Friday, July 30, 2010

Lucero/Ha Ha Tonka; July 30, 2010; High Noon Saloon

The first time I saw Lucero was at the Empty Bottle in Chicago. Matt Pond PA had just played a quietly gorgeous set. At first Lucero’s amped up Southern rock was a nice contrast, but eventually it all started to sound the same and their increasingly drunk frat boy fans drove me out before the encore. The second time was at Twangfest a few years back. They had just come from the Wakarusa festival, which is dry, and boy, were they thirsty. They were so drunk by the time they played that they didn’t successfully complete a song all night. Surprisingly that was less annoying than it sounds, and I actually preferred that show to my first experience.

Third time’s a charm? Not quite. Much like the Murder by Death show, the High Noon was packed with people I didn’t recognize. Yes, many of them were certainly drunk, but none as bad as the fans or the band respectively of my first two Lucero encounters. None of the band actually looked familiar except for jovial lead singer Ben Nichols. For one thing I certainly didn’t remember there being that many of them on stage last time. In addition to Nichols, the rhythm section and a lead guitar player, there were two horns, a keyboard player and a pedal steel player. Eight band members nearly justify the large tour bus parked out front. With all those musicians you would think that their songs would have some variety, but as their set moved into the second hour I had identified only four, there was the slow jam, the song with horns, and the one that sounds like it was written by the Drive By Truckers’ Mike Cooley. Uh, make that three different songs. Admittedly, I don’t know their material at all, which undoubtedly accounts for my inability to differentiate between songs. As the crowd continued to roar their approval, sing along and beg for more, I couldn’t help but wonder why Two Cow Garage doesn’t enjoy this sort of popularity. After all, they do the same sort of thing, they do it better, and they have more than three songs.

One thing I will say about Nichols, he was charming, genuine, and sincere, on stage and off. When fan after fan came up to him after the show wanting a photo and to tell him how much his music means to them, he couldn’t have been happier to talk and then grin adorably for the camera. All the while I’m pretty sure what he really wanted was a drink. During their set he thanked Ha Ha Tonka so many times I actually lost count. Which makes him much nicer than me, I just harassed them for not playing “Close Every Valve to Your Bleeding Heart” AGAIN and told them it was a good thing for them that it was too late for me to not come to the show. It was an even shorter set than Monday’s already too short show, with Brett’s new song also being eliminated. Still I do love those boys, and I’ll seldom miss an opportunity to see them. The good thing about tonight was that it convinced me not to drive to DeKalb on Monday to see the same show again. The bad part about tonight was that I found out later that my previous ping pong drubbing at Brian’s hands wasn’t because I was drunk last time. He’s just that good. Another myth busted.

Actually, now that I think about it I am pretty sure that I saw Lucero between rain showers at the Beale Street Music Fest in Memphis years ago.

Ha Ha Tonka


Alex with Ben Nichols

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Time Since Western; July 27, 2010; The Frequency

I told Time Since Western’s Andy Brawner that I wasn’t going to review this show, and I’m not, not really. I do want to say that it was mostly awesome and his cover of “Back in the USSR” was positively inspired. It will make me sad if I never get to hear these songs live again.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Langhorne Slim/Ha Ha Tonka; July 26, 2010; The Varsity Club, Minneapolis

I inevitably feel sorry for the bands that have to follow Ha Ha Tonka. They are such a terrific live band, and their electric energy fills the stage. Usually the band that follows them doesn’t have a chance, until now. This tour with Langhorne Slim is the best pairing yet I’ve seen for my favorite southern Missouri boys. Unlike HHT where each member commands equal attention, in Langhorne’s case he’s the center of attention.

Which is not to say his band isn’t great. I’ve never seen a faster, more frantic, banjo player in my life. I mentioned to David Moore after the show that it looked like he’d wiped some of the blood off his banjo since the last time I’d seen them. Back in January it had been a spray covering the body of the instrument, now it was just a smudgy smear under the strings. After I complimented him on his frenzied style, he told me how sometimes he has to duct tape his fingers when they turn into raw meat. While not as conspicuous, his rhythm section is also pretty great. But it’s Langhorne and his hyperactive stage presence that steal this show. He’ll sing a song from the top of the bass drum, or down on his knees, or uncomfortably bending over since he didn’t straighten the stand from the latter. His records have a powerful addictiveness that’s reflected in the live show. Every time I put one in the CD player it’s weeks before it comes out again. The newest of these, Be Set Free, may be his best. Songs like “You’re Wrong,” “Say Yes,” and the terrific “Cinderella,” with its interband call and response, all get stuck in my head for days at a time.

This was the ninth time I’d seen HHT this year and since most of them were opening sets or SXSW shortened time slots, they’ve been playing essentially the same tunes each time. In these situations the songs are all geared toward people who have never seen the band. I’ve seen their stunning a capella version of “Hangman” win over a whole room full of people, well, the ones who were listening at least. The powerfully addictive “St Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor” from their first record Buckle in the Bible Belt remains one of their best live tunes. In fact, one of Bloodshot’s owners calls it one of the top five songs he’s released. Of course, I’d argue that “Close Every Valve to Your Bleeding Heart” tops it. Too bad the band doesn’t agree with me, when they needed room for Brett’s new song that was the one that got cut. I insisted after the show that I wasn’t going to come see them on Friday in Madison when they open for Lucero (likely another band I’ll end up feeling sorry for) unless it was back in the set. I’m pretty sure they knew I was bluffing.

I'd heard the Varsity Club was the best place to see a show in Minneapolis. Considering that the source is prone to hyperbole I wasn't sure that would be the case, but the gorgeous Varsity with its marble floors and white tablecloths was indeed an awe inspiring venue. Perhaps the only place better might be the Kitty Kat Club just around the corner where the bands and I re-adjourned for the last half of the Melismatics set. When the Posies’ Jon Auer joined them onstage the night went from memorable to legendary.

Ha Ha Tonka

Langhorne Slim

The Melismatics; July 26, 2010; The Kitty Kat Club, Minneapolis

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Theodore/New Mountain Kickers; July 18, 2010; High Noon Saloon

I met the boys in Theodore just over a year ago. More accurately I met Justin from Theodore just over a year ago when I thrust my card into his hand after their set at Twangfest and told him that they had to come play my house. I met the rest of the band in November when they showed up at the house to do just that. Since then they’ve played two more shows at the house, making this their fourth Madison visit in nine months. The significance of this show was that for the first time they weren’t playing KHoRM, and I’ll admit I was a little nervous. I added pleading messages to the end of my house show announcements in the hope that I could convince some of the people who hadn’t seen them at the house (which would be nearly all of them) would come to the High Noon. That didn’t happen, but happily there was a decent crowd of people I didn’t know.

Perhaps it was the nice write up in the Onion, maybe it was the High Noon’s built in crowd, or maybe the New Mountain Kickers have a loyal fan base. The latter wouldn’t be that shocking. Lead singer Caitlin Saucier has an interesting voice that I found intriguing but that chased others out of the bar. Their set was equally distributed between covers and originals. The covers were well chosen, but I wish they had stopped joking about having written classics like “Jolene.” The most entertaining part of the band was tattooed mandolin player Todd Hanson who spent the entire set playing while hunched over. We had a few theories about it; mine was that he was trying to hear the monitor; while someone else guessed that usually Saucier wore short skirts. The Theodore boys had arrived very close to 8 PM so they hadn’t had a chance to sound check. Even so, the NMK implored us to stick around for Theodore, because they are “really nice.”

It’s true of course, they are really nice. Even more than that, Theodore is a truly amazing band (which NMK found out), and they proved they could hold a headlining spot outside of their hometown of St Louis (where they tell me they are rock stars). Their new songs as well as their shows recently have tended to rock a little more than that first time I saw them when they were so quietly brilliant. I’m not against the louder Theodore, but I’m secretly hoping that next time they rock a little less. Being mellow without being boring, as the Pernice Brothers and Great Lake Swimmers do so well, is a rare and difficult feat. It’s much easier to be awesome while playing more upbeat tunes. I want more banjo, more horns, more lap steel and most of all more saw, and those just don’t show up as much in the rockers (though surprisingly, the autoharp does).

The week before I’d seen them play two hours in Dubuque, a very long set by Theodore standards. It was totally worth the drive, but Justin seemed embarrassed by the fact that I had driven an hour and a half on a Tuesday to see them especially since they would be in Madison six days later. I told him that I had driven further for bands I like less, and right now I can’t think of any band I like more.

New Mountain Kickers


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Freedy Johnston & Jay Moran; July 15, 2010; Genna’s Lounge

Madison has been a second home to Freedy Johnston ever since he recorded This Perfect World at Smart Studios. His time there led to friendship with Butch Vig, Duke Erikson and Jay Moran, and the four them play shows under the name the Know It All Boyfriends. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw him play a show in town without Moran as his sideman, and an awesome one at that. This not-quite secret show at the landmark bar, not known for live music, drew a number of notable patrons such as Erikson and Vig’s brother (who doesn’t look a thing like him). I finally got a chance to tell Erikson that I saw him at a Wrens’ show in London. After finding out I was a fan, he remarked, “they’re working on a new record you know.” I just smiled since they’ve been “working on a record” for the last five years.

I’d missed Johnston’s appearance at a free show celebrating Wisconsin becoming smoke free at the beginning of the month. I wasn’t too upset till I heard he had done a cover of the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love.” The chance of hearing the Bee Gees (or the equally awesome Andy Gibb) song on the XM Radio’s 70’s station is the main reason I tune in. Since he was playing that show with disco cover band VO5, I figured that would be a one time deal and I’d missed it. Instead to my delight it showed up again tonight. His naturally high voice was a natural fit for the disco ballad (if that’s a thing).

The rest of his set was a fairly well distributed sampling of his catalog. Can You Fly received multiple votes including my favorite “Lucky One” (surprisingly I’d heard Mary Lou Lord’s version first). Disappointingly, “Seventies Girl” wasn’t on the list again tonight, but Never Home’s almost-as-good “I’m Not Hypnotized” did make the set. This Perfect World remains his career-best work and always contributes heavily to his live performance. The recording of the ethereal title track was listed as a top moment by Vig in his Rolling Stone top ten list, and “Bad Reputation” may be his best known song, while “Evie’s Tears” is as forlorn as they come. Overall, the set was loose and fun.

Perhaps a little too fun since many of the bar patrons seemed to forget they were seeing live music and the chatter level occasionally reached the level of distraction. Oh well, what can you expect for free? At least I got to hear “How Deep Is Your Love.”