Friday, December 31, 2010

Top Twenty Shows of 2010
1. The Bottle Rockets, June 11, Kiki’s House of Righteous Music (KHoRM)
Almost three hours of rock, all requests, and the fastest sellout in KHoRM history. Thank you.
2. Ha Ha Tonka/Chris Mills/The Grandtours, August 12, Sunset Tavern, Seattle
I saw two of my favorite artists play better sets this year, Ha Ha Tonka’s blistering set during Twangfest in St Louis and Chris’s solid set with the five piece band at the Hideout, but the point is I saw them together, and in Seattle.
3. Jon Langford/Blake Thomas, April 24, KHoRM
The man of countless bands plays solo at the house, and like everything he does, it was amazing.
4. James/Ed Harcourt, October 1, Royal Oak Music Theater, Royal Oak MI
Worth a trip to Detroit? They played “Fred Astaire,” I swooned, enough said.
5. Mumford & Sons/Cadillac Sky Band/King Charles, November 1, War Memorial Auditorium, Nashville
Sure they’re popular, but for once it’s a band that deserves it. They were fantastic, the venue stunning.
6. Theodore, July 13, Monk’s, Dubuque
I can never get enough Theodore, but tonight came close since they were contractually obligated to two hours. They might not have liked that, but I sure did. Plus, Monk’s was an absolute delight, cozy and charming.
7. Steve Poltz/Robby Schiller, March 30, KHoRM
Blueheels frontman Schiller played the best set I’ve seen him do opening for the crazy entertaining Poltz and his great band.
8. Jason Collett/Bahamas/Zeus, April 6, Majestic Theater
All three acts alternated and collaborated for this unique show. I went to see Collett, but Zeus stole the show.
9. Langhorne Slim/Ha Ha Tonka, July 26, The Varsity Club, Minneapolis
The Varsity is a great place to see a show, and this was a great show. Slim is a true entertainer. And you know how I feel about HHT.
10. Lou Barlow & the Missing Men/Wye Oak, August 25, The Frequency
Something about Barlow always makes me smile, while his voice absolutely hypnotizes me.
11. Bob Dylan, October 25, Overture Center
Dylan continues a run of great shows, and the smaller Overture Center was the perfect venue. Happy Birthday to me.
12. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists/Title Tracks, March 14, High Noon Saloon
Leo is so great live, his encore was a solo cover of the Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues.” I didn’t see that one coming.
13. Califone, March 9, Lincoln Hall, Chicago
They played a live soundtrack along with Tim Rutilli’s honestly good movie “All My Friends Are Funeral Singers” (Netflix it!) and then played a short but mind-blowing set. A band I’ve known for years became my new favorite band.
14. The Pines/Ben Weaver, May 15, KHoRM
Weaver returned to the house and brought some friends, I was very pleased to meet them.
15. Micah Schnabel/ Time Since Western, January 8, KHoRM
Two Cow Garage singer Schnabel played the house in support of an emotional and honest solo record. Plus, I finally get TSW to play.
16. Billy Bragg/Darren Hanlon, September 9, Turner Hall, Milwaukee
Sensual, sexy, Socialist. Pretty much sums up Bragg. Oh, and funny too, so funny.
17. Great Lake Swimmers, June 13, Marquette Waterfront Festival
Lead singer Tony Dekkar played “Imaginary Bars” solo for me after I embarrassed myself requesting it. More swooning.
18. Elf Power/Icarus Himself, September 27, High Noon Saloon
Elf Power was the best thing about the ‘08 Pitchfork Fest, and they made me just as happy tonight, while Icarus keeps getting better.
19. Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express, October 17, Shank Hall, Milwaukee
Prophet just may be the coolest dude on the planet.
20. The Hold Steady/The Whigs/Jaill, July 2, Lac Courte Oreilles Casino, Hayward WI
Three words I thought I would never hear, “Thank you Hayward!”
Top Twenty Records of 2010
1. Theodore Hold You Like a Lover
2. Zeus Say Us
3. Jon Langford & Skull Orchard Old Devils
4. The Hold Steady Heaven is Whenever
5. Frightened Rabbit The Winter of Mixed Drinks
6. Lindsay Fuller The Last Light I See
7. James The Morning After the Night Before
8. Matt Pond PA The Dark Leaves
9. The Whigs In the Dark
10. Sleeping in the Aviary Great Vacation!
11. Mumford & Sons Sigh No More
12. Two Cow Garage Sweet Saint Me
13. Ben Weaver Mirepoix & Smoke
14. Graham Parker Imaginary Television
15. The Scarring Party Losing Teeth
16. Pernice Brothers Goodbye Killer
17. Ian Moore El Sonido Nuevo
18. Ted Leo & the Pharmacists Brutalist Bricks
19. Jason Collett Rat A Tat Tat
20. The Magnetic Fields Realism

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Meat Puppets/Retribution Gospel Choir/Los Yegueros; December 29, 2010; Club Garibaldi

I had gotten very good at being a homebody in December. It was surprisingly easy for me to go from seeing several shows a week to only seeing two so far this month, and it’s almost over. Since I didn’t even bring my camera to the Shaky happy hour show, it was like I wasn’t even there. Part of the reason for my self-imposed hermitude was that I felt pretty broke after my twelve year old car needed a new muffler, but in truth, there just didn’t seem to be anything that really made me want to get out of the house. Given all of that, it was awfully easy to talk me into a road trip to Milwaukee for this show. I hadn’t been to Bayview’s Club Garibaldi since the smoking ban was enacted in July, but it was high on my list of venues that would benefit from it. It is a very cool club, but the last time I was there the blanket of smoke almost killed me. Another plus, it is right across the street from the Palomino, the only place I’ve found since leaving Texas that makes decent fried okra, and theirs is delicious.

The last time I saw the Meat Puppets I found myself amused to no end that lead singer Curt Kirkwood was wearing sweatpants, as if he couldn’t be bothered to put on real pants. He was wearing the same pair tonight so I can only suspect that it is his new uniform. He was also wearing a distracting T-shirt with something about horny teenage girls that I found myself starring at. Tonight’s show wasn’t as good as the one at La Crosse’s Warehouse back in April, but it was still entertaining. They played the songs that Kurt Cobain made famous on Unplugged, it’s a shame that “Birds” and “Lake of Fire” are still doing more for Cobain than they ever did for the Meat Puppets. There was an excellent version of “Up on the Sun” that had some guy yelling for them to play it again for the rest of the night. It was no surprise that they played “Backwater,” the closest they ever came to hit of their own, what was a surprise was that they led into it with “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” It’s a long song, and I certainly don’t claim to know all the words, but I am pretty sure the majority of the verses don’t end with “when the skies of November get gloomy.” Still, the fact that it is an awesome song and completely unexpected made up for any missing lyrics. Johnny Cash’s “Tennessee Stud” was another surprising cover.

Since the last time I saw them, Chris Kirkwood has added keyboard to his repertoire, though I am not sure why. He’s an expressive and entertaining bass player, but his keyboard skills seemed pretty rudimentary. I can only guess about that fact since I couldn’t actually hear it, I’m not even sure it was plugged in. It did leave his bass unoccupied for Steve Barrington of Retribution Gospel Choir to pick up during “Birds.” He and drummer Eric Pollard took to the stage during the song with Pollard singing backing vocals. The funny thing is, Curt didn’t even notice his guests until the end of the song when he looked over and was startled to have company.

The Retribution Gospel Choir was the fashion polar opposite of the Meat Puppets, the trio all sported black pants and shirt with a black, white or striped tie. They looked very sharp, though I’d be willing to give the hard-working band a break after seeing how the shirts of Pollard and Alan Sparhawk were glued to their bodies with sweat at the end of their set. I love a good sweaty hug from a band boy, but I think I would have backed away from this one. Sparhawk is of course best known as the leader of Low, the painstakingly, and painfully, quiet trio from Duluth. My one experience with Low had me showing up at their Union South show after a happy hour, getting shushed four times and leaving. I’ve never been back. All that time playing quiet has led Sparhawk to some pretty noisy places for his side projects. I do not love the Retribution Gospel Choir’s music, I’ve seen them twice and not one song has stuck with me. However, I do enjoy their show. The energy is staggering and the connection between band members crackles with electricity. It can get a little jammy, but it somehow feels necessary. Besides, anyone who sweats that much on stage must really love what they are doing, and I can respect that.

Openers Los Yegueros were from Panama, which they reminded us of several times during their set. Even though their English was excellent they sang in Spanish save for one song. I liked them enough that I probably would have bought a CD if I didn’t still feel so poor. I gave them the thumbs-up when the lead singer asked me how the first song sounded. I’m pretty sure he heard me say he was cute when they got on stage. What? He was cute. We’d made the mistake of looking up what their name meant before the show, and I can tell you it wasn’t anything I learned in my two years of high school Spanish. Sorry, you have to Google it yourselves.

It definitely was a good time. I think my New Year’s resolution will be to go out more. Should be easy to keep.

Los Yegueros

Retribution Gospel Choir

The Meat Puppets

Friday, December 03, 2010

Chris Mills/Jon Langford & Skull Orchard/Adam Fitz; December 3, 2010; The Hideout, Chicago

The last time I saw Chris Mills I was surprised how few of his older songs were in the set. Exactly one. And it wasn’t even the exquisite “Silver Line” or my personal favorite “Dry Eye.” Still, I was happy just to be seeing him for the first time in 2010, especially since it was on a bill with Ha Ha Tonka, and in Seattle, which still seems too perfect to believe. Without a new record, tour dates have been sporadic at best, but it seems you can rely on there being at least one show a year in Chicago, which he called home for many years. Unlike Seattle, this time he knew I was coming and promised to play my favorite song. Not only did he play it, but it was the only dedication of the night. Aw, so sweet. It wasn’t even the oldest song in the set. The propulsive fan favorite “All You Ever Do” from Kiss It Goodbye also made the cut. It had been a long time since I’d heard the dark “Diamond” live, and that was certainly a highlight. See, it only takes a couple of the old songs to make me happy, and enjoy the newer classics like “You Are My Favorite Song” and brand new “When We Were Young” even more. If he seemed a little less physical than usual I attribute it to being out of practice.

The other highlight was the band. I’ve seen Mills play with just about every configuration imaginable, having finally checked off the Chris and Gerald show in August, but this may be my favorite line-up. The key of course is the remarkable rhythm section. I’ve seen other drummers play with Chris, but to me they are all “Not Gerald.” Gerald Dowd is simply the best drummer I know. I’ve seen him play with everything from jazz to old time country to children’s music, and he can do it all. Being Robbie Fulks’ drummer means he often has to do it all in one set. Bass player Ryan Hembrey has likely played more shows with Chris than anyone else, and he specializes in being quietly awesome. The last time I saw the always exciting cellist extraordinaire Fred Lonberg-Holm he had a close cropped hair, so I barely recognized the mop-topped mod sitting in his spot. Apparently he used to have an impressive beard too. After seeing him earlier this year Chris decided to grow a beard for tonight’s show so that they would be an all-beard band. However Fred showed up tonight clean-shaven, much to Chris’s chagrin. Dave-Max Crawford didn’t disappoint with his trumpet and keyboard work, not to mention his Colonel Sanders facial hair. Oh well, four out of five ain’t bad.

Chris opened a string of dates for Jon Langford on the East coast during which Langford volunteered to play a short set tonight, to “make it more special.” Retelling the tale tonight, he insisted that when he asked Chris how many songs to play he told him not to play any. He did play just a short set, only a handful of songs most accompanied by only by handsome guitarist Jim Elkington and vocalist Tawny Newsome, who provides some of Old Devils best backing vocals, though Hembrey did join him for part of the set. Chris met opener Adam Fitz when they played the World’s Largest Block Party together this summer. I had to miss the event, which was more disappointing when I thought it was called the World’s Largest CLOCK party (Chris’s typos are always entertaining), so not only did I miss Fitz, but also headliners Spoon. Fitz had an energy which could only be described as Joe Cocker-ish, the music and the voice instantly recalled the British singer. It took a little bit to get used to, but I’ve no doubt if I saw him again I would like it more. After all, they can’t all be love at first listen like it was with Mills.

Adam Fitz

Jon Langford & Skull Orchard

Chris Mills

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Wrens (well, 3/4ths of them)/Palomar/Bird of Youth; November 30, 2010; The Rock Shop, Brooklyn

We call this sort of trip “Nick-crazy.” I landed at La Guardia at noon and was on a plane back to Milwaukee at 6 AM the next day, only four hours after I’d been sitting at a table upstairs at the Rock Shop with Okkervil River’s Will Sheff and the New Pornographers’ Carl Newman. Of course, that wasn’t why I booked a whirlwind trip to New York, they are just friends of a friend and I just sat there in star struck silence. I tried to tell a few people that my main destination was the Baldessari exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was indeed quite excellent and I highly recommend, but it didn’t take long before the truth came out.

I’d been Wrens-starved this year. After seeing ten fantastic shows in 2009, this year I’d thus far settled for the pair of shows in Philly and Baltimore on their “two-city tour.” As further incentive to buy a plane ticket, they were previewing the songs that would make up the new record. I’d heard a few of bassist/keyboard player Kevin Whelan’s new songs over the last year and a half, but nothing from the band’s other major songwriter Charles Bissell. All of a sudden it seemed like I had to go, and once Greg Whelan also signed on I knew I was right.

It was a show only a fan could love, but I am and I did. As promised, they played nothing but new songs. I think surprising even themselves that they didn’t give in and play older material, especially when one insistent fan kept yelling for “She Sends Kisses.” Of course, that fan was Bissell’s wife Rachel Warren, lead singer of Palomar and organizer of the five weeks worth of benefit shows that this was a part of. The new songs are certainly promising, but they are even further from done than I would have suspected. “Working on the record” was exactly what they were doing, with all of us as witnesses. Some of the songs were little more than sketches, and many had never been played by all three at the same time. In fact, Charles seems to have rehearsed more with members of Palomar than he had his own band, and he called them up to help him out on a couple of occasions. Of course, that wasn’t true of all the members he called on, drummer Dale Miller hadn’t even heard one of the songs he was asked to play on. Greg also debuted his new song. He looked disgusted at the end, but I thought it was great. After all, he does have the prettiest voice in the band.

They apologized afterward that I had come all this way for that, but I insisted it was worth it. I had seen them play the same batch of songs for the last five years, and it was a treat to hear all new material, even if it wasn’t as polished as most of their stuff. I pointed out that this was only the second plane ticket I had bought for them this year, after buying several the year before. Greg told me I better get ready to buy a bunch more because they were planning on touring a lot after the record came out. Luckily it would appear I have some time to save up. Unlike most Wrens’ fans, I don’t actually care when the new record comes out, as long as they keep playing shows.

I’d seen Palomar once years before, and I remembered thinking they were pretty OK for a bunch of girls. They opened one of the Maxwell’s shows last year, but it was the night of Kevin’s party and I missed most of their set for cocktails and cupcakes. They’ve been fairly quiet the last several years as Bissell and Warren started a family, but they are also working on a new record. They had a few problems, bemoaning that they weren’t as slick as opener Bird of Youth who played without a rhythm section, and wondering why things were going wrong tonight when last week had gone so well. I definitely enjoyed Warren and super cool bass player Sarah Brockett , but keyboard player Christina Prostano got on my nerves. Still, I’ll say it again, for a bunch of girls (and one guy) they were OK.

Bird of Youth


The Wrens

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Blake Thomas/John Statz/Jeremiah Nelson; November 28, 2010; High Noon Saloon

It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the end of a long weekend, and the perfect time to go listen to some of Madison’s best former and current singer-songwriters. It seems a lot of people had the same idea; the crowd was surprisingly big, too bad none of them actually wanted to listen. There was a steady rumble of conversation throughout the night. Sometimes I could listen through it, other times it was impossible to ignore the shrieks of laughter coming from the bar.

Since he was the quietest, current Madison resident Jeremiah Nelson seemed to be the hardest to hear. He played his set sitting down playing slide guitar, and what I could hear of it was gorgeous. Of course, Jeremiah plays every Tuesday night at Mickey’s so he is no stranger to inattentive crowds. He gets through those sets by melting one song into the next and experimenting with his looping pedal. He hasn’t released an album since shortly after he moved to Madison, so he has a backlog of material waiting to be committed to CD. Some of these songs have been worked and reworked, each version equally good, but completely different from prior incarnations. “Pacing and Scheming” for example started life as a loud rocker to play with his band the Achilles Heel, made up of members of the Blueheels. After they quit, it has been reworked into a much quieter reflective song.

He’s proven time and time again that he has a knack for picking the perfect cover. Tonight it was a Neil Young song, one that he had learned for the Young tribute at Linneman’s. “He has a great Neil Young voice,” a friend whispered to me. Which isn’t really true, he sounds nothing like Young, but he does do an excellent job with the songs. He also issued a challenge to the two musicians following him. He played a cover of Blake Thomas’s “World of War,” a song that he’s heard John Statz play, and suggested that each of them should also play it, and then at the end of the night the audience could vote on which was their favorite. Statz apparently didn’t feel up to the test and declined. He did however pull out his own surprising cover. I knew he had good taste since he likes the Drive By Truckers, but I was surprised to learn he was also a Frightened Rabbit fan. He played “Old Fashioned,” my favorite song off Midnight Organ Fight, and did a decent job of it. I’ll admit it was odd to hear that song without lead singer Scott Hutchinson’s thick Scottish accent, and it even took me a minute to identify it. Statz moved to Colorado a few months back, so it is nice to see he hasn’t forgotten his friends in Madison. He even had some of them play with him. For the first half of his set he was joined by an upright bass player and a guitarist, both of whom played on his most recent release.

Thomas didn’t move quite as far away. His new address in Minneapolis allows him to come back once a month to play Honky Tonk Tuesday at Mickey’s Tavern. Since I already knew I was going to miss the next one, it was nice to have the opportunity to see him tonight. The bushy beard, which nearly rivals Justin Bricco’s, and long hair he’s been growing since before he left Madison seemed incongruous with the suit he was wearing. Still there was no doubt it was the same old Blake, his gorgeous voice still breaking hearts in an instant. It even felt like Mickey’s, the constant chatter had continued throughout the evening and got louder as the night wore on. Still, it was great to see all three of them, even if I couldn’t always hear them.

Jeremiah Nelson

John Statz

Blake Thomas