Sunday, January 31, 2010

Time Since Western; January 31, 2010; The Frequency

Before opening for Micah Schnabel at the House of Righteous Music, Andy Brawner’s Time Since Western hadn’t played a gig since a full band show at Summerfest. Yet, here he was just three weeks later playing another solo show. Even if he doesn’t believe me, I do prefer the one man band version, which makes good use of a looping pedal. Like Anders Parker, he’s better without the band. I will only begrudgingly admit it, but he sounded even better tonight than he did in the basement. In fact, when one of his co-workers who had been at both shows suggested that to me mid-set, I responded with a hurt “come on!” Unfortunately, Brawner took that to mean that he was taking too long to tune between songs, and replied that he was trying. Oops, sorry Andy.

He was taking a little long, but I’ve certainly seen worse, and besides, tuning means you care. He seemed comfortable on stage tonight and didn’t feel the need to fill the space with practiced banter, opting instead for a relaxed, one-sided conversation with the audience. The new songs he’d played at the house went smoother tonight and those from A Sun Goes Down as good as or better than the CD version. The one-two punch of “Feathers” and “Bottom of the Sea” to end the set were damn near perfect. It’s good news for music fans in Madison (where he works) and Milwaukee (where he lives) that he has decided to continue as a solo artist after being orphaned by his band earlier this year. He’s been recording new songs with some of the work being done at the now-closed legendary Smart Studios. Hopefully we’ll see a new Time Since Western record soon. Until then, I just hope he keeps playing shows.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Jay Farrar & Benjamin Gibbard/ Sera Cahoone; January 30, 2010; Turner Hall, Milwaukee

When we saw Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard at Lincoln Hall toward the end of last year, we felt lucky to have been able to see this unusual pair on one of their handful of tour dates in support of One Fast Move and I’m Gone. The pair had united over their love of the writing of Jack Kerouac and together recorded the soundtrack to the documentary Big Sur. It was a bit of a surprise that they brought the show back out on the road again, but they seemed to be having so much fun last time maybe it shouldn’t have been. Round two was not much different from round one. The only real disappointment was that the hilarious John Roderick of the Long Winters who opened the last show had been replaced by the sleepy Sera Cahoone. Without the accompaniment of the adorable pedal steel player who had been with her when she opened for Son Volt, her set was a monotonous drone that did nothing to discourage chatter.

Jay Farrar doesn’t seem to care much about appearances. We often joke that one of his bandmates must have cut his hair backstage before the show because it seldom looks like it was done by a professional. So I was a bit surprised when he came out tonight. “Jay looks weird,” I heard the guy next to me whisper to his friend. Not so much weird as different. He was sporting a goatee and his hair hadn’t been cut in awhile, long strands poked out from under his hat. His usual flannel was covered by a fancy western style jacket with decorative stitching. Gibbard on the other hand reminded me of Glen Campbell in his red checked shirt, his bowl cut bangs pushed to the side. I kept expecting him to break into “Wichita Lineman.” Admittedly, the Tom Waits song “Old Shoes (and Picture Postcards)” which closed the evening was a better choice.

As I noted last time, Farrar seems to really enjoy having another lead singer on stage with him. It’s what made Uncle Tupelo so great, and he and Gibbard sound just as sweet together. I’m sure it was a disappointment to the Death Cab for Cutie fans which probably made up the bulk of the crowd, but there weren’t any songs from Gibbard’s day job other than an obscure 2004 collaboration. Farrar on the other hand brought out “Feel Free” and “Voodoo Candle,” both from his solo records will Son Volt was on hiatus. The biggest Son Volt fan I know (tragically home with a broken elbow tonight) hates the latter, but the way they are playing it now quite definitely rocks. The only song that may have surpassed it was a breathtaking, pounding “Breathe Our Iodine” that had Mark Spencer pulling more sound from his pedal steel than I thought possible. The talented Spencer, looking hotter than I have ever seen him with a slick haircut and a handsome beard, also joined Farrar for a couple numbers as a duo, one the aching “San Francisco” that closes the Kerouac record.

Not to worry, Gibbard definitely got his share of the spotlight. His “California Zephyr” are still the highlight of the record and the live show for me, while “All in One” with Farrar’s gorgeous backing vocals runner up. The rest of the all-star band, which features DCfC’s Nick Harmer on bass and the outstanding journeyman drummer John Wurster, assured that tonight’s show sounded just as good as the acoustically superior Lincoln Hall did. It would be nice if, like Wilco and Billy Bragg’s two volumes of Mermaid Avenue, this collaboration yielded another release, but even if it doesn’t I am glad I got to see it twice.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Pines; January 29, 2010; Café Carpe

I don’t get to Fort Atkinson’s charming Café Carpe as often as I’d like to. Of course, that would be once a week if I could, but the 45 minute drive and my schedule don’t allow for that. Ben Weaver had told me that he thought his friends the Pines would be perfect for the basement, and I put this show on my calendar as soon as I heard about it. Even though they have yet to do a proper show in Madison, they’ve been playing the Carpe for a number of years. The Carpe’s proprietors, the delightful Kitty and curmudgeonly Bill, seemed quite pleased with the crowd tonight, which impressively numbered somewhere around 40, claiming this was the crowd they’d always known the Pines could draw.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the pedigree of the band is well-suited to their crowd. Benson Ramsey, one half of the duo, is the son of Greg Brown’s longtime sideman the remarkable guitarist Bo Ramsey. As we sat down in the front row, we were easily able to predict which chair belonged to Ramsey and which to David Huckfelt. The seat closest to us had an imposing number of pedals arranged in front of it, while all that was in front of the other was bare wood. Ramsey certainly seemed to know what to do with all them, creating sonic textures consisting of haunting melodies pulled from the guitar with his slide, a piece of rag tied through it to keep it from slipping off his long, thin fingers as he played. The pair switched off lead vocals through their two sets, Huckfelt’s voice a calming croon, while Ramsey’s was reminiscent of young Bob Dylan.

It always amazes me that mellow music can invoke such a varied response, sometimes it’s yawn-inducing and other times mesmerizing. While there may have been a few in the audience in the former camp, I was certainly in the latter. All of their original songs were hypnotic, and their covers surprising and perfectly chosen. Some were so unexpected that it took me a minute to place them. Ramsey was halfway through “Old Dominion Blues,” which I was happily singing along to, before the light went off and I realized it was an eels tune. I barely kept from shouting “Eureka!” In addition to the Mississippi John Hurt song “Spike Driver Blues” (better known to me as “Railroad Worksong” by Mark Knopfler’s Notting Hillbillies), they ended with (coincidentally) Dire Straits’ “So Far Away From Me,” the fourth hit from Brothers in Arms, which probably came out before they were born.

With as much as I enjoyed their show, I was even more disappointed that I had missed their 30 Minute Music Hour taping earlier in the week. It remains to be seen if they actually did rent tuxes for the show like they said they did. Even if they had I can’t imagine them being any classier than they were tonight.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Langhorne Slim/ April Smith & the Great Picture Show; January 26, 2010; Turner Hall

Somehow Langhorne Slim’s new record came out without me noticing. That seems to happen a lot these days since I let all my music magazine subscriptions expire. I missed his last Madison show in October seeing the Toil in Indianapolis, and I guess it never occurred to me that he might have been supporting a new record. I finally bought Be Set Free a few weeks before the end of the year, had I bought it even a week earlier it would have finished very high on my best of the year list. An undeniable combination of rockers and ballads, all sung with his distinctive, almost whiny, somehow addictive voice, it has yet to leave my CD player for more than a few days.

On stage, he is even more charismatic. With boundless energy and a beguiling smile, he bounced through the set (surprisingly) barely breaking a sweat, looking handsomely hip in his green shirt, striped tie and hat. He was so caught up in the momentum of the show that after breaking a string on the very first song, he didn’t even wait for his strap when the tech handed him another guitar, playing at least three songs without it. On two occasions he dismissed the band and took a seat center stage, strumming a few quieter numbers on his parlor guitar, a contradiction of worn wood and sparkle, thanks to a silver glitter pick guard that adorned the obviously much-loved instrument.

He drew from all three of his releases, featuring much of the new release (in my opinion his best to date). Perhaps my favorite of the new songs is “Cinderella,” where Slim asks “are you my girl?” and the manly voices of his backing band answer “you know I am.” It gets even better when he rhymes “Cinderella” with “handsome fellow.” Even though my sister had only heard the CD once, she instantly recognized many of the songs. At the end of his set she proclaimed he should play in the basement, since “I would love to dance around drunkenly to his music.” Judging by the crowd, which filled in a respectable amount of the cavernous Turner Hall, the days of him playing the basement are long gone, which is too bad for me.

As entertaining as Slim is, a lot of the credit for how terrific the show was goes to his band. Upright bass player Jeff Ratner was as solid as they come. He introduced his terrific drummer Malachai DeLorenzo (who also produced the record) as “Milwaukee’s fourteenth favorite son,” leading me to guess he was the son of Violent Femmes drummer Victor (he is). As great as the rhythm section was, keyboardist/banjo player David Moore stole the show. I’m already a sucker for the banjo and its many moods, but I don’t think I have ever seen one played with such fervor. His hands were a blur as he strummed the instrument, one of which was not shockingly splattered with dried blood.

I was happy that April Smith & the Great Picture Show was just one band, two openers would have been too much on a Tuesday night in Milwaukee. I couldn’t really understand much of what Mays sang, but she had an amazing voice and she could really belt it out. It’s hard to know exactly which picture show her band hailed from, half looked like they came from “Velvet Goldmine” while the rhythm section could have been from “The Sting.” Mays herself had a “Valley Girl” look going on. It was weird to miss a Honky Tonk Tuesday at Mickey’s, but this show was certainly worth it.

April Smith & the Great Picture Show

Langhorne Slim

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Chuck LeMonds with Arkadiy Yushin, Mary Gaines & Chris Wagoner/Blake Thomas & Josh Harty; January 23, 2010; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

I don’t usually book musicians I haven’t seen, let alone never heard, but it really does make a difference who you know. When one of Madison’s premier multi-instrumentalists asked me if I would be interested in hosting a house concert with someone they are currently recording with, it seemed like a pretty easy decision. Chris Wagoner (violin, mandolin, and other things with strings) and his partner Mary Gaines (acoustic bass and cello) have played with many of Madison’s finest musicians. The Common Faces were one of Madison’s best known bands in the late 90’s. They currently host the intriguing MadToast Live, a combination music and talk show, and play in the “café jazz” quartet the Stellanovas. Most importantly (to me), they also played on Blake Thomas’s 40 Minutes record, and often stop by Mickey’s after their Tuesday night MadToast shows..

As we were finalizing the details, I asked LeMonds if he would like to have another artist on the bill. Coincidentally, he suggested Blake after having seen him at Mickey’s the last time he was in town. I never tire of Blake’s music and always love having him in the basement. Still I don’t think I knew how awesome this was going to be until Mary and Chris showed up at 5 PM, saying Blake had told them to be here then so they could run through a few things. I laughed, “Blake has never been here when he says he is going to be,” but sure enough he and Josh pulled into the driveway fifteen minutes later. They spent the next hour going through an assortment of songs, including a new one from both Blake and Josh. And it sounded amazing.

During their show, Mary and Chris often play along with their guests, despite having never heard most of the songs, displaying an impressively intuitive musical talent. They’ve played with Blake and Josh a few times before, and even though Mary insists they never know what they are doing, it’s always terrific. Blake has been gradually adding new songs to his sets at Mickey’s, doing it so surreptitiously that I’m never sure if it’s a new song or a new cover. The interesting thing about these songs is how different they are from his previous work, which I why I’m never sure if it’s his or someone else’s. “The Cradle to the Ground” (which is what I’ve been calling one of the new ones) sounds like a Dylan song with a catchier melody, while tonight’s “Devil Blues” (again, not the real title) sounds like, you guessed it, an old blues song. Good stuff. When I ask him how many more new songs he has, he just smiles, “there’s a few.”

It had been even longer sine I had heard a new song from Josh. His new one, which Blake insists on calling “Suicidey,” is a dark ballad from a narrator who is considering the options late at night after a few drinks. I’d be a little worried about it being autobiographical, if he weren’t so obviously having a great time tonight. They ended with a truly fantastic cover of Townes VanZandt’s “White Freightliner” which was as perfect a choice for the quartet as their equally amazing Dietrich Gosser cover earlier. This was going to be a tough act to follow.

Luckily Eau Claire WI native LeMonds had two secret weapons. One was his stories. His seventeen years living in Austria, some of it in a castle rumored to be haunted, has given him a wealth of material, not only for songs but for the tales to tell in between. The other was finger style guitarist Arkadiy Yushin. I could only recall having one other guitarist this remarkable in the basement. Sergio Webb had elevated David Olney’s set far above the usual singer-songwriter bar; Arkadiy did the same for LeMonds. Soft spoken and retiring, he was inconspicuous until he started playing, and after that he was impossible to ignore. Toward the end of the night, the other three left the stage and Arkadiy moved to the middle chair. Since he plays only plays instrumentals, he thought the way to get us interested was to tell a story before the song. His tale of a donkey in love with a filly was amusing and heart-breaking, but it turned out not to be necessary, the music spoke for itself.

After telling us a few times that there were “only a couple more left,” LeMonds et al did finally finish up, but it was only temporary. It wasn’t long before a jam session sprung up that lasted into the wee hours of the morning. This is why I do this.

Blake Thomas & Josh Harty with Chris Wagoner & Chris Wagoner

Chuck LeMonds with Arkadiy Yushin, Chris Wagoner & Mary Gaines