Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women/The Rousers; August 29, 2010; Orton Park Festival

I’d only been to the Orton Park festival a few times before, and I’d certainly never gone two days in a row, but this year was to be the exception. I was immediately grateful that it was not as crowded as the day before because it was much hotter today. I was looking forward to seeing the once ubiquitous Rousers who are still dependably entertaining these days despite only play once a year or so. I was unsure how I would feel about Dave Alvin’s Guilty Women since I had been a huge fan of his previous backing band the Guilty Men, in particular a certain keyboard player, but I was willing to give them a chance.

I should have known that Alvin knows what he’s doing. He’s assembled a band with an even more impressive pedigree than his previous one. After seeing Exene Cervenka accompanied by a female pedal steel player at SXSW I commented that I’d never seen a girl play the difficult instrument. I was wrong, the woman who played with Alvin today, Cindy Cashdollar, was a member of Asleep at the Wheel, who I’d seen open for Bob Dylan a decade ago. And she was amazing. The rhythm section was equally qualified. Drummer Lisa Pankratz looked very familiar, and Bill said the Austin-based musician had played more Twangfests than he could remember. She was all business and wore a stern look throughout the show, except when her name was mentioned, only then she would break into a broad grin. Bass player Sarah Brown was much more extroverted, smiling easily through the set. The last member of the band was vocalist Christy McWilson, Scott McCaughey’s wife, who I’d seen Alvin back at the Club Tavern years ago. I wasn’t really a fan of her back then, but I liked her better today especially when her voice blended with Alvin’s. As much as I liked the Guilty Women, I couldn’t help thinking that one Guilty Man on keyboards would have added a lot.

Back in June, John Doe claimed that he couldn’t do “The Fourth of July” just anytime because it was a seasonal song. Luckily that night we were only two weeks away from the National holiday. Apparently Alvin, the song’s author, has no such qualms and he opened with it tonight. The rest of the set selected classics from his career and from his 2009 release with the Guilty Women. As always, his powerful and strangely soothing voice was the drug that kept me entertained and anxiously awaiting the next song in the set. The very first time I saw Alvin, on a bill with Richard Thompson at the Barrymore, he was joined on stage by Madison’s Frank Furillo of the Rousers. Back then I thought that was pretty cool, but I didn’t know that Furillo and Alvin went to Catholic School together in California, and that Alvin credits Furillo with getting him into music and starting his music career. Every time I’ve seen Alvin since, Furillo has guested on harmonica.

It’s even easier for Furillo on nights like tonight when his band had played on the Orton Park stage just prior. When I first moved to Madison they were one of the bands that I saw several times a year. Now it seems two or three years go by without a chance to see them. I can’t even remember the last time I saw them, but they hadn’t changed a bit. After Furillo, the most easily recognized member of the band is guitarist D. Ernie Connor, who still sports a duck-tail and wears it well. His guitar playing has always been one of the highlights of seeing the band, but his weapons of choice are always worth taking note of. In addition to his trademark Rickenbacker, he also used an interesting looking pale purple, lilac in fact, colored guitar that I couldn’t identify. Like all of his instruments it sounded great. The fans certainly haven’t forgotten the band and they enjoyed some of the most enthusiastic dancers of the day in front of the stage.

This is what living on the East side is all about.

The Rousers

Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Carolina Chocolate Drops; August 28, 2010; Orton Park Festival

You know it is SXSW when there are bands playing in your hotel lobby every morning. Well, actually it wasn’t my hotel, I was in the Hilton Garden Inn, but the local public radio station was sponsoring short sets from a handful of bands every morning in the lobby of the Hilton just a block away. I went for Frightened Rabbit and ended up staying for the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I was so impressed with them that I made a mental note to see them again. Of course, that didn’t happen during SXSW, I was too busy stalking Ha Ha Tonka, Califone and Jon Dee Graham for that, but when they played a free show at one of Madison’s terrific outdoor festivals I was there.

I heard several people say tonight was officially the biggest crowd ever at an Orton Park Fest show and I had no trouble believing that. We had gotten there early enough and were standing fairly close to the stage, but by the time they finished their first song a sea of people had filled in around us. It’s easy to think that anyone could have drawn a crowd like this tonight, the weather was perfect and it is free, but I’m inclined to say they showed up for something special. And they got it.

Their music is steeped in history, having spent many hours learning traditional tunes from octogenarian fiddler Joe Thompson in Mebane NC, joining him for his Thursday night jam sessions. Even thought they are so obviously influenced by history, they are definitely a modern band. They did a good job of setting up many of the songs they played with the history behind it. Dom Flemmons and Rhiannon Giddens did most of the talking, while darkly handsome Justin Robinson was more the strong, silent type. The title of their most recent CD Genuine Negro Jig may raise eyebrows but that is the actual name of one of the historic tunes they featured. The impressive thing about CCD is that each of them is ridiculously talented, they handed multiple instruments- banjo, fiddle, jug- back and forth during their set. Robinson and Giddens both played the fiddle. While I thought they were both equally amazing, my sister said that the former’s bowing was the really impressive thing. I’ll have to believe her on this one.

Flemmons was arguably the most gregarious of the group, and he was certainly the most dapper. In his suspenders and straw hat he looked like quite the old time gentleman. When he stood to dance and play the “bones” with both hand, his herky jerky movements looked like a marionette or a Tim Burton creation. The intriguing bones are a percussion instrument made of wood or bone, consisting of two sticks held in one hand clicked together clicked together through the movement of the hand, similar to playing spoons. While his dancing looked spontaneous, Giddens dancing seemed much more practiced, toward the end of the set she left her seat for an energetic twirl while Robinson blew the jug. The traditional jug sounds an awful lot like modern beatboxing, as was illustrated when Robinson left the jug on the ground to provide the beats for one of their more modern sounding numbers.

All in all it was quite the hypnotic evening. In fact the only misstep of the night may have been the improv collaborative song with the band that had played prior to them. Like a Saturday Night Live skit, it was a good idea that went on too long.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Lou Barlow & the Missing Men/Wye Oak; August 23, 2010; The Frequency

When I heard Lou Barlow would be playing the Frequency following two previous solo shows at the Annex and the High Noon, I was predicting the sort claustrophobic crowd that packed into O’Cayz Corral for an over-sold Sebadoh something like a decade ago. Sometimes I am happy to be wrong. Instead of wall to wall people, there was something close to just the right amount (unless you are the promoter of course). Barlow’s visits to Madison have always been memorable. In addition to the aforementioned show, for his date at the Annex he lost his voice. After croaking his way through a few songs, he asked for volunteers to sing some of his better known numbers. Unfortunately it turned out no one actually knew more than a chorus of any of his songs, and the only person who fared OK was the guy who did the somewhat repetitive “Natural One.”

You would have thought that show would have been a short one; instead it ran over two hours. Tonight went long too. “I never know when to stop,” Barlow claimed several songs after dismissing the Missing Men, “I always play too long and then everyone leaves without buying anything.” To prove that I didn’t think he had played too long, I bought a CD and a T-shirt. I couldn’t have more delighted with his set that included his backing band for two thirds the night and him solo for the rest of it. “It wasn’t what was advertised,” a friend complained. I’m not sure what was advertised, but the Missing Men were there, so I guess she has a point. I didn’t know the majority of the set, except for the songs from Emoh, his quiet solo record from 2005, like the amusingly sacrilegious “Mary” (“Immaculate conception, yeah right”) and the spacey “Caterpillar Girl.” Sadly, requests for Ratt’s “Round & Round,” which he covered on that record, went unfulfilled, “I haven’t played Ratt in a long time,” he apologized. I found it all very entertaining, and I wore a ridiculous grin the whole night. Barlow was more than willing to take requests; unfortunately I couldn’t remember the name of my favorite Folk Implosion song till I walked in the door at home. “Free to Go,” remember that for me for next time, can you please?

This was the first time I had seen the Missing Men- awesome, gray-haired punk rocker Tommy Watson on guitar and adorable, mop-topped Raul Morales on drums- and I enjoyed them immensely. They make a lot of noise for a three piece, especially with Barlow playing the bass pedals. It looked a bit odd to see him shoe and sock-less until I figured out that was what he was doing. Eventually he got tired of it and the band went bass-less the rest of the set. Perhaps the most important job of the Missing Men is keeping Barlow on track and from playing too long, and they did pretty well.

Openers Wye Oak were in no danger of playing too long, their set barely topped thirty minutes. Last time I saw them I thought I remembered drummer And Stack taking more of the vocals, this time around he didn’t even have a microphone. That left guitarist Jen Wasner with all of the vocal responsibility. She has matured as a singer since they were here two years ago, and she seems more comfortable fronting the band. I’m not always a fan of girl singers or two person bands, but Wye Oak seem to know what they are doing.

Wye Oak

Lou Barlow & the Missing Men

Monday, August 23, 2010

Kevin Seconds/Bucky Pope/Owen Mays; August 23, 2010; High Noon Saloon

Unlike everyone else in the High Noon tonight, I was never a 7 Seconds fan as a teenager. I didn’t go to all-ages afternoon punk rock shows (though I am pretty sure they didn’t exist in Tomah), and I didn’t even know the term “straight edge” until I read Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. The first I ever heard of Kevin Seconds’ band was when they were name-checked by the Hold Steady on “Stay Positive.” This lack of prior knowledge was probably helpful tonight, because I wasn’t the least bit disappointed that Seconds is now a singer-songwriter. A few days earlier one of the High Noon bartenders who hates everything had pointed to the poster excitedly and asked if I was coming. “You know he’s a singer-songwriter now right?” I asked him. He shrugged, “I don’t care.” Tonight as he watched the show we asked if he liked it. “I’m here to support,” he replied. I’m guessing that means he didn’t like it.

On a Monday night support was a good thing to have. There weren’t a lot of people there, but they were an enthusiastic bunch and that made it feel like a much bigger crowd. And Seconds was easy to like, he was charming and witty and a little self-deprecating. His recent record Good Luck Buttons has some definite winners, but other tunes seemed out of place when I listened to it before the show. They did, that is, until he explained the song “No Good Eggs.” Apparently he used to dream of writing songs for Johnny Cash (an odd dream for a punk rocker, but a good one) and this was one of them. Once he put it in the frame of a Johnny and June duet, the slightly hokey song, which also features his wife on the record, made perfect sense. The punks and former punks had to be a little disappointed in the lack of band material in the set, but he admitted he didn’t think any of their songs could be done as acoustic songs. In fact, the only one he did was “Soul to Keep,” a song that Matt Skiba had covered on the split CD they did, because he had figured out how to do it first.

I liked that song and his shoulda been a hit “1981” enough to pick up that CD after the show. Now I need to find out who the heck Matt Skiba is, because on their disc his songs steal the show from Seconds, who still seems confused about being asked to do it. “There are people that could help you sell more CDs than me,” he told him.

The openers were, um, interesting. Owen Mays was fine, but he sang every song in a monotone, and not even loud enough or with the amusing banter necessary to make us pay attention. I hear Bucky Pope is a Madison institution, which apparently means you don’t have to practice for a gig. At the end of the first song a big smile stretched across his face. “That smile means I got through the song without fucking it up or forgetting the words,” he proudly proclaimed. I am pretty sure that was the last we saw of the smile. In fact, he seemed pretty oblivious to the fact that we were there at all. His cover of the Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year” sounded as if it were being performed by Daniel Johnston, which was strangely OK. In fact, that would describe his entire set. It was a train wreck, but it was an oddly entertaining one. I’ll take that over his Buzzcocks cover band B’dum B’dum any day.

Owen Mays

Bucky Pope

Kevin Seconds

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Matthew Grimm; August 21, 2010; Cranky Pat's, Neenah

Friday, August 20, 2010

Hamell on Trial/Matthew Grimm; August 20, 2010; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

My tastes in music can be a little predictable, I’m almost always going to fall in love with the boy with the guitar and the nontraditional singing voice, while I hardly ever like the girl with the same. If you sound like Neutral Milk Hotel you’re likely to be my new favorite band, if you sound like the Strokes, sorry. But I don’t think anyone could have predicted that I would like Hamell on Trial. He’s unfailingly rude and incredibly foul-mouthed, but on the other hand, he’s whip smart and funny as hell. It must be the latter that intrigues me, I can’t explain it, but I have come to embrace it. I’ve seen him many times over the years, beginning with an unlikely opening spot for Moxy Fruvous probably a dozen years ago, but I took the next step last year when I invited him to do a house concert.

It was probably one of the best Hamell on Trial shows I’ve seen, and he had so much fun he wanted to come back and do it again. His show has become a little less spontaneous over the years, perhaps stemming from his run in Edinburgh, Scotland of something he likes to call “The Terrorism of Everyday Life,” and tonight’s show was strikingly similar to the one from March ’09 right down to many of the same jokes. My favorite song tonight which for some reason made a much bigger impression this time around was “7 Seas” about how he acquired his trademark guitar, a battered but surprisingly sturdy 1930’s era Gibson. As he tells the story, it spoke to him from the window of a pawn shop, asking him if he wanted to go for a ride and promising that he could pay it off when his ship came in. The segment of the song in which he talks about all the different ways he looked for that ship may be his funniest minute, but with a lot of competition. And it wouldn’t be a show without “John Lennon” (a true story), “When You’re Young” (three true stories) and “The Meeting” (about how he’s like the Beastie Boys except he’s only one).

Perhaps the biggest difference between the last show and this one was the eight year old boy who sat quietly behind the bar, playing on his laptop unless he was called upon to participate. Hamell’s son Detroit had joined him on this tour and they had covered 6000 miles before they even got to my house. It was Chicago tomorrow and then back to New York the next day. He had told his father earlier that it was OK if he did the R rated show as long as there weren’t any other kids there, “they laugh more then,” he justified. A very pretty boy with impossibly long eyelashes and dark curly hair, he seemed unfazed by the torrent of profanity and off-color humor. I guess he has heard it all before.

I though I was being quite brilliant when I asked my friend Matthew Grimm, formerly of NYC’s Hangdogs and currently of Iowa City’s Red Smear, to open. After all, both he and Hamell are angry, bald and like to cuss. It seems I wasn’t the only one to think they were a perfect match, when I asked him he said he’d love to and that he had opened for Hamell last year in Iowa City. Other than a few songs on his sister’s deck at a party last fall I hadn’t seen Matthew sing in a long time. It was great to hear old Hangdogs’ tunes along with his newer tunes, not to mention two-thirds of the Hold Steady’s “Little Hoodrat Friend” (long story).. Gina requested my favorite song “The Gun Song,” which despite being about domestic violence and homicide is a pretty great tune.

Surprisingly the winner of his set was the last tune. He declared he would do the clean version when I said there had been enough cursing. “I replaced one word in this song,” he announced, “see if you can guess which one it is.” By the time he got to the chorus, “so let’s hug, hug, hug till the dawn’s early apocalypse,” it was pretty obvious which one it was. Most impressive was how he replaced it flawlessly through the rest of the song, singing phrases like “hug it.” He was not so perfect the next night in Neenah and slipped up at least once.

It was a nice evening with some old friends, even if it was a little predictable.

Matthew Grimm

Hamell on Trial

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Michelle’s Birthday Celebration featuring The United Sons of Toil, Dick the Bruiser, The Runners Up and The Motorz, with special appearances by Hug Life and Dishwasher Pete; August 19, 2010; High Noon Saloon

I’ll admit it, I’m jealous because this is something I’ve always wanted to do- have all my favorite bands play my birthday party. Problem is in my case that would involve many plane tickets or well-timed tours. Luckily Michelle’s absolute favorite band lives right here in town. The Toil and the other bands on this party of the century bill didn’t hesitate to commit to a show for one of Madison’s biggest live music enthusiasts. Perhaps the biggest coup of the night was getting the Runners Up back together after an 18 month hiatus. With the Low Czars taking the break, bassist, and father of two, James Leaver had the time to devote to re-learning all the RU songs for this show.

I’d forgotten how much I love this band. The Hemlines, which consists of lead singer Erika Zar and drummer Alex Fulton, had continued on after the Runners Up last show in January of 2009. They play all the same songs, but I never liked it as much. Truth is, I missed the boys- Bob Koch’s strangely high voice and vintage guitars and Leaver’s demands for more Tito’s and his turn on lead vocals, the Elvis Costello-ish “He’s a ‘Holic.” In addition to all the favorites like “James Brown with Two Heads” and “Spelling Bee,” they learned a cover for the occasion, the GoGo’s “We Got the Beat.” Totally unexpected, totally awesome. Unfortunately I missed half the Motorz opening set, since I elected to shower after my sand volleyball game. I hadn’t seen them since earlier this year, a mostly awesome show at the Crystal, but tonight, for once, they seemed happier to play Motorz’ songs than the covers they tend to favor. Usually lead singer/guitarist Kyle Motor isn’t this happy fronting a band, he seems to prefer a non-lead role like in the August Teens or God Damns. Tonight, though, he was all smiles as they tore through one Motorz classic after another. Yay.

In between sets we were entertained by Pete Kaesburg and Luke Bassuener. The latter as his secret alter ego Hug Life, the former inexplicably under the moniker Dishwasher Pete. Between the first two bands, Dishwasher played covers of songs by bands he knows Michelle likes, Husker Du, the Drive By Truckers’ Mike Cooley (“Carl Perkins’ Cadillac”) and Neil Young. Pete’s cover band Shakey plays spot-on covers from Young’s catalog, usually focusing on a certain record for each show, but “Powderfinger” has been a part of every one. During the second and third breaks Luke did his thing. Instead of the usual gangsta’ themed raps, his Hug Life project, as the name implies, is all about hugs, um, and tickling. It is so funny because it is so good.

Dick the Bruiser, another band who doesn’t play out much anymore, stole the show with their drums-bass-Theremin booty-shaking music. Tony Sellers is a vicious drummer, crouching low over the drum kit and pounding away with speed and ferocity, while bassist Kevin Wade barks rapid fire, nonsense lyrics and occasionally steps over to the Theremin, subtly inducing its trademark hum with the neck of his bass. It’s powerful, sexy stuff, not to mention strangely addictive. I thought the recent “Death Leppards” which rhymes Wonder bread with Motorhead was pretty brilliant, but it pales next to “Kissy Fit” which name checks Kajagoogoo, that’s right.

In fact, the only band on this bill that does actually get out and play on a regular basis is the United Sons of Toil, and it was obvious from their fine-tuned, intense performance. Lead singer Russell Hall is a tightly wound ball of socialist manifesto and righteous indignation. Even though I can’t understand most of what he screams, he screams it with conviction. I was happy to hear my favorite song which we recently determined to be “Repealing the Rumford Fair Housing Act.” I like it because I can understand some of the words and for its sludgy, oddly catchy melody. Not many folks were left by the end of the night, it had been a long one after all, but most of those that were stood right up front.

Well done Michelle. Makes me wonder how hard it would be to get the Wrens, Chris Mills, Ha Ha Tonka and Theodore on the same bill.

The Motorz

Dishwasher Pete

The Runners Up

Hug Life

Dick the Bruiser

The United Sons of Toil