Friday, February 27, 2009

Peter Mulvey/Jeff Burkhart; February 27, 2009; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

Other than Fort Atkinson’s charming and unique CafĂ© Carpe, I can’t imagine another venue where Peter Mulvey could have played this particular show. He’s been working on a new album, something like number fourteen, and among the new songs will be a series of spoken letters addressed to various nieces and nephews. Instrumental tracks from his I-Pod provided backing music to the stories, some new and some old favorites, which he is passing on to the youngest members of his extended family. The audience was silent as he related the tale of Dynamite Bill who could blow a boulder into a thousand pieces or haul away dead livestock. That particular piece existed as a letter inside a letter as his father’s breathless e-mail became the source of much of the information. Since he is really only a minor character in the song that bears his name, it was nice to see him become the main one.

Peter has been writing detail-rich character studies like that for years, and another recent example is the title track to The Knuckleball Suite which details the colorful folks who inhabit the afore mentioned Carpe, his favorite room and home away from home. Of course those characters have all had their names changed for the usual reason, except for the stalwart venue’s crusty owner Bill, “owing to a lack of innocence.” He opened the show with an old favorite, the terrific “If Love is not Enough” which prominently features his jangly guitar and unusual tunings and dates back to the first time I ever saw him play over a decade ago. As I left the Pres House that night in awe of what I had just seen, I certainly couldn’t have imagined that someday he would be playing in my basement.

I’ve been amazingly lucky in the musicians that have played the House of Righteous Music, but every so often I even impress myself. For bands that aren’t known in Madison, like the Successful Failures or the Shotgun Party, I’m giving them a place to play, eat, and sleep in a town that can sometimes be difficult to get a gig in if you aren’t from here or don’t know someone. On the other hand, folks like Peter and Robbie Fulks, a musician of similar stature who played back in September, are well established and quite popular here. They have absolutely no trouble getting high-profile gigs and selling tickets, so there’s no doubt they are doing me a favor by playing here perhaps in return for years of support. While the Robbie show was at capacity in advance after appearing in the local papers, this show was only advertised to the people on my mailing list, resulting in a cozy group of friends.

Opener Jeff Burkhart was one of them. Jeff is a familiar face in local music as part of the Barley Brothers and the Dirty Shirts. Both bands play a combination of covers and originals, but I didn’t realize the quality of his solo material until I saw his 30 Minute Music Hour. Hosted by Andy Moore (another familiar face around town), the 30 Minute Music Hour airs on Wisconsin Public Television on Saturday nights as a lead in to Austin City Limits and features local, regional and national artists playing music and talking with the host about their craft. Jeff’s special was the first one they did; it was intended as a practice run but turned out so well it became the first show. Tonight’s set wasn’t quite as slick owing to the casual nature of the basement, or perhaps to the shot of Powers he had with Blake (my sound guy for the night) beforehand. Even so, it was a great set perfectly in the spirit of the evening.

There’s no denying that there is something special about the basement.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jeremiah Nelson & the Achilles Heel; February 25, 2009; the Dry Bean, Fitchburg

I’ll admit that I expressed some doubts when Jeremiah told me he was putting together yet another band. After all, the Achilles Heel was going to be playing all of his new songs, perhaps the best he’s ever written, songs that in my mind are so perfectly suited for the acoustic twang of the Mysterious Bruises. I had no doubt that guitarist Justin Bricco, bassist Landon Arken and drummer Adam Cargin would be great, after all they also make up 60% of the hardest working band in town, the Blueheels, I just wasn’t convinced they were the right band for the job.

As it turns out I was only half right. Some of those songs have actually been asking to rock harder, but just couldn’t do it with the violin and upright bass. “Waiting for a Sign” moved even closer to the Classics IV’s “Spooky” intensity with the rock band behind it, and that is definitely a good thing, while “Pacing & Scheming” realized a potential I didn’t know it had as I listened to him working it out a few months ago. The more folk rock side of his catalog, like “Daisy Chain” and the awesome “Runnin’ from the Fuse,” still sounds better with the Bruises. Others like “Floodplain” and “Drugs to Make You Sober” don’t seem to have picked their band yet.

With upright bass player Matt Donoghue not available as often as Jeremiah would like to play, it is likely we will be seeing more of the Achilles Heel. And as they play together more they will certainly get more comfortable with the songs. It was strange to see the normally expressive Bricco tied to his song notes rather than jumping all over the stage and throwing up sky points. Just seeing them somewhere other than at a nearly empty Dry Bean on their dimly lit stage is going to improve things immensely. Hmmm, maybe another band isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Goat Radio/Linda; February 17, 2008; High Noon Saloon

When Goat Radio played the Last Band Standing a month ago they certainly didn’t sound like a band that hadn’t played out in months. Seeing them tonight I wasn’t sure they’d gotten together since then. Usually a tight group, they seemed just a little bit off. Not that it really matters; I always adore them and have missed them during their extended absence. Sloppy Goat Radio is always better than no Goat Radio.

Some of that has to do with the boys themselves. Their always smiling force-of-nature drummer Tony Kanale and their charmingly gregarious bassist Jack Rice are two of the most genuine people I know, I can’t help but smile when I’m around them. The rest of it has to do with the infectious straight up rock and roll they play. Songs like “Nadine,” not about a girl, but instead about the former St Louis band of the same name, and “Gary, Indiana” come off like classic rock songs that somehow you’ve just never heard before. It isn’t hard to imagine a John Mellencamp song coming on next, though it would probably be from the days when he still went by Cougar.

It had probably been more than a year since lead singer John Wiedenhoeft had written “Barmaid,” about a case of mistaken (gender) identity, the only new song to become part of their set since the batch that became their debut record. Or will, if they ever get the cover art done and officially release it. But recently he’s apparently written a whole batch of new songs… and according to him they all sound like Bob Dylan. While I think that is a decidedly good thing, Wied seems less sure, and the most recent tune he’s penned is called “Killing Dylan,” about “Bob Dylan as a zombie” according to his post-song explanation. It came off a little rough in its public debut, but it definitely has potential.

This was my second happy hour show with opener Linda, and as far as I know it was just their second show ever. Featuring ridiculously talented guitarist Peter Fatka, who plays pedal steel with Goat Radio, Linda is sort of a one trick pony, luckily it is a good trick. Their lead singer doesn’t quite sing as much as she recites, which leads to a hypnotic sing-songy and admittedly samey quality to many of their tunes, reminding me of a slightly awkward Morphine in a higher register and without the honking saxophone. As she gets more comfortable with the songs and on stage, she may be ready to move out from behind the keyboard which is plunked occasionally. I couldn’t listen to them all night (like I could Goat Radio), but they certainly didn’t wear out their welcome tonight.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Superband; February 13, 2009; Malarkey’s, Wausau

There’s been a push lately to find a better name for the group consisting of singer/songwriters Blake Thomas, Jeremiah Nelson, Josh Harty and drummer Chris Sasman. While accurate, Superband isn’t exactly the most ingenious name ever, so recently alternatives have been nominated and discarded. Rejects thus far include the Severed Levers and Chris Sasman & the Blackouts. I was a little partial to that last one, but my current favorite is the Forty Finger Circus. Anyone who thinks that name isn’t accurate hasn’t seen them in this configuration, especially at the end of the night.

Tonight though, they were known as Patchwork. A name usually reserved for Jeremiah’s music, it was used previously at Malarkey’s when he had the gig booked and no band to play with him. I’m sure the bar’s gregarious owner was a little confused as to why despite his encouragement they never said the name of the band, instead introducing each individually. The night certainly started respectably enough. Rather than having each songwriter front a set per usual, they opted instead to have each of them play several songs per set. Blake Thomas’s opening songs were typically gorgeous. This may not be his dream band (a group of guys he has only played with twice), but it may be my favorite band to see him with. “Tip of Your Tongue” can be monotonous solo, but it gained momentum with a band, while “Anyone Tonight” was slowed from its original peppy tempo to a more somber waltz.

Jeremiah’s recent shows with the four piece Mysterious Bruises have been some of my favorites. The violin and upright bass are the perfect instruments for his newest songs, a collection of smart, Dylanesque tunes. While Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” was one of the songs he included in his set tonight, that’s where the similarity between the bands end. Most of the songs he chose were older, ones recorded under the Patchwork name, and they were anything but folky. “Spaceships” turned into a lengthy jam with Josh positively wailing on the electric guitar and Chris a force of nature on the drums. The screamed call and response during “Running from the Fuse” always seemed a little too aggressive for the Bruises refined taste, but it seemed perfect for this band.

Of the three, Josh’s songs are the ones that benefit the most from the band treatment. I’ve seen him with bands before but they seemed too assembled and didn’t do his songs justice. “What About You” has been reworked into something much more sinister than its original form, while the extra long instrumental intro and outro to “Home” make his last record’s best song even more intense. It may have been his well received cover of “Trudy” in the second set, or it maybe it was the whiskey, but somehow the third set turned into mostly covers. I was enjoying their original material even more than usual, so when they started the last set with “Superstitious” I knew it was trouble.

Blake’s “Billie Jean” and “9 to 5” are highlights of any Classic Tawnies show, but I could probably do without Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” just fine, at least until Josh learns all the verses. However, it was Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps” that led to the “penalty shots” from the bar. They all looked pleased about another round of shots, until Tyler informed them that they were tequila instead of the whiskey they were expecting. Apparently he was being nice, usually he pours rail gin. To be fair, despite the owner’s disapproval and Jeremiah’s annoyance, their last set had more people up dancing than any other point all night, and that had to make them happy, even if the tequila didn’t.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

This Bright Apocalypse; February 12, 2009; Cafe Montmartre