about.

Openers Shanghai Party Boss were an entertaining beginning to the night. Cribshitter’s bass player dubbed them “The bastard sons of David Byrne,” and that pretty much sums it up. Catchy, danceable, high energy, punching bags, what else ya want? As it turns out, nothing.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Langhorne Slim & the War Eagles/The Builders & the Butchers; May 26, 2008; High Noon Saloon

“This is our first time in Madison,” Langhorne Slim stated halfway through an entertaining set in front of a surprisingly large crowd on Memorial Day. Huh, I was sure I had seen him previously with the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players at Luther’s Blues, introduced as a friend of theirs from New York. I eventually realized he was talking collectively about his band The War Eagles, not just himself. And there is quite definitely a difference between the two. While his previous solo efforts did nothing to disguise the willful oddness of his voice, on this new self-titled effort he seems to have learned how to sing.

Truth be told, I kinda miss the old voice, the kinda voice only a Bob Dylan fan could love. Always a sucker for the non-traditional, I enjoyed “When the Sun’s Gone Down” despite the odd looks I got from people who happened by my desk when it was playing. That CD’s title track and the rant-n-raver “Mary” with it’s hilarious opening line “Mary are you the mother of my god, Mary, you’re sweeter than corn on the cob, it’s scary” were the highlights for me in a set that went heavy on the new album’s easier on the ears songs. Don’t get me wrong, I like the new record too, and I can’t argue that it certainly seems to have increased his profile amongst the hipster kids (the fact that this show was co-presented by Muzzle of Bees is evidence of that).

Opener The Builders and the Butchers seem poised to similarly raise their own profile. A willfully odd group, their most engaging feature is a pair of percussionists who flail away wildly on every song. Occasionally one of them would forsake his drum kit in exchange for a trumpet or a guitar. Near the end of their set, the B&B brought their audience into their percussion frenzy by passing out a variety of handheld instruments for the folks up front to bang away on. It reminded me of Sunday mornings in church when all the children are invited up to participate in the last song, though this crowd did have slightly more rhythm. By the time the lead singer pulled out a battered metal megaphone to sing into, you get the feeling they would rather be playing in the middle of the floor than on a stage. They made for an excellent and well-matched bill.

I need to mention perhaps the best merch I have ever bought, a child-sized tambourine stenciled with their name, I couldn’t put down the rest of the night. Genius.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Matt Hopper/Drew Grow and the Pastors’ Wives; May 22, 2008; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

I miss Matt Hopper. The shameless self promoter lived in Madison for eight months, and by the end of it he was playing several times a week, sometimes solo, sometimes with the current incarnation of the Roman Candles (formerly known as Blake Thomas’s Downtown Brown). He was sometimes prone to playing too long or jumping from song to song without finishing any of them, but I always enjoyed his goofy charm and catchy pop songs. As well known as he was around town then I wasn’t sure how many people would come out to see him at a house concert. Any misgivings I had about booking the show were calmed after I listened to the handful of songs on his tourmates’ MySpace. Hopper called Drew Grow one of the most passionate singers he knows, and I had to agree.

The Pastors’ Wives turned out to consist entirely of one person, the delightfully Beck-ish multi-instrumentalist Jeremiah whose backing vocals as well as keyboard and drum parts filled in Drew’s emotional songs. I may have finally heard a vocalist who could compete with Robby Schiller in a microphone-less singing competition, though Schiller would still undoubtedly win. He started the first song so far off mike that I wondered why we even bothered with a PA. It isn’t so much what he sings as how he sings it, and some songs seemed to consist of no more than one line sung over and over. He was witty as well. He introduced one song as being his “International hit.” “By that,” he continued, “I mean my mom lives in China and I am pretty sure she has this record.” As it turned out Grow also spent some time in China as a pre-teen and he still remembers the ping pong skills the cook taught him. His wicked serves compliment his songwriting skill nicely.

Hopper had told me that Drew and band were planning to be his backing band for the tour, but with only a few dates under their belt so far, they hadn’t quite worked that out. Still Hooper did join Drew and Jeremiah for one song and in return Drew played keyboards and sang on one of Hopper’s songs. His other contributions came from across the room; from his seat at the bottom of the stairs he would add lovely harmony vocals seemingly whenever the spirit moved him. The next morning as they practiced a gorgeous version of “Madison” together, I found myself wishing I could catch this show again a few more stops down the line. Despite being a prolific songwriter, Hopper only has a one full length out under his own name (songs from older discs under the Roman Candles name very seldom show up live), and the songs from “Reverse Odyssey” made up the bulk of his rather short set. Many of the songs differed from their original versions that it took me a moment to place them. Even the pop-perfect “City Walls” had a different texture than I was used to.

It turned out to be a much mellower show that I had anticipated. Instead of the predicted drunk and rowdy crowd (all the Blueheels boys and their buddies left early to go to the High Noon), it was a quiet and attentive crowd who applauded politely after every song. And instead of staying up all night drinking, we played a few games of ping pong and went to bed. Despite the fact that Grow hadn’t played since he was 12 he was still a formidable foe.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Legendary Shack Shakers/Those Poor Bastards plus a screening of “Seven Signs”; May 21, 2008; High Noon Saloon

Tonight I learned my new favorite joke. “What’s green and has a thousand legs?” “Grass! I was just kiddin’ ‘bout the legs.”

Awesome isn’t it? Of course, the drawled delivery was a fair portion of its humor. That side-splitter came to me courtesy of one of the colorful characters in JD Wilkes’ documentary short “Seven Signs.” The Shakers lead screamer assembled a collection of interviews with various religious zealots, many in the Deep South and nearly all of them at least a little bit bat-shit crazy. Playing like a companion piece to Jim White’s similarly themed (but musically superior) “Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus,” the movie began the evening in a non-traditional way. Even so, a few people reacted as if it were just another band on the bill until they were promptly shushed by the promoter. Other than that fantastic joke, the image that stuck with me was of one religious group’s insistence that “There is no LIE in what we BELEIVE.” Just in case you forgot, the deliberately misspelled signs emblazoned simply BELEIVE showed up repeatedly in the film.

The Shake Shakers certainly seem to believe, though it doesn’t seem to be religion that they stand behind. No, they believe in the power of rock and roll, and their version of it is just about as down and dirty as you can get. As well as just a little bit scary, it doesn’t take long into the set before Wilkes whips off his shirt, revealing his emaciated torso. The way he burns calories during a set, it is no wonder you can count his ribs. I’ve seen them before but it’s never the music that sticks with me, instead it’s the “show,” Wilkes’ fervor for the music instead of the actual music. It all seems to be fire and brimstone preachin’ in the guise of music as he hops around like an angry Rumplestiltskin singing and blowing his harp. I don’t think you actually need a Shack Shakers record, but if you get a chance go see a show.

The thing I didn’t know was that their guitar player had been replaced by Duane Denison formerly of the Jesus Lizard. Impressive. He seemed calmly oblivious to the chaos to the left of him. I guess if you spend enough time in a band with David Yow (as well known for exposing himself as for his music) you learn to ignore anything.

Local openers Those Poor Bastards were perfectly suited for the bill. Described on their website as “Old Time Hellfire Music,” and by Hank Williams III as “the best gothic country band I’ve heard,” the guitar/drums twosome created almost as much heat as the headliner. Lonesome Wyatt screamed profanity-laden lyrics about death and being saved and who knows what else while Vincent Presley pounded away on the drums. It got a little same-y after awhile (I mean, how much preachin’ can you take in a night?), but I found their opening set entertaining all the same. If you get a yearnin’ to go see the Shake Shakers and they aren’t anywhere nearby, check out Those Poor Bastards instead, they’ll do in a pinch.