Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Low Czars as Cheap Trick; October 31, 2009; High Noon Saloon

The Low Czars are masters of obscure 60’s psychedelic rock, so their decision to go as mega-popular 70’s power-poppers Cheap Trick certainly didn’t seem like an obvious choice. But what I should have learned from their appearance as the Kinks for last year’s celebration and their shows covering Love’s Forever Changes in its entirety is that they can do anything, and do it well. I’m just not sure I realized how well.

But what to do when the band you are portraying has four members, and your band has five? Easy, you have two Robin Zanders, of course. Aaron Scholz and Bob Koch split vocal duties in the Low Czars, so it made perfect sense that they would both play the Trick’s charismatic lead singer. Both sported the requisite white shirt and pants and identical blond wigs. They were convincing enough that after a few beers it seemed less like there were two of them and more like an extreme case of double vision. Bassist James Leaver slid into his role of the always-sexy Tom Petersson with ease, while drummer Larry Braun in a striped tie and baseball hat was a convincing Bun E Carlos . . . if the Bun had joined a Weight Watchers program.

They were all good, but absolutely nothing could have prepared me for Peter Fatka’s turn as over-the-top guitarist Rick Nielsen. The ridiculously talented, but normally quite reserved, multi-instrumentalist was so perfect, from his turned-up checkerboard cap to his five-necked guitar, that when I showed my brother a picture on my camera the next day he demanded to know where I had seen Cheap Trick. Even though only one-fifth of Fatka’s multi-necked guitar was functional, he’d done an amazing job of re-creating the look of the hydra-headed guitar. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Nielsen use more than two of the guitars of his monstrosity, anyway.

The crowning glory of his portrayal was the souvenir guitar picks he rained on the audience. During their shows, Nielsen flings handfuls of the Cheap Trick-emblazoned plastic triangles over the first dozen rows; anyone who goes home without a pick didn’t really want one. Though he didn’t quite have the distance technique down—the flimsy picks seemed to defy the laws of physics—he did use many of the tricks I’ve seen during a Trick show, including batting them with the neck of his guitar.

The set list could have been pulled from any show of the last twenty years. Emulating At Budokan, they started with “Hello There,” one of the most perfect opening songs ever, and ended with “Good Night.” In my opinion Koch had the superlative tunes to sing, his sometimes surprisingly high voice perfect for hits like “Dream Police,” “Southern Girls,” and the oft-covered pop anthem “Surrender.” On the other hand, Scholz got their biggest hits, the power ballad “Flame” and the timeless “I Want You to Want Me.” No matter who was singing, every song was played without a trace of irony. I can hardly wait to see what they come up with for next year.

The award for best overall costume goes to the Low Czars!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Monsters of Folk; October 30, 2009; Auditorium Theater, Chicago

Coincidentally the last time I had been to the Auditorium Theater was to see Bob Dylan (who I had just seen the night before), the time before that was Julian Lennon in 1984 (don’t laugh it was awesome). I was in the first balcony both those nights and recalled thinking it wasn’t too bad a seat. However, I should mention that I am not used to being close to Bob Dylan, and that Julian Lennon show was a long time ago. In many venues the first balcony overhangs the floor so much that the front row is better than most seats below it. When I pulled a single front row balcony seat seconds after they went on sale, I figured that was a pretty good seat. Unfortunately I am used to being close to all three members of the Monsters of Folk, not to mention their drummer (who I was surprised to learn was Centro-matic’s Will Johnson, apparently drums were his first instrument), and my seat seemed an eternity away from the stage. Despite the distance it was impossible not to get caught up in the constantly changing line-up of solos, duos and trios and full band songs over the course of the nearly three hour(!) show.

When the Monsters of Folk tour was announced I figured it was just a cutesy name for the second tour that Conor Oberst, M. Ward and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James were undertaking. So I was surprised when someone told me they had heard a Monsters of Folk song on the XM radio. The three of them playing a show together was exciting enough, but a whole disc of their collaborations figured to be nirvana. And for most of the disc it is. It tends a bit toward the long side, but that is my only complaint with a disc that blends their three distinctive voices so well. I was impressed that the whole band had suited up for the show, only fitting given the beauty of the theater. All the kids seemed to be going nuts over Jim James, but I was there for the band’s other two members. Oberst may have stolen the show on record, but for me tonight’s show was all about M. Ward.

It was no surprise that cameras were not allowed at tonight’s show, few theaters of this size do, but I’m used to M. Ward requesting that we put away our cameras. I’ve seen him a couple times at the Pabst Theater, and both times signs politely requested that we refrain from taking pictures. When they ask that nicely I will always comply, even when I am used to being able to take pictures there. While I think he just doesn’t like having his picture taken, he claims it is so that we will concentrate on the show. He may be right- his last show at the Pabst and tonight’s extravaganza will make my year end list for sure. That last show was terrific, but he outdid himself tonight. I loved him on guitar, but even better was when moved to keyboards on “Whole Lotta Losin,’” where he played standing up and pounding the hell out of them with all the passion of a modern day Jerry Lee Lewis.

In addition to songs from the record, each member did some of his own material. Ward chose the fantastic “Chinese Translation” from 2006’s Post War for one of his selections, which is easily my favorite song of his. Some of the songs from their collaboration bear the distinct mark of who wrote them, for example “The Sandman, the Brakeman, and Me” is definitely Ward and “A Man Named Truth” is unquestionably Oberst, and they maintained that distinguishing sound live. Others are less easily sorted. First single and opening number “Say Please” sounds like all of them, but mostly like Oberst, while “Dear God” sounds like none of them. Granted I don’t know his output as well, but Jim James seemed to branch the most outside of his typical style. On songs like “Losing Yo’ Head” there isn’t a trace of the reverb-soaked Neil Young-esque voice which identifies the My Morning Jacket sound.

Interestingly, on songs where they all contribute, like “Baby Boomer” and “The Right Place,” I was reminded more of the Traveling Wilburys than I was of any of their individual output. It seems an apt comparison. It remains to be seen if they have the longevity or will make the same contributions to American music, but these artists are the Bob Dylan and Tom Petty of today. Which makes that $60 ticket totally worth it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bob Dylan; October 27 and 29, 2009; Metro Centre (Rockford) and Aragon Ballroom (Chicago)

After several disappointing shows in row, I dragged my feet buying a ticket to Dylan’s Summerfest show. But I was certainly glad I did, as it was a revelation. With a terrific new record out, he seemed reinvigorated in July, taking center stage after spending the last several shows off to the side, as if he were no more remarkable than anyone else in the band. His voice was the best I had heard it in years, he was blowing the harmonica frequently, dancing, and (gasp) even playing guitar on a couple songs. So when the Rockford show was announced only a few weeks in advance of the date, I didn’t hesitate to buy a ticket even though I had already bought one pricey ticket for the first of three Aragon shows.

Nothing about that Summerfest show prepared me for the surprise I got that night. I heard the announcement that greets him every show, you know the one about disappearing into a drug haze, finding Jesus, and returning to make some of the best music of his career, as I was in the pretzel line, and I returned to our seats in the half empty Metro Centre just as the band took the stage. “Look,” Michelle said, “your boyfriend is in the band.” Now, I know Dylan’s current band, not as well as I knew the band that played my favorite shows in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, but I know them. And other than maybe the slightly cheesy, nothing-but-trouble bass player Tony Garnier, there is no one I would call my boyfriend. I looked, and holy freaking sh*t, Charlie Sexton is back in Bob’s band. It was the best birthday present I’ve ever gotten from someone who didn’t know they’d given me something.

If Bob seemed reinvigorated in July, he seemed twenty years younger tonight. His voice was clear and strong, every word intelligible, and he strolled from the keyboard to the mike stand to play harmonica with an extra spring in his step. The whole time Sexton seemed focused on him, often crouching down to make eye contact with him during the songs. Not only was Sexton easily the best guitar player Bob’s ever had- the rest just seemed to be going through the motions in comparison- but he is hands down the sexiest. When he played half a song crouched down with one long leg stretched out in front of him I almost passed out. No, really, I did, almost. And no one in the band wears their matching suits as well as he does. The show tonight and two nights later in Chicago were easily the equal of the eye-opener this summer.

They should have been even better, but the reason they weren’t was simply song selection. And that’s not his fault, its mine. I simply liked this summer’s set list better. It was good to hear new songs “My Wife’s Hometown” (as in “Hell is…”) in Chicago, and “Jolene” both nights, but “Ain’t Talkin’” from Modern Times is simply too long and redundant. I was I always prefer his earlier stuff, “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” and “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” were great in Rockford and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” made the show for me in Chicago. Unfortunately, since I didn’t allow enough time for Chicago traffic I missed the first two songs at the Aragon. It wasn’t the end of the world, they were songs I’d seen live many times (“Watching the River Flow” and “Girl from the North Country”), but I’d rather had them over “The Levee’s Gonna Break” or the monotonous “Ain’t Talkin.”

Additionally the crowds were far from perfect. In Rockford, we were asked to sit down after several songs, which always annoys me when everyone had been standing at first. Once we sat all we could hear was the nonstop conversation between the couple behind us who spent twenty minutes locating a friend in the opposite bleachers, which eventually led to us standing in the walkway above our section with permission from the usher. Oh well, at least we got to stand. In Chicago one member of the drunken couple that had been talking too loud all show, eventually staggered to the floor and had to be helped out. Hard to believe people pay $60 to get drunk and not remember a show.

Still, these are petty complaints. The fact that these recent shows are as better than any I’ve seen in the last five years, and as good as those from my favorite era, has restored my belief that Dylan is still worth seeing, and certainly worth the fifty dollar plus tickets. Shoot, now that Charlie is back in the band it might even be worth a plane ticket.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Jay Farrar & Ben Gibbard/John Roderick; October 26, 2009; Lincoln Hall, Chicago

Schubas is one of my favorite Chicago venues. It has the character lent it by its century old building, a former Schlitz beerhouse, combined with the advantage of a music room separated from the bar area. I’ve seen a ton of great shows there, and only a few times have I had to deal with inattentive or chatty crowds. That boded well for their new venture, Lincoln Hall, a larger venue which used to be the Three Penny Opera. The room itself is pretty basic, a large rectangle with steps leading down to the main floor. I can tell already that they are going to have trouble keeping the steps clear but the friendly security guy at the door did his best. There is also a balcony and they apparently have capacities for each area. So when we left the room to go to the bar he reminded us to come back in his door or risk not getting back in. We stayed near the back of the room at the top of the steps, and I was impressed with the sound and the overall feel of the room. There were two dudes carrying on a very loud conversation next to us, but that was my only complaint.

The Long Winters show at the High Noon a couple years ago still stands as one of my favorite shows there. Two of the three opening bands were terrible, so we ended up drinking too much before the Long Winters took the stage. It’s all a little blurry, but I remember loving their set and went home with a few more CDs. I was looking forward to seeing frontman John Roderick tonight and he did not disappoint. His set contained some new songs as well as requests from the audience, but he also talked, a lot. I didn’t remember him being that hilarious the last time, but tonight I couldn’t stop laughing. He told us he had cut his own hair and had somehow ended up with a modified River Phoenix. Admittedly the long strands on one side did look a little ridiculous, but it was also pretty endearing.

On the first call for requests I said “Stupid” barely loud enough to be heard by the person next to me, but the second time I actually yelled it loud enough that he heard it. Dismissing the other request, he said he couldn’t do “Auto Parts” without an amp, he said he would do “Stupid.” It’s a heart shredding tale of someone who decides to take a chance on telling someone how they feel to avoid the possibility of “if fifteen years from now I see her, and she asks why didn’t it happen between us?” You don’t find out what the result was, but it doesn’t matter. Tonight’s version was surprisingly long for him playing it solo, with an extended instrumental section, but it was fantastic. I couldn’t stop smiling.

That held true into the headliner’s set. The combination of Son Volt’s Jay Farrar and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (who is billed as Benjamin for anything associated with this record) seems an odd one, but it is remarkable how natural and truly gorgeous their voices sound together. The pair came together while working on the soundtrack to a movie about Jack Kerouac; Farrar paired the iconic writer’s words with original music and Gibbard added vocals. The release One Fast Move or I’m Gone actually goes beyond the scope of music for the movie, including songs that weren't in the film. Most of their stellar collaboration was featured tonight, in a short but remarkable set. As on One Fast Move, opening track “Transcontinental” stood out, but “San Francisco” and “Breathe Our Iodine” were also awesome. Most of the sold-out young crowd was likely there to see Gibbard, but it almost seemed to be the Farrar show. He more than held his own, and maybe picked up a few more fans for his band Son Volt who has seen their popularity level out to a loyal group of fans.

As they took turns on lead vocals, Farrar and Gibbard also switched back and forth between guitar and keyboard. I’ve seldom seen Farrar look like he’s having as much fun as he did tonight, whether it was the material, having someone to share band leader duty with, or just the extraordinary band that backed them. Frequent Farrar collaborator Mark Spencer played guitar, keyboards and most effectively, pedal steel, while hard working drummer Jon Wurster (who sandwiched this tour between ones with Bob Mould and the Mountain Goats) was flawless behind the kit. Judging by the cheers, I guessed that the bass player also hailed from Death Cab (he did). The last couple songs of the night were the biggest surprise. Farrar tapped one of the songs from a solo record; the frequent live favorite “Voodoo Candle,” has been absent from recent Son Volt sets. The reworked version is less tedious than the repetitive original, but it was still a surprise. They saved the best for last with a rocking version of Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” done Jason & the Scorchers style.

The degree to which I enjoy One Fast Move was a surprise, but how much I enjoyed the show may have been an even bigger one. Cheers to Lincoln Hall for being a mid-size venue I will look forward to visiting again.
John Roderick

Jay Farrar * Ben Gibbard

Friday, October 23, 2009

The United Sons of Toil; October 23 & 24, 2009; Skull Alley, Louisville, KY, and the Dojo, Indianapolis, IN

The United Sons of Toil were on day nine of their eleven-day tour of the Midwest when a friend and I caught up with them in Louisville, KY. I’d like to say we chose this show because after a week on the road they would need a couple of friendly faces more than ever, but the truth is we just really like Louisville. As far as first tours go, this one has to qualify as a success since the band was only a hundred dollars in the hole with three shows left. There had been high points: the show in Minneapolis may have been the best they ever played, and it sounded like the pickup gig in Carbondale, IL—in the style of the Good Ol’ Blues Brothers Boys Band—may have been the most fun. There had been at least one very low point. The previous night the owner of the venue in Detroit pulled the plug on their show an hour before start time, claiming “four out-of-town bands on a bill wasn’t a good idea,” leaving everyone wondering why he had booked it in the first place.

Skull Alley is a charming all-ages club, screen print shop and record label. Colorful and slightly gory Halloween-themed artwork lined the brick walls of the long, narrow room, and its owner Jamie hustled between working the door, running sound and tending bar. The headliners tonight were the (inexplicably) much-loved local band Ghostbusters, who were playing a reunion show that had the kids slamming into each other enthusiastically for most of their set of loud, generic rock. The Toil were easily the best band on the bill—which also included the kabuki-mask-wearing, mostly instrumental band Bu Hau Ting and the hilarious cowboy metal band Stage Coach Inferno—but it seemed most of the crowd stood out front of the building during their set of intense math rock. Still, the dozen who witnessed the pummeling seemed into it, and that was enough to inspire the band. The Inferno’s long-haired guitarist enthused about playing more shows with the Toil, but I couldn’t quite tell when bassist Bill Borowski agreed if he was just humoring him.

The drive to Indianapolis the next day was less than two hours, so the band joined us for lunch in Louisville at Ramsi’s Cafe on the World, courtesy of Dick the Bruiser’s Tony Sellers. He had informed them via Facebook that he would like to buy them lunch in whatever city they were in. The show that night was in a new all-ages venue called the Dojo. The absence of any sort of exterior signage made it seem possible that it wasn’t a venue at all, just some abandoned storefront they had taken over for the evening. It also made it seem unlikely that anyone would show up, and for the most part the audience seemed to be made up of the other bands. What the venue lacked in comfort and atmosphere, it more than made up for in musical quality. The two other bands on the bill, Vessel from Brooklyn and Rooms from Indy, were both excellent, and I was happy to support them by buying CDs. Ten days of screaming had been hard on lead singer/guitarist Russell Hall’s voice, but the throat spray and lozenges he had been ingesting all day allowed him to get through the set.

While well short of the trials that Spinal Tap, or their real-life counterparts Anvil, encountered, the Toil certainly had amassed their share of stories, and I highly recommend Hall’s tour blog, available on their MySpace pages. Still, I think it went well enough that they will do it again sometime. Always the optimist, drummer Jason Jensen claimed it was the best vacation he’d ever had. And I know I would certainly be up for another road trip.

Bu Hau Ting

Stagecoach Inferno

United Sons of Toil


Bill Borowski's daughter's doll, Dolly Lollipop, seemed to be enjoying life on tour

United Sons of Toil



Thursday, October 22, 2009

Ludo/Ha Ha Tonka/Meese/Without a Face; October 22, 2009; The Pageant, St Louis

I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about Ha Ha Tonka doing a whole tour with Ludo. After all, the Treaty of Paris fans at their CD release show were annoying enough, and Ludo is a lot more popular, especially in their home town of St Louis. I arrived at the Pageant to find that since this was an all-ages show, alcohol was only allowed on the upper levels of the cavernous Pageant. As much as I wanted to be close for Ha Ha Tonka, I knew I was going to need beer more, besides I couldn’t have gotten close since the floor was already pretty packed. The limited seating on my level was occupied by Ludo fans who had bought stacks of merch on their way in, posters and CDs were piled on the counters in front of the 21 and older fans.

I ended up standing on that level next to the sound board, which actually turned out to be a pretty good choice. Not only were the sight lines good, but it allowed the friend I was meeting there to find me easily. It also gave me a chance to run into a couple of the HHT boys, drummer Lennon Bone at the bar when I went up to get the first round of beers and lead singer/guitarist Brian Roberts when he came up to talk to the sound guy. Both were happy to see me, but neither was particularly surprised. I guess that happens when they’ve seen me outside of Madison as much as they have seen me there. The first opener Without a Face was pretty entertaining. A 12 year old with an acoustic guitar, he sang funny songs about how he didn’t have a band anymore. OK, actually he just looked 12, Lennon told me he was really 22.

The second band Meese was the cheesiest of the lot. Named after two brothers in the band, lead singer Patrick Meese and guitarist Nathan, they were poppy but completely lacking in substance. The most entertaining part of the band was guitarist Mike Ayars who came dressed as a nerd, complete with skinny tie and thick rimmed glasses. As predicted (by me), Ha Ha Tonka stole the show (according to me). The Ludo fans embraced them wholeheartedly and I heard later they sold a lot of merch to their new fans. They played their standard set, one not much different than those they played at Summerfest and at the Bloodshot parties. It had been two months since I had last seen them, so a healthy dose of the new record along with debut favorites “Caney Mountain” and “St Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor” was exactly what I needed.

Their new record is so ridiculously good that I find I can’t go a week without hearing it, I’ve already accepted that I will have to buy a second copy since I will wear this one out. One of those records that get better every time you listen to it, Novel Sounds of the Nouveaux South is a the leading contender for record of the year. Song of the year goes to “Close Every Valve to your Bleeding Heart,” a slow burner than starts simply with mandolin and maracas and builds and builds. It stands as the first time my favorite song has name-checked Dostoyevsky. They ended their set with the ridiculously catchy “12 Inch 3 Speed Oscillating Fan” which turned into an orgy of percussion as they invited all the other bands on stage for their last song. Noisy, but fun.

I hadn’t seen Ludo in probably a half dozen years or more. I’m on their e-mail list so I know what they’ve been up to, but I hadn’t seen them or bought a record since a show at Union South where I bought their self-titled debut. So how did I know almost every song they did? Well, it seems that Ludo and their follow-up Broken Bride have been mastered for the first time and re-released, and this was the release show for it, which made it seem like no time at all had gone by. Tim Convy is still the center of attention. A handsome but exceedingly hyperactive guy, he makes himself hard to ignore with his aerobic workout behind the keyboard. Lead singer Andrew Volpe, who doesn’t even look a year older, still sing-talks their entertainingly silly lyrics about parties and failed relationships. The first is the hilarious “Girls on Trampolines” about a group of friends on their way to a party where “they have more beer than you’ve ever seen and they’ve got girls on trampolines,” while the second damns a lover with the curse, “You can watch Good Will Hunting by yourself.”

They called all the other bands on stage for their hit “You’re Awful I Love You,” which also sounded familiar even though I was pretty sure I hadn’t heard it before. The Ha Ha Tonka boys gathered around one mike for backing vocals. Admittedly it was all a whole lot of silly fun, just like I remembered. If I had my way, Ha Ha Tonka would always be headlining and they would always be playing clubs the size of my basement, but as they keep touring and their fan base continues to grow it is apparent that is not going to happen. In fact, their next show in Madison is at the spacious Majestic Theater where they are opening for Cross Canadian Ragweed (who I strongly suspect may be a jam band). Oh well, I’m certainly not going to complain.
Without a Face


Ha Ha Tonka