Friday, April 30, 2010

The Shotgun Party/Jim James & the Damn Shames/Frogwater; April 30, 2010; High Noon Saloon

The Shotgun Party played the House of Righteous Music in November of 2008. It was their first gig in Madison, back in the days when I wasn’t so leery about booking bands I hadn’t seen, and when the recommendation of a friend (in this case Austin musician Brennen Leigh) was good enough for me. It’s a lucky thing, because I am very glad to have met this charming trio. I’d like to think it was lucky for them too. One of the people who had seen them in the basement recommended them for the Sugar Maple Traditional Music Festival last summer. They played without fiddler Katie Rose Cox who was on tour in Europe with another band. The guy filling in for her did a great job, but I missed Katie and her uniquely awesome fashion sense and her wicked fiddling.

The Sugar Maple people brought them back again tonight for one of the lead up events to this year’s festival as the headliners on a bill that also featured two Wisconsin acts. Watching opening band Frogwater from Milwaukee, I was impressed with their fiddler who was equally adept at bluegrass as she was at Irish tunes. They ran through a variety of tunes, some with words, some instrumental, the fiddle accompanied by acoustic guitar. It wasn’t exactly my thing, but it was good. Next up was one of Madison’s best named bands, Jim James and the Damn Shames. It had been a couple years since I had last seen them, but I never would have guessed. The line-up looked the same and I recognized many of their songs, especially the ones about trains, it could have been just last month.

The Shotgun Party always take the stage by storm. Once they plug in their string of coffee can lights, there’s no looking back, their high-energy acoustic country will knock you over if you aren’t ready. As I mentioned before, Katie is a force to be reckoned with. During Frogwater’s set I was thinking that maybe their fiddler was as good, but those thoughts were erased once she touched bow to fiddle. Her arm was a blur as she coaxed increasingly complicated melodies out of the instrument. Relative newbie, upright bass player Andrew Austin-Peterson has an infectious smile and boyish good looks. The Madison native had many relatives in attendance who enthusiastically cheered him on. Both contribute backing vocals, but the focus of the band will always be lead singer and guitarist Jenny Parrot.

Ridiculously adorable and always smiling, she steals the show from the other very-accomplished musicians on stage. The key is her voice, girlish but strong, like a kewpie doll that knows kung fu. She can break into a convincing yodel at the drop of a hat, and apparently knows some Spanish as she demonstrated with a song that really showed off the vocal power she possesses, power I’m not even sure I knew about till tonight. She was also sweet enough to dedicate a song to me, “This one’s for Kiki,” she said with a smile, “because it’s about being bad.” Aw, isn’t that nice, at least I think it was.

Jim James & the Damn Shames

The Shotgun Party

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Jon Langford/Blake Thomas; April 24, 2010; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

It never hurts to ask. I wasn’t sure Renaissance man Jon Langford would be interested in doing a house concert, after all, he’s a man of many bands, not a solo artist. Even when playing Robbie Fulks’ Secret Country show at the Old Town School of Folk Music, he brought along Sally Timms and violinist Jean Cook. Still, when I e-mailed and asked if he would be interested in playing, he replied “Sounds great, when?” It wasn’t until a month or so later when we had picked a date that it hit me- Jon Langford was going to be in my basement. Very few of the people who have played intimidate me the way he does. It makes no sense, he’s been charming and friendly every time I’ve met him (none of which he apparently remembers), but still he makes me nervous.

I had nothing to worry about. Luckily my head didn’t explode (as I predicted when introducing him), and there was a good crowd and he had a great time. So great in fact, that he said he would come back anytime I wanted. He claimed that only recently had he begun to enjoy playing solo, and he certainly seemed to be enjoying himself tonight. Up until the part where he broke a string. “Oh no,” he deadpanned, looking down at his guitar. Turns out he wasn’t overreacting, he’d never broken a string on an acoustic guitar before. He finished the song and I volunteered Blake to change the string for him. This caused Langford to comment, “What a nice man,” and got us all giggling. Not that Blake isn’t nice, it was the “man” part that sounded so funny. In the meantime he picked up one of Blake’s guitars and continued the set. In fact, he liked Blake’s guitar so much that he finished the night with it and then asked if he could have it.

Since this was a Jon Langford show, not a Waco Brothers, or Mekons, or one of his many other bands, all of that material was available to him. Wacos' songs like “Blink of an Eye” and “The Death of Country Music” were interspersed with Mekons’ tunes like “I Love a Millionaire.” The latter, originally sung by Sally Timms, repeats the title over and over in a way that would have become monotonous if not for his hypnotic Welsh accent. Many of the songs were ones he had recently recorded or re-recorded with the Welsh Men’s Choir of Vancouver. He described them as being big, burly gray haired men, “virtually indistinguishable from me,” with voices like angels. He drew the crowd into a sing-along on “Are You an Entertainer?,” a guide to surviving on the road based on advice given to the young Mekons from Pere Ubu’s bass player Tony Maimone. What seems like common sense was probably necessary counsel. He walked us through the words by acting them out. “Get the money” had him rubbing his thumb and fingers together, “don’t leave anything behind,” as he pointed to his backside, “just some pieces of your heart, and fragments of your mind,” his fingers fluttering away from his head. He followed that with the ridiculously catchy “Nashville Radio,” which he introduced as being about the same thing, “only faster.”

“He’s a really good guitar player,” Langford had whispered to me during Blake’s set, “I’m going to get him to come play with me,” and he made good on that, bringing him up for the last several songs of the set, including “Entertainer” and “Nashville Radio.” Of all the people in the room, Blake is probably the one person who didn’t know any of these songs, but he followed along gamely, adding particularly beautiful guitar flourishes to the Skull Orchard song “Sentimental Marching Song.” For his own set, he hit the highlights of his three CDs plus a few new songs slated for the next record. In addition to the bluesy growl of “Tears in a Bucket,” he premiered his “power waltz,” a yet-unnamed tune that makes good on the promise of the unlikely genre. He started his set by mentioning that Bill had asked him at the beginning of the night how many times he had played a show in the basement. After mentally counting for a second, he announced that I should contact Jon Dee Graham and Anders Parker (who are currently tied at four appearances apiece) that he was actually the leader. It’s true, but with a talent this good in town, how can I not keep asking him to play?
Blake Thomas

Jon Langford

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Whigs/Wildbirds/Invade Rome; April 20, 2010; Mill Creek, Appleton

No matter how carefully I pick dates for my house concerts there is inevitably some sort of conflict, this time it was Athens Georgia’s fantastic Whigs at the Rathskellar on campus the same night as the Jon Langford show at the house. I’d seen the Whigs open for the Toadies a few years back and was charmed by their addictive rock and seemingly limitless energy, not to mention lead singer Parker Gispert’s fantastic dance moves that require he wear his guitar cinched up high under his arm to keep it out of the way. Once I realized I was going to miss them in Madison, I wanted to figure out where I could see them. They were playing at Mill Creek the Tuesday before, while Appleton seemed a strange stop for their first headlining tour in the Midwest, it was certainly doable on a Tuesday night. We arrived a half hour after the posted start time, hoping one of the three bands would have started already, they hadn’t, it was going to be a late night.

Milwaukee band Invade Rome used to be Freshwater Collins, a band I’d seen a couple times before. At least I think I did, I remembered them as being a bluesy jam band, but nothing about their fairly generic rock tonight seemed very familiar. Lead singer Chris Vos confounded me by switching between a deep devil voice and an impressive wail, I was unsure which was more real, maybe neither. Also hailing from Milwaukee, second openers the Wildbirds were much more memorable with their infectious rock that combined Tom Petty’s gift for a catchy melody with the Stones’ dirty blues. Other than the bass player, who could have been Kyle Motor’s little brother, I’ll admit that the boys themselves also looked pretty dirty, and lead singer Nicholas Stuart’s pencil-thin mustache didn’t help. Despite his V-neck T-shirt (not a fan), I was hypnotized as he writhed his way through a set of captivating tunes. I’ll be watching for the next time they come to town because I definitely want to see them again.

The Whigs mean business, other than a few mumbled thank you’s, they barely spoke as the burned through a set that didn’t pull any punches. It wasn’t because they couldn’t think of anything to say. “Your girlfriend wants to fuck my guitar?” lead singer repeated skeptically to one of the very vocal audience members as he set down the guitar and moved to the keyboard for a song, “well, that’s not going to do either of us any good.” I’ll be the first to admit his black Epiphone was sexy, fingerprint smudges and all, but he’s absolutely right. I recognized many of the songs from their ridiculously good recent release In the Dark, but every one of their anthemic tunes was memorable. Gisbert and super hot bass player Julian Dorio covered much of Mill Creek’s roomy stage never missing a note during a very physical set that left me exhausted, as much from smiling nonstop as from anything else. By the end I was kicking myself for having missed their two Madison appearances since the Toadies show. That won’t happen again.

Invade Rome



Sunday, April 18, 2010

Will Johnson/Anders Parker; April 18, 2010; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

The last couple times I had run into Centro-matic’s Will Johnson (opening for and playing with the Drive By Truckers’ Patterson Hood and, surprisingly, playing drums with the Monsters of Folk) I told him he should come play a house concert. Centro-matic has always done well in Madison so I didn’t really expect him to ever take me up on it. It was a bit of a surprise when Anders, a frequent house concert performer, said he was heading out on tour again, this time with Will Johnson, and they were playing a series of living rooms. Just like Windows 7, I’d like to think this whole tour was my idea.

I figured this show would sell itself, because as I mentioned, Centro-matic has always done quite well in Madison. Even so, I followed my usual protocol, sent out a couple e-mails to my list, postered on State St, and watched as the number of tickets available according to Undertow’s website went from 35… down to 27. I can’t really explain why, perhaps it was the ticket price- while $20 is totally worth it; it’s also more than I’ve charged for any of my shows. The second was their ticketing policy which required people buy their tickets (donation) in advance from Undertow. A great idea for folks who have never hosted a house concert, but it seemed unnecessary for more experienced hosts like me. Still, I didn’t question it; the website seemed quite clear on this point. In retrospect, I probably should have since it did seem to frighten some people away. Anders had expected me to do the ticketing my way, and apologized profusely for not making that clear.

I wouldn’t have guessed this was the smallest crowd that the guys had played for on this tour, they were still just as charming and gregarious as if the room was full of people. They’d been doing this tour unamplified, playing about an hour each. I offered them the PA, but they went without. Will went first, and started his set with a monologue on the essential oddness of what they were doing. Just before he left on tour a friend asked him if he was worried about “that guy” who was going to buy up all the tickets and then demand the hits, though it sounded a little more Deliverance in his telling. He smiled when he said it, and thanked us for “not being that guy.” Johnson has a gorgeous voice, but it had never struck me as being particularly strong, and I wondered how he would fair without amplification. With his wealth of material, under his own name and with Centro-matic and South San Gabriel, he had an extensive catalog of songs to choose from. It isn’t surprising I only knew one song, the title track to the Flashes and Cables EP, but it all sounded terrific.

Anders has always impressed me with the way he plays his electric like an acoustic and his looping skills. Going without power, I wasn’t sure they would have the same magic. But they did as he played them the simple, old-fashioned way, just strumming and singing. In the weeks since Alex Chilton’s unexpected death there has been tribute after tribute to the man whose contribution to music hadn’t really been appreciated until recently. Anders took a different route, playing the song of his that he felt conveyed the magic of Chilton’s music. “Song” is a tune that gets stuck in your head, and that’s exactly what it is about. “Song that song, the one where everyone sings along.” Brilliant. It’s worth noting that The Replacements “Alex Chilton” is about that very same thing (“I’m in love, with that song.”). In his fourth appearance in the basement (moving him into a tie with Jon Dee Graham), he again marveled at the fact that Michelle (his biggest fan in the audience) hates singer songwriters, and emphasized that he intends to mention it every time. “The thing is,” he claimed, “I don’t think of myself as a singer-songwriter, there’s a whole band in my head.” He paused, smiling, “and they are really rocking tonight.”

To end the night they played a pair of songs together. Their voices didn’t actually mesh a well as I would have thought, but it was more the idea of it that I liked. Sure, it was disappointing that not more people came, but knowing that they both had a great time, and that they will both be back, took away the sting. Yet another great show in the basement.

Will Johnson

Anders Parker

Anders & Will

Friday, April 09, 2010

Henry Rollins; April 9, 2010; Barrymore Theater