Thursday, July 30, 2009

United Sons of Toil; July 30, 2009; High Noon Saloon

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Blake Thomas & Josh Harty; July 28, 2009; Mr. Roberts

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Wicker Park Fest; July 25, 2009; North & Milwaukee, Chicago
Scott Miller

Scott Lucas & the Married Men

Retribution Gospel Choir

The Wrens/The Biltmores (Friday)/Zelienople (Saturday); July 24 & 25, 2009; Schubas

I read a disparaging comment in a thread about the set list from these shows on the Wrens message board, “How can people that like the Wrens enough to post on their message board not know the names of songs from Secaucus?” As if somehow that wasn’t OK. After all, I only like half the songs on that record and other than “Made Enough Friends,” I don’t know the names of any of them. Hell, I can’t even name all the songs on Meadowlands, and I love that record. But, I’ve probably seen them more than most of the people on that message board, and I can almost guarantee I’ve bought more plane tickets. Because for me it’s not about knowing every word to every song, it’s about the amazing energy on stage that fills every room they play. I’m a relative newcomer having only seen them for the first time five years (six months, seven days) ago, a mere fraction of the two decades they’ve spent together, but they are hands down the best live band on the planet.

What they aren’t is either the most prolific or hardest touring band on the planet. Meadowlands, only their third full-length, was released in 2003, meaning that by the time this mysterious new record comes out the gap will likely be even longer than the much-discussed seven years between its predecessors. And I’ve only seen them string together more than three dates in a row once. So when they do play it seems inevitable that they might be a little rusty. I’d seen them in New York and three SXSW shows in March, and each of those was better than the one before. Still, they hadn’t played since May and it showed in the first of their two night stand at Schubas. Don’t get me wrong, even a mediocre Wrens show is better than most bands at their best.

It wasn’t until night two that the band truly responsible for some of my more insane travels showed up. The first night they made me smile, the second I grinned like an idiot for the entire night. The set lists were similar, the difference being some of those songs from Secaucus that I don’t know the names of and a different order. Their ceremony of bringing fans up on stage to bang on things during “Boys You Won’t” has become a tradition, but I’ll admit I didn’t miss it a bit the second night when they played for an enthusiastic but less hyperactive crowd than the all-ages one the night before. While the mass percussion has gotten a little tiresome, one that never will is the cell phone trick.

Someone mentioned that they seemed to be having technical difficulties, but this is perhaps the best I’ve seen it work. As Charles sings “I Guess We’re Done” into his phone on one side of the stage, Greg holds his up to the pick-up on his guitar. The words may not be coherent, but what comes through is beautiful and spine-tingling. Opening with that left their other traditional opener and night one second song “This Boy is Exhausted” for the end of the set where I found it much more effective. An especially melancholic “She Sends Kisses” ended the first encore as Charles was left twiddling knobs while the rest of the band left one by one. The night two crowd demanded and got two “true” encores. I’m pretty sure the band was ready to call it a night when they were brought back a second time. Sigh. I need to buy some plane tickets, now if they would only book some shows.

I’ve become convinced that being the opening band for a Wrens show is a lottery. After all, how else can the wide variety of unknown, mostly unlikeable openers be explained? The scenario I picture is this, the Wrens announce a show and the first band to e-mail them and ask to open gets the job. Which would explain Friday’s generic Biltmores and Saturday’s slow-as-molasses Zelienople, both of whom tested my patience as I stood up front. I’m sure both of these bands are just fine, in fact Chicago “poet” Thax (whose rumors of death had been greatly exaggerated) was a fan of the first band, and the second contained at least one huge Wrens fan, but they were standing between me and the Wrens and that is not a place I would want to be.


The Wrens

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Bottle Rockets; July 23, 2009; Cranky Pat’s, Neenah

If a band hasn’t been around as long as the Bottle Rockets have, filling an entire night yourself might be a problem. As it was, there were still songs I wanted to hear at the end of two terrific, and lengthy, sets. They’ve been making Neenah a destination on their last several tours, even skipping Madison on occasion in favor of the pizza place with attitude. Cranky’s has even gone smoke-free on show nights, despite the fact that the state-wide smoking ban is still a year away and the rest of Neenah is still smoke-full. Oh yeah, and the pizza is delicious too. I can’t believe we almost weren’t going to go to this show. What were we thinking?

What matters is that we did go, and were not disappointed. The Bottle Rockets shine in venues like this- small dive-y bars packed with drinkers and yellers, a place where you can still play an un-ironic cover of “Freebird.” Which is exactly what they did. They returned to the roar of the crowd, only to silence them with that familiar question, “If I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me?” Awesome. The band has always had more than a touch of southern rock in them (it’s no surprise that one of their former members, longtime bass player Robert Kearns, is now playing with Lynryd Skynyrd), and I’ve seen them rock more Neil Young covers than any band barring Madison’s Neil Young cover band Shakey, but this may be the first time I’ve seen “Freebird.” Let me repeat, awesome.

For years I’d been forced to beg for “When I Was Dumb” which is quite simply the best song Brian Henneman has ever written (don’t listen to him). It seems I have now won them over and usually get to hear it whenever they know I am there. “Yep, sometimes it really is that easy,” Brian claimed as he played the distinctive opening notes. Other songs don’t require begging. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Bottle Rockets show that didn’t include “Indianapolis,” “$1000 Car” and “Radar Gun.” Tonight they all came back to back like a mini greatest hits medley.

Other highlights came from their upcoming record Lean Forward (which is better than falling back according to Henneman). No Depression says it keeps their streak alive and who am I to argue. My favorite song “Get on the Bus” (about riding the bus of course) didn’t make the set list, but other catchy tunes did. In fact, opening track “The Long Way” was the set closer. Of the same mindset as Uncle Tupelo’s “Long Cut,” the song is a reminder in these days of Mapquest and GPS that sometimes it is OK to get a little lost. “The long way isn’t the wrong way, and a wrong turn isn’t the end, if it’s understood that something good is waiting for you ‘round the bend.”

Sometimes we need those reminders. Just like sometimes you need an unassuming, small town, kick ass rock show to remind you how good life can be.