Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The August Teens; December 22, 2009; High Noon Saloon

Most Epic employees use the month long sabbatical they get as a reward for five years of employment to travel to a foreign land. And why not with the stimulus Epic gives them- they pay for airfare and lodging if it is somewhere you haven’t been before. Not Dan Hardgrove, the August Teens’ lead singer and songwriter, he’s using his to finally finish up the long awaited Teens’ debut record. No, really, they all swear that it is coming out and there’s a CD release show on the calendar to prove it.

I’ve been hearing about this record for as long as I have known about the band. At first, it was going to be an EP scheduled to be released around the same time as the Motorz’ two albums. I was waiting for those records to come out to write my first cover story for Rick’s. The terrific All Day Long and All Night Long finally came out in 2008, more than a year after the paper ceased publishing. Then the Teens record had become a full length called I’m Selfish and So Is My Cat (or something like that). Now I hear it’s called A Kiss in Wisconsin, but I won’t believe it until I actually have a copy in my hands.

August Teens shows don’t happen that frequently. They often seem to be last minute, and half the time it seems like I have something else going on. In fact the only guaranteed way I seem to have of seeing them is to have them play here. Their last show was November 1, the same day I had a house concert. Tonight’s show had been booked as a Blamm-O/Shazy Hade bill, but apparently Shazy Hade broke up and the Teens took their spot, making this a much better bill. They have perfected the art of the power-pop song; every one is ridiculously catchy, begging for a sing-a-long by the last chorus. The place should be packed every time they play. It wasn’t, and that’s too bad because it was another highly entertaining show.

Their secret weapon is probably guitarist Dave Esmond, who tonight was sporting a Santa hat and Christmas shirt and somehow didn’t look ridiculous. In fact, he looked pretty adorable, which is true of the whole band. Bassist Kyle Motor has all but permanently shelved his awesome band the Motorz as he is always happier playing in a band that isn’t his. The always smiling, disarmingly handsome Josh Motor is the other half of the rhythm section. Hardgrove’s shy charm offstage turns into a magnetic presence onstage and he sells their three minute anthems convincingly, It will be a strange feeling to actually be able to hear their songs more than once every couple months. Mark your calendars for March 12.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Pointy Birds/Auntie Em & Uncle Carl; December 15, 2009; High Noon Saloon

Whew. It seems Saturday night’s Charlemagne show was just an anomaly for the duo. Tonight’s happy hour show under the name Auntie Em & Uncle Carl was quite enjoyable compared to the disappointing show at the Frequency. Of course, this set consisted of mostly covers, but I don’t think that was the difference, mostly because I only knew a couple of them. Besides, I am not really sure that playing one of your own songs recorded with a different band counts as a cover. That song may have been the highlight of the show as Pointy Bird Lisa Marine reprised her role as NoahJohn’s bassist.

The Pointy Birds were originally known as Tancho! Tancho! with Dave Zero on bass and a different guitarist. I saw their first show and Zero warned me that I had better not blog about it. Since I was only able to stay for a couple songs, it was easy to do as he asked. Since then Marine replaced Zero, Julia Zeimer joined the band and they changed their name to the Pointy Birds. Through all those changes they were playing shows, but somehow I never saw them again till now. The big news was that lead singer Alex Fortney has recently broken his dependence on the music stand that held his lyrics. Everyone seemed to think that it was about time, but after seeing Lucinda Williams completely freak out once after forgetting to turn the page in the cheat sheet book always at her feet, I’ve never been one to deny people their security blankets.

I get the feeling that if I knew their songs they wouldn’t all sound so similar, but without knowing them Fortney’s deadpan voice and the fact that they are mostly mid-tempo dooms them. The best of the bunch were made memorable with backing vocals from Marine and/or Zeimer. Since they are usually sharing bills with some of my favorite local bands, I’m sure I’ll be seeing them again. Their melancholy fare is actually my kind of music so we’ll see what happens as I get to know them better.

Auntie Em & Uncle Carl

The Pointy Birds

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Jeremiah's Birthday; December 13, 2009; High Noon Saloon

The Blake Thomas & Josh Harty Band

Jeremiah Nelson & the Achilles Heel

aftermath of the snowstorm

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Charlemagne/The Hemlines/Vid Libert & His Problems; December 13, 2009; The Frequency

Before Carl Johns left Madison and eventually the country, his band Charlemagne had been at the forefront of a collection of lo-fi indie pop bands of varying talent known as the Wisconsin Pop Explosion!. Charlemagne was easily the most polished of these bands, but others such as the Super Eights, Vid Libert, and eventually Sleeping in the Aviary, were just as talented.

Johns’ band, formed after the dissolution of his alt-country band NoahJoah, went through many versions in its history in Madison, from the trio of backing singers in the original six (seven?) piece band the first time I saw them to being just a duo the last time. Their shows had been hit or miss, ranging from a revelation to plain boring, but never bad. So it wasn’t that shocking that the configuration of Charlemagne tonight consisted of just Johns and his new partner Emily Farrell, it was surprising that they were not good. While the native Australian Farrell was charming every time she spoke (the accent), she was less than impressive on vocals and didn’t seem to be much of a guitar player. To be fair, Johns’ voice must be difficult to harmonize with as I’ve seen people from Miss Kaleen to Dietrich Gosser sound cringe-worthy beside him. The Charlemagne songs I recognized sounded OK, but the new material that made up much of the set was unmemorable.

Luckily Charlemagne wasn’t the only reason I came back to the Frequency after the early show. Vid Libert has explored many genres- dub and reggae with the Takebacks, pop/punk with the Nervous System, and singer songwriter fare under his own name- but country was a land he hadn’t explored till now. After playing only two shows showcasing his country side, two members of his band the Problems moved away. Before they did, they recorded the new record Half Gone which Libert was giving away copies of tonight.

His band for this show consisted of bass player John Nichols (of WI PopEx! band the Super Eights) and multi-instrumentalist Miles Biswell who gave the proceeding authenticity with his stellar steel guitar work. For the last couple songs Biswell’s neighbor joined the band. He had started playing with them after wandering over to see what was going on in the studio Biswell had built in his back yard. The new record includes two songs that Libert had released earlier but have been reborn, and re-recorded, with a country flavor. I’ve been a fan of all his projects, but this may be my favorite.

The Hemlines are a relatively new band born after the dissolution of the Pop Explosion, but both members of the duo had been a part of it. Alex Fulton was the drummer for Charlemagne while Erika Zar played solo under the name Aunt Goodness. The band was born just over a year ago after the dissolution of the much-loved Runners Up, forming from the female half of the line-up. I’ve seen the Hemlines several times now and I’m always impressed by their earnestness, but I can’t help miss the boys from the band, guitarist/vocalist Bob Koch and bassist James Leaver. Their absence is especially noticeable on the several songs that had been a part of the Runners Up catalog. Still, I’d rather hear “James Brown with Two Heads” by half the band than never hear it at all.

Vid Libert & His Problems

The Hemlines


Icarus Himself/Alpha Centauri; December 13, 2009; The Frequency

We had just arrived at the Frequency, slightly late, and had already missed the first band on the bill. We were at the bar in the other room when the strangest noise erupted from the back room. The other folks at the bar looked worried, but I was intrigued and went to check it out. I found a skinny, sharp-dressed, lead singer/guitarist with an impressive vocal range, a drummer, a vampire (in a good way, vampires are totally in you know) with three keyboards stacked in front of him, and a female bass player, who also sang, with two more keyboards in front of her. I watched for a minute, intrigued, and went back to the front of the bar to report. After running through the above line-up, I ended with a sincere “and I dig it.”

I’m not sure how much of the meager crowd agreed with my assessment, but I was hypnotized as they went through waves of spacey dance music and more grounded rock. It was difficult to define, but I liked it despite the lack of catchy melodies or clever lyrics. The boy-girl vocals were essentially just another instrument in a mix that also included trombone and accordion. While their plea to buy a CD so they had gas money to get back home usually works on me on a sympathy level, I was already planning on getting one. It certainly wasn’t enough to get them back to Minneapolis, but maybe knowing they had one fan will be enough to get them to come back to Madison again.

Of course, I was there to see Icarus Himself. The side project of Nick Whetro, leader of the National Beekeepers Society, it has developed into something I find more interesting than his main band. While the first several shows I saw were ramshackle and unorganized, recent sets have been impressively slick (that’s slick in a good way). At first I thought it was practice, but sideman Karl Christianson had already dismissed that idea. Perhaps it’s due to the sampler that Whetro has been using recently, which allows him to have at least some of the music he hears in his head on stage with him.

Coffins, their most recent release, ranks as one of the best records I’ve heard this year. If the newer tunes they’ve been playing are any indication, the next release will be even better. This is a work in progress I’ve enjoyed watching develop.

Alpha Centauri

Icarus Himself