Saturday, May 28, 2011

Blake Thomas/Whitney Mann/Count This Penny; May 28, 2011; High Noon Saloon

Blake Thomas moved to Minneapolis in October after spending six years, more or less, in Madison. During those years, the longest stretch he’s lived anywhere since he left home, he released his first three records, made a lot of friends and made even more fans. They all came out tonight to celebrate the release of his fourth CD, the Window and the Light. The songs on Flatlands, his previous release, spilled out him in a very short amount time, the product of an uncertain and emotional time in his life. In contrast, the songs on this new CD were years in the making. While they don’t have the same emotional punch as the confessionals on Flatlands, they are just as strong and demonstrate an increased range in his songwriting. From the Tom Waits-ish “I Just Don’t care like I Did Before” to the excellent “Cradle to the Ground,” this is a different Blake Thomas than the sensitive singer-songwriter we’d gotten to know over the course of three records. For one, he likes to rock a lot more.

And the title track is a prime example of this, an extended jam that well surpasses the five minute mark live and on CD. The all star band, which included Mary Gaines, Chris Wagoner, Louka Patenaude, Chris Sasman, and Josh Harty, that backed him tonight recreated the recorded version well. In addition there were many guest musicians in the course of the evening. Jeremiah Nelson played guitar on “Bad Love,” a song he had written that Blake covers on the record. Nelson also gets a shout out in one Blake’s songs, “Tell Jerry he can have the Mossman when exhaustion takes me.” The Mossman in question is an acoustic guitar from a company that burned down many years ago. Teddy Pedriana added some of his psychedelic keyboards while his Blueheel bandmate Justin Bricco added the face melting guitar solos. On the songs from his earlier releases, the core band of Sasman, Patenaude and Harty were joined by the ridiculously talented Shauncey Ali on fiddle. Perhaps the special-est guest of the night was Blake’s fiancĂ© Mary Fox who took a turn at the microphone for the duet “Let Me Play in Your Show,” a song she had written about Blake many years ago.

Tonight was a co-release show with Whitney Mann who was releasing her second EP. Mann is a favorite of local critics for her sweet voice and sincere songs. Her talented band also included her fiancé Kyle on guitar. At least half the good sized crowd was there to see her, and it was easy to see why she has so many fans. Also on the bill were Madison newcomers Count This Penny. I had met two of the trio, guitarists/vocalists Alan and Amanda Rigell, in my basement for a show there and it was nice to finally see them play. Their third member is a banjo player who lends their Appalachian pop an authentic air. Unpretentious and refreshing, Count This Penny is a new local band worth checking out. How can you not like a band that is named after a Sesame Street skit?

Count This Penny

Blake Thomas and his band

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Sloan/Dearly Beloved; May 26, 2011; Subterranean, Chicago

Dearly Beloved


Friday, May 20, 2011

Theodore/Doom Town/Andrew Bryant; May 20, 2011; Off Broadway

Having only seen Theodore at Twangfest and at woefully under-attended shows in my basement, I had no idea how popular they really were. “You should see us at Off Broadway,” multi-instrumentalist JJ told me once, “we’re like rock stars there.” Now that’s incentive. I have fond memories of Off Broadway. Despite having been to St Louis many times, I’d only been here once, many years ago (2005) to see Chris Mills open for Andrew Bird. I didn’t know Chris at all then, but surprisingly he recognized me and gave me a copy of the yet un-released Wall to Wall Sessions. It would be hard to beat that night, but I was super excited to see Theodore after nearly a year.

I was also excited to pick up my record carrying case hand built by JJ filled with “Theo treasures,” a collection of items contributed by the band members. Mine contained an eclectic assortment, everything from the Kiss 45 “Shout It Out Loud,” its distinctive Casablanca label triggering fond childhood memories, to a doorknob. While charming, I am not quite sure what to do with my treasures should I ever want to actually use the case. All this, plus a test pressing and the actual record, were my reward for a Kickstarter project they had initiated to fund the release of their new 10” record Blood Signs, which their label wasn’t all that keen on putting out. The 10” record is essentially the equivalent of the CD EP, and I am (quite vocally) not a fan of the EP (too short, annoyingly so), but I am a fan of Theodore, so I was in. The songs on Blood Signs are at once familiar and new. “Engine No. 9,” a barn burning rocker, and “All I Ask“ are staples in the live sets, while other songs like “Blues Don’t Murder Me” were brand new.

Theodore has gotten louder and more intriguingly experimental since I first met them. That first set a few years back at the Duck Room was quiet yet intense, though “too mellow” a friend claimed. Andy spent most of his time playing upright bass, only switching to banjo occasionally and only tapping his saw skills on a song or two. Tonight found him on his knees for most of the set, the easier to switch between instruments, including a toy piano and a saw that is now amplified by running it through a direct input. Lead singer Justin Kinkel-Schuster also spends more time on the ground, the power of the music landing him flat on his back on more than one occasion. There’s a lot of the Theodore I met still there, but there’s also a lot more noise. Don’t get me wrong, both bands are pretty amazing.

Theodore has played many shows with Andrew Bryant and camaraderie has developed between them. They were his backing band for most of his set and he helped them out on keyboards for theirs. Bryant has a similar style, darkly emotional yet catchy. His distinctive voice pairs well with Justin’s and their work together was very complimentary. On the other hand, middle band Doom Town was a bit of a shock. Raucous and loud, they seemed out of place with the poignancy of the other bands. Still, their incongruity made for a pallet cleansing.

While it was awesome to see Theodore at Off Broadway, at the end of the night I decided I didn’t need to see them there to be convinced of their status, they’ve always been rock stars to me.

Andrew Bryant

Doom Town


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Graham Lindsey/Owen Temple; May 15, 2011; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

Sometimes I just get lucky. I’d first started talking to Graham Lindsey a year and a half ago about doing a house concert, so when the date we’d been discussing also turned out to be the date that Owen Temple was interested in, it seemed like fate. After all, they both are former Madison residents and they both write folky songs, Temple is a little more country while Lindsey is a little more rock. Temple lived here for only a couple years, and I’d seen him play around town several times. Unfortunately, he left right about the time I started doing the house concerts in earnest and I never got a chance to have him play while he lived here. This was his second visit to the house, and he seemed sincerely disappointed that he was such a small percentage of the shows that I’ve had. His earnest narratives are easy to like, and his southern charm makes him impossible to dislike. The two records he’s released since returning to Texas are among his best, and the new Mountain Home hasn’t left my on-the-go CD case since I got the advance copy months ago.

Temple’s first visit to the house had been last year behind Dollars and Dimes, touring with the slightly eccentric but definitely talented Adam Carroll who has co-written a number of songs with Temple. In retrospect, Carroll may have overshadowed Temple then, and I enjoyed him much more tonight. Then the hilarious and often outrageous songs of Gary Floater seemed to steal the show, tonight they were more of an afterthought, and when Temple returned for an encore, the vote was for more Temple rather than another Floater. However, I am sure I wasn’t the only one torn because there is no debating the hilarity of the songs of their invented anti-hero. They are so funny simply because they are so well-done. He takes everything ridiculous about country music, the patriotic posturing, the overt sexism, and amplifies it times ten. Or maybe less, the next day a friend who had been at the show sent me a link for John Rich’s “Country Done Came to Town.” “It’s like it was written by Floater himself,” he joked, but he wasn’t kidding.

As expected the songs from Mountain Home made up a large part of the set list. My favorite of these is “One Day Closer to Rain” which deals with the very real drought ongoing in Texas where Temple lives. He turned “Big Sam,” a biography of Texas hero Sam Houston, into a sing-a-long, every time he sang “old Sam,” we responded with foot stomps and an echo of “big Sam.” It had been a challenging but thus far lucky tour. They had crossed the Mississippi at Memphis at the point it was closest to flooding, and encountered some bad weather, but had still made every gig and they were having a great time. This tour has been with an upright bass player whose style reminded me a bit of the musician who had accompanied Ben Weaver last fall. Less is more in this case, and while he didn’t play that many notes, he added a lot.

Lindsey’s drummer (and wife) had a similar approach. Percussionist might be a better descriptor as her simple snare and shaker set up couldn’t be confused with a drum kit. However, her rhythm added depth to the songs. You can’t read a bio of Lindsey without seeing mention of his early days in Old Skull, tagged as the world’s youngest punk band. Before they were teens they had recorded their debut at Smart Studios and gotten a mention from Kurt Loder on M-TV news. Lindsey is a long way from that now. Not only has moved to the wilds of Montana, but the music he records these days sounds more like Appalachian folk and Bob Dylan than Green Day. Not only do his songs sound like Dylan (including one on his debut that’s a dead ringer for “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”), but he also has a trademark Dylan drawl in his voice. Accompanied by his urgent guitar or banjo playing, it made for some pretty intense music. It took a long time to get Lindsey out of Montana and into the basement, but both he and his wife said they intend to tour more in days to come, so maybe it won’t be so long before he comes back.

Owen Temple

Graham Lindsey

Friday, May 13, 2011

Will Johnson; May 13, 2011; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

My favorite Centro-matic record is Love You Just the Same, perhaps the most up-tempo record released by the often introspective band. And my favorite song off that record is the buzzing rocker “Spiraling Sideways.” I’d asked Will Johnson a few days in advance of his unplugged house concert if he could play it. He said he’d never played it solo acoustic before, but if he had a chance to work it out before Madison he would do it. It didn’t make the set, so I am guessing he couldn’t make it work. But that was OK, because while “Spiraling” may be my favorite, “Flashes and Cables” was the song that had been stuck in my head for the last week, and that one he played. There’s something very satisfying about hearing those few lines that had been the soundtrack to everything I’d done for the last several days played live in my basement.

Only a few artists have taken the unplugged route in the basement. My very first official house concert was Tim Easton, and while he played unplugged that was before it even occurred to me that I could do it any other way. Robbie Fulks also passed on the PA, but if you have ever seen Fulks you know he doesn’t need any amplification. When Johnson and Anders Parker passed through last spring on their house show tour I was surprised that Parker was doing a tour that way, after all his skilled guitar looping has always been one of my favorite parts of seeing him. His gorgeous voice and acoustic guitar work more than made up for it. Johnson was the biggest surprise. I’d always thought of him as being quiet, but he had no problem projecting in the basement.

His songs have always told stories, and the ones off his new EP Little Raider are no exception, but the stories he tells between songs may be just as entertaining. The best of these was about his time in Bastrop TX where he lived for several years before moving back to Austin. While researching his new home he found that there were several famous residents of the tiny town, but the one that he was most excited about meeting was the professional wrestler the Undertaker. While he never did manage to spot him he kept hearing about his appearances around town. The most intriguing of these was finding out that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had stayed with the imposing figure while on a film shoot. “I would have loved to have been there while they were having dinner,” he mused, “I can only imagine what they would talk about.”

Johnson admitted later he was tempted to use the PA since it was already there, but he wants to keep these house concerts all the same, unamplified and simple. In fact, they are so simple that he says they just might become an annual thing. I think that is a grand idea.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Bobby Bare Jr/Carey Kotsionis; May 2, 2011; High Noon Saloon

I used to think that Bobby Bare Jr was avoiding Madison, probably because he was. Whether it was intentional or not is another matter, but between the release of Bare Jr’s Boo-tay in 1998 (which marked the first I was aware of Junior) and the Bloodshot Records Beer-B-Que in 2009, I’m pretty sure he only played Madison once, opening for Robert Randolph at Luther’s Blues. He’s certainly tried to make up for it in the last six months. He headlined the Frequency only a few weeks before he opened for Jay Farrar at the Majestic in November, and followed that just six months later with tonight’s show at the High Noon. While there was a pretty decent crowd there for his Frequency show, tonight was looking to be a little thin. Monday shows are always tough, and at the posted start time of 8 PM there were only a handful of people in the room.

Opener Carey Kotsionis finally took the stage around 8:40. It’s pretty well known that I don’t like girl singers, but the ones I do like tend to have very distinctive voices, and that was the case with . She reminded me a bit of Shivaree’s Ambrosia Parsley, both have sultry voices that don’t resort to theatrics. Bare told me later that she had been outselling him in merch every night. Most of his fans already have all his releases he explained, but they were all wowed by his opening act. She played guitar and was backed by a drummer and bass player. The three of them returned as Bare’s backing band, with Kotsionis moving to keyboard.

The female backing vocal has always been integral to Bare’s sound. For years that role was filled by Deanna Varragona and her baritone sax. His last tour was the first time I’d seen anyone other than her, as Blue Giant’s female lead Anita Robinson stepped into the role while other members of her band who also opened doubled as Bare’s band. She was good, but Kotsionis was even better. Songs like “Valentine” beg for the feminine touch, and she nailed it. In fact, she may have been what made this set one of the best I had seen from Bare in awhile. Rather than bemoan the fact that there wasn’t a crowd, he did his best to impress the ones that were there. The set contained many of my favorites including “Visit Me in Music City,” “Flat Chested Girl from Maynardville,” and his totally rocked out cover of the Smiths’ “What Difference Does It Make.”

Perhaps my favorite moment of the night was when he played the ridiculously catchy “Monk at the Disco.” It had been ages since I had heard it live and somehow had forgotten all about it. The smile I’d been wearing all night got much bigger when he started the story of the holy man who looks to convert the patrons of a disco, including a bartender who tries to sell him blow, and a girl with blonde curly hair who forgot to put on her underwear. I’m smiling again just thinking about it. Since the band didn’t have a place to stay, I offered them my place. I’ve been trying to get Bare to the house for years, maybe the next time it will be to play a show instead of just crash on the couch.