Monday, October 25, 2010

Bob Dylan; October 25, 2010; Overture Center

It’s an odd coincidence how many times I have seen Bob Dylan at the end of October. For some reason those late fall days bring him to the Midwest more years than not. I’ve seen him on Halloween, and on Halloween eve. I’ve seen him on my sister Liz’s birthday (October 24) and every day in between, and this is the third time I have seen him on my birthday. The last time he was in Madison it was at the Kohl Center. The Foo Fighters opened (and stole the show), it didn’t sell out, and I know someone lost a lot of money. Because of the poor turn-out that night, I was surprised to hear that Bob was coming back. While the smaller Overture Center made more sense, it also seemed too small. The 7 PM show sold out immediately and a late show was added. Despite the fact that I love Bob and he remains one of the more reasonably priced big names, I couldn’t see spending another $65 for the late show, even as I suspected it would probably be worth it.

I knew the set lists would be different; I just wasn’t sure how different. A quick glance the next day showed only a third of his fifteen song set was the same. While I was jealous of the late show’s “Visions of Johanna” and “Lay Lady Lay,” I was quite happy with “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and an inspired version of “Cold Irons Bound,” which unlike his earlier material still bore a resemblance to the recorded version. “Lay Lady Lay” remains one of my absolute favorite Dylan songs, but I console myself with the knowledge that it couldn’t possibly have been as good as the time I saw him play it in Milwaukee where I dropped to my knees and cried afterward (one of those things is the truth, the other a slight exaggeration). At the risk of blaspheming, there are songs I don’t need to hear again, for instance the tired “Tangled Up in Blue” and perennial encore songs “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower,” but I realize that he needs to play those for the people who haven’t seen him forty some odd times.

That last Madison show and what should have been an amazing Milwaukee show at the intimate Riverside Theater in 2008 had been lackluster enough that I thought maybe I was done seeing Dylan every time. Or perhaps that he was done. I almost skipped the Summerfest show in 2009 only to have my mind blown that night. When tall, dark and handsome guitarist Charlie Sexton rejoined the band later that year, Dylan seemed even more revitalized, and those late October shows last year (October 27 and 29) were some of the best I’ve seen him do in a long time. Sexton’s presence seems to have an invigorating effect on Dylan and he is playing guitar again for the first time in years. Tonight he played it on the first three songs, then put it away in favor of the keyboard and harmonica. In fact the only thing missing seemed to be the Oscar he won for “Things Have Changed.” It usually sits perched on an amp at every show. I remembered to look for it when he played the Academy Award winning song but couldn’t find it.

Its absence certainly didn’t affect the quality of the show. The only thing that could have made it better is if I’d been able to afford to turn around and go right back in.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Aloysius/Asumaya; October 24, 2010; Project Lodge

When my cousin Johnny lived in Madison he joined This Bright Apocalypse, an African influenced math-rock band headed by Luke Bassuener. When he left town after nine months, Luke seemed to have tired of constantly replacing band members and started Asumaya, which fulfilled a prediction I had made that eventually he would become a one-man band. He still plays all the songs he wrote for TBA, but uses loops and samples to replace missing band members. The first couple shows were a little rough, the looping went well enough, but feedback was a constant problem, usually induced by the innocent looking kalimba, an African thumb piano. His set the previous Tuesday at Mickeys went smoothly, and sounded great, and he promised then that tonight would be all different songs.

It’s impressive to watch him work, patiently layering bass, vocals and a variety of percussion instruments, most of which I don’t know the name of. Once he gets his backing tracks, he sings and plays the melody on the bass. It works well partly because he is a terrific percussionist, but also because of his endless patience. None of his songs are short, and by the time he loops everything some of the songs become downright epic. However, the melodies are so engaging, his voice so pleasant and the rhythm so hypnotic that the set never gets tedious.

It was Sunday night and the Packers were playing a night game, so I don’t think anyone was expecting an amazing turnout, but it was probably even a little more dismal than expected and the audience couldn’t even be called a smattering. It was nice to see Jeremiah, who has his own shows nearly every night, and Carlos, who shows up in the most unexpected places. That was about it for the crowd, still at least my sister and I were there for Johnny’s solo Madison debut. He goes by his middle name Aloysius for these gigs, and when Steve joins him on drums he’s known as the crash and thud revue. Wait, that should probably be capitalized, Crash and Thud Revue. This was Johnny’s fourth show in five nights on a tour he dubbed Blowin’ Up in B’loit. While all the gigs had been successes according to him, they had taken their toll on his voice and there were times I couldn’t even hear his vocals. His set consisted mostly of originals, many of which I’d heard at a show several months back in Minneapolis, with a couple of covers, notable Springsteen’s “No Surrender.”

It was nice to see him and Steve play, though next time I hope we get the first night of the tour.



Saturday, October 23, 2010

Planet Propaganda’s 21st Anniversary Party; October 23, 2010; Planet Propaganda Office, Machinery Row

Months ago one of Planet Propaganda’s employees quizzed me about how to book bands. He was planning their 21st anniversary party and had his sights set on a big name headliner, so I was a little surprised when I got the invitation to the big night and the third name on the bill was Sleeping in the Aviary. As former and current employees, the Hemlines and Time Since Western respectively had been part of the line-up since the beginning, but I was surprised that they had given up on their search for a big name and gone with the formerly local, currently Minneapolitan band. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore Sleeping in the Aviary, and I was super excited to see them, but they certainly aren’t the Old 97’s. They’re better.

SitA’s last record Expensive Vomit in a Cheap Motel was a revelation, a lo-fi gem with smart lyrics hinging precariously on Elliott Kozel’s ragged voice. It was the best of everything their unpredictable live shows hinted at. Since relocating one member at a time to Minneapolis, their Madison shows have been less frequent and when I last saw them in Milwaukee in September it had been over a year since I surprised them in Boston. Their set tonight was their typical high energy explosion of old and new songs, the latter of which are slated for a CD to be released in November. The only thing missing was accordionist Celeste Huele, who had a prior engagement. Her unlikely instrument has proven vital to the developing sound of the band. At one point, Kozel called Bob Koch to the stage, “Don’t worry, you’ll know what it is when you get up here,” Kozel reassured the hesitant Koch. I’m glad he knew what to do, because I certainly wasn’t expecting the band to bust into Bob Seeger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll.” I probably would have been even more shocked if I hadn’t seen the band do an entire set of wedding band style covers a year ago.

They were followed by Time Since Western whose sole member Andy Brawner is an employee at Planet Propaganda. It had been awhile since TSW had played a show, and I was beginning to think that maybe the “band” was done. Instead of playing solo tonight, Brawner was joined by drummer Mike Krol (or at least that is my best guess as to who it was), and I am happy to report the band is definitely back. It was awesome. Everything up till this point, including an opening set from the Hemlines, which may have been the best I’ve ever seen them play even though they forsake their name and wore pants, had been pretty remarkable and I could have left happy right then, but there was still more to come.

When we arrived Rob Sax ran over the entertainment line-up, “and then after Time Since Western there’s going to be a super band doing Bob Dylan and the Band’s “Basement Tapes.” I couldn’t imagine anything better, “I think my head will explode,” I told him (and judging by the way it felt the next day it had). Brawner joined Kozel, Phil Mahlstadt and Michael Sienkowski of SitA, along with Eric Duerr of Elden Calder (who despite never playing shows recently got a song on the soundtrack of a major motion picture) and a keyboard player I didn’t recognize for a set of tunes from that classic record. I heard later that they had only practiced once, but I never would have guessed, they sounded great. When Brawner covered the Beatles “Back in the USSR” the last time I saw him it sounded like a Time Since Western tune, but when he sang these tunes they stayed true to the originals. My only regret is that I wish I had more memory on my camera so I could have videoed more of their set. A second regret is that my memory is a little limited thanks to the beer and wine Planet Propaganda provided.

“Million Dollar Bash” was especially great, even though Brawner almost forgot the most important verse, you know, “I took my potatoes down to be mashed, and made it on over to that Million Dollar Bash.” It was stuck in my head all the next day. “Sleeping in the Aviary?” a friend asked when she caught me singing that line. “No, Dylan.” And suddenly their choice made a lot more sense.

The Hemlines

Sleeping in the Aviary

Time Since Western

Friday, October 22, 2010

Nick Jaina/Anna Vogelzang; October 22, 2010; Lothlorien Co-op

Nick Jaina’s May show at the independent-minded Project Lodge is the closest he has gotten to a traditional venue in several visits to Madison. The first couple stops found him and his band crashing neighborhood festivals, setting up on a street corner and playing for anyone who stopped to listen during the WORT block party and the Willy Street Fair. Back in August he played in the basement, and now on this trip he found himself playing unamplified in the large living room of a co-op near campus. It was my first co-op experience, and I have to say it was good fit for Jaina. He’s used to playing unamplified and projects himself well, which was more than I can say for the first opener, a timid-voiced girl who never even introduced herself, or maybe she did and I didn’t hear it. I was also impressed by the number of folks who came out for the event, filling the room in nicely. I couldn’t help wondering how to get them all to my place for my next show.

His show in the basement was a small band by Jaina’s standards; he was joined only by a pair of string players, Amanda Lawrence on viola and the charming and endlessly amusing Nathan Langston on violin. I was disappointed that neither was along on this trip, but I enjoyed this group, especially guitar player Thomas Paul. The room had two pianos in it, convenient since many of Jaina’s songs are keyboard based tunes. Early in the set he stepped over to the nearest one, an upright by the wall, “It seems a shame not to use this.” He took a seat and played a song. It was utilized again later when a request was made for “Winding Sheet.” Amusingly the requester called it “Cobblestones” just as I had. Since the only copy of A Narrow Way that I have is the one Bill burned me, I too didn’t know the correct name when I asked for it at the house, and I admitted as much. “You don’t know the name because you stole the music right?” Jaina queried the fellow tonight. While he was obviously more comfortable playing it on piano, I’m a little partial to the guitar and strings version from the basement.

Paul proved his mettle as a musician by moving to the piano for several of the remaining songs. It turned out he had never played these songs on piano before, and that seemed to make Jaina a little nervous. “Are you sure you want to do that?” he asked him. He later admitted that Paul is one of the most amazing musicians he knows, able to play any tune on request. “The theme from Halloween,” Jaina called. “That’s cheating, we’ve already done that one,” he replied before picking out the movie’s distinctive melody on guitar. In addition to Paul, the band featured classy upright bass, trumpet (which I am always a sucker for) and drums. I thought the latter would overwhelm the vocals, and I was surprised that he was able to stay under Jaina’s vocals. I’m not sure whose skill that is a testament to.

I’ve listened to the new record, A Bird in the Opera House, but other than the addictive “Strawberry Man,” it doesn’t compare to the more exotic Narrow Way. I was pleased that so many songs from the latter showed up in the set including the anthemic “Battleground” and the intriguing “That’s the Kind of Fruit that You Leave on the Vine.”

Like Jaina, second opener Anna Vogelzang has the voice for this sort of show. She was accompanied by an upright bass and a cello which she had no trouble projecting over. Despite my chronic aversion to girl singers, I found myself drawn into her quirky songs immediately. If she hadn’t already won me over, her cover of “The Sign” would have. You announced it as being one in a series of songs where she got drunk, recorded a cover and posted it on YouTube. Even though she announced it as a sing-along, until she got to the chorus I wasn’t sure I knew it. Once it clicked I was happy to sing along. After all, the Mountain Goats John Darnielle taught me years ago that this is actually a cool song. I truly enjoyed Vogelzang, and I’ll be keeping her in mind for a show in the basement.

Anna Vogelzang

Nick Jaina

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ben Weaver/Josh Harty; October 21, 2010; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

Ben Weaver is an artist that you need to listen to. His subtle songs aren’t the kind to forcibly grab your attention, but once they have it they don’t let go. His second Bloodshot release (and seventh overall) Mirepoix & Smoke features more of what made The Axe in the Oak so addictive- smart, deceptively non-rhyming lyrics and graceful melodies that get stuck in your head for days, even if you don’t remember exactly where it came from. Somehow, despite being quieter and more spare, Mirepoix is even catchier. When I got the record, several of the songs were immediately familiar despite the fact that I couldn’t have heard any of them more than three times, his two sets at SXSW in March and a show at the house in May.

This was Ben’s third visit to the House of Righteous Music and on previous visits he had played solo. Tonight he was in the middle of a handful of dates in support of the new release, and for these shows he brought along upright bass player Liz. I’ll admit that when he said he was bringing an upright bass player I was expecting a guy, not a petite little girl with a pile of dreadlocks who is likely outweighed by her cumbersome instrument. But what an asset she was. I’ve never seen anyone add more playing less, I know a few musicians who could benefit from her style of playing. She seemed to feel the music and only played when it felt right, building up over an entire verse to pluck a few notes on the chorus. She was a much better fit than the more traditional band I’ve seen him play with a couple times before.

I’d never heard of mirepoix before Ben’s last visit to the house, in fact I’m pretty sure only Bill knew what it was. After his last record he found himself with writer’s block and itching to try something new, so he got a job in a kitchen of a Minneapolis restaurant. One of jobs each day was to cut mirepoix, the mixture of carrots, celery and onions that make the stock for many recipes. After many days of that and smoking cigarettes the title of the new record became apparent. Ben splits the songs between banjo and guitar and the recorded versions are so sparse that the live versions don’t sound much different. It is definitely a good thing, few musicians could get away with depending that heavily on just their voice. This approach makes every word clear, and it is easy to get hypnotized by his smart, observant lyrics. For example, my favorite line from the myriad of choices is “When you lose your head, your heart comes shooting out through your neck,” from “While I'm Gone,” the literal and figurative meanings are endlessly intriguing.

Josh Harty has been a frequent guest at the House of Righteous Music, his conversational demeanor and aw shucks charm make him a perfect choice as opener for nearly any singer-songwriter. I’ve seen him many, many times over the years and thought I had heard all his stories, but it turns out he’s been saving a few. Of course one of them had just happened earlier in evening at the Overture Center when as an experienced bartender, he took advantage of someone with far less experience. Ordering a Makers Mark, he had to explain that he just wanted Makers while the bartender kept trying to add a mixer. What he got was multiple shots on the rocks, for $6, “I laughed all the way… sideways,” he confessed. In addition to his original songs he played a stunning cover of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” the saddest song ever written about a girl and a motorcycle. Yep, another good night in the basement.

Josh Harty

Ben Weaver

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express; October 17, 2010; Shank Hall

Once I learned Chuck Prophet and his band were going to be at SPACE in Evanston the same night Langhorne Slim was at Double Door, I was torn between the two shows. Once I learned that Prophet was playing Milwaukee the next night the decision of what to do Saturday night got a lot easier. (Though after further review, it looks like Jon Langford’s Old Devil’s Ball at Martyr’s would have been the place to be. Not only was it Langford, a draw for me any time, but the oddly indescribable Danbert Nobacon wore a suit with a pitchfork pattern. You don’t see that every day.) I looked at buying a ticket to Shank Hall in advance, but with the ridiculous Ticketmaster service fees- $5 on a $12 ticket? c’mon- I decided to just take my chances. I didn’t need to worry; I took a seat at a table up front, hoping I wouldn’t be the only one standing once the show started.

I’d only heard about the show a few days earlier (thank you Yep Roc tour update, I promise to never delete you without opening you again), and it couldn’t have been announced much before that, but by the time Prophet and his phenomenal band took the stage, there was a decent crowd for a Sunday night, and yes many of them were standing. I am pretty sure Prophet hasn’t played Milwaukee before, so when he exclaimed “We’re going to put Milwaukee on the map!” I assume he meant his own personal map. What followed was as solid a show as I’ve ever seen him play, and without an opener it was probably the longest. Prophet has always been pretty high up on my cool list, but after this show I think he’s a solid second. He told many of the stories I’d heard earlier in the year on his first tour behind the terrific 2009 release Let Freedom Ring!, but he didn’t tell them exactly the same way. The best of these is about the studio they recorded the record in. What started as a quaint idea turned out to be more difficult than he had imagined. The most annoying thing about the state of the art (forty years ago) studio was the frequent power outages, which are especially trying when you are attempting to record. When Prophet would go to the manager to complain, he would shrug and say, “So? It’s back on now.” Some of these stories got so long that Prophet commented “I promise the song won’t be as long as this story.”

Prophet excused the band to play a handful of solo songs. After the first, an acoustic version of his laidback “hit,” “Summertime Thing,” he asked if there was anything anyone wanted to hear. The response was so unanimously “Pin a Rose on Me” that he looked surprised, “Did you guys work this out beforehand?” The rest of the set spanned his catalog, going all the way back t0 97’s Homemade Blood, while drawing heavily from Freedom. He introduced “You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)” with a smirk, “This is so heavy you probably aren’t ready for it,” its catchy but nonsensical lyrics are exactly the opposite of that. The seven minute epic featured one of the most animated and entertaining guitar solos I’ve seen and included some of the best guitar faces I’ve seen him make. Prophet chooses his covers wisely, the ridiculously amusing “Styrofoam” pops up in his set every so often. I heard a disappointed woman at the merch stand after the show looking for the CD with that song on it. Earlier this year Alex Chilton’s “Bangkok” had been part of every set, and considering Chilton’s untimely passing earlier this year, I assumed it would reside there for awhile, but tonight’s show was Chilton-free. Instead he found a new song in his bag of tricks, a cover of Springsteen’s “For You.” I pulled out my camera quickly to catch some video. About a minute in, he saw me and gave me a disapproving look. “No?” I mouthed back, worried, only to get back a just kidding smile and a shrug. I do hope he really didn’t mind, because it is already on YouTube, pay attention to the video and you can see his half of our wordless exchange.

I happily left Shank Hall that night with just one thought, “Chuck Prophet is totally awesome, he needs to play the basement.”

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit/Langhorne Slim; October 16, 2010; Double Door

So in retrospect it might have been a little silly to drive to Chicago to see Langhorne Slim play an opening set, but after seeing him put on yet another killer show in July I resolved to never miss him again if I could help it. Besides, in my mind Slim and Jason Isbell are equally popular. Granted, in my head things can be a little skewed, but I looked at this as more of a co-bill than an opener/headliner situation. I was wrong. Contributing to the short sets was the fact that there were a total of four bands on tonight’s bill, a stop on the Paste Magazine tour. I don’t like to miss openers, but even so we missed the first two bands. I was already pretty sure I wouldn’t like Jesse Sykes, and I didn’t know a thing about Mimicking Birds, but I wanted to give them both a chance. I felt better after a friend told me I hadn’t missed much. At the end of the night Isbell thanked all the bands, saying how great Slim and Sykes had been and how great the Mimicking Birds had been at mimicking birds. While that didn’t help at all, it was funny.

With only 45 minutes to wow us in Slim and his band hit the ground running, zipping through a set list heavy on songs from last year’s Be Set Free. As always, my favorite of those is “Cinderella,” the husky voices of his bandmates replying “yes my handsome fellow” to his invocation of the title character’s name always makes me smile. Slim is a human pinball on stage, bouncing from the top of the drum kit to the front of the stage, dropping to his knees and the staggering from side to side, his trademark hat going from his head to the floor to the head of a girl in the front row to his foot, as he attempts to flip it into the air and back on to his head. He comes close, but never quite succeeds. I realized this was the smallest stage I had seen them on when for the first time David Moore’s keyboard was set up so that I could actually see him play. I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see him pound the keys with the same ferocity that he strums the banjo, though “strum” doesn’t really describe the abuse he gives it.

Too soon their set was over, and if this show was meant to be an introduction to the types of music Paste covers, it failed. The crowd had swelled before Slim’s set, but as the bands switched over much of the female-heavy crowd drifted out. I thought they might be replaced by fans of Isbell’s former band the Drive By Truckers, but the popularity that band enjoys has not followed Isbell in his solo career. I always enjoyed Isbell with the Truckers, his songs were a nice contrast to those by Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, and his “Outfit” was easily the best track of their solid release Decoration Day. It wasn’t until I saw him solo the first time that I realized he’s never written a song above mid-tempo and that can get pretty tedious when you string them all together. During previous shows I’d been easily entertained during the slower moments by watching ridiculously good-looking guitarist Browan Lollar, but he was nowhere to be seen tonight. Eventually an audience member asked where he was, and Isbell responded that he was on tour with Azure Ray since those shows had been booked before this one. Too bad, that left only keyboardist Derry deBorja to watch, but without Lollar he also seemed a little distracted.

The crowd continued to diminish as Isbell mixed songs from his solo records in with those from his Trucker days, with nothing really standing out. Eventually when he announced that they just had one more song left and the opening notes revealed it wasn’t “Outfit,” we decided it was time to go. I wish I liked Isbell’s solo shows better, but other than a surprisingly rocking set at Twangfest in 2009, they always leave me ready to leave.

Langhorne Slim

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit