Friday, August 01, 2008

Russell Lewis/Blake Thomas & band/The Vega Star; August 1, 2008; The Cactus Club

With gas prices showing no sign of ever coming down I’ve whittled my driving down to only the most essential trips, this was one of them. Sure I get to see Blake Thomas play every week at Mickey’s, but seldom do I get to see him with a band. The same cast he assembled for the CD release show at the beginning of July reconvened again, missing only keyboard player Eric Anderson, for the middle set on a lovely Friday night in Milwaukee. His set certainly attracted the most attention of the night with a number of friends from his past showing up to see a rare Milwaukee performance.

That wasn’t the only unusual thing about tonight. For the first time since I’ve known him Blake actually made a set list with real songs on it. That was unnecessary for the CD release as they simply played the songs in the order they appear on Flatlands (which also happens to be the order he wrote them in), encoring with a reprise of the barroom anthem “I Don’t Want Your Heart I Want Your Liver.” Tonight’s set included that song of course, plus much of the rest of the disc, the always lovely “You’ve Got Me feeling Like the Moon” and the poignant “Flowers.” In addition, tracks like “Anyone Tonight” and “Satisfied” from his previous releases also made the cut.

The Cactus Club is much improved from the dingy room that I first visited, with low ceilings full of holes from errant guitar necks. They moved and expanded the stage so that even with five people on stage there was plenty of room to move around. They raised the ceilings and put in a new sound system. But the truth is, it still doesn’t sound very good. The bass was too loud and rattled for most of the set, and I had trouble hearing Shauncey’s fiddle, which is always the highlight of the band. Even so, the chance to see Blake with a band is so rare these days that I shouldn’t complain.

Besides, there are other things to complain about. I had seen openers the Vega Star several years ago at Linneman’s with Telectro (now known as Juniper Tar) and really liked them. However, the band tonight was just plain boring. A few early songs and the one that finished off the set broke from the mid-tempo mold, but those that made up the entire middle of the set might as well have been part of a suite so similar were they in tone and mood. I had a hard time telling if one had ended and another began or if they were just playing the same song over and over. Lead singer Justin Rolbiecki still has a way with a lyric, but the melodies certainly weren’t winning me over. Those songs that did get my attention seemed like they were written by the Decemberists’ wallflower brother.

At least they were in tune, which is more than I can say for headliner Russell Lewis. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a band more unprepared for a show. Not only did they not have a tuner between them, they also failed to bring guitar picks or straps. At one point the lead guitarist asked, “I don’t care if this isn’t in tune, do you?” In fact, yes, yes I do care. I suspect they might have been listenable if they had made just a little more effort, but as it was I didn’t even want to stay in the same bar with them and I found myself waiting out their set at the Palomino just down the street.

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