Saturday, February 26, 2011

Blake Thomas, Mary Fox and the cast of Our Town; February 26, 2011; Yellow Tree Theater, Osseo, MN

Our Town is not a musical, but the Yellow Tree Theater’s production of Thorton Wilder’s classic play about life in a small town used music as another of their props. And it was a big one seeing as how the stage didn’t contain many of them. There was the choir practice led by drunken choirmaster Simon Stimson, with a few folks intentionally singing off key. There was the haunting banjo that the Stage Manager (Blake Thomas) played during a scene. All of it added so much to a play that was already pretty terrific to begin with. I’ve only seen Our Town once before, a film version of the play performed with Paul Newman as the Stage Manager. Since we both name Newman as our favorite actor, I told Blake he had some big shoes to fill. After seeing the play, I gave the edge to Blake. After all, Paul Newman can’t play banjo.

I’ve always known Blake to be a man of many talents, for instance I couldn’t believe that he did all the music for the soundtrack they had available. He’s an amazing guitar player, but I had no idea he could play banjo and violin so proficiently. I also had no idea he could act. I’m not sure why I was so shocked, he looked like he had been doing it all his life. He was more natural and graceful than anyone on stage. He was even more natural during the short concert before the play. All the cast members gathered in the lobby to sing songs and those that could play an instrument did. There was guitar and piano, an upright bass and even a clarinet. All of the cast members were enthusiastic in singing some classic songs from the history of folk.

My favorite of these is “By the Banks of the Ohio,” a classic murder for love ballad in which the narrator kills the only woman he loves because she would not be his bride. It’s been recorded by a multitude of artists including both the Carter Family and Johnny Cash. My favorite version prior to this one was Mike Ireland and Holler’s. I didn’t think it could get any more poignant than that, but Blake’s version may top it. Mary Fox also got her share of the spotlight with another Carter Family favorite “Single Girl, Married Girl.” Also remarkable is how great Mary and Blake sound together on a number of songs. The favorite of the cast seemed to be “Big Balls in Nashville.” Stop giggling, they are talking about a fancy dance. Sure they are, the same way AC/DC was.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

August Teens; February 22, 2010; High Noon Saloon

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Peter Mulvey/Pamela Means; February 20, 2011; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

With the political climate in Madison these days, I expected the liberal and very vocal Peter Mulvey to expound on his opinion of the chaos in Wisconsin, especially because he had stopped at the Capital on the way to the house to see his brother and father who were protesting. Instead, he told jokes, which was probably the right thing to do. With how volatile things are these days as the governor tries to force through a very unpopular budget repair bill, it is probably better to let the fire smolder rather than fan the flames. Besides, his jokes are funny, and, as a bonus, I hadn’t heard most of them before.

Opener Pamela Means, also from Milwaukee, interspersed her short set with classic Wisconsin humor, namely the Norwegian joke. Peter also kept his humor to a country he knows well, Ireland. I doubt that he learned these when he was over there, but his many tours of the Emerald Isle have given him a pretty serviceable Irish accent. All this talk about Ireland led to him playing “On the Road to Mallow,” one of my favorites that I feel like I haven’t heard in quite awhile. A simple travelogue of the road between Middleton and Mallow, he names the things that he sees (dogs, rabbits, and something that “might have been a fox, come to think of it now”) and the gibberish-sounding names of the towns he passes. It’s a beautiful song, simple yet haunting.

He was also more than happy to take requests since he felt he could do that in the friendly confines of the basement. A call for such at the High Noon or the Café Carpe would probably have led to an overwhelming din. He played them all, including “The Trouble with Poets” which I requested for a friend of mine who had flown in for the show, but thought it was the night before. A sad story, which she told me not to repeat. Another fan favorite is the amusing “Some People.” A list of all the things, mundane to scandalous, that people do. Mulvey, on the other hand, just sits back observing it all, shaking his head and going “mmmm, mmmm, mmmm, mmm.” Like many of his songs it is wickedly smart but still uncomplicated.

She lives on the east coast now, Pamela Means still retains a good deal of affection for her home state and her performing partner (“we have the same initials” she stated with authority). Unlike Mulvey, she didn’t look the part of the characters in her jokes, her wild afro would never be seen on Ole’s Lena, but her “donchaknows” and “youbetchas” were spot on. The most remarkable thing about Means was her guitar playing. In a world where most female singer/songwriters play timid guitar, just enough to carry the melody of the songs, she attacked her instrument with a vengeance. Her playing was seriously impressive and remarkably innovative. It is no wonder that several of the people who e-mailed me asked about the Pamela Means show instead of the Peter Mulvey show, she certainly deserves her own following.

The weather had turned nasty the night before, but that only kept a handful of people away. The ones who made it were treated to a great show. These Mulvey shows just might become an annual thing.

Pamela Means

Peter Mulvey

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Dismemberment Plan/JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound/Kid, You’ll Move Mountains; February 19, 2010; Metro, Chicago

It’s been eight years since the much-loved DC band the Dismemberment Plan bewilderingly called it quits. There has been a reunion show or two on the east coast, but I had little hope of ever getting to see one myself. That is until back in October a friend told me he had a pair of tickets to their show in Chicago that I didn’t even know existed, and that the second ticket was mine if I wanted it. It was appropriate as the Dismemberment Plan was the first band we saw together after meeting at a Ryan Adams show. (Which was undeniably terrific, and we’ll both tell you it was the only great show either of us ever saw him do.) I’ll admit I was nervous, there was a high potential for disappointment. They hadn’t played (much) together in the intervening years, how could they be as good as they were back then? As it turns out, they were awesome, even better than I remember them. At the end of the show my face hurt from smiling and my neck ached from head banging (though not as bad as it would the next day).

Of course, always adorable lead singer Travis Morrison had me from the beginning when he dedicated the whole set to “the people of Wisconsin and everything they are fighting for.” I remembered his rapid-fire vocal delivery and propensity for falsetto, but I’d forgotten about his herky-jerky robot dancing and his earnest banter. You can hear how good bass player Eric Axelson is on every song on every record but seeing it live is another thing entirely. He’s playing much more than basic rhythms. Drummer Joe Easley is a force of nature powerhouse behind the kit. I was so delighted with the band that I even forgave guitarist Jason Caddell for Poor but Sexy. (They opened for the Wrens in DC in ‘09. And like all Wrens’ openers, they were terrible. The best thing about them was the name, and I spent most of their painful set trying to figure out why the guitar player looked so familiar.) Their time slot was posted as 10:30-12, but they started earlier than that and by the time the third song of the encore came to an end they had played almost two hours.

That two hours contained pretty much every Dismemberment Plan song I knew, plus a couple I didn’t (we figured they must have been on the first record). Emergency & I is often considered their breakthrough record, and it did yield some of the most mainstream music of their career. The Weezer-esque “What Do You Want Me to Say” encouraged a song-along, as did the song of perceived privilege and acceptance “You Are Invited.” Surreally, I’d heard the band talking about the latter on NPR’s Weekend Edition, and I was pleased to note that the drummer was wearing an NPR shirt. They’re smart and they rock. I’d always leaned more toward … is Terrified and its smart ass songs like “Do the Standing Still,” which mocks indie rock kids for their refusal to move during a show (not a problem tonight), and “Tonight We Mean It” were forgotten friends. And of course it also has the song that made me fall in love with them.

It happened long ago at the now-demolished Union South, one of the worst places to see a show, but where I’d seen some pretty awesome shows all the same. They were opening for Burning Airlines, and I missed part of their set since I was late. But not too late to hear “The Ice of Boston.” I was sold; I bought a CD and saw them whenever I could. The half sung-half spoken song about a pathetic New Year’s Eve celebration remains a highlight of their live show, but tonight I was getting a little worried. We were a song into the encore before the familiar chords sounded. I confessed my concern to my friend. “C’mon,” he scoffed, “you know they have to play it. And now all the people will start piling on stage.” And so they did. Admittedly I’d totally forgotten about that, it has been long time.

The openers seemed almost random choices. Kid, You’ll Move Mountains is a Chicago band, and their love of sprawling rock was only matched by their enthusiasm for being on this bill. While you couldn’t hear any influence of the Dismemberment Plan’s scattershot rock in their dirges, there is no doubt it was there. JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound made even less sense. Watching them set up with their suits and horns, we worried they were a ska band, but instead they were a very soulful band led by the impeccably dressed Brooks. They were likeable enough, but they won me over with “a song from my favorite Chicago blues singer.” With the plethora of blues singers to choose from, I was surprised to hear the first line of the song. “I am an American aquarium drinker, I assassin down the avenue.” That seemingly nonsense sentence is of course the opening of Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” Brooks did what is essential to a well done cover, he made it his own, and it was an absolutely inspired version. So inspired, that many people didn’t seem to recognize it till the chorus. It was just the icing on what would turn out to be a pretty tasty cake.

Kid You'll Move Mountains

JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound

The Dismemberment Plan

Friday, February 18, 2011

Casey Driessen/The Tillers; February 18, 2011; Café Carpe

Every year my New Year’s resolution is to visit Ft Atkinson’s charming Café Carpe more often. While it is the one I try hardest to keep, I still don’t get there as often as I would like. So it was nice to make a last minute Friday afternoon decision to go to tonight’s show. I hadn’t heard of Casey Driessen before, but between owner Bill Camplin’s excited monologue in one of his trademark rambling e-mails and the fact that my sister Liz was eager to see him, we decided to go. Coincidentally, her resolution is to see more fiddlers.

Opening band the Tillers was a pleasant surprise. An old-timey trio of upright bass and two guitars, with the occasional fiddle, their honest music was toe-tapping and interesting. I’ll be looking for them at SXSW. They had played with Driessen the night before in Chicago, where, one of them explained as he tightened up his bow, “I showed Casey how to play the fiddle.” He smiled at the ridiculousness of that statement. The extent of that overstatement was obvious from the second Driessen took the stage. Once you got past his jaw-dropping suit, candy apple red with a long double breasted coat paired with red and white saddle shoes, it was obvious he was there for some serious fiddling. Even though it wasn’t necessarily my thing, I was thoroughly entertained by the show. Accompanied by a drummer and bass player, he turned each song into a style demonstration. He excused the band for perhaps the showiest song of the night. After a few notes, Liz turned to me “Is this “Billy Jean”?” It sure sounded like it. It turned out to be version that would have made both Michael Jackson and Robbie Fulks (who covers it frequently) proud.

It wasn’t till after the show that Liz mentioned that she couldn’t stop thinking about the Revenge of the Nerds. I hadn’t thought of that movie since the Eighties, but I knew exactly what she was talking about- the finale of the Greek games where Arthur Poindexter with his thick glasses, crazy hair and electric fiddle takes the stage. Driessen may look like a nerd, but he was quite definitely a kick-ass fiddle player.

The Tillers

Casey Driessen

Saturday, February 12, 2011

11 Songs; February 12, 2011; Concertgebouw Brugge

It’s true I traveled to the UK twice specifically to see the Wrens, but it was pure luck that I was able to see Jonathan Richman my first day in Munich and Clem Snide and Andrew Bird together in Barcelona, because for the most part my trips to Europe have been surprisingly short on music. By myself in Bruges for two nights, I decided I wanted to see some music, no matter what it was. The majority of the events in the “What’s Happening in Bruges” guide my bed & breakfast hosts were kind enough to provide were jazz, though there was also some sort of dub concert that sounded even less appealing. The best bet seemed to be the show at the music hall. The relatively new hall sticks out among the predominantly medieval architecture of Bruges. I’m sure they meant it to look modern, but as the brewery tour guide pointed out earlier that day, “it’s awful.” She said they had built it because they were supposed to be the number one city in Europe for culture. “Now I think we are last,” she lamented.

Still, once you got inside the theater, it was easy to forget about the external appearance and appreciate the sound inside. The show promised to be interesting as it paired West African drummers with jazz musicians. Yes, it was still jazz, but I was pretty sure this was jazz I could handle. The drummers were definitely the focal point. Dressed in a variety of styles from traditional garb to baseball hats and blue jeans, the musicians’ boundless energy, complicated rhythms, and wide smiles made them irresistible. They anchored every song with layers of sound created with several sets of drums, hand percussion and a large wooden member of the xylophone family. Since his job also involved playing a lot of rhythm, the burly guy saddled with a sousaphone for the entire night wandered over to that side of the stage frequently, creating a strange juxtaposition.

As much as I loved the drums, it wouldn’t have been a show without the brass on the other side of the stage. Luckily their jazz was not the stuffy kind, but instead an inventive and very catchy kind. I found myself bobbing my head for most of the show and saw others around me doing the same. The quartet of saxophone players made the most noise, but it was the trumpet that really stood out. The handsome, dark-haired, musician was easily the youngest person on stage, but he held his own against the tenor, baritone and pair of altos. One of these alto players, Trevor Watts, seemed to be some sort of big deal, as the tenor player Luc Mishalle who emceed the show (mostly in what I think was French, but honestly, I was never quite sure what language anyone was speaking the whole time I was in Belgium) introduced him frequently. When called on for an explanation of one of the titular eleven songs, he gave it in English and sounded distinctly British.

After the eleven songs were over the musicians returned for a short improv encore led by the drummers before each was presented with a bouquet of flowers. It wasn’t a concert I would have picked normally, but I was definitely happy with my choice.