Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Frog Eyes/Crane Your Swan Neck/Butterfly Assassins; June 26, 2008; Project Lodge

There were many things to enjoy about tonight’s show- my first chance to check out one of Madison’s newest venues, the fact that it is BYOB, even the odd coincidence that all the bands had some kind of animal in their name. But in fact the best thing about tonight’s show was the pronouncement by Frog Eyes wild-eyed lead singer Carey Mercer that he liked Wisconsin, “It’s like Disneyland for drunks.” I’m not sure someone from outside the state has ever so accurately summed up our way of life. I’m definitely going to remember that one- and I’ll give him credit every time I use it.

The Project Lodge is an all-ages art and music space on E. Johnson located in what used to be a bead shop or something like that. They don’t have a liquor license (hence the BYOB) and the shows start early since they are supposed to be finished before their 10 pm curfew. A long narrow room with inadequate air conditioning for a surprisingly large crowd (apparently their largest so far), it has already proven to be an adventurous host. Many of their shows feature strictly local artists, but some, like tonight’s, boast a more diverse line-up- the touring headliner is from Canada, while Crane Your Swan Neck call Madison home and the Butterfly Assassins came up from Chicago.

The real reason I went tonight was to see Crane Your Swan Neck, the awkward moniker applies to lead man Randall Lueke and whoever he has with him that night. A friend observed that at least two of the members were new since the last time he had seen them. Part of the reason was that Randall’s right hand was encased in a cast. Apparently a rather recent development, he recruited a guitar player to fill in for him while he played a few notes on a keyboard. CYSN’s music is as much joyful noise as it is anything else; the basic drums/guitar/bass line-up is bolstered by an accordion and violin. Violinist Heidi Johnson also steps up to the mic to contribute backing vocals. I have to confess that I didn’t fall in love with them like I had expected to (they were in fact the main reason I came). I’m not a big fan of polish, but this music was just a little too sloppy.

I felt the same about openers the Butterfly Assassins. Lead singer/keyboardist Brian Trahan definitely put a lot of energy into the set, but despite that, not much of it stuck with me. I was much more impressed with Frog Eyes, not only did they not complain about the heat in the room, they embraced it. It was as if playing a ridiculously sweaty show in a small, crowded all-ages venue was the only thing they wanted to be doing at that moment. Mercer has some of the strangest vocal inflections I’ve heard, his yelping and moaning made every song interesting, even if I couldn’t understand most, hell, any, of what he said. I had first seen the band several years ago in Boston when they opened for and also served as backing band for fellow Canadians Destroyer. Of course that night I was distracted by a still very sober looking Dan Bejar who slammed beer after beer and shot after shot at the bar during their set. Tonight the only distraction was the sweat dripping in my eyes.

Once they get the air conditioner running efficiently, I can’t wait to see more shows here. Nice work Project Lodge.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Smoking Popes/Frisbie; June 22, 2008; High Noon Saloon

Smoking Popes are one of those names from the past, you know, the band that sang that one song that you used to see on M-TV late at night. One of those bands that you wonder where they’ve been for the last ten years, or maybe they’ve always been there, but the buzz is long gone. Seems to me they might have been the first band to which I heard the term “buzz band” applied, but like many the buzz never translated into commercial success and they faded back to wherever they came from. I saw Popes’ head man Josh Caterer at a Christmas show in Milwaukee awhile back, he’d found God but it was still a fairly rocking show, especially considering it was just him and his brother.

Well, the Smoking Popes are back and touring behind a new record. This was an 18 and over show, but it didn’t even seem necessary, most of the folks were fans from the band’s first go-round and now occupied that thirty-something age bracket. And were they ever fans, they packed the front of the stage singing along at the top of their lungs to every song. It was all catchy enough, and I was pretty sure I recognized that one song when they played it, but at the end of the show I didn’t feel the need to expand my Popes’ collection beyond their much-hyped, long ago debut.

Frisbie isn’t going to blow the world away with their pop songs, they may not even reach the same level the slightly above obscure Smoking Popes, but as long as they are around, I have no doubt they will continue to make me happy. I guess it is contagious because I don’t think I have ever seen a happier band. The handsome and charming co-lead singer/guitarists Steve Frisbie and Liam Davis are the only members remaining from their debut The Subversive Songs of Love so many years ago. The new band is terrific, and in fact my only complaint is that they don’t play any of those older songs, focusing instead on the new record.

The appropriately titled New Debut carries on where that record left off, with a new backing cast of characters. Chief among those is drummer Gerald Dowd. I’ve always been impressed with his drumming with Robbie Fulks, but he seldom gets to rock with Robbie like he does in Frisbie. Arms a windmilling blur of motion and a smile from ear to ear, he didn’t even seem surprised when a cymbal jumped off its stand. Rather than bearing witness to his power, it turns out that it was just missing a wing nut. In typical Gerald style, he had woke up this morning in LA, flew to Chicago, where he played a gig before hopping in a car to Madison, arriving just as Steve admitted to me that “if we can’t start soon, this may get uncomfortable.” Unflappable as ever, Gerald stepped behind the drums that were waiting for him and played.

So they aren’t going to change the world, big deal, making people (including themselves) happy is what it is all about.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Maxfest with The Pugilists, Goat Radio and The Javelinas; June 21, 2008; Zad's Roadhouse, Milwaukee

Sometimes things just don’t turn out like you plan them. We were looking forward to an outdoor fest where the bands we wanted to see were playing early enough that we would be home by a decent hour. We arrived at 7 pm at Zad’s (a curious fusion of two neighboring bars, both of which I was sure I had been in before, neither of which I remembered the name of) in plenty of time for Goat Radio’s 8 pm set. Problem was, a few early brief but thorough cloudbursts had delayed things, and first band the Javelinas, who should have been finishing up, hadn’t even started.

This was unfortunate since I was rather hoping to miss their set. It isn’t that they are a bad band, or even the fact that they play generic inoffensive rock, it’s just that the lead singer’s showy stage presence gets on my nerves. It isn’t so bad when he has a guitar in his hands, but once he puts that down he spends a lot of time pretending to be an alt-country Mick Jagger. After their set the rain started again, delaying things even further. They managed to squeeze in one more set outside, but the last two bands scheduled out were moved in, with what added up to a two hour delay. Goat Radio played a short but entertaining set, all the hits you know, and then made room for the Pugilists.

The terrifically named Pugilists are what we in Madison call Jack and Don’s “other band,” even though the Milwaukee-based e-mail Jack sent out called it the reverse. The switchover time was mercifully short due to the overlap of members, and it wasn’t long before they were rocking us power pop style. I wish I had a more vivid memory of their set, but it was late and I guess I was tired. I remember liking it (how could I not with Jack in the band) but no specifics stuck with me. Hopefully they will get to Madison one of these days and I’ll get another chance to see them.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Matthew Ryan VS the Silver State/Josh Joplin; June 20, 2008; High Noon Saloon

Matthew Ryan definitely had a case of residual alcohol syndrome. RAS, as I’m calling it in my NIH grant application (kidding), is the tendency for a person to get drunk much quicker the night after drinking heavily. While admittedly it probably has much more to do with dehydration than it does with any residual alcohol floating around in the blood stream, it’s still my handy explanation for all kinds of things. Like Matthew Ryan’s high spirits and gleeful wooing, for instance.

What I had at first mistaken for light-hearted bemusement turned out to be a charmingly full-blown case of RAS, he admitted that he and the drummer had been out much too late the night before and he sure felt like he was drunk after only one drink tonight. But he’s certainly a happy drunk, he had a smile on his face the entire night, and he couldn’t resist answering the crowd’s woo’s with a few of his own. What he apparently didn’t understand is that in Wisconsin we have to scream our approval, since clapping is difficult with a drink in one hand all the time.

And there was plenty to cheer about. While I enjoyed his set at Gil’s where he was joined by just a guitar player Brian Bequette (the same one who was with him tonight), I always found his Regret Over the Wires disc unremarkable, though to be fair I haven’t listened to it in years. The material he is showcasing on this tour comes from the new Matthew Ryan Vs the Silver State disc, its unwieldy moniker is also the name of his band. Any competition between Ryan and the rest of the band is purely good natured though, as they all seemed to be having a blast on stage. He opened with the track that Jon Dee had spoken so highly of after touring with Ryan on the first leg of this tour. “It Could Have Been Worse,” with its quotable line “he promised her everything… without really knowing what everything was,” is perhaps one of the catchiest songs on the record. Ryan’s bouncy melody hides a deeper meaning that Jon Dee’s reading of it seemed to hint at. (though the fact that it was the first song made me wonder if that was all of the set Jon Dee ever saw).

The band followed him through most of the songs on that record, happily translating the songs to a live setting. Violinist Molly Chambers added lovely backing vocals that really add both to the live and recorded material. Even after the encore when the band was ready to call it a night, Ryan returned with his guitar to play unplugged on the floor, surrounded by a crowd of adoring fans. After seeing him with a dozen other folks at Gil’s, I was actually surprised at the crowd at the High Noon. It seems that this may finally be the record that breaks him out singer-songwriter obscurity and up to at least cult status.

Opener Josh Joplin has had his moment in the spotlight already. Even though “Camera One” was a respectable hit a few years back, you would never have guessed that anyone in the audience had even heard of him. I guarantee when he finished his set with that song, a handful of people were thinking “what a strange songs to cover,” while another bunch were saying, “ah, so he’s that guy,” and maybe wished they would have paid a little more attention to his delightful but low key set. I had seen Joplin a number of times in the extensive tour that followed that song, he always seemed to be paired with artists (Matthew Sweet, the Old 97’s, the Honeydogs) that guaranteed I would be there. On every occasion I enjoyed his enthusiastic playing and often witty banter. Tonight he was having a hard time getting people to listen. In particular one group at the near end of the bar, kept up a constant conversation, which he did not let go unnoted.

He told the story behind a song focused on the irony of going to many games as a child when he didn’t actually care much about football, ending with the comment, “kind of like those people,” as he gestured in their direction, following that with a resigned, “well, they paid their 15 dollars.” The sad thing was, they hadn’t. After making sure they were gone, Ryan admitted that he had let them in free because they said they weren’t going to pay. Other than that distraction, Joplin obviously enjoyed being in Madison again, spending a lot of time discussing our car vs bike mentality which he found quite intriguing. It wasn’t Jon Dee Graham, but it was still entertaining.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Burr Settles & the Pine Box Orchestra; June 19, 2008; Cafe Montmartre

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Taping the 30 Minute Music Hour with the Blueheels; June 17, 2008; WPT Studio