Friday, January 28, 2011

Graminy; January 28, 2011; Wild Hog in the Woods Coffeehouse

Wild Hog in the Woods is kind of like Brigadoon, but it appears every Friday instead of every thousand years. The Wil-Mar Center on Jenifer Street becomes a cozy little venue once a week, hosting singer songwriters and folkies of all varieties. The term coffeehouse is a bit generous, all they do is plug in the Mr. Coffee and brew up a pot, but you can’t argue with the prices, 35 cents a cup, and the same for a cookie. The cover charge is also ridiculously low; two bucks of you are a member, three if you aren’t. That money is used to cover the costs of putting on the show, there’s a ceramic pig that they use to collect money for the musicians.

Tonight’s guest was Graminy. The name comes from the scientific classification for grass, which is graminae. Just as their name is a fancy name for grass, their music is a fancy form of bluegrass that they like to call “class grass.” I’ve certainly never heard anything like it before. These songs were suites, they had movements, heck, they required sheet music, something I’ve seldom seen any of them use. The music is all written by Mike Bell, who was the wild card in the band for me since I knew the rest of the band. The themes were places and nature, and the music was as original and unique as anything I’d ever seen or heard. I’ve never been much of a fan of classical music but I’ve also never heard it mixed up with bluegrass before, and the results were absolutely hypnotic.

Bell has the advantage of having some of Madison’s best players as his bandmates. The omnipresent Chris Wagoner and Mary Gaines, on fiddle and cello respectively, are probably the best known. The two have played on probably half the local releases of the last ten years, and are members of such recognizable bands as the Common Faces, the Moon Gypsies, the Bob Westfall Band and the Stellanovas. Their musical prowess is never more obvious than during their MadToast Live show which is recorded for podcast. In the course of their music and interview show they often play along with their guests, some of whom they had just met. Gaines also has a lovely singing voice, and most of the songs tonight which featured vocals were hers. After the break, Gaines and Wagoner also did one of their own songs, a quirky little love song that they both sing on.

I’ll admit that fiddler Shauncey Ali was the main draw for me. Though in this case, “violinist” and “violist” are probably more appropriate terms than fiddler. Like Wagoner and Gaines, Ali can pretty much play anything, but this was something I’d never seen him do. There were sounds he coaxed out of his instruments that I hadn’t heard before. It was especially intriguing to see Ali and Wagoner play together; their bows were in perfect synch. One of those numbers was a song that Ali had written. Composer too, apparently there’s no end to his skills.

Perhaps the most jaw-dropping moment of the night was when Bell’s daughter joined the band for a couple songs. On the first she and her father played a duet, him on guitar and her on violin. Despite her age, which I would guess to be around 12, she was a remarkable player. The rest of the band returned to the stage so that she could “sing a song” with them. It was stunning to see a voice that should have been coming from an evening gown-glad torch singer lounging on a piano come out of her tiny frame. Despite the fact that the song was about fishing, it was still pretty amazing. I was even more surprised to hear that the band had never practiced with her; instead she and her father had simply run through it a few times.

Even though this was not the kind of show I usually see, I was endlessly intrigued by it. I’ll definitely go see Graminy again sometime, hopefully soon

Saturday, January 22, 2011

David Francey/Craig Werth; January 22, 2011; The Brink Lounge

David Francey is equal parts storyteller and songwriter. Every song was given an extensive introduction before he would sing it. At least once he promised “the song will be shorter than that story.” But to hear him talk he is even more a construction worker. No one seems more surprised than he that after twenty years doing manual labor he has now spent the last twelve years writing and recording albums and touring the world, and he makes it sound easy. “You record a couple records and all of sudden they are inviting you to conferences,” he marveled, “twenty years of construction and I never got invited to a conference.” The conference was Folk Alliance and it was in Florida. Since Francey’s wife and muse Beth Girdler won’t fly, they decided to drive from their home in Canada. He pulled out a map and picked a route, thinking it would be a beautiful drive right along the coast. The route was Interstate and it was neither beautiful nor right along the coast.

Much of Francey’s charm comes from his willingness to laugh at himself. He is the sort of down to earth character than you can imagine sharing several beers with and hours later wonder where the time went. He was born in Scotland but moved with his family to Canada when he was quite young. He still has the Scottish accent, but the years growing up in Toronto have mellowed it, leaving him with a hypnotic lilt infinitely easier to understand than most Scots. He still seems in awe that people are willing to pay to see him sing his songs. But people certainly are... a capacity crowd had come out for his Madison Folk Society sponsored show at the Brink Lounge. And they were treated to two sets of stories and songs from Francey and his sideman Craig Werth. Unlike most singer/songwriters Francey doesn’t play much guitar, he leaves that to Werth who seems able to play anything with strings and he switched instruments frequently during the set.

Many of Francey’s songs were written for his wife Beth. The first of these isn’t a love song at all, but one about the dissolution of his first marriage. Apparently people aren’t listening to the words he claims because many couples have told him they used it for their first dance at their wedding. According to him, it was Beth who first encouraged him to pursue music as a career, before that he had just been a construction worker who also wrote songs. Another favorite subject was the many characters he met while spending time on the M.V. Algoville out at sea. The project was a collaboration between Francey and Mike Ford (of Moxy Fruvous fame). They traveled with the crew for two weeks from Montreal to Thunder Bay, hearing their stories and writing songs about them. It was good to hear accounts of honest, hard working people with no sensationalism at all, like the hero of “The Ballad of Bowser McRae” whom Francey calls one of the most interesting people he’s ever met.

Prior to Francey’s two sets of songs (which went till after 11, giving folks a three hour show for their money) Werth played some of his own material. The one that stuck with me was a song called “The Spokesman” about a retired man who repairs bicycles and gives them away to children who need them. The Spokesman? Get it? The funny part of his story was that he had originally read the tale in his AARP magazine, a publication that he ignored for the first several issues he received. Eventually he found himself reading the whole thing. He was every bit as charming as Francey was, just without the accent, and did play a mean guitar. I guess that made them pretty much the perfect pair.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Marshall Crenshaw/The Bottle Rockets; January 20, 2011; Lincoln Hall, Chicago

Marshall Crenshaw is just one of those dudes. I’ve known his name forever, but for the longest time I couldn’t even name one of his songs. I’ve even seen him once before many years ago, but other than the fact that he played “Someday, Someway,” which I finally figured out was his hit, I don’t remember much about it. So it probably seems a little strange that I went to Chicago to see him, but the fact that the Bottle Rockets were serving as both his backing band and opening act had a lot to do with that. It was certainly an inspired pairing. If the Bottle Rockets seemed more subdued than usual during their opening set, they made up for it with the energy they added to Crenshaw’s set.

Crenshaw started slow with a few songs that sounded too much the same to someone who didn’t know them, but once he hit “MaryAnn” about a half dozen songs in, the show started picking up steam. Or maybe it just took that long for his band to settle in and get comfortable. This was only the second night of a tour that would last only a handful of dates in the Midwest. The Bottle Rockets had arrived late to Lincoln Hall tonight due to a snow storm in St Louis the night before, and seemed just the tiniest bit flustered early on. The good part about the night before according to B Rox lead singer Brian Henneman was that the snow didn’t start until after the show did, “so everyone was trapped.” He seemed most excited about the fact that he would get to play electric sitar with Crenshaw. It could have been excessive, but it was used in moderation. Other than “Someday, Someway,” the highlight of the regular set may have been his cover of Richard Thompson’s “Valerie.”

As the opening band, the Bottle Rockets had played a shorter set than usual, despite the fact that the crowd seemed to consist of mainly their fans. When they finished their set, which had included many fan favorites like “Radar Gun,” “Indianapolis,” “Thousand Dollar Car” and “Get Down River” before concluding with the best track off recent release Lean Forward “The Long Way,” Henneman chided the crowd who was already yelling for more, “All of you have seen us do this a million times, just be patient and we’ll come back and do something you haven’t seen us do.”

As is often the case when two artists with this much history tour together, the encore was the best part. They came back with “Kit Kat Clock” but instead of Henneman on lead vocals, it was Crenshaw. Very cool. I’d already been let in on the secret that Cheap Trick’s drummer would be joining them the next night in Bloomington, and I’d been told to keep it that. “Tomorrow night we will have the honor of Bun E. Carlos joining us,” Crenshaw announced (so much for the secret), “so we learned this song for him.” With that, the band kicked into the instantly recognizable “Surrender” and bass player Keith Voegele stepped to the mike. I’d seen them play this in St Louis years ago during Twangfest and didn’t think I’d ever hear it again. I am happy to report that it was just as awesome as I remembered it being, and I was a lot less drunk tonight.

I’d been very impressed with the Bottle Rockets’ ability to play every request thrown at them in a marathon show in the basement last summer, but I was equally impressed with how easily they got into their role of backing band playing a whole set of new songs perfectly on only their second show with Crenshaw.

The Bottle Rockets

Marshall Crenshaw

Friday, January 07, 2011

Sleeping in the Aviary; January 7, 2011; High Noon Saloon
German Art Students/Love Cats; Mickey’s Tavern

I see a lot of shows at Mickey’s Tavern but I seldom write about them here. The first reason is that a lot of those shows are Honky Tonk Tuesdays, and y’all have heard me talk way too much about Blake Thomas and Jeremiah Nelson already. Now that Blake has moved away and Jeremiah has replaced him with a rotating cast of characters there may be something one of these days that I will write about. The second is that it is endlessly aggravating to take pictures at Mickey’s. The lighting is poor and there is no stage, so if even one person is standing in front of you it is difficult to take a picture. If I don’t have pictures, somehow I feel I am excused from writing a review. But probably the main reason I don’t write about many shows at Mickey’s is that, Honky Tonk aside, it is a terrible place to see a show. All their shows are free, and that equals crowded, really crowded, especially on the weekends. No matter where you stand, you are in someone’s way. For the bands, the no-stage thing means there isn’t a line between performer and audience, and some folks get a little close. And since everyone is responsible for their own PA, the sound varies wildly.

Still, here I was on a Friday night anyway, perched on a barstool I felt lucky to get, waiting to see the Love Cats and the German Art Students. It was nice to have a stool, I felt at least a little less in the way, but it meant I couldn’t see a thing. This was not a problem for the Love Cats. I’d seen drummer Randy Ballwahn walking around earlier and I don’t think black lipstick is his thing. Every so often I caught a glimpse of Sean Michael Dargan, who was playing the role of Cure lead singer Robert Smith. His curly hair had been encouraged to go wild and, surprisingly, he didn’t look near as unnatural with make-up as Ballwahn had. I’ve never been a huge Cure fan. I have one CD, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, which I bought on account of the undeniable catchiness of two songs, “Why Can’t I Be You?” and what I consider their best song “Just like Heaven.” Luckily for me they played both of those songs, plus there were another handful of tunes in their set I didn’t even realize I knew. While Dargan didn’t sound exactly like Smith, he was close enough, proving once again what a versatile musician he can be.

This was the first time I had seen the German Art Students since they became a three piece almost a year ago. Lead singer/guitarist Annelies Howell moved to bass after original bass player Andy Larson left the band. Since all three boys in the band sang, I was wondering who would take over Larson’s vocals. I’m still wondering. I could see even less during their set and the sound had gotten muddier. I was pleased to find out that they are still the same band that was my first favorite local band. They are still playing their hilarious hits like “Disgruntled Figure Skating Judge” and “Civil War Re-enactor.” We’d seen more than half their set when I decided it was time to head over to the High Noon to hopefully catch Sleeping in the Aviary. I felt a little bad leaving, but I’m hoping next time I see GAS it will be under better circumstances.

The two show night is a difficult trick to pull off. I usually arrive to find that the band I really wanted to see just finished. Tonight I got lucky, and they were just about to start when I walked in. They played a much different set than they had for their CD release show, reaching all the way back to their first record for “Glow Worm.” They also played “THE HARDEST SONG FOR US TO PLAY” which turned out to be a song from their new record. Accordionist Celeste Heule frequently contributes backing vocals, but this was the first time I’d heard her sing lead. Tonight’s version wasn’t as confident as the one on the record, but they made it through just fine. If anything, tonight’s show seemed a little calmer than many of the times I’d seen them, but that might have something to do with the fact that tonight was the kick-off of a massive tour that will take them all over the US. By the time they get back to Madison I bet they’ll have that song mastered, not to mention have some good stories to tell.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Rana Santacruz; January 6, 2011; High Noon Saloon

It’s been several years since Kissers’ Kari Bethke and Nate Palan moved to New York, but they certainly haven’t forgotten Madison. The pair returns often and Palan plays gigs with old bandmates in the Hometown Sweethearts, the Kissers, and the God Damns. This holiday season marked the return of Waylan St Palan and his Magic Elves, the best lounge-y Christmas show you’ll ever see as Palan smoozes his way through Christmas classics and soon to be classics like “Santa Lost a Ho”. While in the area, Bethke used the opportunity to play with a band of her own. Rana Santacruz used to front a moderately successful Spanish rock band. The group broke up after their first record failed to yield a hit and Santacruz moved from Mexico City to Brooklyn, where he began introducing bluegrass touches to his music. The result is a curious but undeniably catchy blend of genres.

Coincidentally, this was the second week in a row I found myself watching a band that wasn’t singing in English. Unlike Los Yegueros last week, I was able to pick out words and phrases from deeply buried memories of two years of High School Spanish. There were lots of songs about the moon, and Gina (whose Spanish is infinitely better than mine) swears there were several about burritos, but oddly none about his pants. They were easily the fanciest pants to ever grace the High Noon stage. Somehow I had anticipated he would change before his set, he did used to be in a mariachi band after all, but I don’t think I could have predicted how hypnotic they would be. Rows of silver rings hung from the sides, moving back and forth hypnotically as he played.

Even without the pants Santacruz would have been entertaining. I mean, even with different pants, though pants-less would have had its own entertainment factor. He was delightful and charming; his frequent falsetto was never annoying. He was all smiles as he explained the songs, usually a love song or one based on a legend. Some were less romantic, like the one which accuses a lover as being less faithful than the dog which howls in the night, um, or something like that. The music was consistently enjoyable, even though I couldn’t understand most of what he was saying. After all, there are plenty of bands I like where I can’t decipher most of the lyrics, and they are singing in English (yes Russell I am talking to you). Bethke as always was a joy to watch. Not only is she stunningly beautiful, but she is a wicked fiddler. The upright bass player was equally adorable, though sadly the late arriving trumpet player blocked my view for most of the set. Santacruz’s main instrument was the accordion, but he did play guitar on a few songs.

He was a talented musician with a terrific voice, but his real skill may be in marketing. After mentioning that his CDs were $15 he went on to explain, “That may seem like a lot, but if you listen to it just twice, then it is only $7.50 per listen. And if you listen to it three times, then it is $5. If you listen to it enough, eventually it will be almost free.” It seemed to work, after the show there were a number of people waiting to buy one. I’m not sure how everyone heard about it, but there was an impressively large crowd at the show.

The blurb on the High Noon site lured me in by referencing Calexico in an attempt to describe Santacruz’s sound. It certainly wasn’t an exact match, but it wasn’t that far off in comparing two bands occupying unique spaces.