Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Drive By Truckers/Henry Clay People; September 28, 2010; Majestic Theater

The Drive By Truckers show in DeKalb a few months ago had been a good show with nothing to complain about, except I did. The set list had been good, but neglected to include any of my favorite songs, notably the two that top my list- Patterson Hood’s “Sinkhole,” a dark tale of one way to avoid farm foreclosure, and Mike Cooley’s “Shut Up and Get on the Plane,” the least reverent track from their Skynryd-centric magnum opus Southern Rock Opera. Tonight they played both of them in a set that dipped into SRO frequently, but included few other surprises. “Sinkhole” came mid-set, its distinctive opening chords announcing its arrival. It’s one song I always know before they start singing. “Shut Up” was part of a scorching encore that also included Cooley’s “Marry Me” and Patterson’s thunderous “Let There Be Rock.”

”Rock” is a perfect last track of the night, and often serves as their final word, but instead they brought back their special mystery guest for one more tune. The appearance of Kelly Hogan should have been the biggest surprise of the night, but I’d already heard that she had sang with Patterson that afternoon for a special free show at the Veteran’s Museum. "Angels & Fuselage,” another SRO track, was an excellent choice for Hogan and it made excellent use of her phenomenal, and in this case perfectly angelic, voice. Earlier she had joined the band for what she claimed was a request of Cooley’s, it’s hard to know if he had really asked for “Delta Dawn” but unexpected covers have come to be the norm from the Truckers. Patterson said they had wanted to play with Kelly every time they are in the Midwest but this was the first time it had worked out. If I remember correctly, the Chicago songstress moved there from Georgia which would explain the connection.

Much like the Hold Steady, I find myself farther and farther away from the Truckers with each show. As their popularity has grown so has their fan base, especially among what I call the frat boy set, the type who aren’t having fun unless they are pushing, shoving and running into each other. Which would be fine if they kept it to themselves, but that sort of behavior is never contained. The Majestic’s tiered floor makes it possible to separate yourself, but the further I get from the stage, the less connected to the show I feel. It looked like it was getting rough up front, but it was confirmed when bassist Shonna Tucker stepped to the mike, “it’s great that you guys are having a good time, but the people around you look pretty miserable.” I miss the days when you could stand up front at a Truckers show. Sure someone still might dump a drink on you or step on your foot, but back then there was a good chance you knew them.

The Truckers are still one of the best live bands on the planet, and I’ll still see them every time they come to town or within nearby driving distance, but I honestly don’t enjoy it as much as I used to.

Henry Clay People

Drive By Truckers

Monday, September 27, 2010

Elf Power/Icarus Himself; September 27, 2010; High Noon Saloon

Funny thing about Elf Power, I don’t know their songs and lead singer Andrew Reiger, who looks exactly like a combination of the Weakerthans John Samson and Jeff from the TV show Chuck, barely speaks during the set other than introducing the songs or a sincere “thanks very much everyone” following, but the two times I have seen them I enjoyed them immensely. The first time was the Pitchfork Festival in Chicago where everything other than Jarvis Cocker had been a disappointment. I’d wandered from stage to stage without finding anything to get excited about until late afternoon found me at Elf Power, and I smiled for the rest of their set. Something about their songs is instantly infectious, like that person you meet at a bus stop and like immediately but who gets on a bus before you find out anything annoying. Maybe that’s what “elf power” actually is.

I’m sure they weren’t expecting a huge crowd on a Monday night in Madison, but I don’t think they had any idea what they would be up against. Tonight was the first of the Packers’ appearances on Monday Night Football, and tumbleweeds could have been blowing through the High Noon it was so desolate. Still, they seemed not to notice, or at least made the best of it. One track that did stand out was a cover of the Royal Trux “Junkie Nurse.” I don’t know the Royal Trux at all, but that one song was enough to make me want to. When they reached the end of their set, most of the band moved toward the stage steps, while bass player Brian Helium remained seated. There was a reason for that, he was on crutches. The meager, but enthusiastic crowd cheered loud enough that the band paused only slightly before returning, “We’ll just go ahead and play another one if that’s OK so that we don’t have to make the cripple get off stage.” It was definitely OK.

Pairing local band Icarus Himself with the Elephant 6 band was a good choice. The band has evolved over the years from its beginnings as a solo side project to Nick Whetro’s National Beekeepers Society, eventually becoming a duo with Karl Christianson, and recently adding a drummer. Now that Icarus has become Whetro’s primary focus, he’s retired the Beekeepers to concentrate on it. Early shows were sometimes brilliant, but often tedious affairs, as the tuning and fiddling between songs was usually as long as the song itself, but recent shows have seen them getting increasingly confident. We had to laugh as Christianson commented at one point during tuning, “we’re trying to get faster in between songs.” They needn’t worry, they certainly have. The band recently released the Mexico EP, a six song collection which makes a nice addition to their catalog. Despite the fact that I am not a fan of the extended play record (they’re just too short), this one is worth having just for ridiculously catchy opening track “Digging Holes,” which is the best example so far of the everything the band does well. I’m expecting big things from these boys.

Icarus Himself

Elf Power

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Willy Street Fair; September 26, 2010; Willy Street

The Willy Street Fair, held the last weekend in September, marks the last breaths of summer in Madison. Surprisingly, the weekend is usually blessed with good weather and today was no exception, crisp and cool with a bright sun in a clear sky. I had just gotten back in town and didn’t really feel like going, but I couldn’t miss the chance to see John Prine’s guitarist Jason Wilbur on the Folk Stage. It was a strange feeling to see someone close up on a little stage that I had just seen a few days earlier from far away on the DECC’s huge stage. Once people heard that he was John Prine’s guitarist I think they expected he was going to play Prine’s songs, but he has a whole set of his own music and has released several CDs. It was mostly standard singer-songwriter type fare, little of which stuck with me, but he’s a great guitar player (unsurprisingly) and his set was quite pleasant.

Next up on the Folk Stage was Paul Cebar who is best known as the leader of the Milwaukeeans, an ever changing but always entertaining group that never fails to bring the party. I’ve seen Cebar solo on several occasions and find that I actually prefer him this way. He released One Little Light On earlier this year, an acoustic solo record which I look forward to hearing. In addition to the Peter Mulvey co-write “What’s Keeping Erica,” the CD includes his version of the Magnetic Fields “Book of Love.” For some reason this seems to be the song from Stephen Merritt’s magnum opus 69 Love Songs that everyone wants to cover. In my mind it is maybe only the fifteenth best song on the collection, but I’ve heard it covered by people from M Doughty to Kyle Fischer from Rainer Maria. Cebar did a good job with it, but I’m still a sucker for Doughty’s. Despite the fact that he was solo he was more than willing to play band songs. The last half of his set was mostly requests from the audience and they tended toward the peppier numbers like “Didn’t Leave Me No Ladder” and “I Can’t Dance for You.” He pulled off each of them effortlessly, even though he responded to at least one with a surprised, “Solo? Really? OK, I’ll give it a shot.”

And with that Madison moves into fall.

Jason Wilber

Paul Cebar

Thursday, September 23, 2010

John Prine/Pieta Brown; September 23, 2010; DECC (Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center)

I found myself in Duluth to see a show for the second time this month. This time the sister I had been going to visit on the last trip was meeting us here to see one of her favorite musicians. She’s been a John Prine fan for as long as I can remember, but I found him through a very backward route. I was listening to A3’s Exile on Coldharbour Lane for the first time at a friend’s house. I hadn’t heard of them before but I was already intrigued by the bass heavy “country acid gospel house music” (as they like to call it) when a strangely familiar track came on. “This is a Nanci Griffith song,” I claimed, not realizing that many of the tracks on her Other Voices Other Rooms are covers. I looked at the case, “Prine, huh. I think my sister likes him.” “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness” quickly became my favorite track on Coldharbour, and when I was lucky enough to see A3 opening for Chumbawumba several months later I was the only one who raised their hand in response to the inquiry “Does anyone out there listen to John Prine?” “Uh… one, OK.”

I should mention that the lucky part was seeing them, not the Chumbawumba part where I happily gave up my front row spot to screaming fourteen year olds and their parents. I half expected it come full circle tonight, but Prine didn’t ask if anyone out there listened to A3 before he played my favorite song. I’ve seen Prine a handful of times before, but this was the first time I’d heard him do this song. “OK, we can go,” I announced after it was through. Even though we were only three songs into the set, I couldn’t imagine it getting any better than that. It was a great show, but two hours later that was still the high point. The low point was easily the crowd who was unacceptably vocal for the stateliness and size of the venue. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they hadn’t been yelling such stupid things. “I love you John!” was a frequent cry. Well, of course you do, you paid $65 or more to see him play. The fact that most of these outbursts came during quiet moments of songs made it even more annoying. Behind us in the balcony a voice yelled out “Dear Abby” at every opportunity. Since he’s played it every time I’ve seen him, it was like yelling “Freebird” at a Skynryd concert.

Prine was patient with all these outbursts, responding to some, other times just smiling, as he worked his way through a greatest hits type set beginning with “Sam Stone” a tragic tale of a veteran who returned home from Vietnam with a drug addiction. Many of Prine’s songs feature such vivid characters, the kind that you feel like you know, for better or worse, by the end of the song. The spoken sung “Lake Marie” is one of the exceptions; it combines a history lesson of sorts with the narrator’s thoughts on what looks to be the end of his relationship.

At the end of the set he introduced the band one more time, Jason Wilbur on guitar, Dave Jacques on upright and electric bass, “and I’m tired of playing.” He couldn’t have been too serious since he returned only a few minutes later for a stellar encore that featured opener Pieta Brown accompanied by Bo Ramsey, Greg Brown’s sideman and producer. “I’ve only written one duet in my life, and Pieta Brown has been gracious enough to come out here and sing it with me,” Prine introduced “In Spite of Ourselves.” It’is one of Prine’s best songs, and it was a delight to hear it live with Pieta taking the other half, singing the part originally done on record by Iris DeMent (who coincidentally is married to Greg Brown) and making it her own. I’ve seen Pieta several times, and Ramsey has always been the silent type, amazing on the guitar but staying clear of a microphone. Tonight however he sang a verse with Prine. I’ve never been much of a fan of Pieta, in fact we had missed half of her set, but her performance in the encore makes me want to give her another chance.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Scarring Party/Sleeping in the Aviary; September 16, 2010; Cactus Club, Milwaukee

Since moving to Minneapolis Sleeping in the Aviary doesn’t play Madison near as often as when they lived here. That is a tragedy in itself, but the bigger misfortune is that the last four times they have played Madison I haven’t been there and it broke my heart. I wasn’t just being lazy, I have a valid excuse for every single show. Now that Blake has also moved to the Twin Cities and is living with my cousin Johnny, I’ve been watching SitA’s calendar for an opportunity to see them and two of my favorite boys in their new hometown. So far nothing has worked out, but I did find out they were playing the Cactus Club tonight.

The only advantage I can see to not having seen them in so long is that they have a bunch of new songs that will become their third full length release. The most memorable of these was one that lead singer Elliot Kozel called a sing-along. Since I hadn’t ever heard it before I wasn’t quite sure how we were supposed to sing along, but it quickly became obvious that every line ended with “and the very next day I died.” Also slated for the new release is a song that I’d heard the first time in my basement when Elliot and Phil opened for Hamell on Trial. Part of a proclaimed Maritime theme, the song involves a doomed cruise ship and a narrator who is desperate to get lucky before it goes down. The gimmick is the gargling noises that he makes as the poor soul drowns. Tonight he used water which had the same sound effect as the beer had in the basement, without the disadvantage of foaming all over his face. Also new was the guitar player. I’ll admit he seemed a little superfluous, but maybe they’re just working him in gradually. Drummer Michael Sienkowski had to give up one of his toms to make room for the new guy, luckily he didn’t seem to miss it. SitA shows can range from utter brilliance to embarrassing trainwrecks. Even when it is one of the latter they are still entertaining, but tonight was definitely closer to the former.

These Cactus Club shows can turn into late nights, so I was actually hoping that I wouldn’t want to see the last band so we could get on the road, but there was no way I was going to miss the Scarring Party. The Milwaukee band is one of the most unique I’ve seen, though admittedly it is not for everyone. The band consists of tuba, drums, banjo and lead singer Daniel Bullock who plays accordion and guitar and sings into a microphone that looks like it was stolen from a 1920’s radio newsroom. His warbling voice matches the microphone and sounds like it should be emanating from a hand crank Victrola, crackling and popping. The first time I saw them they instantly reminded me of the Tigerlilies, a very unique group I saw in London via their macabre musical Shockheaded Peter. Their unique instrumentation even makes intriguing use of a typewriter on “The Ocean Floor.”

It had been two years since I last saw the Scarring Party and there were some things I didn’t remember about them. One, I didn’t remember that the banjo player was pretty much the cutest thing ever, with dark hair that fell low over his eyes and a winning smile (see photos). Pretty sure he wasn’t there the last time, I would have remembered that. Second, I don’t remember Bullock talking much before, but tonight he was hilarious. Taking a 9 volt battery from Phil to replace the failing one in his guitar, he touched it to his tongue to make sure it worked. “It’s mine now,” he quipped. They have just released their third CD Losing Teeth and it’s a winner, capturing all the magic of the live show. I certainly hope it isn’t as long before I see them the next time, and the same definitely goes for Sleeping in the Aviary.

Sleeping in the Aviary

The Scarring Party

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Blake Thomas/Josh Harty and the band/Winn Dixie; September 11, 2010; Harmony Bar

Blake Thomas has always been a rambling soul. He’d lived in a half dozen different places before settling in Madison the first time. When he came back after a short stint in Austin, it seemed like it wouldn’t be long before he moved on again. Instead it turned out to be another three years , and I felt pretty lucky about that. I always knew Madison’s hold on him was tenuous, so when he did decide to go I was happy that it was only to Minneapolis instead of another Texas-sized move.

The show the Tuesday before had felt like the real going away show. All the regulars were there, as well as friends and fellow musicians who couldn’t make it to Mickey’s on as frequent a basis. And everybody stuck around. When he ended the night with a giant sing-along of “Matt Ladish is on Fire” for the third week in a row the bartenders had to hustle people out the door just minutes before 2 AM. Tonight was like the reception for all the guests who weren’t invited to the small family wedding, and folks who hadn’t seen Blake more than a couple times before turned out to wish him well. That turned out to be a lot of folks, the Harmony was packed like I’ve only seen it for Robbie Fulks’ shows back in the day. The opener tonight was Winn Dixie a new traditional band featuring Andy Moore and his daughter. Their set was plagued by sound problems, as in you couldn’t hear them at all, and feedback, that you could hear.

The all star band backing Blake and Josh included many of the people who played during the dual recording session for their next record- Mary Gaines on cello and backing vocals, Chris Wagoner on all sorts of stringed instruments, Chris Sasman on drums and Louka Patenaude on bass. Patenaude is an always impressive musician. A jazz guy first, he’s dabbled in most every scene Madison has, and I always enjoy watching other guitar players watch him play. Perhaps the most impressive story I’ve heard came from the recording session. He was tuning Blake’s bass when he broke a string. Rather than take the time to get a replacement he played the whole week on three strings. I’ve heard the recording, you would never guess.

Josh opened the night with a set of his songs. It had been awhile since I had seen him play, and it was nice to hear all the old favorites again. They took a break and then it was Blake’s turn. He featured most of his new record, a collection of songs that sound intrinsically like him, while sometimes not sounding like him at all. “Like a Window Needs the Sun” (I don’t remember the actual title) is jammier than he’s ever been, with the recorded version clocking in somewhere around eight minutes and the live version at least that. Admittedly, given my lack of sleep and the busy day I’d had already, that was a little long. “Cradle to the Ground” and “Fire and Bones” feature smart songwriting and catchy tunes, but none of the new songs have hit me as hard on first listen as the ones from Flatlands did. To this day, “You’ve Got Me Feeling like the Moon” can bring a tear to my eye just by its sheer beauty.

Madison will be a different place without him, but at least for now he’ll be back at Mickey’s on the first Tuesday of every month. And so will I.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Middlewest Music Festival; September 10, 2010; Otto’s, DeKalb

It’s a good thing I already had a ticket for Billy Bragg or I probably wouldn’t have gone once it was announced Ha Ha Tonka was in Madison. Even worse, I was the one who got one of my favorite local bands the August Teens on the bill before I knew the date of the show. Knowing what I know now about Bragg and opener Darren Hanlon, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, but if I hadn’t already paid $25 I might have thought twice. We made it back from Milwaukee in time to hear the last three songs, and the HHT boys still stayed at my house, and Brian still crushed me a dozen or so games of ping pong, but I felt guilty about not seeing them play a whole set. So the next day I drove to DeKalb for what turned out to be the Middlewest Music Festival, a multi-venue fest that featured local and Midwest artists.

Since they were limited to a half hour, HHT played their standard opening set geared toward folks who had never seen the band. Other than the fact the set doesn’t include “Close Every Valve to Your Bleeding Heart,” it’s a very solid collection of songs, mostly rockers like “St Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor” and “Caney Mountain,” but also songs that show off their always impressive harmonies like the a capella traditional “Hangman.” I’ll admit that half my fun tonight was listening to the excitement grow around me as they were setting up. The thirty people that had assembled in Otto’s big room for The Gunshy turned into several times that just prior to their set. “What?!” I heard a girl exclaim to her friend. “You haven’t seen Ha Ha Tonka before?” she asked incredulously, “they’re amazing.” Since this was only their fourth time in DeKalb, I was impressed that she had seen them. It seemed an even shorter half hour than usual (Brian said that’s because it was only 25 minutes), and it was over it a heartbeat.

While they tore down quickly to make room for William Elliot Whitmore, I asked if I should go do merch for them and was thanked enthusiastically. I love selling merch, especially for a band I am this excited about, and once I got back there I found I really didn’t have much interest in the rest of the show. I’ve seen WEW and find him somewhat gimmicky, and the Smoking Popes sound good but only for fifteen minutes and then it all starts to sound the same. I had a much better time meeting HHT’s fans. One had driven from St Louis and had been at the show in Madison the night before. “Are you the one they were all pointing at?” she asked after I told her how I’d missed the bulk of the show. I recognized her from the Twangfest show and the instore that afternoon at Euclid Records. We both agreed their set at the Duck Room that weekend was the best we’d seen. When the band played three dates with Lucero, I questioned whether that would actually translate to anyone coming to see them the next time they were in town. While it may not have helped in Madison, I met several folks tonight who were there for just that reason. Good to know.

As we packed up the stuff at the end of the night I said I would love to come out on tour for a week when the new record comes out and be merch girl. “Anytime” was the answer I got. Stay tuned.

The Gunshy

Ha Ha Tonka