Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Toadies/The Whigs/The Box Social; July 31, 2008; The Annex

Like a lot of people, I listened to The Toadies Rubberneck a lot in 1995, but probably not more than a handful of times since then. In ’94, I had just moved from their hometown of Dallas to Wisconsin and never got a chance to see them either place. While I loved it then, that sort of hard rocking music is pretty far away from most of what I listen to these days. Still, I gave in to the nostalgia and went to see them on this reunion tour leading up to the release of their first album of new material in seven years.

Good call. While the songs weren’t doing much for me that day when I revisited them, live the energy was undeniable. Despite the fact that Todd Lewis and company seem to have become rather paranoid over the years (he nervously requested that the stage be designated as their space at the start of their set) they haven’t lost any of the urgency that made songs like “Possum Kingdom” and “Tyler” such massive hits. He prefaced the set by saying that the way they were going to do it would be to play some old songs and then some new songs, you know, if that was OK. The crowd roared its approval. In fact, the surprisingly young crowd (and it was indeed a crowd, the Annex had to be near sell-out) who had to be in grade school when Rubberneck first came out approved of everything from the familiar to songs they were hearing for the first time.

Usually the last thing I want to hear from a band that I am going to see on a nostalgia trip is that they are going to be playing new material, but in this case the new stuff was as good or better than the stuff I knew. The title track as well as the rest of the songs from No Deliverance were engaging, urgent, and most importantly catchy, rock songs that didn’t sound the least bit dated. The Toadies sound has developed as if they had been a band the whole time instead of just reforming after more than half a dozen years. Part of that has to do with the fact that three fourths of the band are original members. Only bassist Doni Blair is new, replacing original bass player Lisa Umbarger who left the band in 2001 precipitating the break-up of the band. With the hardships that the band endured early in their career including a follow-up that their label refused to release and the flop of the record they eventually did release, it only seems fair that they would enjoy a renaissance now.

Athens’ Whigs seem to have adopted Madison as their second home. This was their third appearance here this year, with another visit already on the calendar (opening for the Kooks at the Barrymore in October). With the reception they’ve gotten thus far, it is easy to see why they like it here. They have gained fans the old-fashioned way- by hitting the road non-stop and playing damn entertaining shows. They were like a modern day version of the Monkees, all cartoonish energy and mod haircuts. Lead singer Parker Gispert keeps his guitar nerdily tucked up tight under his arm, the better to execute his amusing series of dance moves I guess. Their bubbly charm live sold me quicker than listening to their less memorable songs on MySpace could ever have. Combine that with the fact that the kids love ‘em, and I have to think they will be headlining their own tour soon.

I have been meaning to see the Box Social ever since reviewing their EP for Rick’s CafĂ©. With the amount of shows they play one would think that would be easy to do, but somehow this was my first time. Most of the reason is that, like the Toadies, they are heavier than what I usually listen to, so this is the kind of bill they end up on. Adorable in their youth and zeal, they started the night off well with their short opening set. Bonus, their brand-new, bright blue happy toast T-shirts. This was the rare show where I genuinely enjoyed every band on the bill, and no one was more surprised than me.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Atwood Summerfest with Tex Tubb & the Jokermen and the Deadstring Brothers; July 26, 2008; Atwood neighborhood

I’ve seen the Deadstring Brothers all over the US, from that first meeting in a tiny performing arts center in Unity ME to St Louis to Chicago to Madison. Despite having seen them so many times over the years, I often don’t recognize them. Of course, that isn’t my fault, it’s theirs. Seldom do they show up with the same line-up from the time before. In fact, a band that used to be steadfastly from Detroit now lists, Detroit and the UK as their location on their MySpace page. Despite the membership changes, I figured they would always at least sound the same even if they didn’t look it as long as their two leads, Kurt Marshske and Masha Marjieh, were fronting the band. So much for that theory. Kurt was there, but an imposter was in Masha’s spot, though we weren’t quite sure at first. She had the same hip hugger pants, long dark hair and powerful voice, but with her face hidden by a large pair of sunglasses, it took awhile to decide that yes indeed, another Deadstring Brother had been lost.

While they may hail from the Motor City originally, they want nothing more than to be the Rolling Stones. And they make a pretty good case for it. Kurt writes the kind of rumbling blues tunes that made up much of Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed, full of grinding guitars and dirty keyboards. Though I can’t say for sure, it is possible that the guy behind the Rhodes may be the only other original Brother still part of the band. While it’s also the reason they’ll probably never be able to play the basement, that organ is an essential part of their sound. As they rolled through their set, featuring songs from all three of their releases (the last two on Chicago indie label Bloodshot), the pedal steel player was featured prominently. So it was a bit of a surprise that he hailed from Madison. I never quite understood if he was on tour with them, or if they just picked him up for the day. Whichever the case, they wouldn’t have sounded as good without him.

The touring Deadstrings capped off a day of predominantly local music which began for us earlier that afternoon with Tex Tubb and the Jokermen. Local restaurateur and musician Kevin Tubb does a yearly Dylan tribute around the time of his Bobness’s birthday but that is usually the only opportunity I have to see what may be the best set of Dylan tunes outside of seeing Bob himself. Tubb’s voice is a dead ringer for his Bobness, though I am convinced that is just a coincidence. He’s obviously a fan (his son is named Dylan), and that comes through in his song selection- the same sort of mix of famous and obscure that Dylan himself typically chooses. In a set that included both “Cat’s in the Well” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” the highlight might have been an inspired version of Blood on the Tracks “Simple Twist of Fate.” Dylan’s heart-breaking tale of a one night stand that leaves at least one of the characters wishing for more has long been one of my favorite tunes. Tubb’s excellent band, which includes the eternally bow-tied Sean Michael Dargan, does a terrific job of interpreting Dylan songs, not as they appear on record or as he does them live, but as you could imagine him doing them live. And that is precisely what makes their shows as good as seeing Bob himself. I just wish they did it more often.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Painted Saints/Stephanie Rearick; July 25, 2008; Mother Fool’s Coffeehouse

The Painted Saints Paul Fonfara makes the trip from Minneapolis down to Madison a couple times a year, but somehow it never seems to be when I can catch the show. His last trip to Madison was only a few weeks back opening for the Nels Kline Singers at the High Noon. Not only was I pretty sure I didn’t want pay that much just to see Fonfara open for Kline’s deceptively named instrumental band, but the Tawnies had a show at the Crystal that night. Finally another chance arrived to see him, a headlining gig at Mother Fool’s.

The last time I remember seeing the one man band, who also plays under the name Painted Saints whether solo or with a band, he had a lot in common with Andrew Bird. The looping, the whistling, the quietly cool stage presence, all invited inevitable comparisons. This time through he seemed to have taken another path. Oh he still likes his looping pedal a lot, but this time he spent minutes building up layer upon layer of musical textures, only to cut them all off before he began singing. While it was an impressive display, I wanted him to keep that sonic wallpaper going behind the words. I didn’t remember him playing the clarinet before, but this time it figured into his some of his best songs. His willingness to experiment makes perfect sense in the context of his past collaborations with some of today’s most willful musical weirdoes, folks like Jim White with his southern gothic charm and fire and brimstone bands Woven Hand and Sixteen Horsepower. I would love to see what he would do with a band behind him, hopefully the next time he comes to town he can bring them along.

I had only seen Stephanie Rearick once maybe twice before. While that performance was in the context of a multi-artist tribute night, I was pretty sure her looping keyboard and vocal songs wouldn’t be for me. I was right. I appreciate the work she does for the local music scene as co-owner of Mother Fool’s and as a performer, but I am pretty sure I don’t need to see her again. She certainly has her fans, at least half the small crowd were no doubt there to see her, but her repetitive aural creations only got on my nerves. Next time I’ll know to get there later, or at the very least have some pocket whiskey to take the edge off.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Hold Steady/The Loved Ones; July 18, 2008; Majestic Theater

On their most recent record Stay Positive, the Hold Steady have recorded a song that doesn’t sound like a Hold Steady song, The surreal, druggy “Both Crosses” marks a departure from their tried and true Springsteen-esque sing-a-long anthems, too bad I don’t think they are ever going to play it live. While most of the other songs from the record have made it into the set list, that and the small town scandal “One for the Cutters,” stay noticeably absent. I wouldn’t really care, except that, well, I really like that song. It’s hard to find much else to complain about in a Hold Steady show, one of the most reliably entertaining live bands out there. This was my first sold out show at the Majestic, and it is certainly not my favorite place to see a show with that many people. The problem is that a good chunk of their rated capacity is in the spacious balcony, but no one wants to be in the balcony for a show like this. In fact, everyone wants to be on the floor, right in front of the stage. We chose what we thought would be a safer spot, the rail on a level only a few steps up, where we could observe the shifting mass of people without actually being a part of it.

My other complaint may be a case of “it’s not them, it’s me.” While no one else had this problem, I just didn’t think that it sounded that good. Those massive choruses with backing vocals from guitarist Tad Kubler and keyboard player Franz Nicolay that fill out the songs and turn them into said anthems seemed muted and compressed in the former movie theater. Front man Craig Finn still just seems to be wearing a guitar for show, it isn’t like he needs something to do with his hands; he spends most of the set gesturing wildly, using his hands to punctuate the words he keeps repeating off mike. Finn enjoys nothing more than referencing himself, there are characters that have appeared on all four Hold Steady records and he steals lines freely from those songs. Even the title song from the new record goes back to the first song from Almost Killed Me “Positive Jam,” while the line “there’s gonna come a time when she’s gonna have to go with whoever’s gonna get her the highest,” is a direct quote from the opening track of Separation Sunday. If you’ve been listening long enough it becomes a game to pick out those self-references. As they continue to rapidly outgrow bar band status, I wonder if they will eventually leave the lovable losers like Charlemagne and Hallelujah behind.

One thing for sure, it pays to be friends with the Hold Steady. If not for their connection to the band, I can’t imagine how the Loved Ones would have ended up with tonight’s opening spot. Not that there was anything wrong with them necessarily, it was just that there was nothing the least bit original or interesting in their set. We couldn’t quite figure out which 90’s band they sounded like, maybe Matchbox 20, maybe Tonic, or maybe just some sort of amalgamation of everything that was popular sometime circa 1997. The most inspired moment of their set came on the last number when they invited their friends Kubler and Nicolay to join them. Granted the Hold Steady isn’t doing anything particularly original either, but at least they are drawing from better source material.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Pitchfork Music Festival with A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Elf Power, The Hold Steady and Jarvis Cocker; July 19, 2008; Union Park, Chicago

I’ve never been able to stomach Pitchfork’s role as a hipper-than-thou tastemaker, but they still know how to throw a heck of a music festival. Where other three days fest like Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits overwhelm you with stages and bands, Pitchfork prefers to keep it small. Just three stages host a line-up to make an indie music geek wet himself, all within easy walking distance of each other. In fact, if you didn’t feel the need to be especially close, you could spread your blanket between the two main stages and stay there all day, only moving to fetch food or beer (both surprisingly reasonable in price). Of late, I’ve been avoiding festivals, giving away my ticket to Lollapalooza and just flat skipping Pitchfork last year. But this year had something I just couldn’t pass up, Jarvis Cocker.

Long part of a list of UK bands that were huge at home but never made it in the States, Pulp enjoyed a tiny bit of popularity with the song “Common People.” A tale of a rich girl slumming it with the narrator begging him to show her what it is like to live like a commoner, it is instantly addictive and a near perfect pop song (yet somehow William Shatner managed to better it with his over the top version). Several albums later Pulp quietly disbanded, leaving their larger than life lead singer to pursue a solo career. Jarvis was released in 2005, yet for some reason I haven’t bought it yet. Despite not knowing any of the songs in his too-short set (it was perhaps foolish to expect a Pulp song), I still enjoyed every perfectly Jarvis moment. That oh-so-distinctive sigh punctuated many a song, and his lanky frame was in constant motion. I’m usually not a fan of the singer who doesn’t play, but in this case I couldn’t have asked any more from him. Now maybe I will finally go get that record.

Jarvis wasn’t the only appealing name on the bill, the Hold Steady also made a pretty good case for buying the one day ticket. Returning to the festival where I had first made their acquaintance three years ago, the band found themselves playing later in the day to a much bigger crowd. The recently released Stay Positive is more of what the band does best- giant choruses over E Street rock riffs. Lead singer Craig Finn still only half-heartedly strums the guitar and only half-attempts to sing, but there’s a reason for that. You don’t really need to do much when you have Tad Kubler beside you turning out sweet riffs and massive hooks. And in respect to the latter observation, Finn would only be able to spit out half as many words per note if he actually sang. His wordy, rambling diatribes are actually a large part of the Hold Steady’s charm, the interwoven characters travel from song to song and record to record. I’d been spoiled in the past by being close during their shows, within range of Finn’s spit as he repeats lines and again and again off mike, and being further back seemed to take something away from the show.

Earlier in the day I’d wandered from band to band unable to get very interested in any of them. Jay Reatard had been talked up as the act to see, but after he screamed at me for three songs of nonsense, I decided to bail. Over to Hawk and a Hacksaw had played the Terrace the night before, and their claim to fame is that their leader Jeremy Barnes was the drummer for Neutral Milk Hotel. While I find their percussive, gypsy influenced music interesting, I found myself wishing again that they had more songs with words. In fact, nothing really even moved me until we saw Elf Power. Part of the Elephant 6 collective, they made catchy pop which had me smiling and bouncing up and down. I couldn’t get interested in tonight’s headliner Animal Collective and was happy to just wander around the park with them as background music. It was a pleasant day outside with just enough good music to keep me interested and entertained. As far as festivals go, this may be the only one I’ll keep attending.