Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Monkees; June 29, 2011; Genesee Theater, Waukegan IL

I was a junior in college when I fell in love with Monkees. M-TV had a Monkees marathon, showing every episode over the course of a weekend. My roommates and I watched nearly all of it, and by the end we each had our favorite Monkee (mine was Peter Tork) and the opening song was engrained in our brains. In addition, we ate so many bags of cool ranch Doritos and drank so much cherry Pepsi that I haven’t had either since. My youngest sister, fourteen years my junior, also fell for the Monkees at the same time. Mickey Dolenz was her favorite, though she didn’t quite understand that he wasn’t still that age. Even though she did eventually figure out that he was old enough to be her dad, she remained a Monkees fan. So much so that she didn’t even hesitate when I told her I told her the ticket price for the 45th anniversary tour. “Of course I want to go, it’s the Monkees.” Sadly, as with other reunion tours, going back to the first revival following the M-TV attention, Mike Nesmith sat this one out.

Nesmith was undeniably the musical star of the band, something I didn’t appreciate till later or I likely would have chosen him as my favorite. While Dolenz and Davy Jones were actors first and singers second, Tork and Nesmith were musicians. He wrote Linda Ronstadt and the Ponys’ hit song “Different Drum,” which still surprises people when I tell them that. He also wrote many of the Monkees best songs. While their hits were written by well-known songwriters like Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka and Carole King, Nesmith’s songs were better and have definitely held up over time. In the show, Tork seldom sang, “and if you ever heard me sing you know why,” he joked the first time I saw the band back in 1986. He stuck to backing vocals or the occasional humorous turn like the silly “Auntie Griselda.” However something has changed since then, and when he took lead vocals on some of Nesmith’s best numbers like “Papa Gene’s Blues” and “What Am I Doing Hanging ‘Round,” he sounded great.

Arguably he sounded the best of the three. While Jones sounded basically the same, Dolenz seemed to be trying too hard, like he was putting on his opera voice and oversinging every song. That ruined beautiful songs like “Sometime in the Morning,” while one like “Going Down” fared better since its James Brown style scat singing kept him in check. Jones’s songs were always the silliest, and sometimes verged on nauseatingly saccharine like the ridiculous “I Want to Be Free” with its absurd plea, “Don’t say you love me, say you like me.” Luckily we were spared the dreadful “On the Day We Fall in Love.” While those songs can be tedious, it is impossible not to be charmed by him on lighter songs like “Cuddly Toy” and “She Hangs Out.” Plus, he definitely still has his sense of humor. When they took the stage he quipped, “I’m Davy Jones’s Dad, Davy will be out later.” In addition to the three Monkees a backing band of nearly a dozen members filled the stage. While they played, a big screen behind them showed scenes from the series. Instead of being distracting, it actually enhanced the show, and I left with an overwhelming desire to go home and watch every episode (a feat I half-heartedly attempted the following Sunday). One of the more amusing segments strung together clips of Davy with stars in his eyes, a frequent occurrence since he fell in love every week.

During their heyday the Monkees took a lot of heat for not playing their own instruments, which seems a silly criticism of a band that was made for TV. Eventually they did win the right to do an entire record themselves, that record and accompanying movie Head left a lot of people scratching theirs. These songs were never featured in any episode of the show and are entirely unfamiliar to me (and likely much of the audience), so I was surprised (in an admiring way) when they dedicated a portion of their set to these songs, notably “The Porpoise Song.” But that was almost the only thing I didn’t know. Gina looked at me shocked when they announced one song as Paul Williams’ “Someday Man.” “I don’t know this one,” she admitted, and I didn’t either. Otherwise the set was nothing but sing-a-longs, saving the biggest hits for the end. Defying those early critics, they all played instruments during the show. Peter played on nearly every song, switching between keyboard, guitar and banjo. Dolenz was behind the kit on many songs, there was a second drummer, and they played together in perfect time. Jones, who once appeared on Paul Schaeffer’s Top Ten Tambourine Players of All Time list three times (with the Monkees, solo and with the Monkees reunion), mostly stuck to percussion, maracas and tambourine, but he did pick up an acoustic guitar on accession, though he looked slightly uncomfortable with it.

It was a little cheesy at times, and the jokes seemed scripted and sometimes awkward, but it was a completely enjoyable experience. And for three guys looking at seventy, they put on a pretty great show. When the fiftieth anniversary show comes around I’ll be there, and I’m sure Gina will be with me.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Theodore; June 28, 2011; Bremen Cafe, Milwaukee

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Chris Mills/Theodore/Trapper Schoepp & the Shades; June 26, 2011; High Noon Saloon

Trapper Schoepp & the Shades


Chris Mills

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Theodore; June 25, 2011; Cranky Pat’s

After I booked Chris Mills a show in Madison, I immediately thought of Theodore to round out the bill. The St Louis based band has been an instant favorite of mine since I first saw them at Twangfest in 2009. Of course, it wouldn’t be worth it for them to come up just to play a show with Chris, so I decided to ask my friend Trevor Lee Hopkins who books for Cranky Pat’s in Neenah if he would be interested in having them play. He responded enthusiastically, which confused me initially since I was surprised he had heard of them. Turns out they had played the Mill in Iowa City back when he was still booking there, and he couldn’t wait to book them again. I wasn’t quite sure how we would get people out to see a band most of them had never heard of. Then I got an e-mail from Trevor, apparently local hero Corey Chisel wanted that night, and did I think it would be OK if Theodore opened. While I am not the biggest Chisel fan, I couldn’t think of anything better, at least I knew there would be people there.

Not only were there people there, but it was a sold out show. And everyone got there on time, so Theodore took the stage to a packed house. Since the record release in May, founding member and drummer Jason had left the band. (While I miss him terribly, it is much easier to cook for the band now that I don’t have to worry about a vegan.) They had a replacement drummer already, but he was unable to make the tour. The solution was their friend Matt Pace, a keyboardist and trumpet player for the band Rats & People. While they all seemed to think it wasn’t going to be near the quality that I was used to, I thought Matt did an awesome job and I never would have guessed he wasn’t a drummer. As a bonus, he also had a keyboard set up next to the drum kit and a pocket trumpet that he pulled out to add to the two part horns of JJ on trombone and Andy on trumpet. I’d never seen one before, but this one that JJ found on E-bay is the cutest little trumpet I’ve ever seen.

Theodore has gotten louder and more intense since I first met them, moving away from the mellow, high and lonesome sound of their first records toward a more forceful sound, drenching the songs in feedback and noise before pulling back to a clean melody. As Michelle likes to call it, they’re rocking more. While I miss the tranquil sound of their earlier work, the current material is undeniable and powerful. Lead singer Justin Kinkel-Schuster is the epicenter of this storm, his emotional voice drawing the audience in. After their set, I heard many compliments, “a breath of fresh air” someone told me, and even sold a few CDs, while just as many people asked if they were on iTunes (they are). Before and after the show they got all the pizza (Cranky’s has amazing pizza) and drinks they wanted, a bonus for a band on the road counting every dollar. Overall I couldn’t have asked for a better gig for them, many thanks to Trevor to making this happen.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Chris Mills/The Faders/Magnolia Summer; June 24, 2011; The Hideout, Chicago

Bottle Rockets guitarist John Horton had been telling me about Magnolia Summer, the other band that he’s in, and how it was different from the Bottle Rockets. From what he said I wasn’t really sure whether or not I would like them since I believe he mentioned King Crimson in his description, which to me is synonymous with nerdy guitar rock. Whether that is true or not, I liked Magnolia Summer quite a bit, and much of the reason for that was Horton’s guitar work. In Magnolia Summer he stretches out a bit, taking long solos that he doesn’t get much of a chance to do with his main gig. The band isn’t breaking any new ground, but they do what they do very well. For lack of a better description, I would call it a St Louis sound, recalling bands like Son Volt with their instantly familiar melodies and lead singer Chris Grabau’s likeable voice.

They were the first band of a very solid line-up on a Friday night at the Hideout. Having played with Chris Mills the night before at Off Broadway, they went on the road to do it again tonight. Next up were the Faders, the new project from Head of Femur’s Matt Focht and Colby Stark. I would have expected they were on this bill thanks to Fader keyboardist Dave Max Crawford (who I teasingly called a ringer due to his impressive Chicago music pedigree) who has played with Mills frequently over the years both as a member of the City that Works, Chris’s “big” band that includes horns and a string section, and in smaller ensembles, but it was actually Faders bass player Dan Dietrich who was responsible. Dietrich owes what a friend of his called “the coolest studio ever,” Wall to Wall Studio where Chris recorded the Wall to Wall Sessions straight to two track in three days back in 2005. This was their second show, though you would never guess, they were tight and polished. It’s Focht’s distinctive voice that makes the band great, much as he was the driving force behind Femur. Stark’s backing vocals and sunny disposition add color.

Many of Chris’s Chicago gigs are one offs, scheduled around holidays and visits back home, but tonight’s show came toward the end of a full-fledged tour. He left New York the week before, heading west playing shows in support of Heavy Years 2000-2010. The retrospective collects tracks from his last three releases, in addition to a few new and unreleased songs, making it essential for completists like me. Inexplicably it omits the title track to his perfect record The Silver Line, despite the fact that in my opinion it is one of the ten best songs ever written (though surprisingly it’s not even my favorite song of his). This made for a more varied set list than I’d heard recently. Though Kiss It Goodbye’s “Signal to Noise” usually makes the set, often as a closer, many songs from his back catalog don’t get played live. He excused the rhythm section to play a short solo set which included the excellent request “Crooked Vein.” The Silver Line’s “Suicide Note” received a not entirely unexpected guest spot from Crawford who stepped to the stage with his trumpet just in time for his distinctive solo.

I was disappointed, as I always am, that Gerald Dowd was not going to be behind the kit, but at least this tour’s “not Gerald” drummer was Son Volt’s very worthy Dave Bryson. A week into the tour he seemed to have settled into the role, and was generally excellent, though some of the songs seemed faster than I’ve heard them before. (Admittedly that may not be his fault.) Long time bass player Ryan Hembrey was of course on board, but for the first time he was standing to the right of Chris instead of on his left. When you’ve seen Chris as many times as I have, that is more discombobulating than you would expect. It was a great set, and there were many times that I found myself blissfully happy to be there, unable to stop smiling. Which was a pretty great feeling, especially when you’ve seen Chris as often as I have.

Magnolia Summer

The Faders

Chris Mills