Saturday, November 22, 2008

Pale Young Gentlemen/Amo Joy/Sleeping in the Aviary; November 22, 2008; High Noon Saloon

Sleeping in the Aviary was playing some of the best shows I’ve seen when they headed out on a very impressive nationwide tour after their CD release show in October. An unexpectedly large crowd packed an early evening welcome home show which found them playing even better than they were before. Their time on the road fine-tuned a band that was already hitting on all cylinders. I’ve been listening to their better-with-every-play Expensive Vomit in a Cheap Motel pretty much non-stop and for once I actually knew most of the songs in their set. One exception will be featured on their next release, a record made up of songs written exclusively in graveyards, due out sometime next year.

Despite his surprising white-blond hair, bassist Phil Mahlstadt seems the shyest of the Aviary boys. While he only occasionally takes lead vocals, his turn at the mike for a song that was something about being human again proved he’s just as good with a lyric and a melody as his band mates, each whom have released side project records. Drummer Michael Sienkowski featured one of his Whatfor songs as another highlight in a set unfortunately shortened by the fact that there was also a late show at the High Noon that night and still two more bands left to play. Luckily when they announced they only had one more song, they chose the shiver-inducing, sanity-testing “Gas Mask Blues,” perhaps the most impressive song on a record filled with stunners. It begs to finish near the top of my year-end list (coming soon). Disappointingly they are heading out on tour again and don’t currently have a Madison date on their calendar. I miss them already.

One good thing that came of their road trip was Indianapolis band Amo Joy. One of SitA’s favorite bands that they met on tour, they brought them home to show the band Madison, and to show Madison the band. A completely delightful group, only the biggest Scrooge could resist their goofy charm. An overwhelming wave of joy de vie exuded from the young band as they played their multitude of percussion and under-used instruments like kazoo and melodica. At one point they sent Elliott through the audience with a suitcase full of mini-percussion toys, hand clappers, party favors and whistles, so that the rest of their set sounded like a less annoying version of a New Year’s Eve midnight celebration.

While the band had already won us over with their music, they doubled the goodwill by not having anything on their merch table over $10. T-shirts they printed themselves (using men’s undershirts because they are cheaper) were $7 while their CDs were in the $3-5 range. I picked up a T-shirt, a CD, and an EP and gave them a $20 and told them to keep the change. I’m not sure who was happier with that deal, me or them.

The Pale Young Gentlemen also released their sophomore record this year on the same label, Science of Sound, and headed out on tour playing many of the same venues that SitA had. Coincidentally they arrived back near enough to the same day that this show served as a welcome home for both of them. PYG’s new CD discards the frenetic keyboard driven gypsy swing of the first disc in favor of more meditative guitar based songs. The more grown up Tra La La (Black Forest) isn’t as immediate as its predecessor, but may prove to be even better with repeated listens.

But until I reach that point I contend that in the live setting the songs aren’t quite as engaging. Watching lead singer Mike Reisenauer crouch over the keyboard, unable to stay seated as he threw himself into songs about Saturday night and girls in their underwear was always part of the fun. Thankfully, a few of those more lighthearted songs did show up near the end of the set. Only “The Crook of My Good Arm” achieves that feeling on the new disc. Admittedly it’s probably a case of “it’s not them it’s me” as the crowd, which had been growing throughout the night, seemed to hang on every word. The always well-dressed band certainly sells the new sound well; the cello and violin beautifully haunt every song, while the rhythm section holds every song in the ether. Here’s one band that wasn’t afraid to grow up (but I secretly hope Sleeping in the Aviary never does).

Friday, November 21, 2008

Ha Ha Tonka/The Aaron Scholz Trio; November 21, 2008; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

The charming boys of Ha Ha Tonka had stayed at my house before I even saw them play for the first time. I’d heard their record, and while I liked it, it didn’t inspire an urgency to see them live. That changed that next day when I finally saw them play for a small but enthusiastic crowd in a mostly empty field on Willow Island as the first band on the SoCo Music Experience main stage. Their manager had contacted me previously about the band playing the house, but the dates just hadn’t worked out. I’ll admit that until I saw them play I wasn’t that motivated to make it happen, but once I did I ready to jump at the first chance I got. It didn’t take long. Within a few weeks after that I had a date on the calendar. I was already holding the next night for Walter Salas-Humara of the Silos, but I decided to do it anyway. Good thing I did, Walter’s plans changed and I couldn’t do the night he wanted.

I had a bad feeling that the crowd wasn’t going to be as big as I would have liked. For the sake of the bands, I want every show to be a sell out, but the signs were pointing to that not happening. Many folks had responded to my e-mail with an I-wish-I-could-but answer, and the crowd barely reached double digits for the opener. Not that it mattered in the end, most of my favorite people were there in addition to a few new faces, and I’m pretty sure everyone had a great time. I know I sure did. And to be honest, that is exactly why I do these shows. I only have bands I love and that I want other people to love play and that makes all the time and money that I put into these completely worth it

The Ha Ha Tonka guys sure seemed to have fun. They were all smiles as they tore it up on the super catchy songs from their Bloodshot debut Buckle in the Bible Belt, in addition to mellowing it out once in awhile. Their gorgeous acapella version of the old traditional “Hangman” gives me shivers every time I hear it. In addition to being sweet and charming, every one of them can sing, and they sound so damn good together. Nothing-but-trouble bass player Luke Long pulled out a new trick halfway through the set. It may be the first time I have seen a Jew’s Harp played during a rock show, it was certainly the first time there’s been one in the basement. And it wasn’t just a toy; he really seemed to know what he was doing. They proved they really know how to pick a cover by closing with Ram Jam’s rocker “Black Betty,” a song that will always be inextricably linked to my childhood WNNO dances at the skating rink. Perhaps that is why I found myself smiling like an idiot through the whole song.

Ha Ha Tonka certainly didn’t have a monopoly on gorgeous harmonies tonight. Openers Aaron Scholz, Bob Koch and Peter Fatka have been doing it for years as the Low Czars, their quirkily obscure cover band. Under that name they draw good sized crowds to Mickey’s and the High Noon for their inspired covers of the Who, the Monkees, and the Kinks. OK, so they didn’t attract a crowd tonight playing mostly Aaron Scholz originals, but they still sounded great. He seldom plays them out anymore, focusing mostly on the cover band, so very few people know them. He couldn’t have been too upset when I asked for Big Star after he asked if there was anything we wanted to hear. I certainly wasn’t expecting the achingly beautiful “Thirteen” in response; but I couldn’t have been happier.

In fact, that pretty much sums up the night. I couldn’t have been happier.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Classic Tawnies; November 19, 2008; Cafe Montmartre

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Loudon Wainwright III/Jentri Colello; November 16, 2008; Majestic Theater

While it doesn’t quite break my Rick Springfield record for number of years between shows (~22 years), I believe the last time I saw Loudon Wainwright was 1987. I was a senior in college and spending all my non-studying time at the Joynt, which still put on the occasional concert. I didn’t really know much about the gangly troubadour who was playing that night, but I’d been listening to More Love Songs his most recent record nearly non-stop since dubbing it from one of the bartenders. I don’t remember many specifics of the show, but I do know he played his best know song, “Dead Skunk.”

Well, times have changed. Oh, it’s still his best known song; I guess he just doesn’t play it much anymore. I’ll admit I was disappointed, but the rest of his surprisingly high energy set certainly wasn’t a disappointment. The sense of humor that made “Skunk” a surprise hit is evident in much of his work. I was fortunate to hear one of his best songs twice. Before playing it as the bonus track during his 30 Minute Music Hour taping that afternoon , he admitted that he had written it for his character on “Undeclared,” but director Judd Apatow declared it too smart for Hal Karp. I had intended to see the entire show, but arrived just in time for that tune. I frequently tease host Andy Moore about his laid back approach to a schedule on taping days, so I was doubly surprised to hear that he had started early. Turns out they wanted to get him done early since he did have a show to play that night.

Taping the program that day certainly didn’t seem to affect his energy for that night’s show. Each song was accompanied by a series of ridiculous faces, and his animated facial contortions, wagging tongue and fluttering eyebrows made watching him as entertaining as listening. Alone on stage his unhurried approach gave him the time to explain the genesis of each song. I was already doing the math when he admitted that “Five Years Old” written for his daughter on her birthday was a really old song. Since Martha is releasing records of her own now, that much was obvious. While he may be somewhat old-fashioned, he is certainly more aware of technology than some performers of his longevity. “Are you videoing me?” he questioned an audience member, “Don’t do that, I don’t want to end up on YouTube.

As much as I love Jentri Colello, she seemed an odd choice as opener. Even she seemed somewhat amused by their inclusion on the bill. After mentioning that she usually plays with a band, she admitted that they had wanted a solo acoustic opener, laughing when she noted that not only was she playing as a duo (with Josh Harty on guitar), but they were also electric. Still, her thoughtful songs and quiet musings seemed to go over well with the older crowd, and I am sure they were charmed by her stunning voice, smoky and sultry. No one seemed to mind when she said what an honor it was to be opening for someone she “used to listen to”. Instead of taking it as an insult, everyone understood she meant since she was young, not that she no longer liked his music. I think that was true of many of the people there. It certainly was for me.