Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Blueheels/Deleted Scenes/Pezzetino; June 30, 2009; Frequency

When a band generates new songs as quickly as the Blueheels do, a live record hardly seems like a logical next step. Along with the EP, live CDs are typically used as a stop gap measure when the time between releases might otherwise be too long. The public has a short attention span and will forget any band that doesn’t demand their attention. But if that isn’t the reason, then why release a bunch of different versions of songs that you’ve already released once when you have a whole ‘nother batch, probably two batches, just waiting to take into the studio? However, in the case of the Blueheels the fact is that the live show has put them where they are today. Tireless touring of northern and central Wisconsin and energetic, addictive shows have made them a bar favorite from Madison to Appleton. The studio CDs are great, but a live show shows their true colors.

The CD was recorded over the course of two nights last November at Cranky Pat’s in Neenah, pretty much home base for the band in their takeover of the state. The song that supplied the title “Twist and Toil” wasn’t on their last CD, perhaps because they were saving it for this release or perhaps because this song in particular requires audience participation. The chanted chorus of “Get up, go to work, come home, go to sleep” has been erroneously compared to the Bottle Rockets “Gotta Get Up.” Yes, the sentiment is the same, but the songs sound nothing alike. And it isn’t like the Bottle Rockets invented getting up and going to work. On this CD the crowd makes themselves heard, putting some real volume behind their effort.

I’m guessing the crowd at tonight’s show celebrating the release of the live CD wasn’t as big as the one in Neenah, but they certainly knew what to do. It helped that the co-writer of the chorus the erstwhile Christopher Billingsley, who since leaving Madison has been rumored to be living in Seattle, Haiti and Key West, was in attendance tonight to lead us. I recognized several people in the crowd, but the band’s Fox Valley contingent was notably absent, perhaps the victim of the midweek show. In fact I was surprised there weren’t more people there in general.

The Blueheels aren’t as omnipresent as they used to be, and tonight’s bill was particularly tempting, both factors which should have resulted in a larger crowd. Not that it mattered; the band threw themselves into the set just like always. A good chunk of the songs were from that new batch, many I’d heard and at least one I hadn’t. The night ended with a song about seven skinny cats and seven fat ones. Robby’s yowl imitating the skinny cats was adorable and hilarious, not to mention stuck in head for days. I sure wish that song was on the CD, I’d make everyone around me crazy. As time goes by, keyboardist Teddy Pedriana’s addition to the band makes more and more sense. He is essential to many of the new songs, and rumor has it that what he is doing for the next record is going to blow my mind.

The particularly alluring part of this bill was the return of the Deleted Scenes to Madison. The DC band won a lot of new fans on their last visit to Madison back in January. Their difficult to describe sound has an Eighties appeal married to a DIY sensibility. I wish their recent release Birdseed Shirt sounded as good as they do live, but since it doesn’t I wish they came to Madison more. After the affection and enthusiasm shown them by Teddy’s girlfriend Steph, maybe they will. I had decided the first time I saw Pezzetino that she needed to be better or weirder, until then I’ll be spending her sets in the bar.
Deleted Scenes


Monday, June 29, 2009

Spoon/Ha Ha Tonka; June 29, 2009; Summerfest

My previous assessment had been that Spoon is just not good outside, but after seeing them put on a convincing rock & roll show on an unseasonably cool night at Summerfest I made need to change my conclusion. Apparently Spoon is not good when it is hot outside. Which doesn’t really make sense for a band from Texas, but I don’t know how else to explain a band that has been good (tonight, at the Pabst) to brilliant (at the Annex) at times but completely uninspired three times at ACL (which is without fail torturously hot) and Pitchfork in Chicago (which felt like Texas with more humidity).

To be honest, there isn’t really anything special about them, all of their keyboard heavy, mid-tempo songs kind of sound the same. But as it turns out, I am a sucker for that sound, and through the course of four full length studio records and a handful of EPs they have perfected it. They hit all the high points of their catalog, from opener “The Beast Adored” (from 2005’s Gimme Fiction) to 2002’s “That’s the Way We Get By” (from Kill the Moonlight”) as the first song in the encore that caused a few excited fans to topple off the benches we were all standing on. The newest song in the set was “Got Nuffin’” from a three song EP released this year, while “Fitted Shirt” from 2001’s Girls Can Tell was the oldest I believe.

It certainly doesn’t hurt their appeal that frontman Britt Daniel has a gangly, geeky handsomeness that could only work on a musician. His protruding ears that peek out through his artfully messy blond hair, not only make him look like a long lost brother to Conor Oberst, but also easily identifiable. In fact in the boring hours between Ha Ha Tonka’s rain-dampened set at 6:30 and Spoon’s 10 pm headlining show when I was roaming the grounds I instantly recognized him walking toward me through the crowd. I smiled as he passed, and he smiled back, knowing that I knew who he was. It was a sweet moment.

Suspecting what I did about Spoon, the fact is I wouldn’t have even been at Summerfest today if it weren’t for Ha Ha Tonka who I know to be awesome under any circumstances. The fest gods certainly weren’t smiling on them today. First disadvantage, the sky spit rain intermittently throughout their set causing many people to don their beer emblazoned ponchos or raise their umbrellas. Additionally, they played on the Rock Stage, currently under the sponsorship of Potawatomi Bingo (apparently in times of economic hardship gambling does better than ever), which is as unobtrusive as a major stage can be. Not only is it located at the far north end of the grounds, but it faces the lake, thereby eliminating the “hey, these guys sound cool, let’s stop” factor that the other stages have.

Which is too bad, because this is a band that needs to be seen live to be fully appreciated. Once you see these four charming and ridiculously good-looking boys playing a kick ass rock show, whether for a packed house in a tiny bar or a soggy Summerfest crowd, you can’t help but love them. Since security wouldn’t let everyone come up on stage where it was dry, in an admirable goodwill gesture they played their last song “Twelve Inch Three Speed Oscillating Fan” in the middle of the crowd. And that’s the kind of thing that guarantees a bigger crowd next time.
Ha Ha Tonka


Saturday, June 27, 2009

Folk on State with Peter Mulvey and Blake Thomas (featuring Josh Harty); June 27, 2009; State Street

Peter Mulvey has played Folk on State ever since its inception nine years ago; it’s too bad the weather has seldom cooperated. It’s always too hot, the humidity oppressive, and last year he had barely finished his set and loaded up his bike when the sky let loose with a torrential downpour. Tornadoes were sighted between Madison and Fort Atkinson where he was headed. Luckily he and his biking buddies had wisely taken shelter in town. With a history like that, you can hardly blame him for being positively giddy about today’s moderate temperatures, even though an animated wind kept threatening to blow away the donation guitar and topple the speakers from their stands.

In fact, I’ve never seen Peter quite this silly. He said he’d had some sort of natural beer with things like gingko biloba and ginseng (BluCreek’s herbal ale) across the street at State St Brats before his set, but one beer doesn’t quite explain it. Whatever the reason for his terrific mood, it doesn’t matter, he was endlessly entertaining. For the first time in several years he had forgone the bike to get to this particular gig, instead opting to take in the sights around the House on the Rock (actually going in was too expensive). Lest you think he has gotten lazy, check out “The Long Haul” tour that he has booked for this fall which takes him all over the east coast… on his bike. Despite the fact that he had left the recumbent at home today, the effects of this newfound passion are obvious, he looks terrific. In his Capri pants (usually only acceptable if you are riding that day) and ever-present hat, he was the picture of health, and completely adorable.

Even more important, he sounded great too. His set included several of the songs that will make up his next release. The amusing “Some People” always draws a few chuckles from the audience, you just never know what part is going to make them laugh, whether it’s the part about Senators going into airport bathrooms and getting their reputations besmirched or the simple but somewhat uncharacteristic “nyuck, nyuck, nyuck.” He gladly took requests and played “Shirt” almost immediately after it was requested.

He had been looking forward to seeing Blake ever since he played at the house and took Flatlands home with him. “Sometimes we meet up in the afternoon and I’ll chase if you run,” he mused before claiming he had applauded that song the first time he heard it, even though he was alone in his car. “You only get a couple of those in a lifetime,” he said in praise of the lyrics. Later after picking out the opening line to “You Shook Me All Night Long” in response to a request for AC/DC (obviously this was not Peter’s usual audience), he repeated sarcastically, “You only get a couple of those in a lifetime” to the audience’s amusement. I’ve been a fan of Peter’s for a long time, and these recent shows have been among the best I have seen him do.

In previous years he was the only artist who was allowed to have the entire two hours, this year however Darlene (president of MadFolk) had too many people who wanted to play. Peter of course was happy to share the stage with Blake and I was happy to finally see them sharing a show, something I had been pushing for. Blake and Josh had been playing more shows together recently, both as a duo and as a band (which always contains Chris Sasman and sometimes includes Mary Gaines, Chris Wagoner or Louka Patenaude), so it wasn’t surprising to see Josh on stage with him today. He has a talent for harmony vocals and guitar accompaniment which make him an asset to any band. Their set sold Blake’s songs so well that he actually had to go get more CDs from the van. I always knew a gig with Peter would treat him well. And it certainly made me happy.

Blake Thomas & Josh Harty

Peter Mulvey