Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Taping the 30 Minute Music Hour with Josh Harty; August 27, 2008; WPT studio

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Great Lake Swimmers/Laura Gibson; August 21, 2008; High Noon Saloon

I still don’t know how he does it. The last time Tony Dekker and band were in town they played to a remarkably hushed crowd at Café Montmartre, a venue known for its chatty patrons. Somehow even in a space four times the size, they entranced a good-sized crowd into remaining mostly silent for their hauntingly gorgeous set. In fact, the crowd must have been prepared to keep quiet because they maintained nothing above a quiet muttering during Laura Gibson’s spare opening set. Under other circumstances I might have been more patient with her “Little House on the Prairie” music, especially given the skill of the multi-instrumentalist who played with her, but tonight I just wanted her to be done so that we could get on with the headliner. And no, I won’t tell you which High Noon employee so accurately named her style.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Dekker is how much voice comes out of just the side of his mouth, as if he were whispering an aside to the audience instead of conjuring vivid images of modern dancers, angels and imaginary bars. His voice is reminiscent of Neil Young circa “Helpless,” but stops short of the full-out drama of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, creating something delicate and unique. Perhaps the last person I would have expected him to cover is the brilliant, gravelly-voiced Tom Waits, but that’s exactly what he did. His unaccompanied cover of “Innocent When You Dream” reinterpreted the classic in the best possible way, its naïve subject perfect for so pure a voice. For the several songs he played without the band, including a lovely version of “Imaginary Bars” from Bodies and Minds in the encore, he switched from the full-sized acoustic he had been playing to a little guitar, which my brother tells me is more properly called a parlor guitar.

The band has played Madison several times before, moving up the club scale from opening sets at Montmartre to headlining there and now to the High Noon, always my favorite place to see a show. They couldn’t have been happier to be here. The normally reserved Torontonians couldn’t have been more genuine when claiming that it was an honor to play in Madison again. Their quiet songs aren’t for everyone, but if it were up to me they would play here once a month. I can’t ever seem to get enough of their heart-stoppingly lovely songs live.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Califone/The Judy Green/Sleeping in the Aviary; August 16, 2008; High Noon Saloon

I’m always somewhat surprised at the love that pours out in the direction of Califone. I’ve seen them several times and my reaction usually falls somewhere between amazed and sleepy. I usually end up in the audience as much because I like the band as because they are staying at my house. Who would have guessed that Jim Becker’s intense guitar/violin/vocal stage presence would translate into a sort of ping pong Zen later in the evening. Tonight they were without percussionist Ben Massarella who has been out on the road, and all over the world, with Iron & Wine as part of the Chicago-centric band he assembled for this tour. Luckily they had friends in the opening band the Judy Green who were more than happy to fill in the spaces left by his absence.

Gillian Lisee and Reid Coker from JG have a chemistry between them that moves easily from their own music to that of Califone’s. With Gill on percussion and Reid on keyboards, I almost didn’t miss Ben. Almost. With the pair of them sitting in with the band, it seemed as though they were more likely to drift into jam band land than usual, and well, that’s not particularly anywhere I want to go. Sadly, the Jaeger Bomb I downed before the start of their set only served to make me jittery and impatient rather than wide awake. Most of the crowd seemed completely entranced by the show, but I felt more pulled along behind them than an actual part of it. I guess it isn’t surprising that I felt the same way through most of the Judy Green during their middle set, even when Joe Adamik and Jim Becker from Califone joined them. All of it was quite lovely, I just never connected with it.

Too bad Sleeping in the Aviary wasn’t last instead of first, as their energy and obvious joy were quite contagious. It had been far too long since I had seen them and I had no idea how much I missed them until tonight. They are gearing up for a CD release show at the Frequency in October, so most of the songs were new to me. A few well-chosen songs came from their uneven but overall well-worth-owning debut What, This Old Thing, but all of it was solid and ridiculously catchy accented by a new-to-me fourth member on accordion. A little accordion goes a long way, but Celeste’s talents were well utilized. And when she pulled out the saw I couldn’t have been happier. Even though I could barely hear its haunting buzz I was still delighted to see the seldom used instrument. This was the second night in a row that I was ridiculously entertained by the core threesome. I only wish they had more spin-off bands.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Patchwork (CD release)/Whatfor/Jentri Colello/Elden Calder; August 15; The Frequency

Since moving to Madison last summer, Patchwork’s Jeremiah Nelson has been trying to get it together. Not his music, no, he recorded much of his terrific new record Carry Me Down the Interstate in the “warehome” he shared with a friend under some trying conditions. And he certainly isn’t short of motivation, he’s embarked on several ambitious national tours that he has booked himself, traveling from coast to coast playing anywhere he can. No, the only thing he can’t manage to keep together is a band.

He’s on his third drummer, second bass player, and he just added a lead guitar player. He described it me as being like owning a restaurant where every week you have to train all new staff. Luckily the line-up he has settled on now seems intent on sticking around. His drummer Chris Sasman is the third member of This Bright Apocalypse to sit behind the kit, following Adam Cargin (of Blueheels) and Luke Bassenauer (of Elden Calder). The newest member of the band is Josh Harty who pulled double duty tonight, also playing lead guitar with Jentri Colello. Since he is quite honestly the best guitar player I know, I’m always happy to see him lending his talents to another band.

The only problem was that only a fraction of the crowd remained by the time Patchwork took the stage. The Frequency has already firmly established itself as a late night venue where the shows seldom end before last call. With four bands on the bill and a 10 something start time, it just got to be too late. To their credit, none of the bands played too long and the switchovers went relatively quickly, that’s just a lot of music to try to pack into one night. It was a shame that more people weren’t there for his set of earnest pop songs and folky meditations.

The crowd was probably at its biggest for Jentri’s set. With a positive review from the Isthmus’s Tom Laskin and another pat on the back in a recent article by Rich Albertoni, the buzz has been growing exponentially around her. Heck, even the notoriously picky Marco Pogo showed up to check it out. With only a fraction of the neuroses of Cat Power’s Chan Marshall and all of the voice, her name keeps popping up as someone who could be on the verge of blowing up. Me, I’m still charmed every single time by her unassuming stage presence and hypnotic tales told in her gorgeous purr of a voice. I’m certainly not the only one.

Eric (at least I think that’s his name, everything about this band is mysterious) of Elden Calder started off the night with a solo set. With keyboard player Elliot Kozel and Luke both in the audience it seemed a shame that he didn’t have the full band playing behind him. Since the former has moved to Minneapolis and the latter just returned from Ghana the week before, any sort of practice would have been difficult. While the solo set was good, it didn’t have near the impact that the full band set would have had. In addition, with the level of chatter early in the set as people tried to switch from socializing to listening, it was difficult to hear some of his delicate pop. I wish the band played more often, their perfectly crafted songs make me miss Philly’s terrific Trouble with Sweeney just a little bit less.

The penultimate set of the night came from WhatFor, the brainchild of Sleeping in the Aviary drummer Michael Sienkowski. While I’ve seen SitA range from sweet acoustic country-flavored songs to minute long punk rants, WhatFor occupies a slightly narrower range, the unlikely space where Radiohead plays 60’s inspired rock anthems. Often tending toward good-natured self deprecation, as in the catchy “I’m a Bummer,” WhatFor fills the gap left by Sienkowski’s former band Eyebeams which broke up when several members moved away. He is well-backed in this endeavor by his SitA bandmates, Elliot Kozel on guitar and Phil Mahlstadt on bass, guaranteeing that he will always have a band as long as SitA is around. As both bands never fail to put a smile on my face, I hope that is long time.

Kudos to Jeremiah for putting together such a terrific line-up, even at the risk of lessening his own set’s impact. It seems he just wanted to see all these bands as much as I did.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ben Weaver/Dietrich Gosser; August 14, 2008; Café Montmartre

Minneapolitan Ben Weaver recently signed to Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, adding to their arsenal of singer-songwriters. Watching his set tonight I couldn’t help but think they would be better off with Blake Thomas (something I have lobbied for) or tonight’s opener Dietrich Gosser. Weaver’s set was pleasant enough but relatively unremarkable save for some awkward lyrics. Gosser on the other hand was positively stunning.

His second record What the Buzzsaw Sings came out earlier this year following several years of intense work by Gosser and his outstanding percussionist Dan Kuemmel. It fulfills the promise suggested by his first EP City of Trees and expands on it promising even greater things in the future. Kuemmel was unable to come along tonight, but as I told Dietrich, “I was going to ask, but then I realized it didn’t matter.” I do adore Dan, but accompanied or solo, I’m always happy to see Dietrich.

The songs for Buzzsaw have been completed for some time, which means he has a whole ‘nother bunch in the works. The intriguing Tom Waits-ian “Curious Scar” finds him stretching his vocals more than usual, while another I didn’t catch the name of finds him in a more upbeat mood. Somehow the powerful “Abraham” didn’t make the cut for this record, but it continues to be a live favorite. From the record, the sea chantey of sorts “Noah’s Ark” with its chorus of “that moonshine always got him singing songs about Noah’s Ark, one drunk sailor with an olive branch, empty aching heart,” always proves to be my favorite. “The Lord Still Knows my Name” is as full of fire and brimstone as anything Sixteen Horsepower ever recorded.

Since leaving Madison for Chicago several years ago Gosser doesn’t get back up here as much as I would like, but the good news is that it will be a short wait till his next show. On September 5 he’ll be the opening act for Josh Harty’s long-awaited CD release. There are some special things planned for the show, but Dietrich seems a little unsure as to what they are, “there’s going to be free beer and something about Deadwood,” he claimed, “I think it will be Deadwood karaoke, you get to act out your favorite scenes from the TV show.” I’m not even sure what the Deadwood thing is all about, but I guarantee you I will show up early to find out.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Wye Oak/Butterfly Assasins; August 11, 2008; High Noon Saloon

The duo Wye Oak are named for the state tree of Maryland, which gives you an idea of how proud they are to be from the oft-maligned city of Baltmore. And they certainly do a good job of improving the reputation of their city. Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack easily break free of the White Stripes connotations that spring to mind these days whenever you hear about a male-female duo. For one thing their line-up is different- Jenn plays guitar and does most of the singing, Andy plays drums and keyboards and does backing vocals (though on the CD he does take lead on a number of tunes). For a another thing, there isn’t one bit of pomposity in their set.

Jenn sings almost hesitantly, despite the fact that she has a beautiful voice. Andy even had to tell her to turn down her guitar so we could all hear her. Later I confessed to her that I totally enjoyed their set even though I don’t usually like girl singers. “Neither do I!” she laughed. It is that sort of delightful deprecation that made them so likeable. Apparently during sound check one gentlemen in the bar asked if they were married, and then asked if they were brother and sister after they responded no to the first question. When Jenn answered no to that one too, adding that she was his mom, the patron responded with, “Well then, let’s get together and make ourselves a bass player!” She also admitted to loving Wisconsin because she loves cheese, even though she is slightly lactose intolerant. You have to respect someone who will still eat cheese when it makes them sick.

I probably wouldn’t have even been at the show tonight if it hadn’t been for Ryan Hembrey. Wye Oak had played at the Hideout the night before and he told them he could probably help them out with a place to stay in Madison. “You should go see the band at the High Noon tomorrow night,” he texted me, “nice folks, they need beds. You’re on the list.” Thanks Ryan, feel free to direct any band this nice to my door.

Openers the Butterfly Assassins hail from Chicago, and this was their second trip to Madison in only a few months. Their set tonight was as aggressive as the one earlier at the Project Lodge, while the larger High Noon stage gave them room to stretch out. Even though their dramatic string and keyboard songs would seem to be right up my alley given how I swoon over the Pale Young Gentlemen, I found myself impatient with them. I’ve never been one to object to a band yelling at me, but somehow I felt that was what lead singer Brian Trahan was doing. I will no doubt be seeing them again as they are just down the road, and as always I am willing to give them another chance.