Saturday, February 27, 2010
After both of my January shows went surprisingly well, I was convinced that Madison had finally warmed to the idea of house concerts, and my streak of poorly attended shows was over. Then came February. While I immensely enjoyed the nearly-private set from the charming and ridiculously talented Theodore, it was impossible to hide the fact that no one was there. Still, I was convinced this week would be better. It was, but only slightly. Can.Ky.Ree hasn’t played a show outside of Chicago in their twelve year history, mostly because the bands members are busy with other projects. Saxophone/bassoon/melodica player Mark Messing heads Mucca Pazza, the gypsy punk circus marching band, while piano player Ryan Hembrey had just returned from the road as Califone’s tour manager/sound guy from the Sundance film festival through a string of dates opening for Wilco. He had just been in Madison a week ago, still he was excited to come back just a week later.
I’d only seen Can.Ky.Ree once, and that was four years ago. I certainly hadn’t forgotten their intriguing and magical performance, and once Ryan mentioned that maybe their first show outside of Chicago should be at the House of Righteous Music, I wasn’t about to let him forget it. The limiting factor that keeps them playing the same handful of venues in Chicago is their insistence on using a real piano. I actually don’t blame them for that, instead of being a silly artist quirk, a keyboard just doesn’t sell their curious turn-of-the-century drama the way the real thing does. There was a brief period when he thought that just maybe his parlor piano would be able to make the tight turn down the stairs, but gave up that idea. In the end he decided to use Daniel Knox’s electric piano. It sounded just fine, but the visual wasn’t as striking as seeing him play the upright at the Hideout.
What was the same was how much I enjoyed them. (Whew.) I couldn’t have been happier that they lived up to my memory of them, especially given that whenever I see a band of Ryan’s that I’m not really crazy about, I remind him how much I like Can.Ky.Ree. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that’s so charming. It would be easy for their gypsy cabaret to come off as contrived and calculated, but the fact is that lead singer/guitarist and man-out-of-time Tom Musik sells it all so convincingly that you can’t imagine him playing any other kind of music. The suits that three-fourths of the band wore reinforced the illusion of a swanky nightclub even as the stage lights revealed the cement walls of the basement. Despite being suit less, Messing was an essential part of the band, and the bassoon (the first in the basement) was the best of his instruments.
Even though it had been four years, there were still songs I remembered perfectly from their opening set during Chris Mills’ month long Hideout residency. The most vivid of these was “A Kiss from a Drunken Stranger,” which has been stuck in my head ever since the show (this show, not the one four years ago). The next line, “one kiss can change everything,” rings with the same sort of truth as Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate.” Brilliant. While likely not for everyone, Can.Ky.Ree certainly charmed everyone in attendance. Chicago based Daniel Knox travels the same sort of alternative highway, and unsurprisingly this was not their first show together. There’s a sort of Rufus Wainwright spectacle to his music, which is simply and subtly backed by Paul Parts on bass and Jason Toth on drums. I was sad to hear that Knox has a saw player who couldn’t make it. Not only would the eerie singing of the saw been an intriguing addition to his melodrama, but it would have been the second saw in the basement in a week.
To start the night Luke Bassuener debuted Asumaya, the solo incarnation of his African influenced math rock band This Bright Apocalypse. Apparently I had predicted this eventuality, having declared him already nearly a one-man-band in an earlier review. Playing a show with looping pedals and other equipment through a PA is a lot different than practicing in your living room. Even though Luke had come over to practice a couple times in the week prior, the show probably didn’t go as smoothly as he had hoped. Even with the occasional feedback and pedal miscues, it was still a good set as Luke’s perpetual good nature and easygoing charm erased any memory of the miscues. In fact, the only thing keeping it from being a great night was the lack of audience, but that’s something I’ve learned to live with.
Friday, February 26, 2010
I don’t get to see Chuck Prophet anywhere near as often as I would like. It would seem his Madison fan base would support a couple shows a year, but yet he hasn’t been to town since October ’07. His first Chicago show in support of Let Freedom Ring was the same weekend as the Wrens string of New Jersey shows. And you know which one I chose. Luckily, here he was not even three months later at the always-charming Fitzgerald’s.
Let Freedom Ring was released in October and came packaged with a mask stamped with an eagle logo. It was shortly after the swine flu paranoid frenzy had swept the nation, but I didn’t realize the true significance until tonight. He had decided to record his next record in Mexico City and had found a studio in the mountain city which he claimed was “state of the art,” he laughed before adding, “at one time.” There were a host of problems during the recording, the worst of them random interruptions in power several times a day. He was recording with a group of musicians from the States that he claimed he was paying with IOUs. As they neared the end of the recording, swine flu broke and it looked like they weren’t going to be allowed back into the States. As with all scares, this one too blew over, but it was enough to bring out the masks. Throughout the set he shared the stories behind the songs or just stories, always super cool with an impeccably fine-tuned sense of humor.
Freedom turned out to be one of the best records of last year, finishing high on my best of list. An instantly likeable blend of ballads and rockers, it may be his most consistent to date. Thankfully the creepy children’s choir which made his last release Soap & Water a little weird at times is absent this time around. The title song was one of the highlights in a set that covered the breadth of his career all the way back to his days in Green on Red, which explains how even though I own his last five releases there was still a lot of songs I didn’t know. With some artists that would make the set less enjoyable, not for Prophet, he made every song my new favorite. Even the ones I did know appeared in different form than the recorded version. Freedom’s “Hot Talk” and “I Bow Down and Pray to Every Woman I See,” one of his many songs in praise of the fairer sex, featured radically different arrangements, which kept the set interesting. His stellar band never missed a step, and Prophet’s guitar battles with James DePrato gave off sparks.
As always, a key part of the show is his interaction with his wife, the adorable Stephanie Finch. Obviously still very much in love, the couple has an effortless and enviable stage rapport. One of the sweetest moments of the evening was the pretty duet on Waylon Jennings’ “We Had It All” that they sang “mouth to mouth,” at the same microphone. In order to make it a more pleasant experience for Finch, Prophet took a few squirts of breath spray before they began. In addition to being the prettiest part if his band, she also has her own material and took center stage with a guitar to showcase one of her songs. Surprisingly the biggest “hit” of Prophet’s career, “Summertime Thing,” rather than a set ending jam, was played by him solo with audience participation. Nice. Though we could never quite figure out if he wanted us to sing along with him or do backing vocals on the chorus. They returned for two encores, the first featured the spirited “Balinese Dancer” and Alex Chilton’s ridiculously catchy “Bangkok,” while the last song was the slow, pretty “No Other Love,” which worked as a lullaby after two exhilarating hours of solid music.
I do wish Prophet came to Madison more, but since he doesn’t, it's worth the drive to Chicago.
Sunday, February 21, 2010
I’ve had some poorly attended shows in the past, and every one feels like a personal failure, but I’ve never had one as spirit crushing as this one. What makes it even worse is that Theodore deserves so much better. Easily the best discovery of the last year, they singlehandedly made last year’s Twangfest worth the trip. Justin’s high and lonesome voice breaks hearts instantly. Multi-instrumentalists JJ and Andy quietly switch between a music store worth of instruments, choosing the perfect one (or ones) for every song. All while drummer just Jason smiles and keeps perfect time. It was a magical, hypnotic experience from the time Justin dedicated the set to himself on the site of his greatest triumph- beating me at ping pong- to the last wavering cry of Andy’s saw, the sound of which seemed to hang in the air for minutes after they were through. Too bad no one was there to see it except the most loyal of my house concert patrons.
The last time they had come to the house it was also a Sunday, but at least a handful of people had come out to see the always-terrific Jeremiah Nelson with his band the Achilles Heel. A few of them even stuck around for Theodore’s set. This time it seemed like a better idea to have Theodore play first, so that whoever the other band drew would be there for Theodore. Problem was no one came. A reliable source had told me probably twenty “out by you,” I’d have been happy with half that. I’d been waiting to hear back from two other bands when they asked if they could jump on the bill. I checked my sources, listened to their MySpace stuff, and watched the songs they had recorded at WMSE. They weren’t a perfect match for Theodore but it still seemed like a good idea.
I’ve always had a policy of not booking bands I haven’t seen, one I ignored for this show, but it might be a good one. “It’s going to be tough following Theodore,” lead singer/guitarist Johnathan Mayer protested at the beginning of their set, “it’s like they’re Wilco and we’re Jet.” Jet was probably a compliment. It seemed many of their problems could have been solved by a decent tuner and a guitar that stayed in tune, but even a loaner of both didn’t help. In light of Mayer’s opening comment, a Wilco cover halfway through the set was perhaps not the best idea, especially when he admitted they hadn’t played it in awhile. By this point I’d discovered that Old Grandad is a way better whiskey than I would have expected.
I’ll give Surgeons in Heat another chance, since I give everyone a second chance, but I’ve learned my lesson. And I will get Theodore a good show at the house, if it's the last thing I do.
Surgeons in Heat
Saturday, February 20, 2010
I’ll admit it, I felt a little bit guilty. I’m sure there were many Wilco fans in the sold out crowd tonight that deserved front row seats more than me, but even though I’m not much of a Wilco fan these days I certainly wasn’t going to trade with any of them. I didn’t even know regular people could actually get these seats, figuring they all went to big wigs or radio stations. But when our Wilco-obsessed friend in Florida logged in for the fan presale she pulled the front row, and not only that, front row center. How about that?
Things certainly look a lot different from that angle. There’s a lot of things I would have missed if I weren’t right there. While lead singer Jeff Tweedy probably wouldn’t have looked as disturbingly homeless from further back, I would have missed the amused look on his face as guitarists Nels Cline and Pat Sansone traded solos. Even though most of the time Tweedy was blocking my view of the perfectly adorable Glenn Kotche, when he wasn’t I could clearly see the sweat dripping off his immediately drenched hair. Of all the band members, he certainly looks like he is having the most fun. Running a close second is Cline. He wiggles and contorts and does a little dance every second he’s playing. I figured for sure we would be able to see his always awesome socks, but were thwarted by his high top shoes and long-enough pants. We did get to see him use the most unlikely of guitar accessories though, a whisk. We had spotted it shortly after sitting down, but had to wait almost the entire set before he utilized it. “Whisk!” Michelle cried, almost knocking me out of my chair.
The set list didn’t seem as solid as one in the St Paul back in October had, relying too heavily on A Ghost is Born and their most recent release Wilco (the Album). Opening track Wilco (the Song) has been the traditional opener for this tour, which is dubbed, you guessed it Wilco (the Tour). While not as tedious live as on record, I could have used more songs from Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (their last great record in my opinion). ‘Teeth’s “Shot in the Arm” came early in the set and kept me going till YHF’s “Jesus Etc.” The latter is my favorite Wilco song, period. Unfortunately though, encouraged by Tweedy, it has become a sing-along on the level of Tom Petty’s “Breakdown.” I hope he realizes he may be creating a monster. “I want to hear you sing Madison,” Tweedy flatly stated before starting the song, “and no mumbling.” He explained that the first time the words were “combine” and the second time “come by,” illustrating the latter by walking his fingers through the air.
I always forget how hilarious Tweedy is; the dude had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion. “Is the mayor here tonight?” he inquired, “because last night the mayor of Duluth came out to see us.” “We’ve only played there like twice, and we’ve played here a million times.” After the next song he asked if anyone had gotten hold of the mayor yet. With how fast the band sold out the massive Overture Center, even if Mayor Dave had wanted to come he probably wouldn’t have been able to get tickets. The night ended with a massive six (plus or minus) song encore which may have been the best string of songs of the night, including YHF’s terrific “Heavy Metal Drummer” and Mermaid Avenue’s funky “Hoodoo Voodoo,” which immediately got me on my feet dancing. Their debut album AM has been chronically underrepresented the last several years, so it was especially nice to hear “Casino Queen.” By far, the biggest surprise was Buffalo Springfield’s “Broken Arrow,” an absolutely inspired cover choice. All I could say was “cool.”
Openers Califone were invited back onstage for “California Stars,” another of Mermaid’s Woody Guthrie selections. Since half the band had already headed back to Chicago to catch up on family and sleep time, only guitarist Jim Becker and percussionist Ben Massarella were able to accept the invitation, which increased their time onstage by 20%. While definitely a benefit, opening for Wilco can be a bit merciless- the bands are only given a half hour set and only allowed a fraction of the channels on the sound board. Califone made the most of it, curtailing some of their jammy impulses for an impressively tight, though sadly limited set. It was perhaps the best show I’ve seen them do of the half dozen times I’ve seen them. Though my favorite part wasn’t a song, it was when Becker was plugging in his guitar, he pointed at me and said “ping pong,” leaving the folks around me wondering what that was all about. I beat him three games in a row, apparently immune to his lethal spin.