Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Low Czars; March 31, 2010; High Noon Saloon

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Steve Poltz/Robby Schiller; March 30, 2010; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

Austin’s annual SXSW music conference often serves as the beginning of a tour for many bands. It always seems like the most visible bands during the five day overload of music head out on the road at its conclusion, gradually filtering north. Steve Poltz played what seemed like dozens of shows in Austin this year, and somehow I managed to miss every one of them. Of course, if you weren’t Ha Ha Tonka or Califone, it was likely I was going to miss you. But I also had the comfort of knowing that he was coming to my house in just a matter of days.

When I booked the show many months before, I thought I was booking a solo show. However, a few days prior, his booking agent e-mailed me to let me know that instead of just Steve there would be a three piece backing band and a sound guy/tour manager. Not a problem of course, I’ve had plenty of full bands in the basement, and I was more than a little relieved that he was bringing his own sound guy since this was a Tuesday and my usual sound guy Blake Thomas had his own weekly gig to attend to. I’ll admit to a little bit of sound board envy, not only did Chris Modl have a much bigger board, but he also had a snake that allowed him to run sound from the back of the room. Even more impressive was what he did with his board. At the end of the show, he copied the entirety of the Poltz show to a flash drive that you could purchase for $25. Brilliant.

I’ll admit though, it would be hard to imagine the audio of the show being as good without the visual. Poltz is tall and lanky, longish graying hair held in place by a sharp hat, a goofy smile, and a unique stage presence. He had broken his hand skiing in Canada less than two months before (even worse, on the eve of two sold out shows there), and he was restricted to playing guitar on only a few songs each night. That’s where the band came in. While the Truckee Brothers rhythm section of drummer Patrick Dennis (who also played an opening set of music from his band Wirepony) and bassist Chris Huffee had backed Poltz before, guitarist Sean was brought along because he was the only person Poltz knew who could learn all his songs in just a few days. When Poltz wasn’t playing guitar or strumming the bass while Sean did the finger work (looking like a bizarre conjoined bass player), he was dancing like a manic scarecrow, suit jacket flapping, heels kicking high.

His enthusiasm was so great that on one occasion he found himself tumbling into the seats, managing to stay upright with the help of the other person in the basement who was recovering from a broken bone. Once he was reminded of the injury, he apologized profusely and burst into an impromptu song about how they were two broken birds living in a basement. Thanks to the flash drive she forever has a record of the night Steve Poltz wrote a song about her. Perhaps the most memorable moment of the night was “Sewing Machine Man.” Someone had challenged him to write a song with the words sewing machine in them. It took him awhile, but not only did he meet the challenge but he made it part of the title. He claims that the first time he played it for Jon Dee’s son Willie the poor kid ran from the room screaming halfway through. My only question was- why did it take him so long? I wouldn’t have made it past the first verse. His dark and twisted tale was like something from the Gothic Archies’ soundtrack to the Lemony Snicket movie “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” made even more intimidating by the way he acted it out. Now he says Willie begs him to play it, but I’m not so sure.

For the most part, it’s easier to remember his ridiculously entertaining show than it is the actual songs. They are good songs, but they don’t have a chance against the story of how after he broke his hand in Canada he had it set in a janitor’s closet by a “Dr Skully,” who may or may not have actually been a doctor. Or how he organized a Frazier Fair tour which included John Doe, Pete Droge and Glen Phillips in response to Lilith Fair.

If I do say so myself, the Blueheels’ Robby Schiller was an inspired choice as an opener. Contrary to his very vocal presence as frontman of one of Madison’s most popular bands, as a solo artist he concentrates on what he likes to call “sad bastard music.” Back when he was part of the weekly Honky Tonk Tuesday gig at Mickey’s I heard these songs every week. Now the chances to see him do songs like “The Wolves Outside,” “The Weather on TV,” and the surprisingly upbeat “Ukulele Blues” are rare. He’s always a quick wit, but I have seldom seen him as absolutely hilarious as he was tonight. In response to an audience member who said they would name his new and yet untitled song, he quipped, “I like Trinity for a girl.” As he ignored what may have been a slightly out of tune guitar, he claimed he knew how to tune a guitar, “I just choose not to.” On the other hand, apparently he has no idea how to tune the uke, which he used on two songs, theorizing that it was some sort of Zen process having something to do with his dog and fleas. The always-charming “Ukulele Blues” turned out to be a very successful sing-a-long, as the entire basement joined in on the chorus of “how can that be, cause baby I play the ukulele?”

Having a show on a Tuesday night can be a dicey proposition. Folks who are already timid about going to see a show in someone’s basement seem even more unlikely to come out during the week. Luckily Poltz’s reputation preceded him and we had a bigger group than we do most nights in the basement, and they were all treated to one hell of an entertaining evening.

Robby Schiller

Patrick Dennis

Steve Poltz & band

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Peter Mulvey/Hayward Williams; March 27, 2010; High Noon Saloon

The Café Carpe is one of my favorite places on earth to see a show, and definitely my favorite place to see Peter Mulvey. The last time though was a bit disappointing, a head-scratching re-gathering of Redbird, his folk supergroup which also includes Jeffrey Foucault, Kris Delmhorst and David Goodrich. Instead of their voices blending seamlessly together, they more were like nails on a chalkboard. I was looking forward to a solo Peter show to renew my faith, and it worked. First though, I had to get through Hayward Williams set. There’s nothing wrong with Hayward’s music exactly, I’m just not into it and I’m not sure why so many people, Peter included, get so excited about him. I did my best to pay attention, but I found myself daydreaming during most of his set, only really listening when Peter joined him on stage. Peter mentioned later that he covers Hayward’s promisingly titled “Problems with Hemingway.” I’d be curious to hear him do it to figure out if it’s the singer or the song.

Since the last time I’d seen Peter he’d gotten a charming new hat and grown some rather bad facial hair. The hat he got in California and it was adorable. I’m not sure where he got the facial hair, but he might want to rethink that acquisition. Tonight was the first time other than in the basement that I’d seen him do the letters implied by the title of his most recent release, Letters From a Flying Machine. The letters take some of his best stories, Vlad the Astrophycisist and Dynamite Bill, and frame them as letters to one of his many nieces and nephews which gives him license to tell them over and over again. I’d always suspected that the basement and the Café Carpe were the only places quiet enough to allow for these spoken word interludes. Tonight however a crowd that had been duly, not to mention unnecessarily, chastised by the promoter between sets during his announcements of his upcoming shows remained silent.

I hadn’t been to a show since returning from SXSW earlier in the week and tonight’s early show was an easy way to ease back into it after the overload induced by five days of nonstop music. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an amazing experience and likely to become a yearly tradition for me, that doesn’t mean it isn’t exhausting.

Hayward Williams

Peter Mulvey

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Jon Dee Graham & friend Kelly Willis; March 21, 2010; Continental Club Gallery, Austin

Last year I stayed in Austin until the Monday after SXSW since the flights home were much, much cheaper that day. I’d heard about Alejandro’s Sunday night shindig at the Continental Club and the lines that formed for it hours in advance, but I opted for the brand new weekly gig premiering that night in the Gallery upstairs. Christened Jon Dee Graham & Friend, it was extended to the plural that night due to the host of friends in town who wanted to be part of that first show. Since then he’s had an impressive line-up of musicians from Austin and across the country join him. This year I purposely booked my return flight for Monday because I knew I didn’t want to miss it, and I didn’t even know who the guest was yet.

Jackpot! Kelly Willis, one of the very few female singers I like, was going to be his guest. Willis always seems so sweet from her gentle smile to her gorgeous voice, but I’ve heard her call Robbie Fulks an asshole, and I know there’s genuine sass behind those innocent blue eyes. Knowing what I know now about Willis and Jon Dee’s past, I expected her to be even sharper tonight. Jon Dee had already let me in on a secret that I’d promised not to tell- since Chuck Prophet was going to be playing downstairs on Al’s bill they had arranged for him to come take Jon Dee’s place yet again after Willis mock-fires him from his own show. Problem was, she almost blew the surprise a few times by bringing up the past, but Jon Dee stopped her each time, “we’ll talk about that a little later.”

Jon Dee played “My Lucky Day,” one of my favorite tracks from the excellent It’s Not as Bad as It Looks, which was officially released earlier this year. Kelly answered with the title track to “What I Deserve,” which happens to be what I would have requested since it’s the only record of hers I own, and honestly I haven’t listened to it in ages. They went on trading tunes, Willis admitting that yes, even though she had fired him, she made every future guitar player learn his solos exactly the way he had played them. Willis didn’t seem exactly prepared, she often struggled to come up with a song to play, and then struggled with the words, but who can blame her, she spends most of her time these days caring for the four children that she and fellow musician Bruce Robison have.

Two of them are twins and Jon Dee had perhaps the funniest line when he asked if they ever creep her out. “I don’t know,” he shook his head, “ever since The Shining, twins just scare the hell out of me.” When the time came for Willis to “fire” him, it didn’t come off as genuine, but Prophet was ready to slide into Jon Dee’s seat. After a tune or two, Willis implored him to play one of his songs, but he demurred, "I've played a lot this week, I'd rather hear you play.” I’d been working up the nerve all night to ask Prophet to play a house concert, but couldn’t do it. Instead, at the end of the night, I gave my card to Jon Dee, asking him to pass it on to Chuck. As the biggest fan of the House of Righteous Music, not to mention its most frequent performer, he’s probably the one to talk him into it anyway. Especially since he’s forgotten, or at least forgiven, the time I went to see Prophet instead of him.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

SXSW Day 4; March 20, 2010; Austin TX

The weather when I’d left Madison had been unseasonably warm, but it had still been a treat to arrive in Austin where the weather was a perfect 70 degrees and sunny every day. That is, until today. Saturday dawned gloomy and rainy, puddles dotting the roads as far as I could see from our sixteenth floor hotel window. It wasn’t until I walked out the front door that I realized how much less nice it really was. The temperature couldn’t have been any more than fifty and a bone chilling wind whipped round the corner. I’d have been tempted to duck back to the room and put on pants and a coat, except, well, I hadn’t packed either.

Suburban Home Recordings added their party late in my schedule making. A true all day affair, Two Cow Garage was scheduled for a closing set at 4:45 while that band’s Micah Schnabel was kicking things off at 10:45. That looked to be a long day of drinking for band that seldom gets up this early in the morning. Though I’m guessing that’s no longer true ever since Shane Sweeney became a father. We were running late and I was a little worried we’d miss part of Micah’s set, but never fear, he was outside smoking when we arrived. It was more like 11 when he got on stage but that just gave me time to say hi to everyone. His solo release is an honest, soul-barring affair, full of songs about life on the road, drinking too much and playing shows. Micah’s gravely voice and acoustic guitar convey the loneliness and add up to instant heartbreak.

I was hoping to get back in time to see Two Cow, but it didn’t seem likely as I’d planned to spend most of the day south of the river, splitting my time between Mojo’s (Nixon of course) Mayhem party at the Continental, the Twangfest party at Jovita’s and yet another party at Yard Dog. The wait at the ridiculously delicious Magnolia Café was more than twice as long as it had been the day before (but still totally worth it), and my plan to see the Waco Brothers at the Twangfest party was replaced by a more sensible one that involved me actually getting to the Continental with enough time to get in the door before Jon Dee started. It was a good one. After a short wait, we were let in just in time to catch the end of the Stone Creek Boys who I am now convinced live at the Continental. The light went on today when he mentioned that he used to be in a band called the Hollisters and I was happy to have that mystery sorted out.

Jon Dee’s set for his favorite party at SXSW wasn’t all that much different than the one the night before, even down to the part where he told the same Alex Chilton story. Today however he reached into a different bag and came out with “Don’t Lie to Me” as his tribute. The song turned into a completely different beast in his hands. His rumbling voice and throat full of gravel has nothing in common with Chilton’s sometimes surprisingly high wail, but it was still absolutely killer. Jon Dee was out the back door quicker than I could back there, but I gave bass player Andrew DuPlantis a kiss on the cheek, told him how great it was to see him, and headed out the back door myself. When I decided to see Chuck Prophet in Chicago, I wasn’t sure I’d see him at all Austin, yet here I was at the Twangfest party, waiting at the back of a capacity crowd as he set up for another amazing show. Following that, I caught the second half of Joe Pug’s set on the patio. Despite the fact that it was cold out there, a good number of people had huddled together for his affecting singer-songwriter tunes. He seemed surprised and even humbled by the response. He shouldn’t have been, that kid is going places.

It was much different scene that greeted me at Yard Dog today compared to yesterday’s sun-baked Bloodshot party Folks huddled under the tent, scarves wrapped tight, gloved hands holding their $2 pale ales. For this set, Jon Langford had called on the Waco’s rhythm section, drummer Joe Camarillo and bassist Alan Doughty as well as a few other friends to help him out. Yard Dog’s Randy Franklin and his mandolin were on stage again today, as was Jean Cook, fingerless gloves holding her fiddle. The truly new face belonged to Elvis Costello dead-ringer Billy Bob Anderson of the Meat Purveyors, one of the best dressed men I’d seen all week. He was so fantastic that I kinda forgot that I hate the Meat Purveyors ever since they stood in front of the stage and talked through Jon Dee Graham’s set at Twangfest years ago. The Waco Brothers set is always a party, high energy and high kicks come first and songs come second. For this set he concentrated on his solo material, playing several selections from his next release which was recorded with a men’s Welsh choir.

Chuck Prophet was loading in to play next at Yard Dog, but by this point I was chilled to the bone. That combined with the inevitable exhaustion of SXSW sent me back to the hotel for a quick nap and a warm-up to insure that I would be able t o make it through the Bloodshot showcase tonight.

Micah Schnabel

Jon Dee Graham

Chuck Prophet

Joe Pug

Jon Langford

SXSW Night 4-Bloodshot Showcase; March 20, 2010; Austin, TX

I lived in Texas for six and half years. In Dallas every club I went to was contained, four walls holding in the air conditioned air required to live through their wickedly hot summers. By all reports, the capital city of Austin, located 180 miles south and west of Dallas, gets even hotter, and my three Africa-hot trips to the Austin City Limits Festival in September seemed to back that up. So why are so many of the city’s venues open to the elements? I enjoyed Club DeVille’s real rock wall behind the stage on Wednesday night, but by the time Califone finished their set close to 1 AM I was wishing for the hoodie I had left behind in the hotel. From the front I wouldn’t have guessed that the Red Eyed Fly was an outdoor venue, but after walking through the bar area and into the “music room” I found a noticeable lack of walls.

Luckily for most of the night a big enough crowd packed into the venue to see bands that had already played, and they had probably seen, several times this week. Ben Weaver kicked off the night, hood up and vest on, playing many of the new songs I’d heard for the first time the day before. Once again “Anything with Words” gave him trouble and disappointingly he abandoned it after half a verse. I was happily surprised that once again the crowd hushed while he was on stage and paid attention. Yes, I know that SXSW is a haven for music lovers, but it also involves a whole lot of drinking and that often doesn’t make for the most attentive audiences. Whitey Morgan and the 78’s followed with another barn-burning set of classic sounding country. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of this band, hopefully in Madison and at the House of Righteous Music.

Their fiddle player pulled double duty again tonight, joining Exene Cervenka and her all-girl band. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that her solo record hews closer to the sound of the Knitters, an X side project band, than it does to the music from her better known days as a punk rocker- she is on Bloodshot after all. For years the Waco Brothers have closed the Bloodshot showcase, putting an exclamation point on the last day of SXSW, but this year they hit the stage two hours earlier. After drummer Joe Camarillo failed to show up for last year’s 1 AM show, the label decided that putting their franchise players on earlier might be a good idea. The logic in having them play last is that the Waco Brothers are a near impossible act to follow. Luckily Bloodshot has Ha Ha Tonka. I can’t think of any band short of the Wrens that I find this consistently electrifying. Owner Rob Miller called my love of them psychotic, but I’d like to think of it as something less crazy sounding. “You guys are taking a big chance putting us on at midnight,” lead singer Brian Roberts joked, “it’s been a long day of drinking.” No need to worry, their set was as powerful as it was the day before, and besides I know he never drinks anything stronger than beer. Sigh, I miss them already.

Scott H Biram, that dirty old one man band from Austin as he likes to call himself, was the final act of the night. For one guy he took an awful long time to set up, but somewhat surprisingly most of the crowd stuck around. He’s always been sort of a one trick pony, but luckily I’m pretty fond of that trick. His recent Bloodshot release Something Gone/Lost Forever is probably his most accessible so far, and it only narrowly missed a spot on my year-end list. He made up for starting late by playing well past 2 AM, to the point that the staff at Red Eyed Fly were kicking people out before the last note even faded. By this point the buzz of great music and a few Lone Stars had warmed me up enough that the walk back to the hotel wasn’t cold at all.

Ben Weaver

Whitey Morgan & the 78's

Exene Cervenka

Waco Brothers

Ha Ha Tonka

Scott H Biram