Monday, August 31, 2009

Dandy Warhols/Pale Young Gentlemen; August 31, 2009; Majestic Theater

The last time the Dandy Warhols came to town it was for a $20 show at the Barrymore. This time it was a much better deal. Another in the Jack Daniels sponsored Studio 7 series, not only was it free but there was swag for those who could guess the answers to JD trivia and complimentary drinks for everyone, Jack Daniels of course, rows and rows of the distinctive bottles lined the shelf behind the bar. I certainly wouldn’t have paid twenty to see the band that I had lost interest in ever since their third record, but I was more than happy to go to the show tonight. I had enjoyed their debut The Dandy Warhols Come Down, and their sophomore effort the country tinged Thirteen Tales of Urban Bohemia remains one of my favorite records. The trippy Welcome to the Monkey House lost me though, and I hadn’t gone out of my way, other than a festival sighting, to see them since then. I was intrigued to see what devastatingly handsome Courtney Taylor-Taylor and company had been up to.

The answer appears to be “designing a light show.” A wall of lights had been set up behind them and throughout the show they blinked in patterns or strobe, the overall effect ranging from completely annoying to just difficult. Not that the music was terribly complex; by the time they announced their last song I felt like I had just been listening to the same song over and over for the previous hour anyway. Even the songs I really like, “Bohemian Like You” and “The Last Junkie on Earth,” had been reduced to pulsing beats and lights. We left before the encore, which turned out not to be the statement we thought it was since they never returned to the stage despite a what I hear was a genuine effort from the audience encouraging them. The Majestic had stated that they would let people without invites in if the room wasn’t full at show time. Jack Daniels didn’t seem to care much either if you had a voucher or not, and their girls handed out tickets to anyone in line who didn’t have one.

Which added up well for the openers, local band the Pale Young Gentlemen. The band has been garnering enthusiastic reviews since forming in Madison five years ago. I was solidly on that first bandwagon but had fallen off recently with the release of their sophomore record Black Forest (Tra La La) which traded manic gypsy dance tunes for sleepier bedroom pop. Still, I’ve been trailing behind the wagon always curious to see where they are headed next. Their shows recently have been limited to opening for national touring acts (they’re playing with Andrew Bird next month at the Forward Fest) and local bills with friends Sleeping in the Aviary. Tonight’s set, an engaging blend of old and new material, brought back the abandoned keyboard and included a number of songs from their first release. Opening a free show in a good sized theater where folks are slurping down free whiskey could be a disaster, but instead they worked it well, engaging the audience immediately and likely gaining a number of new fans in the process.

At the end of the night I was happy. I was pleasantly drunk and I’d seen a show that was worth more than I had paid for it.
Pale Young Gentlemen

The Dandy Warhols

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Bloodshot 15th Anniversary Beer-B-Q; August 30, 2009; Middle East, Boston

By all accounts the Bloodshot 15th anniversary parties thus far had all been musical successes, but that didn’t mean they weren’t running so smoothly that co-owners Rob Miller and Nan Warshaw refused my help for the Boston celebration. I had planned to visit a friend out there but when she was asked to go to Amsterdam for work I couldn’t let her say no. That meant I would be spending the day by myself, and rather than stand around feeling awkward and drinking too much I volunteered for the day. Of course one of my secret fantasies has always been to be a merch girl, especially for a show where I was passionate about the music. Unsurprisingly I sold a lot of Ha Ha Tonka CDs, no matter what folks came up to the merch stand to buy, they inevitably walked away with Novel Sounds of the Nouveaux South. Rob seemed surprised when we ran out of the Deadstring Brothers Starving Winter Report while copies of the more recent Silver Mountain remained. I wasn’t, I like that record better.

Ha Ha Tonka had played in Emporia KS the night before. I haven’t MapQuested it, but that’s a long way away from Boston MA and there’s no way they could have driven. It never occurred to me that they would fly. Even then time was tight. They would have made it if it hadn’t been for Red Sox post game traffic, and they started their set ten minutes late, apologizing sincerely several times during the set. If you hadn’t forgiven them after the first song, there’s no way you could have been holding a grudge after the rumbling harmonies of “St Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor,” and if you were then the sweetly beautiful “Close Every Valve to Your Bleeding Heart,” perhaps the best song on their remarkable new record, wasn’t going to change you mind. Me, I’d pretty much forgive them anything. This was the fifth time I’d seen them this year, and every show has left me wanting more. I love those boys, and today I loved them even more after watching them convert an entire crowd on zero to one hours of sleep.

Half the line-up was the same as I had seen in Minneapolis the week before. Tonight Bobby Bare Jr and his band of misfits known as the Young Criminal’s Starvation League ended the night in front of a dwindling crowd. Despite his always-entertaining antics more slipped out before he finished. I was a little disappointed his bizarre keyboard player from last weekend had been replaced by someone decidedly less odd. The Deadstring Brothers also pulled the old band member switcheroo, made even more obvious by the fact that the bass player tonight was female. They played a solid set but I still haven’t warmed to their newer songs or to the frequent line-up changes. In between those two was the unannounced special quest, Justin Townes Earle. He’s been a good draw at other Beer-B-Q’s but they couldn’t list his name since he had another show coming up in town.

His act seemed even more practiced than the last time I’d seen him. Dressed in a shirt that looked like a tablecloth with white suspenders holding up high-water pants that accentuated his gaunt frame, he looked even more cartoonish than usual. I’ll admit that I have warmed to his music somewhat, mostly due to extraordinary sideman Corey Younts, but I still can’t get over the feeling that I’m being bamboozled by his fake country and snake oil charm. On the other hand Charlie Pickett, who played second today, is the real deal. He was as genuinely charming onstage as he was earlier in the day as he helped me hang banners and load in merch before even introducing himself. With his band he kicked some serious ass; they were the perfect group to follow Ha Ha Tonka’s set.

Things got a little quieter when Graham Parker took the stage. He was the only act to play solo, and there was the chance that it might have been a little too mellow for the crowd that had been enjoying big cans of Rolling Rock all afternoon. Luckily, Gram has his share of rabid fans and they packed the front of the stage hanging on his every word. I didn’t find it as engaging as his in-store at Euclid Records a few years ago had been, but I’d also been drinking big cans of Rolling Rock all afternoon. I did catch the part where he said he bought the beer label button up shirt he was wearing from a homeless man on the street and it smelled funny. True or not, it was pretty funny. Someone who had been thinking about it a lot called him the English John Hiatt and I’ll agree with that assessment. He’s been releasing solid records for decades but never rose beyond cult fame. Still, Hiatt tours more than Parker and this was his only appearance on the Bloodshot train. I’m glad I got to see it.

Thanks again Bloodshot for doing what you do, and thanks for letting me help out for a day. Next time though, remind me to stay at the same hotel as you guys, I’m tired of missing the after show party.

Ha Ha Tonka

Charlie Pickett

Graham Parker

Deadstring Brothers

Justin Townes Earle

Bobby Bare Jr's Young Criminal Starvation League

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Sleeping in the Aviary; August 29, 2009; PA’s Lounge, Somerville, MA

I’ve seen Sleeping in the Aviary many times at several venues, but I’ve never seen them outside of Madison. So a show at PA’s Lounge in Somerville, Mass, the night before the Bloodshot Records 15th Anniversary show hit town was all the reason I needed to buy a plane ticket.

This was date number twenty something on a tour that began after their High Noon Saloon appearance earlier this month. As the tour dwindles down, it seems for the most part to be a success. They’ve played for bigger crowds in every city than they had the time before, owing to word of mouth publicity. An even more important measure of success, and one they are very proud of, is that they haven’t had to get a hotel or sleep in the van yet. Still, they all seemed exhausted, relying on their stock of organic energy drink Kaboom to get going. The Minneapolis-based company went under, but somehow lead singer/guitarist Eliot Kozel has access to its overstock.

PA’s Lounge is a curious venue. The music room, with its three-inch stage (OK, maybe it was six), is to the right of the front door, the bar to the left. Oddly enough, most folks hung out in the music room, and there were never more than a few people sitting at the bar when I went in for another Harpoon IPA. In terms of numbers, tonight’s show had to be a bit of a disappointment after playing for a hundred plus on several stops. At its largest, the crowd couldn’t have been more than 40 people. There were three other bands on the bill, and each seemed to have their supporters, but only final band Hands and Knees was actually any good. First band Feather and Folly, a girl duo, were irritating in the vein of the Secret Wedding Party, but the Aviary boys thought they had an “aaaawwww” effect (which is also why Kozel claims bassist Phil Mahlstadt is in the band).

Their set was a whirlwind thirty minutes. With four bands on the bill and a 1 a.m. bar time, I guess they didn’t have a choice, but I was a little disappointed. Still, it was an entertaining set, devoid by necessity of some of the crazier antics endemic to their Madison shows. Kozel did take advantage of a wide window ledge and crawled up there to play a song behind the curtain, leaving only the head of his guitar and one holey sock covered foot visible. The set featured several of the songs from last year’s excellent Expensive Vomit in a Cheap Hotel in addition to a few newer songs. Mahlstadt took over lead vocal duties twice. The first was for the morbid but amusing “My Body is a Basement,” which features the line “I used to be good at writing clever metaphors” (think about it), from the recent Southside Cemetery Singers CD. The second was for his song from their split 7” with the Hussy. I have the record, but being without a record player, I hadn’t yet heard “Radiowaves,” a chunk of power pop that recalls Possum Dixon in their heyday.

The newest addition to their catalog may also be their most perverse. Within the first twenty seconds of the song we learn that “she forgot the safety word, now she’s dead,” its unsettling nature belied by a bouncy accordion line courtesy of Celeste Heule. She also provides the ghostly saw that accents the chilly “Gas Mask Blues” with its shiver-inducing final line, “If I have a daughter I don’t know what I will do, ’cause I’m gonna want to hit her when she looks like you.” It’s a little disconcerting that four people so perpetually cheerful make such dark, death-obsessed music, but maybe that is why I love them so much.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Dick the Bruiser; August 28, 2009; Area 51

The God Damns; August 28, 2009; The Frequency

I’ve seen the God Damns more since Nate Palen moved to New York than I did before. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen him having more fun, and I’m also pretty sure I’ve never enjoyed them as much as I did tonight. He had no shortage of money making bands when he lived here, the Kissers could sell out the High Noon on St Patrick’s Day, his loungey act Waylan St Palen & the Magic Elves packed the Brink Lounge every Christmas, while the Hometown Sweethearts had one of Madison’s longest running and consistently popular weekly shows, but the God Damns were never about the money. The band was formed with some of the city’s best rock and metal musicians, lead guitarist and curmudgeon Kyle Motor from the Motorz and the August Teens, powerhouse drummer Chad Ovshak and bassist Darwin Sampson (who owns the Frequency), and they can rock the paint right off the walls.

Until I actually made it I wasn’t sure it was going to work. Dick the Bruiser was at Area 51 tonight; it had been far too long since I last saw them and I was way too curious about what I had already taken to calling “the alien bar” to miss that show. But I did make it, and I was glad I did. A band cheeky enough to call their debut release Thriller obviously believes in putting on a show. A fact apparent from the time Palen swaggered on stage wearing a pair of over-sized pink woman’s sunglasses and proceeded to Mick Jagger strut through a barrage of two minute rockers. The music is heavier than the Motorz sunny power pop but it has that same love of 60’s Nugget-style rock. Kyle Motor’s turn on lead vocals for “Juliette” was a scorcher, while their cover of Chocolate Watchband’s “Are You Gonna Be There, (At the Love In)” is a perfect choice to show off what they do best. The addition of a keyboard player seemed odd at first, but only because I’d never seen them with one before.

By the time the set ended close to bar time, only I and a handful of dudes remained. It was late and I had a 6 AM flight the next morning but there was no way I was leaving before they were done, I was having too much fun.