Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Optimistic; May 31, 2009; The Frequency

It had been an exhausting weekend- eight hours of yard work both days, shows every night, and worst of all, no naps- and I was starting to feel it. Still there was one more show I just had to see.

Louka Patenaude has been sitting in with the Classic Tawnies (Josh and Blake’s cover band) on and off for the last year. He plays a metallic blue Ibanez electric guitar that looks like a prehistoric insect and should be accompanied by devil signs and the histrionic vocals of a hair metal band. Surprisingly, what comes out of his guitar is anything but prehistoric rock; instead he plays tight, concise melodies with none of metal’s excesses. He’s a natural on lead guitar for their blues and classic rock covers, but he was equally good as one of the more impressive parts of a country cover band that Blake spent a short time playing bass with. I had no idea he had also written and recorded a very catchy pop record under the name the Optimistic (which matches his perpetually positive disposition) until Blake popped it in my CD player one day.

He had done most of the work himself on the debut CD, an infectious listen that often resembles Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy in the AM and Being There days, but for the live shows he rounded up a rhythm section. They were the first band tonight on a bill that also included Dead Sparrows and Des Roar who had just played the night before at the Corral Room, while Des Roar had also joined the Know It All Boyfriends on Friday at Café Montmartre. I’m not even sure who these bands are but even after playing a couple nights in town they were still drawing a large crowd on a Sunday night, which was certainly a bonus for Patenaude’s band who had only played a few shows before tonight.

The rhythm section does a good job, but Patenaude is definitely the star of the Optimistic. His shiny guitar lines and contagious melodies sell the music convincingly. No one tune stood out, but it was a solid set. I wish I hadn’t been too tired to stick and figure out what the deal was with the other two bands, but the Optimistic was all I had come to see.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Felice Brothers; May 30, 2009; Memorial Union Terrace

The Felice Brothers were easily my biggest disappointment of SXSW. One of only two actual showcases that I went to, their drunken and overall lackluster performance after I stood through two unremarkable bands made me so crabby that I went back to my hotel room after their set for an early night, skipping Jason Isbell and Tim Easton. Even though the two shows I saw them do last year were terrific, that last one was fresh enough in my memory to make me think twice about going tonight, but I did say I would give them another chance. In the end, I was convinced by “free” and “terrace.”

At SXSW they were all obnoxious, only quiet bass player Christmas Clapton and fill-in drummer Jeremy Backofen showed any restraint at all. The rest staggered through their set with drunken abandon. They were lucky no one got hurt at the end of the set when fiddler Greg Farley tackled Christmas as he stood on top the bass drum, scattering people and instruments everywhere. Tonight my only problem was with Farley. Mysteriously, he seems to think he is in a hip hop band instead of a rural band from upstate New York who claimed they hadn’t even heard the Bob Dylan when they made their first record. His stage behavior is more in line with the Roots than with the Band. He was annoying to the point that I couldn’t even look at him, the only way I could enjoy the show was to ignore him completely. Only when he strapped on the washboard and stopped the “woo woo” behavior was he tolerable.

Other than that, it was a pretty enjoyable show. “Frankie’s Gun,” the ridiculously infectious song which anchored their first record but was left off the SXSW set, was thankfully back tonight. “Run Chicken Run,” a silly but enjoyable song from their sophomore release Yonder is the Clock, was a hoot live. Currently there are only two actual brothers in the Felice Brothers, lead singer Ian and multi-instrumentalist James. Drummer Simon is taking time off to work on a literary project, and he is missed. In his absence James has taken over the lead vocal duties on the songs he used to sing, notably the smile-inducing “Whiskey in my Whiskey,” as in “I put some…” Oh yeah, I’ve been there.

It wasn’t the revelation the first show had been or the hootenanny the second was, but at least it wasn’t the disappointment the last one was. Hopefully they are back on track. Maybe a little less whiskey in their whiskey would be in order.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The UNited Sons of Toil/This Specific Dream/Disguised as Birds; May 29, 2009; The Frequency

Disguised as Birds

This Specific Dream

United Sons of Toil

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Freedy Johnston; May 28, 2009; High Noon Saloon

When super-producer Butch Vig lists recording one of your songs as one of his top ten things ever, it would be hard not to get a big head. Vig numbered being in the studio as Johnston recorded “This Perfect World” for the record of the same name as one of his favorite moments. It is a gorgeous song, the breathless lyrics, “so blue I can’t begin to say,” perfectly expressive. That record and its single “Bad Reputation” were probably as close as he’ll ever get to making it big, but selfish as I am, I like it that way. Besides, I’ll take the congenial musician who played tonight over the guy who once shot back, “Do I come to your job and tell you how to flip burgers?” in response to a request.

Tonight’s Freedy was all smiles and manners. In fact at one point he even asked if there was something we wanted to hear. I wasn’t taking the chance, so I convinced Pete to yell for “Seventies Girl.” He’d had a couple drinks so was more than willing. Funny thing was they didn’t hear him till he used his “Alex voice” which he uses when he thinks only a girl will get a song played. “I wanted to play that too,” exclaimed local musician Jay Moran who accompanied Freedy on guitar, accordion and melodica. Apparently he had been shot down too since we didn’t hear the tale of a girl who stirs up trouble with her new boyfriend by getting into clothes left behind by an old lover.

Even without my favorite song it was still a solid set, the highlights of which were the two afore-mentioned songs as well as the poignant “Evie’s Tears” from This Perfect World, and another of his well-crafted characters in “I’m Not Hypnotized” (from Never Home which was as close as I got to “Seventies Girl”). A healthy dose of covers were also included. The Sixties hit “Love Grows” which he recorded for his 2001 album Right Between the Promises made an appearance early on, as did Paul McCartney’s underrated Wings hit “Listen to What the Man Says.” (Though if you want to hear that tune at its best, you should check out the Trouble with Sweeney’s version from the Fishtown Briefcase EP, which not only appeared on my top ten list that year, it topped it. A minor miracle when you consider that I hate EPs.)

Throughout Moran provided accompaniment and humor, they make a good pair. They encouraged us to come out the next night to see the Know It All Boyfriends, and all-covers, unrehearsed, good time band that also includes Vig and Duke Erickson. Maybe one of these days I’ll make it, but probably not until they do it someplace other than Café Montmartre which is barely tolerable most nights but excruciating when crowded. In fact, now that I think about Momo also made Vig’s list along with local band Drive-By Wendy. No offense Cathy, but they were not good. Hmm, maybe it wasn’t actually that high of praise after all.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

MadToast Live with guest Peter Mulvey; May 26, 2009

MadToast Live hosted by Mary Gaines and Chris Wagoner is a unique show. At first their music and interview program might seem a little odd to the newcomer (whether they are on stage or in the audience) who wonders why they are talking so much. Their intent is to find out about the songwriting process as much as it is to hear the songs played. For the first several months it seemed even stranger because the program was conducted solely for the audience on hand. Wagoner was taping them, but only a handful of people ever heard the show. They have now started podcasting the program, and it is available on iTunes or at Being pod-less, I don’t quite understand the concept, but I do know that it means more people can listen to it.

The quality of each show relies heavily on the guest. An eloquent musician makes for an interesting program while one less expressive can bog it down. They hit the jackpot when Peter Mulvey accepted their invitation. A fantastic musician whose quick wit and vast stores of knowledge has long made him one of my favorite, though admittedly intimidating, live performers, Peter can hold an audience rapt just by reading a letter written to his niece- I know because I’ve seen it. The fact that his history with Gaines and Wagoner extends back to his first records and his band Big Sky made for an even richer interchange.

Having seen Peter dozens of times over the last decade you would think that I would already know all his stories. Turns out I didn’t. For instance, I had no idea how he found his voice. Surgery on his hand years ago led to him tuning his guitar down a half step to make it easier to play, which then found him writing all his songs lower. With as stunning as his voice is, it would seem that he would have naturally fallen into that range. Another thing I didn’t know was how difficult the first couple legs of the “No Gas” bicycle tour had been. Just the relatively short distance between Ft Atkinson between and Madison had been difficult. Now as a veteran of two tours and the proud owner of a recumbent bike, he’s booking the “Long Haul” tour which will take him all over the east coast on an ambitious and moderately insane route.

Songs were interspersed between the interview segments. Sometimes they were related to the topic, such as the always welcome “Trouble with Poets” was suggested as an appropriate song after talking about writing, “The Knuckleball Suite” after mentioning its inspiration Fort’s charming Café Carpe, other times not. They only thing the tunes did have in common were that the hosts hadn’t played them before. Even so, they joined in as they do with all their guests, Wagoner on mandolin or fiddle, Gaines on cello or bass. The pair has a perfect song sense and their additions never seem forced or out of place.

As Peter spends time closer to home to work on his next record there are even more opportunities to see him than usual. Following his appearance on Mad Toast Live is a pair of gigs at the Carpe with violinist Randy Sabien, followed by his annual appearance at Folk on State where he will be playing with Blake Thomas whom Peter calls “seriously kick-ass.” Good call Peter, I concur.