Sunday, August 23, 2009

Bloodshot Records 15th Anniversary Beer-B-Q; August 23, 2009; Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis

Leave it to Bloodshot to resurrect the idea of a label tour. Back in the days of Johnny Cash and , this is how it was done, several bands with new releases would all hit the road together. Of course back then the latest release was just a single, while Bloodshot seems to be one of the few labels today that still cares about the CD as a whole. The owners, Rob Miller and Nan Warshaw, are as quirky and likeable and as one would expect from the upstart label that has somehow defied the odds and made it a decade and a half in this turbulent business. Cheers to them, and cheers to Rolling Rock for making it possible for them to take this show on the road.

They claim the inspiration came from their annual Yard Dog Gallery party in Austin during SXSW. After all, why should a show this good only happen once a year and in one place? To celebrate their 15th and the 70th of what was formerly Latrobe PA’s most famous export (they were bought by Anheuser Busch), the pair are throwing parties across the country. Pittsburgh was first and Madison was actually second. Unfortunately this was the weekend that we had chosen at the beginning of the summer for our annual familial rendezvous in Orr MN. Instead of making my day as label manager Scott Schaefer had meant to do, the e-mail announcing the date and line-up ruined it. I insisted he change it, he couldn’t, so I was forced to make other plans. Fortunately, it actually worked out better than I could have hoped. Not only did the tour move on to Minneapolis the next day, conveniently on our way home, but they traded in Justin Townes Earle for local boy Ben Weaver.

For the sake of Bloodshot I’m glad to see JTE making alt-country hearts across the country go pitter-patter, but I’ll take Weaver any day. His songs have a lyrical magic to them. Nothing rhymes but they seem like they do, without ever feeling forced or awkward. Though I will admit I wasn’t immediately charmed by him. The first time I saw him was with Dietrich Gosser at CafĂ© Montmartre, two things that would be hard on anyone. One because it is difficult to stand out next to Dietrich, and two because it’s nearly impossible to sound good at Montmartre. It wasn’t until I listened to Weaver’s first Bloodshot release The Ax in the Oak that I realized what I had dismissed as clumsy was actually powerful and deceptively elegant.

He was third on today’s bill following a typically stunning set from Ha Ha Tonka. And I worried that the good sized crowd would chat through his set just as they had in Madison when he opened for HHT. There is the rare occasion when I am happy to be wrong. He wasn’t much for story telling, typical between song banter was often limited to a word or two, “thanks,” or “sweaty,” but the music spoke volumes. The solo banjo tune “Rain and Smoke,” with its killer line “It’s that time of night where if you’re not asleep you’re alone,” was especially poignant. “Anything With Words” is an appropriate title from a songwriter who believes it’s more about the words than the music. Having always been lyrics girl, I heartily agree. His songs can be a bit of a downer, they’re desolate and lonely and people die, but they are never boring.

The Deadstring Brothers were next but we were starving and had to eat, so we only caught their last couple songs. If I hadn’t known they were the Deadstring Brothers I am not sure I would have recognized them. The line-up of the band has changed frequently since five years ago when I met them in Maine, only lead singer Kurt Marschke and drummer Travis Harrett remain. Kurt was nearly unrecognizable with his hippy garb and gigantic beard. I’m looking forward to seeing their whole set next weekend in Boston. Next were the Bottle Rockets hot on the heels of their strongest Bloodshot release yet. The set was a mixture of hits and new songs, so while I didn’t get “When I Was Dumb,” they did play “Get On the Bus.” It’s a very Henneman song, literally about riding the bus, but I love that he can write a song about that and make it so damn catchy. They had the crowd in the palm of their hand without even using “Radar Gun.”

Bobby Bare Jr has always had a knack for collecting interesting characters, Senator Tom Pappas (my sideshow hero of Superdrag) and rumored albino Chris Masterson both played in incarnations of Bare Jr, but the band with him tonight may be his most curious. Deanna Varagonna has been with him every time I’ve seen the Young Criminal’s Starvation League, the combination of her backing vocals and baritone sax is a powerful one. A drummer and a very bizarre looking keyboard player rounded out the band. At the beginning of “Flat-Chested Girl from Maynardville” the latter removed his shirt revealing a very hairy chest and, unfortunately, left it off for the remainder of their set.

The second improvement over Madison’s line-up was that the Waco Brothers played last tonight. I wouldn’t have wanted to be Justin Townes Earle trying to follow one of their incendiary sets. Of course the draw of the Wacos is Jon Langford; I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, he’s the only man older than me I’m attracted to. The combination of his quick wit and devastating Welsh accent makes him irresistible. The fact that he is also a fantastic artist doesn’t hurt, and I came close yet again to buying one of his prints from the Yard Dog currated art show. Tonight’s set was a blur of roundhouse kicks and country style punk apparent in well-chosen covers like the Clash’s “I Fought the Law” and George Jones’s “White Lightning.” Which pretty much makes them the definitive Bloodshot band, and a perfect closer for a ridiculously enjoyable Sunday. Things usually do work out for the best.

Ha Ha Tonka

Ben Weaver

The Deadstring Brothers

The Bottle Rockets

Bobby Bare Jr's Young Criminal's Starvation League

The Waco Brothers

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