Thursday, March 31, 2011

On tour with Ha Ha Tonka- Day 3; March 31, 2011; The Neurolux Lounge, Boise

At nearly nine hours, today was going to be the longest drive of the tour, and the way it started off it looked like it would be even longer. The rainy weather that had followed us from Portland continued as we left Seattle sometimes reducing visibility on the Interstate to almost nothing. After the rain stopped we were knocked around by the wind, not something you want when you are driving a van and pulling a trailer. In fact, if I weren’t so confident in Brian’s driving ability I probably would have been a little scared, but the night before he had backed into the parking spot in back of the Tractor, leaving it perfectly straight and two feet from the wall on the first try, and I promptly proclaimed him my hero. Eventually we left the wind and rain behind and were treated to some breathtaking views, and I was reminded why I had picked this week of the tour.

No one seemed to be expecting much from Boise and it seemed an unlikely stop, but I guess it is the only way to get across the west without a night off. I was charmed by the Neurolux as soon as I walked in the door and saw a ping pong table set up on the dance floor. Some of the charm wore off once I realized how smoky it was. I’ve been so spoiled since Wisconsin and all its neighbor states passed smoking bans that I forgot there was anywhere left where you could still smoke inside. There was decent crowd and they certainly seemed into the show, even though the night’s total was short of what their friends Murder by Death had done just a few weeks before. Tonight was also my first experience with the “buyout,” which means that if a venue doesn’t provide the meal in the rider, they can give you ten bucks instead. And no, I did not use that money for dinner; I used it on pale ale. It seemed a good investment.

In most cities the band already had folks they could stay with lined up, but since they didn’t know anyone in Boise, I got in touch with the one person I knew in the whole state of Idaho. Matt Hopper blew into Madison several years back and the shameless self promoter had just become a household name when he blew out again, landing in Boise. He admitted his place was small but promised he would find us a place. And did he ever. A friend of his was house-sitting her parents’ place on the golf course and was nice enough to not only bring us back there, but also Hoots & Hellmouth. She got up the next morning and went to work, leaving eleven people she had just met sleeping in her parent’s house. It’s good to know there are other people like me out there. And thanks to Matt Hopper too, it was great to see you.

The view through the windshield

Ha Ha Tonka

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On tour with Ha Ha Tonka- Day 2; March 30, 2011; KEXP studio and the Tractor Tavern, Seattle

It was another dreary day and we had to be on the road by 8 am to make it to the KEXP studio in Seattle by 1 pm. There was some confusion as their slot kept getting pushed back by the very tardy Puerto Rican band that was supposed to tape before them, in fact they were so late that eventually Ha Ha Tonka had their original time slot back. I don’t listen to the radio, even exceptional internet radio like KEXP, but it was still a thrill to get to see the inside of the studio. The recording studio was cozy and inviting, a medium-sized room, walls covered with tapestries and Christmas tree lights. They set up and had time to extensively sound check before their interviewer showed up to record the half hour segment. They talked about the new record and their appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations on the Travel channel, interspersed with four songs which sounded amazing. Later in the van, Brian handed me the disc KEXP had given them, “Do you want this? We’ll just lose it.” Silly boy, of course I want it.

With some time to kill before load in at the Tractor Tavern (another of those venues I’ve been wanting to see) we all split up to find something to eat. Luke, Brett and I ended up at Matador, a Mexican restaurant with delicious margaritas and a terrific happy hour menu. Then it was nap time. It probably looked strange to those walking by to see a van full of sleeping people on a busy Seattle street. Then again, it is a music town so no one likely looked twice.

The merch stand at the Tractor was even further from the stage than it had been at the Doug Fir. This was definitely going to be the weirdest part; I’m not used to being this far away from Ha Ha Tonka when they are playing. Hoots & Hellmouth’s merch guy Phil, who was essentially doing the same thing I was (tagging along on tour and trying to be useful), minded the store for me so I could sneak up for a song or two and take some pictures. It was the same line-up as last night and the crowd was even bigger. This was good, because I’d invited several people to the show- an old lab mate, Mark Pickerel and Ian Moore- and struck out on all counts. Oddly enough, I did see someone I knew, though neither of could remember exactly how. Despite my terrible memory for names and faces, Carrie, who also knows Jess from Milwaukee, looked very familiar. It wasn’t till later that I realized she was right, we did go to Lollapalooza together six years ago.

We spent tonight with their friend Scott, who, in another small world moment, is friends with my friend Nick. Since the last time they had been to Seattle Scott had moved to a different, much larger apartment in the same complex, and constructed triple-decker bunk beds in the guest room just for bands. I wish I’d thought of that.

Sound check

Kasey Anderson

Ha Ha Tonka

Bunk beds!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

On tour with Ha Ha Tonka- Day 1; March 29, 2011; The Doug Fir Lounge, Portland OR

It kind of started as a joke. Well, at least they probably thought I was joking. After filling in at the merch table last fall in DeKalb I said that I would love to go on tour with them sometime. I explained that no, I wasn’t going to quit my job, but I was thinking maybe a week or so. With their new CD Death of a Decade (which is awesome by the way) due to be released the first week in April, I picked the week leading up to its release, a series of dates out west. The drives were going to be long, but this was a lot of country I’d never seen and venues I’d always wanted to visit.

The first of these was the Doug Fir Lounge in Portland. I flew in on a dreary Tuesday morning. I’d heard that usually it just rains for a little bit every day, and the rest of the day is sunny. Not today. The grey pall hung over the town the entire day as a friend drove me around pointing out the sights, telling me stories and explaining that the Willamette River that runs through town inexplicably rhymes with dammit. Even though I didn’t get out of the car, I could see how this would be a very appealing place to live.

Luckily the crappy weather and the fact that it was a Tuesday night didn’t keep people home, and it was a bigger crowd than I think anyone expected. The night opened with Kasey Anderson, a Portland resident with a Seattle based band. Despite the fact that he was a seasoned performer with a strong stage presence, nothing from his set stuck with me other than his drawn out three part joke (which was funny, but didn’t quite justify the build-up) and the fact that he ended his set with Chip Robinson’s “Mylow,” neither of which I had heard of before sticking around the Guitartown party to see Andrew Duplantis play with Robinson in Austin. I’d heard of middle opener Hoots and Hellmouth before, but this was the first time I’d seen them. They had been touring with the boys since California and were with them through Denver, just like me. I could tell it would be a good match. Not only do they have a great energy, but they have an enthusiastic and dedicated following.

The Doug Fir Lounge had been high on my list of venues to visit for a long time, essentially ever since I bought an awesome Guy Burwell poster for a Pernice Brothers show that had been there. It was nearly as cool as it looked in the online photos, the tastefully lit dining room and bar, and the music room in the basement, all looked like they were rooms in the biggest log cabin ever. Their crowds definitely come to party and this was probably the most people I’d ever seen dancing at a Ha Ha Tonka show, though no doubt the infectious songs from the new record might have something to do with that.

And the end of the night I packed up the merch (something I would get faster at each show) and helped load out. No one had offered a convenient place to stay tonight, so we headed out of town and checked into an Econolodge, five of us sharing one room and trying not to get caught. Yep, this is pretty much exactly like I thought it would be.

Kasey Anderson

Hoots & Hellmouth

Ha Ha Tonka

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Greenhornes/Hacienda/So So Radio; March 27, 2011; High Noon Saloon

It was only two days before I left to meet up with Ha Ha Tonka on tour. I had a ton of stuff to do and what promised to be a very long day at work on Monday, so I probably shouldn’t have been going to a show on Sunday night. The good news is that I still got to bed early. The Greenhornes received a big boost in popularity after half their band (bass player Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler) became part of the Raconteurs, a band whose success was guaranteed due to the membership of White Stripe leader Jack White. Maybe it was them, maybe it was me, but I just didn’t like it. Rather than stick it out in hopes one of us would change, I left halfway through their set with no regrets. Come to think of it, I didn’t like middle band Hacienda much either. Their bluesy Stones riffs seemed too slick and calculated. Since most every other person in the place seemed madly in love with them, again I can only believe it was me.

So thank goodness for So So Radio. The local band was easily my favorite part of the night. They play an infectious sort of grungy power pop which reminds me of (and I wish I said this more often) Possum Dixon. The resemblance is even more obvious on their new CD Dustcovers, an assured debut release. As an added bonus, the drummer Sam Arneson bears a remarkable resemblance to Adrian Brody who I’ve recently become just a little bit obsessed with (Adrien Brody not Arneson). I’d first heard of the band after they opened for Ha Ha Tonka last fall. I missed their set (and most of HHT’s since I was seeing Billy Bragg in Milwaukee), but the boys told them to contact me. Despite such high profile gigs as opening for the Hold Steady on New Year’s Eve, they are still interested in playing at the house, and I can’t wait to have them. I just need to find the right band to pair them with. I wish Possum Dixon were still around.

So So Radio


The Greenhornes

Friday, March 25, 2011

Southeast Engine/The Love Shots; March 25, 2011; House Café, Dekalb

I’ve been to the House Café on three separate occasions and every time it is the same story. The crowds are promising early, but once the local openers are done all their friends split. My guess is that it’s because they are underage and it’s a Friday night. It was no different tonight. There were a fair amount of people scattered around the Café’s eclectically decorated room for the Love Shots opening set, but many of them left by the time Southeast Engine started their set. They definitely missed the better band. The Love Shots were fine, well, other than their silly name, but their music seemed pretty pedestrian next to the Engine’s unique folk rock which sounds backwoods but is pretty sophisticated all the same.

I’d gotten an advance copy of Canary (out March 29) from my friends at Bloodshot Records (which took over distribution for the like-minded MISRA label after it looked like it was doomed) and I hadn’t stopped listening to it for two weeks. Honestly, if I worked in a room by myself instead of with four other folks, I literally wouldn’t have stopped. Out of respect for people who aren’t as enthusiastic as I am, I tried to keep it to five or less plays a day. It wasn’t easy. There’s something about lead singer Adam Remnant that appeals to my affection for non-traditional voices. There’s a lot of emotion wrapped up in every word he sings, and it makes for some pretty addictive stuff. It was good therapy to hear these songs that I couldn’t get out of my head played live, especially the lovely “Adeline of Appalachia.”

Live the band’s sound isn’t quite as lush as the recording. The violins and banjo are absent, but the essence of the songs remains intact. I am usually not a fan of keyboards which are too often cheesy, but in this case it sounded like a real piano, and it was awesome. Not only that, but keyboard player Michael Lachman was totally charming, admitting during sound check that his microphone would only be used for telling jokes before going on to tell a few, some of which were even funny. I knew nearly every song in the set which drew heavily from the new record. A few more songs came from 2009’s From the Forest to the Sea which I ordered after meeting drummer Leo DeLuca at SXSW 2010. Admittedly it had more to do with the fact that he had put out Theodore’s Hold You Like a Lover on his own label than it had to do with his band, but I’ve been an Engine fan ever since. Now that I know that the touring band is only four people and not the mini-orchestra, I’m more convinced than ever they should play the basement.

The Love Shots

Southeast Engine