Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Progressive 100th Anniversary Concert; April 30, 2009; The Orpheum Theater

Another review for the Daily Page. Read it here

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Thermals; April 28, 2009; High Noon Saloon

I reviewed this for the Daily Page. Read it here

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Superdrag/Van Ghost/Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra; April 25, 2009; Metro, Chicago

I’d only seen Superdrag once before, December 2000 at the now-demolished Union South. Despite the fact that the venue was never more than a thinly disguised cafeteria and the crowds often pitiful, the music directorate always did a good job of bringing some fine indie music to campus. Two very enjoyable power pop bands, Cesto and Ashtray Babyhead (names I only remember because I bought both CDs), opened the show in front of a surprisingly decent sized crowd. I knew only one Superdrag song, the ’96 kinda hit “Sucked Out,” and when they hadn’t played it 45 minutes into their set, I left to go to my college senior sister’s Christmas party.

That wasn’t going to happen this time. One, because I was with the biggest Superdrag fan I know, and two, I actually knew more than one song. We had listened to nothing but on the drive to Chicago and I had spent the requisite time with the most recent record. Maybe if I would have had those factors going for me almost a decade ago I would have stayed till the end of the show. It’s hard to imagine that I hadn’t been grabbed immediately by the undeniable catchiness of their songs, or captivated by the energy on stage. Most of the latter emanates from magnetic front man John Davis, as he motivated the crowd into sing-a-longs (the loudest being for their “hit”) and enthusiastic cheers.

The fate of the band was uncertain just a few years ago after Davis found God, or as he claims, “he found me.” The rock and roll lifestyle had taken its toll and who knows how much longer he would have lasted without some divine intervention. After a solo record that could probably be classified as Christian rock (it is certainly suitable for Sunday listening), Davis reformed the original line-up for a handful of reunion gigs, which eventually led to a new record Industry Giants, followed by more shows. Unlike their first go round, this time they all have day jobs and families, so, much like the Wrens, they only go out for a weekend at a time.

Like the record, the show started with a bang as the band blasted into lead off track “Slow to Speak, Slow to Anger,” one of several representatives from the new record in tonight’s set. Though I haven’t actually sat down with the lyrics, tracks like that and the equally rocking “Everything’ll Be Made Right” hint at the influence of a higher power. This time I did get to hear “Sucked Out” which was greeted with enthusiastic applause. Maybe if it had been in the middle of the set last time I wouldn’t have been so disappointed. As Davis said in an interview, “people want to hear it,” even though the song is now 13 years old. I know I did. The highlights of the rest of their intense set were probably “Do the Vampire” and the incredible entertaining bass player “Senator” Tom Pappas.

I’m not sure where the nickname came from, whether it was something he came up with or one the band designated, but after seeing pictures of him and his explosive hair I had changed the Senator to “Sideshow.” And he really is closer to the latter. While some might find his on-stage antics annoying, I was (oddly enough) completely charmed by him and his ridiculous duck walk. His white shirt/white pants outfit made it almost impossible for me to not watch him. I wish we would have chosen the other side of the stage, but how could I know? Instead, we were situated in front of quiet, Jeff Tweedy doppelganger guitarist Brandon Fisher, who admittedly had his charms, but he was no Sideshow Tom. It was too bad that “Ready to Go,” his one lead vocal contribution on the new record, was left off tonight’s set list.

Up until the day before the show the second opener was listed as Duvall, which actually made sense. The project that the Smoking Popes leader Josh Caterer started after God found him probably appeal to the same crowd as John Davis’s solo material does. Instead the likeable but generic Van Ghost filled the spot. Nicholas Tremulis was a name I associated with Chicago with his yearly fundraiser The Waltz, held at the Metro, and from associations with Alejandro Escovedo and Robbie Fulks, though I had never seen him. He certainly was not what I expected. The large man in a leather coat and a silly hat was far from the image I had of an orchestra leader. And as for his orchestra, there wasn’t a violin or oboe to be found. As with Van Ghost, it was all perfectly fine, but in the end they were just standing between me and Superdrag.

Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra

Van Ghost


IPO (International Pop Overthrow); April 25, 2009; Abbey Pub

92 Degrees

Atomic Flea

Love in October

V Sparks


Friday, April 24, 2009

M Ward/The Watson Twins; April 24, 2009; Pabst Theater

Apparently M Ward wanted us to believe he had played all night. The only decoration on the Pabst Theater stage was a projection of a window in the upper right hand corner of the curtain backdrop. At first just white light shone through the dark pane. As the show went on, the light became dimmer, with fireflies flittering around. Eventually it went to almost black and shadowy bats could be seen flying past, before the sky lightened up again, coinciding with the first of several encores.

The encore has become an overused clichĂ©; bands purposely leave some of their best songs unplayed so that they have something killer for when they come back. The problem is that shouldn’t be a guarantee. The audience should have to beg. This felt like a true encore, Ward and his stellar band didn’t return until we demanded it, then they proceeded to play one song and leave again, only to return when again, and again. In fact, there were four separate encores, a development almost as annoying as the presumed one. The fact that the very last of those was his cover from the terrific Daniel Johnston tribute record The Late Great Daniel Johnston tempered my aggravation, as did the even more appropriate show closer “Magic Trick” (he switched “she disappears” to “I disappear”) which preceded it.

But like the Great Lake Swimmers the night before, it seems like I am just looking for something to complain about, because the show itself was pretty incredible. He started the night with “Chinese Translation” easily the highlight of career highpoint 2008’s Post War. The questions he poses to a wise old man (like “What do you do with the pieces of a broken heart?”) couldn’t be simpler, or more unanswerable. He ended it with ridiculously catchy “Big Boat,” a Tom Waits-ian tale of a man who is prone to exaggeration. In between was a well-chosen set list from his four record career, all of them winners, leaning a little more on the new Hold Time. None of the records show dramatic leaps forward or extreme stylistic shifts, they all just sound like M Ward, and that’s all I want.

It’s hard to believe I didn’t like him at first. The first time I saw him was an unremarkable opening set for Bright Eyes, where I (inexplicably) thought he sounded like Adam Sandler. The second was a miserable, oversold show at Montmartre (any show there is miserable, crowded ones are almost unbearable) where he played solo and expressionless, baseball hat pulled over his eyes. It took hearing “Big Boat” on a mix tape to bring me back to his music, and it’s all been good since then.

He didn’t really have much more to say tonight than he did long ago at Montmartre. Perhaps the most he said was after he took away a camera from a fan in the first row, claiming that we were there to listen to music without any other distractions. It was a surprising move, but justifiable- there were signs posted in obvious spots at the entrances stating no photography. The staff of the Pabst had been polite enough not to search the patrons on the way in, so I would have expected the audience to be polite enough to follow the artist’s wishes. I love taking photos, so it was a strange feeling to just watch the show. Not bad, just strange, and perhaps I did enjoy the music more without worrying about getting the perfect picture.

I could have used the distraction during the opener. I’ve mentioned before that the only thing worse than one girl singers is two; and the only thing worse than that is twins. The Watson Twins weren’t quite as bad as the duo I said that about, but I did find them tediously boring. The only redeeming things were a surprising cover of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” and their adorable keyboard player. In the end it doesn’t really matter, they weren’t the band I came to see.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Great Lake Swimmers/Kate Maki/The Championship; April 23, 2009; High Noon Saloon

It was great while it lasted. Each previous time I had seen the Great Lakes Swimmers whether at the High Noon, the King Club or the notoriously chatty CafĂ© Montmartre, the audiences had been astonishingly silent, achieving “pin drop” status every time. I’m guessing most of tonight’s crowd hadn’t been at those shows or they would have known this is a band you pay complete attention to, talking is not allowed. Despite the angry librarian glares I was doling out all night, it never achieved that scared-to-breath feeling I had become accustomed to.

Of course, it takes some work to find something to complain about at a Great Lakes Swimmers show. It’s hard to describe what exactly it is that is so enthralling about them. It’s mellow, lullaby-like music, yet somehow still catchy. Something about the way Tony Dekker’s ethereal, Neil Young “Helpless” voice spills out without him actually moving his mouth is hypnotic. The chatty crowd didn’t seem to bother them as much as it bothered me- he mentioned several times how happy and honored they were to be playing Madison again. This end of the tour stop seemed to be the highlight of their trip.

There is a new member of the band since the last time they passed through town, and coincidentally enough it is High Noon owner Cathy Dethmer’s cousin. Had I not already known that, I would have been pretty surprised when keyboard player/backing vocalist Julie Fader announced that “my cousin owns this place, isn’t it awesome?” In the end, I found her vocal contributions superfluous; I don’t need to hear anyone singing with Dekker. However she did provide a respite from the pearl snap shirts and beards the rest of the band sported.

The covers were again well chosen, Gram Parson’s “Sin City” was inspired, and did make an argument for Fader’s addition as she filled in the Emmy Lou Harris part. From that earliest show I have compared Dekker to Neil Young, but this was the first time I recall him covering him, and show ender “Harvest” was a perfect, though almost too obvious choice. While the last record Ongiara was even more serene than their previous two efforts, the new Lost Channels borders on poppy. “Pulling on a Line” and “She Comes to Me in Dreams” are as memorable as any songs he’s written.

Once again the band demonstrated an uncanny knack for playing exactly the right songs. The always stunning “Various Stages” early in the set was flawless. The knowing way he states “I have seen you in various states of madness” expresses neither surprise nor concern, just resignation and acceptance. “Moving Pictures/Silent Films” is all the reason you need to pick up their first record. I was disappointed to see that “Imaginary Bars,” the song that made me fall in love with them in the first place, was not on the set list, but too content to complain. Like I said, they know what to play, and it showed up at the end of the night, as if he knew he needed to play it.

After the female opener for the Handsome Family set us scurrying to the patio, I claimed I was pretty sure I didn’t want to see Kate Maki. I was wrong; the petite Canadian was charming and adorable, if perhaps a little too obsessed with age. She seemed to think she was over the hill and couldn’t stop talking about it, but she certainly didn’t look over thirty (because if that is over the hill I’m in trouble). She had commandeered half of the Great Lake Swimmers to be her backing band, and they proved an excellent backing for her Nanci Griffith voice. As she implored the audience to sing along on a song, she claimed that “it was being recorded so you have to,” before adding a giggled “just kidding.” You can find that video on YouTube.

Every time I see the Championship I think “Hey, I like these guys!” and then promptly forget what they sound like, only to be surprised the next time (which, I’ll confess always makes me feel a bit like Dora from Finding Nemo). I had forgotten how gorgeous the lead singer’s voice is, and how awesome the multi-instrumentalist’s mustache is (though I am pretty sure I wasn’t so into mustaches the last time I saw them, because his I would have remembered).

In fact, my only complaint was that they committed the cardinal sin of opening bands, they played too long. Or maybe it just seemed too long because they also made the mistake of saying they had a few more left and then proceeded to play seven more songs. But again, I think maybe I am just looking for things to complain about.

The Championship

Kate Maki

Great Lake Swimmers