Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Wrens (well, 3/4ths of them)/Palomar/Bird of Youth; November 30, 2010; The Rock Shop, Brooklyn

We call this sort of trip “Nick-crazy.” I landed at La Guardia at noon and was on a plane back to Milwaukee at 6 AM the next day, only four hours after I’d been sitting at a table upstairs at the Rock Shop with Okkervil River’s Will Sheff and the New Pornographers’ Carl Newman. Of course, that wasn’t why I booked a whirlwind trip to New York, they are just friends of a friend and I just sat there in star struck silence. I tried to tell a few people that my main destination was the Baldessari exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was indeed quite excellent and I highly recommend, but it didn’t take long before the truth came out.

I’d been Wrens-starved this year. After seeing ten fantastic shows in 2009, this year I’d thus far settled for the pair of shows in Philly and Baltimore on their “two-city tour.” As further incentive to buy a plane ticket, they were previewing the songs that would make up the new record. I’d heard a few of bassist/keyboard player Kevin Whelan’s new songs over the last year and a half, but nothing from the band’s other major songwriter Charles Bissell. All of a sudden it seemed like I had to go, and once Greg Whelan also signed on I knew I was right.

It was a show only a fan could love, but I am and I did. As promised, they played nothing but new songs. I think surprising even themselves that they didn’t give in and play older material, especially when one insistent fan kept yelling for “She Sends Kisses.” Of course, that fan was Bissell’s wife Rachel Warren, lead singer of Palomar and organizer of the five weeks worth of benefit shows that this was a part of. The new songs are certainly promising, but they are even further from done than I would have suspected. “Working on the record” was exactly what they were doing, with all of us as witnesses. Some of the songs were little more than sketches, and many had never been played by all three at the same time. In fact, Charles seems to have rehearsed more with members of Palomar than he had his own band, and he called them up to help him out on a couple of occasions. Of course, that wasn’t true of all the members he called on, drummer Dale Miller hadn’t even heard one of the songs he was asked to play on. Greg also debuted his new song. He looked disgusted at the end, but I thought it was great. After all, he does have the prettiest voice in the band.

They apologized afterward that I had come all this way for that, but I insisted it was worth it. I had seen them play the same batch of songs for the last five years, and it was a treat to hear all new material, even if it wasn’t as polished as most of their stuff. I pointed out that this was only the second plane ticket I had bought for them this year, after buying several the year before. Greg told me I better get ready to buy a bunch more because they were planning on touring a lot after the record came out. Luckily it would appear I have some time to save up. Unlike most Wrens’ fans, I don’t actually care when the new record comes out, as long as they keep playing shows.

I’d seen Palomar once years before, and I remembered thinking they were pretty OK for a bunch of girls. They opened one of the Maxwell’s shows last year, but it was the night of Kevin’s party and I missed most of their set for cocktails and cupcakes. They’ve been fairly quiet the last several years as Bissell and Warren started a family, but they are also working on a new record. They had a few problems, bemoaning that they weren’t as slick as opener Bird of Youth who played without a rhythm section, and wondering why things were going wrong tonight when last week had gone so well. I definitely enjoyed Warren and super cool bass player Sarah Brockett , but keyboard player Christina Prostano got on my nerves. Still, I’ll say it again, for a bunch of girls (and one guy) they were OK.

Bird of Youth


The Wrens

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Blake Thomas/John Statz/Jeremiah Nelson; November 28, 2010; High Noon Saloon

It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the end of a long weekend, and the perfect time to go listen to some of Madison’s best former and current singer-songwriters. It seems a lot of people had the same idea; the crowd was surprisingly big, too bad none of them actually wanted to listen. There was a steady rumble of conversation throughout the night. Sometimes I could listen through it, other times it was impossible to ignore the shrieks of laughter coming from the bar.

Since he was the quietest, current Madison resident Jeremiah Nelson seemed to be the hardest to hear. He played his set sitting down playing slide guitar, and what I could hear of it was gorgeous. Of course, Jeremiah plays every Tuesday night at Mickey’s so he is no stranger to inattentive crowds. He gets through those sets by melting one song into the next and experimenting with his looping pedal. He hasn’t released an album since shortly after he moved to Madison, so he has a backlog of material waiting to be committed to CD. Some of these songs have been worked and reworked, each version equally good, but completely different from prior incarnations. “Pacing and Scheming” for example started life as a loud rocker to play with his band the Achilles Heel, made up of members of the Blueheels. After they quit, it has been reworked into a much quieter reflective song.

He’s proven time and time again that he has a knack for picking the perfect cover. Tonight it was a Neil Young song, one that he had learned for the Young tribute at Linneman’s. “He has a great Neil Young voice,” a friend whispered to me. Which isn’t really true, he sounds nothing like Young, but he does do an excellent job with the songs. He also issued a challenge to the two musicians following him. He played a cover of Blake Thomas’s “World of War,” a song that he’s heard John Statz play, and suggested that each of them should also play it, and then at the end of the night the audience could vote on which was their favorite. Statz apparently didn’t feel up to the test and declined. He did however pull out his own surprising cover. I knew he had good taste since he likes the Drive By Truckers, but I was surprised to learn he was also a Frightened Rabbit fan. He played “Old Fashioned,” my favorite song off Midnight Organ Fight, and did a decent job of it. I’ll admit it was odd to hear that song without lead singer Scott Hutchinson’s thick Scottish accent, and it even took me a minute to identify it. Statz moved to Colorado a few months back, so it is nice to see he hasn’t forgotten his friends in Madison. He even had some of them play with him. For the first half of his set he was joined by an upright bass player and a guitarist, both of whom played on his most recent release.

Thomas didn’t move quite as far away. His new address in Minneapolis allows him to come back once a month to play Honky Tonk Tuesday at Mickey’s Tavern. Since I already knew I was going to miss the next one, it was nice to have the opportunity to see him tonight. The bushy beard, which nearly rivals Justin Bricco’s, and long hair he’s been growing since before he left Madison seemed incongruous with the suit he was wearing. Still there was no doubt it was the same old Blake, his gorgeous voice still breaking hearts in an instant. It even felt like Mickey’s, the constant chatter had continued throughout the evening and got louder as the night wore on. Still, it was great to see all three of them, even if I couldn’t always hear them.

Jeremiah Nelson

John Statz

Blake Thomas

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sleeping in the Aviary/Amo Joy/So-So Radio; November 27, 2010; The Frequency

Every Sleeping in the Aviary show is unique, for better or worse, but they seemed determined to make the CD release show for Great Vacation! even more memorable than usual. To start with, there was a script for the evening’s banter, but it seemed that none of them had been involved in writing it and everyone had gotten their script just moments before. Lead singer/guitarist Elliot Kozel had most of the lines which he read woodenly, and eventually randomly. As the evening went on he would pluck pages off the floor and recite them, sometimes declaring “I read that one already,” and tossing it aside, sometimes not caring if he had. They also decided that having pizza delivered in the middle of their set would be hilarious, too bad the pizza guy wouldn’t come in and it was delivered, somewhat anticlimactically, by Amo Joy’s lead singer instead. Worse yet, the half full box fell to the floor as it was being passed through the audience, just after Elliot said that better not happen, “because that shit wasn’t cheap.” Too bad, I was hungry.

Musically the night was a little more inspired. Great Vacation! is their easiest listening record yet. In fact if you listened to it right after their first record you might not believe it was the same band. This record sounds produced, though certainly not in a bad way. I’ll admit I am still in love with the lo-fi sound of the second record (Expensive Vomit in a Cheap Motel), but I l really love that they wanted to do something different this time around. Several of the tracks feature gargling, “Last Kiss on a Sinking Ship” for example, which I think I read somewhere Elliot called “the new reverb.” That remains to be seen, but it is just another example of how they like to do things any way but ordinary. They had started the set with some lounge-y disco music, a sort of Great Vacation! theme song, and they ended the night with the same sort of music, which eventually turned into an entertaining butchering of “Staying Alive.” I was happy to see I’m not the only one who thinks the BeeGees are still relevant. Even more enjoyable was bassist Phil Malmstead’s shirt which read “Here Comes Trouble,” which is especially appropriate since I claim most bass players are nothing but trouble.

SitA met Amo Joy in Indianapolis on one of their first major tours. One of them told me that they played with a lot of bands on that tour, but they met very few that they liked. This is the third time Amo Joy has been to Madison since then, playing with SitA and their buddies Icarus Himself. They seemed to have calmed down a bit since their first manic show, which not only included extra percussion from the band, but also an additional ruckus from the noisemakers they passed out to the audience. Calmer yes, but their infectious pop is still plenty entertaining. I’d first heard of So-So Radio when they opened for the first Madison Ha Ha Tonka show in years that I had missed. I was really bummed to miss my boys, but I was also disappointed that I had to miss So-So Radio and the August Teens who I had recommended as an opener. Tonight I was entertained by the skinny young boys who claimed to be from “across the street.” Turns out they all live in different cities, so they have a hard time saying where they are from. I look forward to seeing them again. And I really look forward to seeing Sleeping in the Aviary again, they are always full of surprises.

So-So Radio

Sleeping in the Aviary

Friday, November 19, 2010

Haley Bonar/Daniel Knox; November 19, 2010; The Rathskellar

Daniel Knox

Halay Bonar

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Chapin Sisters/ The Pines/Imei; November 14, 2010; SPACE, Evanston

My friend Trine who lives in Oslo e-mailed me to let me know she would be in Chicago for a week for the American Heart meeting. While she was there she was hoping that I would come down for a show. She’s lived here several times over the years, working in the lab and going to shows with me. Back in Norway she doesn’t get to see much music, mostly because there isn’t much, so she really wanted to see some here. It was a rather slow week by Chicago standards, and I’d almost forgotten about this show even though I had it written on my calendar. She was staying downtown but was more than willing to spend an hour on the train to meet me in Evanston. I’d been to SPACE once before and liked it, now that I’ve had their pizza I like it even more. It’s a listening room, all seated, with soft lights and things hanging from the ceiling that look like the underside of mushroom caps. It kind of makes you feel like you’re in Wonderland.

The Pines had been here before, playing a sold out show with Greg Brown a few months prior, and they were also happy to be back. I’ve been lucky enough to see them in the perfect sort of room every time, Café Carpe in Ft Atkinson, Amazing Grace Bakery in Duluth, and of course my basement. As they had in the basement, they had celebrity drummer JT Bates with him. Bates has played with a wide range of musicians from Greg Brown to Eyedea, and you can see why he’s terrific. The set was similar to others I’ve seen them do, a healthy dose of songs from their 2009 release Tremolo as well as a few from the previous two. As always, the soft-spoken duo was charming on stage as they brought the crowd into their music. It seemed as though much of this Sunday night crowd had seen them with Brown and returned for another helping.

It has occurred to me that the reason I forgot about this show was the headliner. I’m not a fan of girl singers, even less so of bands with more than one, and well, if they are sisters the odds of me liking them get precipitously lower (i.e. Bowman and the Watson Twins). So it was a pleasant surprise when the Chapin Sisters turned out to not be unbearable. It probably helps that their famous last name is not a coincidence, the great storyteller/songwriter Harry Chapin was their uncle, though he died so long ago it is doubtful they ever knew him. Both sisters sang, and although Abigail took the lead more often, it was Lily‘s more exotic voice that I preferred. They were on tour with the night’s opener IMEI (or something like that), another typical female singer songwriter right down to the part that she’s obsessed with her dog. Her unremarkable set was punctuated by one highlight, a cover of Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet,” one of the ten greatest songs ever written.

It was a long drive (three hours each way, much of it in pouring rain) to see so many girls, but as they always do, the Pines made it worth it.


The Pines

The Chapin Sisters

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Josh Ritter & the Royal City Band; November 13, 2010; Majestic Theater

I’ve been seeing Josh Ritter for years, and I’ve never been disappointed with one of his records or with a show. Both things happened this year. So Runs the World Away is a good record, the musicianship solid, the songs smart, but there’s no emotion. Ritter is an artist who seems to have a very personal relationship with every song, but the songs on World seem disconnected. Even the record’s standout track, “Folk Bloodbath,” which pulls characters like Delia and Stagger Lee from traditional folk songs, is just a story. Even so, I was looking forward to his first Madison visit in several years. His last time through, on the “Small Town” tour, had been mind-blowing with Ritter having the time of his life, and his classic “Kathleen” had actually brought tears to my eyes. It isn’t a sad song, not at all; it is just that damn good.

So what happened tonight? Admittedly, it’s likely that most of what kept me from enjoying the show was not his fault. Instead of the High Noon’s cozy confines where I know all the best places to stand, the show this time was at the Majestic Theater, a much larger venue that I still haven’t completely figured out. Also, it was really crowded, sold out or near it. Coming from the early show at the High Noon, I was running late and ended up back by the sound board. They always say that is the spot with the best sound. That may be true, but I’m no audiophile, and I’d rather be closer to the stage otherwise I just don’t feel like I am there. There is also the possibility that I may have been a little drunk after an early show and no dinner. Sometimes that makes a show even better, while other times I just find myself annoyed.

Given those factors, tonight’s show just didn’t live up to its predecessors, and I felt that, just like the record, Ritter was phoning it in. Back by the sound board, I didn’t feel the same joy of playing radiating from the stage as I had at the High Noon. He did play “Kathleen,” while it made me happy, I wasn’t moved to tears. I’m certainly not giving up on Ritter, but next time I’ll get there earlier. And for the next record, maybe he could try harder.