Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sleeping in the Aviary/National Beekeepers Society; January 31, 2009; The Rathskellar

In the last six months Sleeping in the Aviary has convinced me that they are the most consistently entertaining band in town, despite the fact that only half the band is still actually in town. In the past I didn’t always enjoy them, but every show since they opened for Califone back in August has been nothing but net. So I was a little worried when their set at a very crowded Rathskellar didn’t quite seem to be hitting it to start with. Maybe it was because lead singer/guitarist Elliott Kozel broke his glasses (spectacles as he called them) right at the beginning of the set or maybe it was just the crush of people that materialized from nowhere to crowd the area in front of the stage just as they started.

The Rathskellar has never been my favorite place to see a show, the sound is often muddy and the six inch high stage means that the bands disappear from view when just a few average height people stand in front. I didn’t recognize the first several songs which either means they were new or they were from the first record which I never quite warmed to. It’s probably not a coincidence that a good portion of their debut was made up of the sloppy punk that I also associate with the “miss” shows from way back when. I shouldn’t have worried; the middle section of the set saw them really hitting their stride. Several songs from their second record, the lo-fi revelation Expensive Vomit in a Cheap Motel, in addition to bassist Phil Mahlstadt’s zombie song and one of drummer Michael Sienkowski’s solo project Whatfor’s 60’s influenced pop songs, made for the equivalent of a highlight reel.

When someone in the crowd started yelling for a second Whatfor song, Michael merely smiled, “You should have been there last night,” referring to their opening set for the wish-I-could-have-been-there Vic Chestnut and Elf Power show. After that the hits just kept rolling, including a rarely played “Glow Worm” an acoustic gem from their first record and, um, the theme to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Way too soon Elliott announced they only had one song left. In the past I got nervous, thinking maybe they wouldn’t play the wickedly awesome “Gas Mask Blues,” a tune that teeters hauntingly on the edge of madness and leaves me with the shivers. Several shows on, I know that has become their traditional closer; no need to worry. And just like that another awesome set is finished.

I’ve always had a soft spot for tonight’s opener the National Beekeepers Society. Perhaps because they are still the hardest working band that has played the basement, no other opener has promoted a show as well as they did. Certainly no other band has shown up with a bottomless cooler full of free Hamms and then written a song about it with members of the headlining band (entitled “Free Hamms” of course) during a post-show jam. Maybe it is lead singer Nick Whetro’s awesome fashion sense (check out this evening’s duck sweater) or that he occasionally has a ridiculously cheesy/cool moustache, or maybe it is because of their charming and handsome lead guitarist Karl Christenson. More likely it is the fact that they play immensely likeable pop, and their new record Pawn Shop Etiquette shows impressive growth from their debut.

While they no longer wear their influences so prominently on their sleeves, they won’t be able to escape the Pavement comparisons until they quit writing quirky lyrics over melodies that end abruptly. Don’t get me wrong, I’m recommending that. I’ve always liked Pavement and they certainly aren’t releasing any new material, so it is nice to have someone filling that niche. Especially someone as winningly engaging as the Beekeepers, keep up the good work boys.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Chris Sasman's Golden Birthday Party; January 30, 2009; Kiki's House of Righteous Music

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Jeremiah Nelson & the Mysterious Bruises/Wars of 1812/Icarus Himself/Heller Mason; January 24, 2009; Café Montmartre

I’ve come to the conclusion that Café Montmartre just may be the worst place in Madison to see a show. Usually I can put up with the chatty crowd and the decaying sound system to see the bands I want to see, but tonight it was just too much. Both of those factors were out in full force tonight, in addition the come-and-go crowd kept the door open far too long for the sub-zero temperatures outside. I was cold, crabby and sober- nothing was going to make me happy tonight.

“Why do you play here?” I asked Todd Vandenberg (Heller Mason) after his barely audible five song opening set, “no one ever listens to you.” “Yeah, I kinda forgot,” he responded. He hadn’t been to Madison since his last gig at Montmartre, an even louder night opening for Dear August as they celebrated the wedding of their bass player. I’m still not sure how he ended up on that bill. Tonight I had to concentrate to separate the crowd noise from the songs he and Abby Zdrale (of sorely missed New Kentucky Quarter) were singing. The songs from his new record, The Mess I’ve Made, pick up where his first release Minimalist and Anchored left off, which means more pretty songs that deserve to be heard. It’s just not ever going to happen here.

When Nick Whetro and Karl Christenson were actually playing their set as Icarus Himself they sounded good, but they spent too much time between songs tuning, setting up the drum machine and discussing what to play next. Normally it wouldn’t bother me so much, but tonight everything was aggravating.

The Wars of 1812 were the first band of the night to be able to play over the crowd noise. Or maybe they actually shut up for their set… nah, I didn’t think so. Jeremiah was never too far from the stage and spent their set adjusting the sound which for some reason was being run from the stage and what looked like the head to his PA instead of from the sound booth. Andy, the usual sound guy, was nowhere to be seen, though I am not sure even he could have done much better. Former Madison residents who live in Minneapolis now, 1812 played catchy quirky pop. I probably should have bought a CD, but well, you know why I didn’t.

I guess the key to surviving a show at Momo is to be just as drunk as all the people who are annoying you. At least that seemed to be Jeremiah’s technique. The Mysterious Bruises hadn’t been on stage more than ten minutes when he declared, “It’s customary before we play our second song that someone buys us a round of whiskey.” While I’m not sure how many shots of Jameson they actually received, he repeated the claim of tradition throughout the night. While the band probably did sound good, it was hard to really tell through the recurring feedback. Frustrated, Jeremiah finally sighed, “can we get a little help up here?”

I know how he felt. I’m sure I’ll still go to shows there, but I’m not going to make the mistake of being sober next time.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Chris Mills/Nora O’Connor; January 23, 2009; The Hideout, Chicago

Perhaps the only thing that makes me happier than having a Chris Mills show on the calendar is actually seeing Chris Mills. While the release of the Wall to Wall Sessions yielded a massive tour which allowed me to see him play an admittedly ridiculous 17 times that year, last year’s Living in the Aftermath hasn’t offered me the same opportunity. In fact, I only saw him once in ’08 and it has been almost a year since he played the basement as part of the shortest CD release tour ever. If my shows/year average is going to continue to hover around one, I guess it’s a good thing that this one was so good.

We hadn’t been in the door more than five minutes when he handed me the set list and asked if it was OK. It was heavy on the last two records, but once I saw “The Silver Line” and “All You Ever Do” on there I was happy. “What’s this?” I questioned, pointing to “False Moustache.” When he replied it was a new song I declared the list brilliant and handed it back. The mellow ballad didn’t really grab me on first listen, but then again neither did about half the songs on The Silver Line and I now consider it one of two perfect records ever recorded (Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks being the other).

Not that I actually have a list, but that record’s title track is probably one of the five greatest songs ever written. An absurdly catchy melody paired with achingly smart lyrics about the connection between true lovers, “The Silver Line” positively sparkled tonight. So good in fact that I had one of those moments usually associated with Jon Dee Graham’s “Airplane.” It may sound silly, but it was so awesome it almost made me cry. And Gina says I’m not emotional, pshaw. Throughout the set Chris demonstrated his usual boundless stage energy, jumping around so much that some sort of disaster seemed inevitable (though unlike the Wrens’ Kevin Whelan who displays a similar energy, I’ve never seen Chris actually hurt himself or break anything), and the smile never left his face.

Of course, he had us smiling too. Once with a tale of a Norwegian horoscope reading, too long to retell here, but the punch line had to do with a teen telling him she was a virgin at an inopportune moment. The second was a joke his dad had found on the internet to tell to the neighbor kids. There was a slight pause after the joke “what did one snowman say to the other?” “do you smell carrots?” before we laughed, which proved we probably weren’t as quick as the seven year olds it was originally told too.

The band had only had time for one practice before this show. Usually that would be enough, but other than omnipresent bassist Ryan Hembrey, Chris hasn’t played with many of these people since the year I saw him 17 times. There were a few suspect moments, but for the most part you never would have guessed, that’s how good this band is. It was fantastic to see the truly amazing Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and the talented Dave Max Crawford on trumpet and keys. And of course the ever smiling Gerald Dowd makes the world a better place every time I see him. The rhythm section pulled double duty tonight also playing behind opener Nora O’Connor. One of Chicago’s most beautiful female voices, her songs can occasionally be a little sleepy, but the occasional winner like “Up Shit Creek Again” is always enough to keep me entertained. Well, that and watching guitarist Scott Ligon’s Beatles hair flop back and forth.

Yep, it was a pretty good night. Now if I could only figure out how to have more of them.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Trapper Schoepp Band/The Josh Harty Band/The Marty Finkel Band; January 21, 2009; High Noon Saloon

It’s a good night when two of my favorite local singer/songwriters who play solo the majority of the time bring their bands for a show. It’s even better when the third band on the bill is a charming group of youngsters from Milwaukee whose youth and enthusiasm make them impossible to resist. Too bad I hadn’t been home after work and had to catch the last bus of the night and miss the end of the latter’s set. But after such a good night of music, beginning with the Low Czars happy hour show, it’s really hard to complain too much about anything.

I was surprised again tonight how much I enjoy seeing Josh with this particular band. I’ve seen him with bands before and usually end up thinking I prefer the solo show for his fantastic acoustic guitar playing. Blake Thomas and Chris Sasman have always been a solid rhythm section for the Tawnies when they would do the occasional original, so the key difference has to be Jeremiah Nelson on lead guitar. Despite having seen him play many, many times, I honestly had no idea he could do that. My cousin calls him “sneaky,” he might have been drunk when he said it, but it may be exactly the right adjective. All I know is that it has breathed new life into some songs which have been noticeably reworked. “What About You” from Josh’s first record Three Day Notice has never sounded better, its haunted undertones playing out in Jeremiah’s ethereal guitar. As with the “Superband” shows, it’s obvious that they are all having a blast; and that just might be the best part.

After Marty’s CD release show he asked me if I thought his band would be too loud in comparison to Josh’s. I laughed and told him it wouldn’t be a problem, but the pairing was perhaps even better than I would have thought. While Josh’s not-so-secret weapon would seem to be Jeremiah, Marty’s ace up his sleeve for his opening set was undoubtedly his percussionist. His assortment of shakers and noisemakers turns Marty’s smartly earnest songs into something more intriguing. Or hell, maybe I’m just a sucker for that toy piano. I don’t think I’m the only one, I’m pretty sure I heard someone yelling for more after he put it away. While the set list was far short of the thirty plus the band played for the CD release show, it was long enough to make fans out of the folks who hadn’t seen him and his delightful band before.

Third on the (fill-in-the-songwriter) Band bill was the Trapper Schoepp band from Milwaukee who caught my attention for the first time back in October on a bill with Blake Thomas’s dream band. Their fervor and joyous noise was certainly more interesting than Chris Koza who followed them. Their vision of what Bowie would sound like if he grew up in Pewaukee instead of the UK was all the more interesting for the game of musical instruments they played through out the set. Trapper was the only one who stayed put as the rest of the band changed places around him. I was drunkily enjoying their set when I had to leave to catch the bus. Usually Milwaukee bands don’t play Madison very often, but this one definitely seems determined to make that trip. I’m sure I’ll be seeing those big smiles again soon.