Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Bottle Rockets/The Saps/Rego; December 31, 2008; The Beat Kitchen, Chicago

Any long time Bottle Rockets fan will tell you that their first three records are their best. Everything released since then has had its moments, but if you are looking for beginning to end hits you can’t go wrong with 24 Hours a Day, Brooklyn Side and their self-titled debut. The band would never admit it, but those three must be their favorites too. Either that or it was simply a matter of give the people what they want as they rolled out all the great ones for a New Year’s Eve show that was as good as I have ever seen them. It certainly went a long way to erasing a should-have-been forgettable show they put on in the final hours of 2002. Indeed, this is the way New Year’s Eve is supposed to sound.

As they celebrate 15 years as a band, one has to be impressed with the minimal line-up changes they have undergone. The core duo of singer/songwriter/guitarist Brian Henneman and drummer Mark Ortmann has been in place since the beginning. In the decade and a half that followed they have had only two bass players since Tom Ray and one guitar player since Tom Parr. Brian and Mark will be happy to tell you that this line-up, which includes guitar slinger John Horton and bassist Keith Voegele, is the one they wish they’d had all along. And I might have to agree with them. How can you argue with a band that seems this comfortable while sounding this tight?

As they rolled toward midnight with a killer set that contained fan favorites like “Kit Kat Clock,” “Radar Gun,” “$1000 Car,” and of course “Indianapolis,” I couldn’t help but feel that there was anything special about the night. It was just another kick-ass show from a band that I haven’t seen in far too long. In fact, no one even seemed to mind that when midnight actually struck, after a false alarm countdown earlier, they were in the middle of “Gas Girl.” In fact, I was so happy with the set just the way it was that I didn’t even attempt to get in a request for “When I Was Dumb.” Turns out I didn’t have to, because it turned up in the encore(!). Maybe they were already planning on playing it, but I like to think that they did it just for me.

They have always had a knack for picking the perfect covers, which more often than not are Neil Young songs, but they pulled out some new ones tonight. The last time I had seen Keith sing he was knocking out a perfect version of “Surrender.” And I’d love to hear it again sometime, but I was even happier to hear him do “Ooh La La.” Rumor had it the boys had been covering “Paint It Black” recently, so I was ready for that, what I wasn’t ready for was “Suffragette City.” Awesome. And of course, there was the almost obligatory Neil Young song, “Lookout Joe.”

Here’s to 15 years (and $5 T-shirts!) guys.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The GodDamns/Full Vinyl Treatment; December 29, 2008; High Noon Saloon

Is it just me, or do we actually see more of Nate Palan now that he’s moved to the big city than we did when he was a resident of our fair town? Obviously I’m not talking about the weekly Hometown Sweethearts gig at the Crystal, I only managed to make it to that a couple times a year anyway, what with it being on Tuesdays and all. Now it seems that not only do we get the Sweethearts at places like the High Noon on nights other than Tuesday, but there also seems to be a GodDamns’ show every couple months. That’s way more shows than they played pre-relocation. I am certainly happy about that, but I can’t help being a little miffed that he couldn’t get the Magic Elves together for one of their saucy Christmas shows if he was going to be around.

The GodDamns have always been the loudest of Palan’s bands, a power rock band that can even out-tinnitus lead guitarist Kyle Motor’s Motorz on the decibel scale. That probably has a lot to do with the players. The rhythm section consisting of Chad Ovshak on drums and Darwin Sampson on bass have held the beat for other local monsters of rock such as Skintones (Sampson) and Helliphant (both of them). As with many of the bands that are not his own, Motor seems to let himself have more fun with the GodDamns than he does fronting the Motorz. Or maybe that’s just what happens when you are in a band with the perpetually grinning Palan.

Tonight may have been the best I’ve seen them. Playing behind only one opener (the numbingly loud and somewhat theatrical Full Vinyl Treatment), they went on earlier and decidedly more sober than the last time I saw them at the Frequency. Or maybe it was me who wasn’t sober that last time. All I know is that I enjoyed this show a lot more than previous ones as they featured songs from their cheekily named debut Thriller released earlier this year after only three or so years together as a band. It was impressive to see a surprisingly full bar, almost twice what they had anticipated, for yet another of Palan’s triumphant returns. I’m a little scared to see the crowd at the High Noon on St Patrick’s Day when the Kissers stage their reunion show.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Elden Calder/Tar Pet/Inboil/Battle Rat; December 28, 2008; The Frequency

Elden Calder is an anomaly in this digital age. They don’t have a website or a MySpace page, when you Google their name all you get are a few local paper listings of the show and links to pictures, YouTube videos and reviews posted by the few people who have been lucky enough to see them. Leave it to a band this puzzling to put out their first release on vinyl only. I was still trying to figure out how to transfer the record to CD so I could actually listen to it when I discovered the download card inside. Not just any download card, it is perhaps the coolest one I’ve seen. While it is quite obviously a copy of lead singer/songwriter Eric Duerr’s driver’s license, it doesn’t give you any more information about him or the band. No, instead the vital statistics are those of the record. Waxed, mono, 12” and 145 gram are the answers to hair, eyes, height and weight.

I’m not much of a downloader, but I did manage to get the songs onto my computer and onto a disc. Despite the fact that (tradition) came out in the waning days of 2008, screw the rules, it is going to make my best of 2009 list. I’m certainly not giving up my CafĂ© Montmartre bootleg disc that Momo’s awesome sound guy Andy was nice enough to give me, but now I have twice as much Elden Calder to listen to. My only complaint about the recordings, and their shows, is that they are far too short.

Even in the headlining slot they barely played more than 45 minutes. In addition to all the songs on the disc (er, I think) they also threw in a song that didn’t make the disc, that I’ll call “American,” paired with a George Harrison tune that didn’t make the White Album, “Not Guilty.” The latter featured a guest guitarist and saw the whole band venturing further into jam land than they normally do. Eerily reminiscent of Philly’s the Trouble With Sweeney, Elden Calder for the most part play ridiculously catchy, fantastically tight pop songs that don’t leave much room for improv. The time I saw Duerr solo was good, but something about the band makes the songs magical. The keyboards especially seem essential instead of just ornamental. I may be gushing, but hell, I don’t care, I really like this band.

Duerr is an employee at Shop Bop, Madison’s haven for musicians looking for flexible schedules and decent money, so it is no surprise that his band is assembled from current and former employees. Sleeping in the Aviary’s Elliott Kozel lends backing vocals and plays the keyboard with such intense fervor that nearly every picture I take of him is a blur, while This Bright Apocalypse’s leader Luke Bassenauer is their drummer. Despite the distinctive style of both of their bands, none of that creeps into Elden Calder, this one is quite definitely Eric’s thing. I just wish he did it a little more often.

It shouldn’t have surprised me that the other three bands on the bill were equally enigmatic, but I did have my hopes that at least one of them would involve other Aviary cast members. After the first band finished, I was delighted to see Phil Mahlstadt on stage. The only SitA boy who hasn’t released a solo project disc, he may be getting ready to do so. Despite an unsurprising Adam Sandler fixation (he appropriated one of his jokes and played “I Wanna Grow Old with You” from the Wedding Singer on the ukulele), his set was decidedly charming. Early on he called Elliott up to “bang on something.” Which he was more than happy to do, pulling off a shoe to thump on a suitcase with while banging a tambourine on the floor. It was all terrifically entertaining and I couldn’t stop smiling. I can’t wait to see Inboil again.

I confess that I paid absolutely no attention to the other two bands after deciding that the female led groups weren’t my thing, electing to hang out in the bar instead. So sue me.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The United Sons of Toil; December 18, 2008; The Inferno

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Laura & the Love Badgers/This Bright Apocalypse/Jeremiah Nelson & the Mysterious Bruises; December 12, 2008; Reptile Palace, Oshkosh

Blake and Josh passed my car on the way to Oshkosh the night before. When we got there Josh, convinced that we were on our way to Appleton, seemed surprised to see us. I’ll admit, it probably did seem likely that I was going to see the Blueheels at the Cold Shot rather than going to Peabody’s for the Superband. Tonight I faced a similar dilemma as the Blueheels were playing mere blocks from Oshkosh’s Reptile Palace. I managed to resist the urge… for a little while at least.

Jeremiah Nelson lived in Oshkosh for a number of years before leaving the Fox Valley for Madison and he still has a lot of connections in the clubs up there, which may explain how he got the Mysterious Bruises booked two nights in a row in the same city. The crowds were good both nights and the rest of the line-up so different so it definitely was a good idea. A great way to celebrate his birthday, playing another show let him keep the party going. Willie joined them again as the Bruises kicked off the night. He certainly seemed to have gotten more comfortable in the last 24 hours and his jazzy guitar parts seemed unforced and really added to the songs. Jeremiah was proudly sporting the camouflage Miller High Life hat he had gotten as a gift the night before, and he wore it (unironically) surprisingly well.

Superband drummer Chris Sasman is also the drummer for This Bright Apocalypse. Unfortunately he had a family commitment tonight, which left Luke and Johnny to give it a go as a duo. I had heard their practices in the basement earlier in the week and it sounded surprisingly good for a band that depends on the drums for their African rhythms and trademark odd time signatures. After a few rough spots in the first song, which actually became more of a sound check, they pulled off an impressive set which included the first time I’ve seen the mbira used successfully.

An African instrument also know as a kalimba or thumb piano, their mbira is somehow mysteriously (at least to me) amplified by a set of headphones, which resulted in a lot of feedback the last time I saw them play. Tonight however it came through clear as a bell, which is more than I can say for Johnny’s guitar parts which were mostly inaudible. Granted, their odd instrumentation would challenge any sound guy, but it was too bad the guitar was what was lost, especially after the sound was so good for the Bruises. They padded their good but limited set by having Johnny play two of his original songs to start. They quieter one was mostly talked over, but the undeniably catchy “Don’t Look Back” seemed to get the audience’s attention.

Laura Schultz had already gotten my attention earlier in the day. Jeremiah’s girlfriend was gracious enough to let us crash at her place the night before and they all spent Saturday afternoon playing songs. From the second I first heard her sing that day, I couldn’t wait to see her band, the curiously named Love Badgers, that night. A unique and unexpectedly powerful voice, it was perfect her originals and for the covers they chose, Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” and a terrific Tilly & the Wall cover (the latter of which arguably sounded even better earlier in the day when she sang it unaccompanied while goofing around on the computer).

At this point I thought I could sneak over to see the Blueheels for a minute and still catch some of John Statz and his band. Of course that didn’t work and I missed his whole set, my apologies John. I have to say I am looking forward to my next trip to the Fox Valley where they have so much good music and it is all free.