Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Weakerthans/Rock Plaza Central; September 27, 2009; High Noon Saloon

Tonight’s show capped off a weekend of surprisingly entertaining shows. Bands I expected to hate turned out to be my new favorite band, if only for the night, while bands I’d seen before turned in better performances than previously. And a band I hadn’t seen before turned out to be even more entertaining and adorable than I had thought possible. I’d always enjoyed the Weakerthans in Michelle’s car, but in my mind they were just the Canadian Fountains of Wayne. I only saw half of last summer’s FoW acoustic show, but their condescending air of superiority (whether real or imagined) kept me from fully enjoying the dozen songs I had just paid twenty bucks to see. The Weakerthans, on the other hand, could not have been more down to earth, from their boyish enthusiasm and good looks to their goofy demeanor. They were having fun, and therefore so did I.

Despite the fact that the High Noon was close to sold out, I felt like I was in some parallel universe version of my favorite bar. Other than the people I was there with, the staff and Marco Pogo (whose sweaty jostling and inability to stand still for one second was somehow more annoying than usual), I didn’t know anyone there- a strange feeling when I am accustomed to always knowing, or at least recognizing, a good portion of the crowd. One thing for sure, these folks were certainly fans, singing along to every song and cheering enthusiastically at its end. They haven’t had a new release since 2007’s amusingly titled Reunion Tour, so the set list was spread out over all their records. I felt a little out of place among the super fans, but I recognized more songs than I would have expected considering I don’t actually own any of their CDs.

The main reason for that is the abundance of memorable lyrics. From the first time I heard it, my favorite line has been “I rely too heavily on alcohol and irony,” as much for its profundity as for its truth. They occasionally teeter dangerously close to being too clever with interjections like “sitting on the fence between past and present tense,” but ultimately you find them stuck in your head for so long they become indistinguishable from your own thoughts. I am now just as likely to sing “I’m not entirely sure what you’re talking about,” as I am to shrug “huh?” And I won’t ever hear a certain Canadian town mentioned without thinking “I hate Winnipeg,” even though I don’t mean it any more than they do. As charming as they were all night perhaps the too-cute moment was when lead singer John K. Sampson balanced his guitar on his head and proceeded to play the rest of the song with it there, causing guitarist Stephen Carroll to towel him off and then wrap the towel around his shoulders.

If fact, the only thing I didn’t like about the Weakerthans was their over-priced merch (which didn’t stop me from buying a $25 T-shirt) and their choice of opening band. Rock Plaza Central sounded like Fleet Foxes would if none of them could sing. Believe me, everyone does not need a microphone. But those are small complaints for such an entertaining evening. I won’t miss them again.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Son Volt/Sera Cahoone; September 26, 2009; Pabst Theater

Other than their now legendary first Madison show at an extremely oversold O’Cayz Corral, I’d seen Son Volt every time they came to town from their first record through their third. Leader Jay Farrar has a gorgeous voice, but zero stage presence, and their shows often seemed tedious and uninspired. The only sign of assertiveness I’d seen in him was when during a solo show at Luther’s Blues he told a talkative group in front of the stage to shut up. When Farrar called it quits on version one of the band I wasn’t too upset; after all, I was having a hard time remembering why I kept going to see them. So it may seem a bit of a surprise that I’ve been to several Son Volt shows in the last couple years. One reason is a friend who numbers them in her top five bands; the other is bass player Andrew Duplantis. Duplantis played with Jon Dee Graham for many years before being tagged as SV version 2.0 bassist. I got to know him during his time with Jon Dee, and his smile is almost reason enough to see Son Volt.

Now there are two more. The Blood Oranges’ Mark Spencer, who once initiated an ill-fated late night clock repair in my kitchen, is now playing pedal steel and keyboards. He is an undisputed master of the former, the only better steel player I know is Eric Heywood (who coincidentally played with Son Volt on the Straightaways tour), and it was wonderful to hear him tonight. Unfortunately he is also playing the latter, and his grandiose accompaniment made me miss Derry deBorja’s subtler playing. The lead guitarist position has been a revolving door with virtuosos Brad Rice, Chris Frame and Chris Masterson all filling the position with their often over-the-top playing. Currently in the lead guitarist position is someone I can get excited about. James Walbourne is a busy man, playing with the Pernice Brothers and Peter Bruntnell for years. Now I hear he’s been playing with the Pretenders so much that they consider him a full-time member of the band. Thank goodness he got some time off from all those projects to play with Son Volt. The lankily handsome Brit made choosing which side of the stage to stand on more difficult than usual.

With so much to watch on stage, the extensive set flew by. It wasn’t until later that I realized I knew very few of the songs they played. Since I haven’t bought any of the records from the reformed Son Volt, nor have I listened much to the copies I have, the omnipresent “Tear-Stained Eye” and “Windfall” were essentially it. What was surprising is how much the set actually rocked, which I attribute to new release American Central Dust However, the newest song in the set wasn’t even released yet. “Big Sur” will be featured on a soundtrack which sets Jack Keroauc’s words to music. The project is a collaboration between Farrar and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, and the short tour will likely introduce Son Volt to a whole new demographic- the college students who treat each new DCforC release as the second coming. The song wasn’t particularly impressive tonight, but I am willing to give the record and the show a chance based solely on the unlikeliness of the collaboration

However the best part of the show may have come afterwards. We had been hanging around the side door talking to Andrew when he invited us downstairs. I’ve been backstage at a few venues, and other than the Rave’s bizarre opium den, none of them have been very impressive. However, the Pabst really knows how to treat their artists right. Andrew offered us a beverage from a cooler well stocked with beer and soda (including Squirt which made Michelle very happy. There were couches and bean bag chairs, a phonograph with a stack of cheesy cool records like Harry Belafonte and Chick Corea, the latter of whom James amusingly called a wanker. There were games to satisfy everyone’s inner child including Operation and Rockem’ Sockem’ Robots, along with stack of Etch-a-Sketches and an assortment of 8 Ball toys. Andrew and I engaged in an interesting dialogue using the Sarcastic Ball and the Affirmation Ball, which went something like this, “Nice outfit!” “As if!” “You look fantastic today” “And I’m the pope.”

I teased Mark Spencer about my clock still being broken, and I also got a chance to talk to the opener Sera Cahoone about the last time they played Madison with Blake Thomas opening and accidentally loaded out his guitar and took it to Madison. Her opening set was pretty but a little sleepy, I enjoyed talking to her later much more. In fact, from dinner at Rock Bottom Brewery with Rob and Laura to the drive home, there wasn’t anything about the night I didn’t enjoy.

Sera Cahoone

Son Volt

Friday, September 25, 2009

Killdozer/Urinals/Mannequin Men; September 25, 2009; High Noon Saloon

Killdozer is an important part of Madison music history. One of very few local bands to get noticed outside the city, they signed to Touch & Go before declaring “Fuck you, we quit,” thirteen years ago. After the furor that surrounded their reunion for the T&G 25th anniversary show and their appearance at last year’s Forward Fest I would have expected tonight to be sold out long before my brother asked me if I wanted to go only a few days before the show. When asked, a friend responded that while she couldn’t imagine me liking them, she didn’t think I would hate them. A little YouTube research revealed them to be witty in interviews and entertaining on stage. I decided I should go after watching a video for “Knuckles the Dog Who Helps People,” the title sounding vaguely familiar, like something Daniel Johnston or Jad Fair would have written.

Luckily, that is one of their “hits” so the odds were pretty good that they would play it tonight and I was not disappointed. In fact, it was all pretty entertaining. Singer and bassist Michael Gerald is a bit height challenged yet he popped into view over the large and enthusiastic, but not quite sold out, crowd every time he stepped forward to sing. Eventually my curiosity got the better of me, and I slipped through the crowd until I caught sight of the large chest in front of the microphone. That made me smile. The show preview I read said that guitarist Paul Zagoras (who at one time replaced original member and tonight’s guitarist Bill Hobson) would be sitting in on a few songs, but in fact he played the whole set with them. Only when they returned for an encore of all covers (I guess they were out of songs) did he stay backstage. Surprisingly for a band that is associated with sludge rock, their cover selection sounded more like classic rock radio and included Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run through the Jungle” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Turns out Michelle was right, I didn’t hate them. In fact, I would probably see them next time around too. However that wasn’t the biggest surprise of the night. The way the order was listed on the High Noon site it looked like the Urinals would be first. When asked what time I would be getting there I claimed I didn’t need to be there right at the start of the show, “because I can’t imagine there’s any way I would like a band called the Urinals.” As much as I hate being wrong, I can’t deny how much I enjoyed them. Seriously, they were totally awesome. Super catchy one minute power pop played by guys who have resigned themselves to the fact that they aren’t going to make a living at it. And the drummer was wearing an “I heart Gravy” T-shirt. Much had been made about them celebrating their thirtieth anniversary as a band, but that stat is a little misleading. Yes, drummer John Talley-Jones and lead singer/bassist Kevin Barrett had been in a band called the Urinals thirty years ago, but they had played under other names since then, including the Chairs of Perception and 100 Flowers, reclaiming the Urinals name just last year.

I tried claiming that maybe urinal meant something different thirty years ago, but there is really no denying that it was a silly name chosen by some young boys. My only disappointment was that when I went to the merch table to buy the CD that contained “This Song is a Virus,” I was told that it was going to be on their next CD. I explained that I worked in genetics and that the line “this song will restructure your DNA” was fantastic. Maybe on their CD release tour they can make a stop in the basement. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility, when I MySpace messaged them and asked if they would ever want to do a house concert, guitarist Rob Roberge responded enthusiastically, “We love house concerts, but we haven’t been asked to do one in awhile.”

Openers Mannequin Men were no surprise at all, I knew I wouldn’t like them. I had been talked into buying a CD of theirs several years ago, and listened to it twice thinking the whole time, “Why did they think I would like this?” They weren’t any better live, though I discover that it’s really only half their songs I don’t like. When the drummer is singing they are a pretty decent band, but when the guitar player is whining, it’s time to go have a beer on the patio. Oh well, two out of three isn’t bad at all, especially when I didn’t really expect to like any of it.

Mannequin Men



Thursday, September 24, 2009

Fred Eaglesmith; September 24, 2009; Café Carpe

I’ve known the name Fred Eaglesmith for over a decade but I hadn’t heard even one note of his music until I went to see him at the Café Carpe tonight. In my mind he was a gigantic man, at least half Native American, with a booming voice. Boy, was I wrong. He isn’t particularly tall, he’s Canadian, and I wouldn’t describe his voice as booming, though he is very loud. And very opinionated, about, well, pretty much everything, but especially people. He hates hippies, because after all, “it’s not like they were born that way. It’s not like the doctor looked at the ultrasound and said, ‘I have some bad news, I see a dreadlock.’” He’s a Buddhist, but that doesn’t seem to have made him any more patient; in fact, it may make him angrier.

It’s OK though, because he likes to yell, almost more than he likes to sing. The majority of his first set was talking, he maybe played six short songs in a set that lasted nearly an hour. His fans, known as “Fredheads” seem to like it that way. When we asked one fan who had seen him the previous two nights how tonight compared, he said that it was the best so far, and “he is really on tonight.” He reminded me a bit of Hamell on Trial who also includes a fair amount of other material in his sets and whose jokes and practiced tirades sometimes get in the way of his songs. For the second set he seemed to have gotten most of it out of his system, allowing him to sing more and rant less. When he did sing he reminded me a lot of Todd Snider with an easy drawl of a voice and knack for drawing complete characters in his songs. It isn’t a surprise that Snider has covered one of Eaglesmith’s songs, “Alcohol & Pills” which he played tonight.

I enjoyed Eaglesmith, but I think I would like him better with a band; one that keeps him on task, talking less and singing more. Still, any night at the Café Carpe, one of my absolute favorite places on earth, is a good night.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles; September 22, 2009; High Noon Saloon