Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Lynyrd Skynyrd; June 29, 2010; Summerfest

Last year’s four days at Summerfest was an anomaly for me, it’s been at least a half dozen years since many of the bands booked at the World’s Largest Music Festival held any sort of real attraction for me. Most days are an endless slew of generic cover bands, followed by one band that you maybe kinda wanna see at 10 PM. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind at all. It’s hot and it’s expensive, and I don’t need to do it. But there is one day at Summerfest I don’t mind at all, the one day we meet up with a handful of Chicago relatives and friends. The music is secondary for us; the seventh version of “Proud Mary” makes us just as happy as the first. Like most Summerfesters, we aren’t there to listen to music; we’re there to hang out.

Before we left that morning I received an e-mail from Summerfest (an hourly occurrence during the eleven day celebration), this one offered me free tickets to Lynyrd Skynyrd in the Marcus Amphitheater. While I do enjoy “Gimme Three Steps” as much as the next person, I’ve never possessed any real desire to see them, until now. Robert Kearns, who had been the Bottle Rockets’ nothing-but-trouble bass player from the time I first saw them up until just a few years ago, was now an official member of the legendary rockers. The weird started with seeing his familiar face painted on the side of one of their trucks in the loading area of the theater. “I need a picture of that I declared.”

We sat through 38 Special’s sadly uninspired set waiting to catch a glimpse of the one guy on stage who had been in my kitchen. The medleys made it seem as though they were just going through the motions, sounding almost like a tribute band than the real thing. Then Skynyrd came out. It took me a minute to find him; it was almost as if he was going incognito. In addition to one of those floppy hats he’d always favored, he sported a thick beard which along with his cop sunglasses obscured most of his face. We got no help from the big screens either; it was almost as if the camera operators were contractually obligated to keep him off the giant TVs. Even from out seats at the back of the reserved section, there was really no mistaking it was him, I’d know that slouched, still sexy stance, anywhere. “Wow,” I thought, “I know that guy, that’s pretty cool.”

I stayed through “Gimme Three Steps” (I genuinely do like that song) and then left to go see Weird Al (yes really). Besides, I didn’t need to see them play “Freebird,” I’d seen the Bottle Rockets do it last summer.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Asumaya; June 25, 2010; a house somewhere on E Mifflin

Sunday, June 20, 2010

John Doe/Jon Langford; June 20, 2010; SPACE, Evanston

On paper, the relatively new Evanston venue SPACE had “pretentious” written all over it. Located in an area of Chicago better known as the home of Northwestern University than for live music, the venue’s name is as acronym for Society for the Preservation of Arts and Culture in Evanston. That’s quite a mouthful, but at least they decided to go with the initials. The tickets for all their shows seemed inflated ($35 for Paula Cole, are you kidding me?), but in the case of John Doe and Jon Langford it seemed worth it, whatever the ticket price was.

Once we reached the venue all illusion of pretention faded. The building blended in with its neighbors, mostly shops and cafes, on a shady suburban street. The front half is occupied by Union Pizza, and it is worth noting that their pizzas looked delicious and that you can order and bring into the show. The low stage was boxed by rows of chairs on each side and across the front by small tables with candles that you could reserve for an extra ten bucks per ticket. Standing in line, I got the feeling that a large part percentage of their show goers are probably locals who go to the shows for something to do. This assumption was reinforced by a conversation with the folks behind us in line who wondered if I knew anything about John Doe. They’d heard of Jon Langford (they should have, he is a Chicago celebrity after all) but didn’t know anything about tonight’s headliner.

Other than the fact that he hasn’t spent the last twenty years living in a foreign country, Doe could be Langford’s American twin. Both were members of seminal 80’s punk bands, X and the Mekons respectively, which featured strong male/female vocals and (amazingly) both still sporadically tour with mostly original members. Additionally, both have followed a trail into alt-country territory, Doe with the Knitters and Langford with a number of different bands. His set tonight, much like his show at the house, featured many of the songs from his upcoming Bloodshot release. Many of the songs are about his hometown of Newport in Wales. By all accounts it is a depressing burg, but there’s affection in his tales. Despite leaving it more than three decades ago, he still retains the charming Welsh accent, an accent that makes everything he says swoon worthy. Tonight, he was joined on guitar by Jim Elkington of the Zincs who also plays on the record.

John Doe had an announcement to make, “I was standing back there drinking the whole time Jon was playing, so if there is something you want to hear I might just play it.” That statement was only half true. After a request was made for “Take #52” several times, he made a deal, “how about I play you a song with all that same chords, but that I actually know?” Surprisingly, that song turned out to be a song he didn’t even write. Since the Fourth of July was only two weeks away, he did play another request that he called “very seasonal.” Although I would argue that Dave Alvin’s “Fourth of July” could be played year-round with no repercussions. I figured the only reason he even knew it was that Alvin is also a member of the Knitters; I didn’t know that he had covered that song years ago. Perhaps the best of his originals was a new song called “Walking Out the Door,” as in “why do you always want me when?”

When we told him after the show how much we had enjoyed it, and Michelle declared it her new favorite song, he replied with a curious “I’m very happy for you.” Now that he mentions it, I was pretty happy for us too.

Jon Langford

John Doe

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Great Lake Swimmers; June 13, 2010; Marquette Waterfront Festival

It would have been nice to have a leisurely drive back to Madison, but I had high hopes of making it back in time for Toronto’s Great Lake Swimmers who were playing the third day of the Marquette Waterfront Festival. Torrential rains slowed our drive, but Bill was still able to drop us off at the park precisely at 4:30 and we could hear the melancholy whisper of the band as we walked the length of the park toward the stage.

I had missed the Great Lake Swimmers the last time they came through Madison, but I am convinced I would not have enjoyed them much in the Rathskellar. This is a band that demands silence, Tony Dekker’s delicate ache of a voice, the gentle plunked banjo and thrumming upright bass, all work best with silence and that is in short supply in a room full of drunken college students. In their history of playing in town, they have been one of the few bands able to silence both a King Club and the notoriously chatty CafĂ© Montmartre. Uncharacteristically, the last time at the High Noon you couldn’t hear a pin drop, and I only worry that will get worse the more popular the band gets.

Surprisingly, my main complaint today wasn’t the crowd, but instead the sound from the stage. There is a new girl in the band; Cathy’s cousin has been replaced by red-haired fiddler. She had a nice voice too, but it was so high in the mix that every time she sang it drowned out Dekker, and that was disappointing indeed. The new record is the catchiest yet from the Canadians, still graceful and gorgeous but just a bit more upbeat, making it essentially irresistible. Much of the new record was featured in a set played under cloudy skies that occasionally spit out a smattering of raindrops. “Pulling on a Line” and “Everything is Moving so Fast” from Lost Channels and the always gorgeous “Various Stages” from Bodies and Minds were all part of an almost perfect set list under the gray skies.

Almost perfect, except that it didn’t include my absolute favorite song, going back to the first time I ever saw them. The fest director asked if we wanted an encore, and the damp crowd responded enthusiastically. They returned to the stage, and that’s when I surprised myself by yelling “Imaginary Bars” far louder than I meant. Dekker looked in my direction, startled, and I added a meek “please?” They started the first song. It wasn’t it, but it was Alex’s favorite song “Still,” so that was good. Then the rest of the band left the stage, leaving Dekker alone with his guitar. “When the sun fell down and fell asleep, drunk from drinking all the heat” he sang, and a delighted grin spread across my face. I swear he looked over once and smiled to see how happy I was. The second time he reached that opening line, the clouds parted and a ray of sunlight reached the stage. A murmur of approval ran through the crowd.

It had been great up till that point, now it was nothing short of magical.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Twangfest Night 4; June 12, 2010; Blueberry Hill, St Louis

We’d already planned on not attending Twangfest this year since Bill, who has always been our Twangfest leader, needed to save vacation time (and probably some money) for an upcoming trip to Italy. That allowed me to finally book a date for the Bottle Rockets to play at the house after a year of trying. But then we found out the reunited Jason & the Scorchers were playing one of only two US dates announced thus far at the annual festival. So I did what anyone would do, got up at 7 o’clock in the morning and got in the car for the drive to St Louis. We probably wouldn’t have had to leave quite so early if it weren’t for the Ha Ha Tonka in store performance that afternoon and Euclid Records. I’ll confess right here, Jason & the Scorchers are good, but I was in on this trip for Ha Ha Tonka.

Sure I see them all the time, and yes they have been playing essentially the same set for the last year, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to miss a chance to see them. Most in store performances I’ve been to have been short, a half dozen songs to convince the store patrons to buy a record or come to the show, but Twangfest in-stores have become mini-shows usually lasting well over thirty minutes. It was a bit of a disappointment when after four songs they said they had time for one more and would take a request if anyone had one. Since mine would have been “Surrounded,” my second favorite song off Novel Sounds but never played live, I kept my mouth shut. We were rewarded with a new song “Westward Bound,” which extended their string of instantly likeable new tunes. It was short, but I still enjoyed the stripped down set, Lennon had a tambourine and a few other percussion instruments, Luke played acoustic bass, and Brett only played mandolin.

The mellow set could not have prepared me for the virtual firestorm to come later. In the middle slot at the Duck Room that night, they played with a fevered intensity above and beyond their consistently impressive show. The new song from earlier in the day made an appearance as well as “All of the Usual Suspects,” another new song which had been in the set since February. Almost everyone at Twangfest gets an encore, but seldom do they deserve it as much as Ha Ha Tonka did tonight. The most inspired of their covers has always been RamJam’s “Black Betty,” and tonight’s torrid version demonstrated why. In the middle of the song Luke commented that they had been watching the Blues Brothers the night before. Brian looked confused, “this song isn’t in the Blues Brothers, this one is.” And with the he went seamlessly into the “hidee hidee hidee ho” call and response section from “Minnie the Moocher” like that was the way they always did it. Awesome. Now that’s an encore.

Opener Magnolia Mountain earned points for having the biggest age gap I’ve ever seen in a band. On one side there was the little old guy who played a mean mandolin and harmonica and on the other a fresh faced guitar player barely old enough to drink. The ensemble band, with eight members total, had come from Cincinnati to play Twangfest. They were enjoyable but totally forgettable musically.

I’d seen Jason Ringenberg solo twice before. On the second occasion Matthew Grimm and his band (who had opened the show) played the part of the Scorchers for several songs. Before that moment I didn’t realize the difference between Jason solo and Jason & the Scorchers. Freed of his guitar, he turns into a dervish, whirling almost out of control across the stage, the fringe on his fancy silver shirt twirling with him. His energy and abandon would be impressive at any age, but even more so considering how long he’s been in the game. Less showy, but admittedly only slightly, was guitarist Warner Hodges, his well-worn boots sported a pair of spurs, as completely unnecessary as they were totally awesome. Once you got past that and his oddly out-dated hair, you realized what an amazing guitarist he was. Disappointingly the handsome young Scandinavian drummer with the name of Pontus Snibb, who had played on the recent release and the European tour dates, had been replaced on the US dates by a much gnarlier fellow. But he proved to be a monster drummer. I know there was at least one drummer in the audience who had a serious man crush by the end of their set.

I had moved to the back of the room when the heat got to be too much at the front of the room. Lennon came and stood by me and we watched the band together for a while. “That’s going to be us in twenty years.” “I hope so,” I replied, and after a moment added, “but you guys will still be cuter.”

Ha Ha Tonka at Euclid Records

Magnolia Mountain

Ha Ha Tonka

Jason & the Scorchers

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Bottle Rockets; June 11, 2010; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

The Bottle Rockets booking agent had told me they were going to play a ninety minute set. Now, I’ve learned that booking agents aren’t always the authority on what a band is going to do, but I don’t think anyone expected the nearly three hour, all request marathon show they did tonight. Not only was it all request but they played every request they heard, never once making excuses about how they didn’t remember a song or how it had been too long since they played it last. I can’t remember the last time I heard “Financing His Romance” live, if in fact I’ve ever heard it live. It’s been years since I even thought about “Pretty Little Angie,” which Rocky convolutedly requested as “the song about the girl and a horse.” Lucky thing they knew what he was talking about, because it wouldn’t have surprised me at all if they’d been able to pull 70’s soft rock hit “Wildfire” out of the air. In fact the only request they did turn down was the inevitable call for “Freebird.” “Nope,” lead singer Brian Henneman smiled, “that’s only gonna happen once and it was in Neenah WI.” I smiled smugly since I had been there.

Over the years my request has been become a given. After years of literally begging for “When I Was Dumb,” all of a sudden they just started playing it without a word from me. I figured tonight was the one night I could make a second request. “I have two requests,” I told them between songs, “you already know the first one.” They smiled acknowledging that they did, “the other is “Hey Moon.”” Tonight we got a little background on the bounciest of their broken-heart songs. Turns out that Brian was a bit smitten with Moon Unit Zappa in the early days of MTV when she had her own show. Deciding it was creepy to write a song naming her, he wrote an entirely different song instead naming the Earth’s satellite. After nearly two hours, the band took a well-deserved break. They returned to play an extended encore. It seemed they had forgotten my second request, heck I almost had by that time. Then I heard drummer Mark Ortmann stage whisper the title to Brian. “Oh yeah,” he grinned, “we have to play this one or we don’t get paid.” It may have just been me, but that was the best version of it I have ever heard.

All the hits were there of course, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Bottle Rockets show where they didn’t play “Indianapolis,” “$1000 Car” and “Radar Gun.” The latter Brian dedicated to Paul Kegler who we had taken to see the band at Shank Hall in Milwaukee when he was somewhere in the neighborhood of twelve. There were also a few from their excellent new record Lean Forward, most notably “The Long Way” which sagely notes “the long way isn’t the wrong and a wrong turn isn’t the end when it’s understood something good is coming up around the bend.”

I’ve had shows sell out in advance before, well, OK one show actually. I thought this one would, but I certainly didn’t expect it to do it in six days. I spent the next month turning people away. I wish all my shows did this well, or even half this well. I set up chairs on only one side of the basement, leaving the other side open for the anticipated rock show. It worked well, to the point where a couple people suggested I probably could have fit a few more folks in. As it was there was room to move around, and to get to the coolers or the bathroom. I though it was a perfect amount of people and I am pretty sure they all left happy, feeling like they had just been a part of something very special.

The Bottle Rockets