Thursday, October 30, 2008

Stephen Malkmus/Blitzen Trapper; October 30, 2008; High Noon Saloon

I liked Pavement, at times I liked them a lot. Their opaque lyrics were always buoyed by their gift for catchy melodies and the occasional backhanded dig. I liked Stephen Malkmus’s first solo record quite a bit, I even found a few things to like about his second release Pig Lib. I can’t remember if I ever actually bought the third one, if I did I never listened to it, or maybe an honest review scared me off from even buying it in the first place. Whatever the case, the records have definitely gotten more out there over time, and the live show has followed suit. What I really wanted to see tonight was Conor Oberst at Turner Hall in Milwaukee, but the combination of out of town and broken foot eventually convinced me to stay in Madison.

I should have gone to Milwaukee.

It’s not that Malkmus was bad exactly, he’s just not my thing anymore. I only recognized the peculiar “(Do Not Feed) the Oyster” from his second record in a set that swung from tight songcraft to loose, spacey jams. His band was excellent, mostly due to the presence of Janet Weiss behind the drum kit. Not only does the former Sleater-Kinney kit crusher have the best drummer hair ever, shiny and hypnotic, she is definitely one of the best drummers ever. Too bad I couldn’t actually see her for most of the set. Just off the crutches, but still in the clunky boot, I didn’t feel comfortable venturing too far from my seat at the end of the bar. The show was not sold out, but it certainly felt like it, and unfortunately most of those ticket buyers seemed to be tall dudes.

Opener Blitzen Trapper was the show’s redemption. I was robbed of most of their set the last time they were in town by an early volleyball game and an overstayed welcome opening set from Fleet Foxes. Barely controlled chaos ruled as the band’s six members flung themselves into their set with a flurry of keyboards and tambourine, barely pausing between songs as they genre jumped all over the place. It’s the kind of set that leaves you feeling undeniably happy afterward, even though you don’t really remember exactly why.

I still wish I would have gone to Milwaukee, that new Conor Oberst CD has only left my CD player a few times since I bought it, but at least Blitzen Trapper gave me a reason to not completely regret my decision.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Matthew Sweet/The Bridges; October 23, 2008; Park West, Chicago

I am fast discovering that I don’t like sitting for shows I would normally be standing for. The Alejandro Escovedo show I went to the day after I broke my foot (before I even knew it was broken) seemed a bit ho-hum from my seat at the end of the bar while everyone else in attendance swooned, though I am guessing the truth is actually somewhere in between. Everyone at the Park West was incredibly thoughtful and helpful as I did my best to traverse the many staggered levels of the venue, from allowing me to take the back way, without stairs, down to the dance floor in front of the stage to storing my crutches in a back room out of the way. Of course, not having my crutches also meant I had no choice but to stay seated at my table stage right. I wasn’t far from the stage, but everyone in front of me was standing which meant I only caught the occasional glimpse of Matthew and his band.

Without that visual connection I might just as well have been listening to Sweet’s new CD Sunshine Lies and his greatest hits on shuffle rather than at a somewhat expensive ($25) show that we endured worse-than-usual Chicago traffic for. I have no complaints with the set list- live versions of radio favorites like “Girlfriend,” and the uber-infectious “Sick of Myself” held up well more than a decade after their release. In fact, whenever I told someone who I was going to see, without fail they started singing the latter. I mean they did if they actually knew who he was. What did seem odd was Sweet’s apologetic nature when it came to playing the new songs. The CD had been out for several months at this point, we all had a chance to listen to the songs, it wasn’t as if he was bombarding us with unreleased songs. Before any group of two or three new ones he would ask if it was OK if they played them. He’s touring behind that CD, it would have been strange if he didn’t play them, especially when they held their own next to the classics.

A good deal of the credit for the quality of the show goes to his stellar band, all of whom have toured with him before, and most have been with him for several years. Drummer Rik Menck may be the best known name in the bunch. Not only has he played on records from Girlfriend to the new Sunshine Lies, he also was one of the founding members of the very polished power pop band Velvet Crush. I once saw Menck fill in behind the kit for the Pernice Brothers after their regular drummer was called home for a family emergency. He filled in flawlessly despite learning the songs on the flight to Chicago from LA. The other half of the rhythm section is Tony Marisco. Guitarists Paul Chastaine (currently playing with the very promising New Ruins, based out of Champaign) Pete Phillips fill out the band putting the power in the pop.

Even though I wanted to be right up front for Matthew’s set, I was more than happy to be confined to my seat through opener the Bridges. Made up of a bunch of sisters and a cousin, the band’s abundance of bangs and syrupy sweet harmonies was enough to turn me off before I’d even really listened. Sweet produced their recent record and it bears his golden pop touch, it’s too bad the sound makes my teeth hurt. Having to literally sit through a show made me appreciate being mobile even more, I can’t wait to be back on my feet.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Matt the Electrician/Vid Libert; October 19, 2008; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

I had only seen Matt the Electrician once before. He was sitting in with an abbreviated version of the Resentments for their regular Sunday night gig at Austin’s Saxon Pub. I had skipped the last couple hours of the final night of the ACL festival, hours that had included Wilco and whoever the big headliner was that year, for a chance to see Jon Dee Graham’s All Star Band in their native habitat. I was impressed enough with his songs during this song swap of sorts to jump at the chance to have him play at the house. Of course, the fact that he is friends with Jon Dee also had more than a little to do with it.

So I’d seen him play once and I’d listened to his MySpace songs, but that didn’t prepare me for how engaging he would be playing a solo show as he switched between an acoustic guitar and a much smaller instrument. I theorized that it was a “manjo,” a cross between a mandolin and a banjo. Disappointingly it turned out to be a “mandolele” a mandolin-ukulele hybrid. Despite having only released a couple of CDs, he had a surprising amount of original material which easily filled two lengthy sets. His easy-going manner and conversational tone made every story he told like an anecdote between friends rather than any sort of prepared banter. He opened the night with two songs written for his children. He admitted that while his daughter seemed to think it was great that he had a written a song for her, it’s her younger brother who more completely grasped the fact that the song was about him. “Animal Boy” is a light-hearted tune about how much little boys can eat, all told from the first person as everyone tells him “You are an animal boy, hungry all the time, you are an animal boy, are you ever satisfied?” In fact, his son has used “But I’m the animal boy” as a comeback to the protest “you just ate, how can you possibly be hungry?”

That song and several others in the set came from his delightful new CD Fresh, which is so far only available as a tour only release. Most of his songs were new to me, but there was one I knew all the words to, his cover of Jon Dee’s “Majesty of Love.” Before playing that simple stunning love song, he spent a moment elaborating on Jon Dee’s recent car accident which occurred when he feel asleep at the wheel driving home after a gig in Dallas, and how he was lucky to be alive, mentioning the fact that he was, amazingly, already playing shows again despite losing a spleen and a lot of blood. Surprisingly, it was also the most disappointing song in his set. It turns out that I don’t want to hear anyone other than Jon Dee sing his songs.

Perhaps the only other disappointment was that more people didn’t come out for the show. Sure, Matt has only played Madison maybe once before, but I thought a nice mention in the Onion and the fact that the talented Vid Libert was opening would get a few more people out on a Sunday night. Oh well, their loss as Vid played perhaps one of the best sets I have seen him do, and yes, of course I am a little biased. With guitar and pedal steel player Mike and drummer Christopher behind him he ran through his collection of mostly light-hearted, quirky tunes. The moody “Twilight” and hopeful “Maybe That’s Enough” were highlights of his terrific opening set. Perhaps my favorite was his ode to his day job “Custodian” which was part of the solo portion that closed his set. I’d waited a long time to get Vid and his band into the basement, it was worth the wait.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ian Moore; October 18, 2008; Vnuk’s Lounge, Cudahy WI

OK, so I broke my foot, that certainly wasn’t going to prevent me from seeing Ian Moore at the cozy Vnuk’s Lounge in Cudahy, a city that seems to be made up of nothing but inviting local bars, cozy pizza places and the cheapest gas prices I’ve seen in Wisconsin. I was especially anxious to see him tonight after he had to cancel a trip this summer that would have brought him to the Steel Bridge Song Fest and back to the basement. His show with Kullen Fuchs at the House of Righteous Music still ranks as one of my favorites. This time through the Midwest he was traveling with a full band that included bass player Matt Harris and drummer Kyle Schneider in addition to Kullen. If the more than half empty Vnuk’s was a disappointment after playing a sold out show at the Hideout the night before he certainly didn’t let on.

Playing with a band behind him, he ventured a little further into his back catalog than I have seen him go previously. While his always engaging stories weren’t quite as numerous as they had been in the basement, they were still just as entertaining. Tonight’s best story preceded “Muddy Jesus,” perhaps the best known of his early hits. Somewhere in the rural area of a southern state, a police officer happened upon Ian and a friend parked in the middle of nowhere engaging in some illegal activity. They thought they were busted for sure, but once the officer looked at his driver’s license and realized that the man in the car was the artist responsible for said song, he was more than happy to let them go on their way. The song comes from his 1995 record Modernday Folklore, back in the days where he was better known as a Stevie Ray Vaughn type blues guitar prodigy than as the emotive singer-songwriter he is today. In fact, I’m not the first person to think that there must be two Ian Moores having seen him before and after.

In addition to a few other early songs, like the powerful “Satisfied” (which I believe was the “blues song that made him famous” according to a fan in a story I’ve heard him tell before), he also played several of the songs off last year’s To Be Loved. Billed somewhat unfairly as a “return to form,” the record definitely rocks harder than his previous release, the beautiful, introspective Luminaria. Smart rockers like “House on the Hill” and set opener “Literary Type” make a case for it as a power pop record for the NPR set, while “April” from Luminaria proves he’s never afraid to hit the high notes. With no opener, there was plenty of time to dismiss the rhythm section and do a couple songs as a duo. I truly enjoyed the full band sound, but just he and Kullen will always be my favorite way to see them.

With a catalog as extensive and diverse as his, he doesn’t really need to do many covers, but when he does they are perfectly chosen. I’ve seen him do Neutral Milk Hotel’s “King of Carrot Flowers” on several occasions, and tonight’s cover of Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos” was equally stunning. Even better, he dedicated it to me and my basement, drawing several “Did Ian Moore really play your basement?” looks from the crowd. I was a little disappointed that his booking agent hadn’t contacted me when booking the tour, but as it turns out, so was Ian. “I really want to play your place again, but we couldn’t really do it with the band,” he told me after the show. “We’re just too loud,” he responded when I asked why not. I reassured him that we’d had plenty of loud bands in the basement and it wouldn’t be a problem. “Oh, OK, next time then,” he said looking visibly cheered. Solo, duo or band, I can’t imagine anyone I would rather have back.

Dick the Bruiser; October 18, 2008; Barack the Block, 100 block of Mifflin St

A friend of mine had been talking about Madison band Dick the Bruiser ever since seeing their first show. And even though it didn’t sound like my kind of thing, I had to admit I was very curious about the duo of dads who play visceral rock and roll with only drums, a bass and a Theremin (an underused but only occasionally well used instrument).

I finally got a chance during an all-day rally in support of Democratic nominee Barack Obama, a block party on the 100 block of Mifflin cleverly titled Barack the Block. The day was scheduled as a combination of speeches and music, but only a handful of the day’s events had specific times next to them. Dick the Bruiser was listed as 11 am, which made me think that, you know, they would actually play somewhere around then. Instead they played one song as a teaser before giving up the stage to the first three of the political speakers for the day which including a painfully long-winded former mayor.

It was almost noon before they finally returned to the stage for their short set, and most of my annoyance disappeared as they launched into their first song. Drummer Tony Sellers pounded the skins of his brand-new drum set older than him artfully emblazoned with the DtB logo, while bassist Kevin Wade (definitely trouble) barked their nonsense lyrics into the mike. And the Theremin you ask? Well, this is the best part. Instead of the very obvious dramatic hand-waving that accompanies most Theremin playing, Wade moves the neck of his bass in and out of the range of the instrument perhaps most commonly heard in movies from the Sixties involving flying saucers and visitors from another planet. The effect is stunning, and once you figure out what he is doing, it is hypnotic.

Sure, their lyrics aren’t exactly genius (“Roast your heart like a marshmallow, eat it just for fun” huh?), but who cares with music this entertaining and this satisfying on the hip-shaking level? Nice job guys, your kids should be proud.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Melismatics/Time Since Western/Chris Robley; October 14, 2008; Café Montmartre

The Pale Young Gentlemen were fast becoming one of Madison’s more popular bands when bass player Andy Brawner left the group. While it seemed like a strange move at the time, after hearing Time Since Western I now completely understand why he had too. They released the hauntingly pretty A Sun Goes Down earlier this year to praise from local publications, the Onion said, “In an unexpected, sneaky way, it’s already sounding like one of the year’s keeper local releases.” Meanwhile PYG survived the loss, guitarist Bret Randall moved to bass and lead singer/songwriter Mike Reisenauer now switches between piano (his first instrument) and guitar. In fact, in a sharp contrast to their first release their sophomore record Black Forest (Tra La La) is almost entirely guitar based.

In a strange case of history repeating itself, TSW’s bass player recently left the band to concentrate on his own music. Since they hadn’t replaced him yet, they decided to try a few shows without a bass, tonight was the first. I like it. The often bleak songs are even more affecting with the spare instrumentation. One of the songs in their uniformly excellent set tonight was “A Sun Goes Down,” a track that didn’t actually make it on to their debut release. It seems odd, but as a friend pointed out, “Have you ever heard the Jayhawk’s song “Tomorrow the Green Grass” (the title of their oft-brilliant 2002 release, which doesn’t appear on the record)? It’s not good.” I’m not sure why this track didn’t make the cut; it was certainly as lovely as anything else they played tonight.

Throughout the set Brawner bantered with the audience (“Do you guys really go out on Tuesday nights?” he questioned us) and his drummer, suggesting to the latter that there was only one song in the entire set that he actually liked to play. I certainly didn’t expect to be involved in any of the conversations, this was my first time seeing TSW and Brawner and I had never met, but once Andy the sound guy pointed out that I was in the audience I had his attention. “Kiki’s here?” he repeated, looking in my direction, “you wrote something about me once that I’ve never understood. We can talk about it later.” I panicked thinking I had said something mean, then I realized that I had undoubtedly called him trouble at some point. Later he claimed to have no idea what that meant. I’ll just say I’m pretty sure it is still true, and he should know it is not a bad thing.

While opener Chris Robley’s lonely songs seemed a perfect pairing for TSW, closer The Melismatics seemed an odd addition. Their high-spirited power punk clashed with the other bands, which isn’t exactly a bad thing, just weird. They zipped through their set like they were on a mission, barely pausing between their anthemic girl-boy screamed-sung odes. At some point it occurred to me as I looked around the deserted bar, I guess not many people do go out on Tuesday nights. A shame, because all of these bands deserve a bigger audience than they had tonight.

Monday, October 13, 2008

John Craigie/Marty Finkel/Adam Hooks; October 13, 2008; The Frequency