Sunday, July 31, 2011

WMSE Backyard BBQ; July 31, 2011; Cathedral Square, Milwaukee

Shane Sweeney and Micah Schnabel of Two Cow Garage are two of the absolute nicest guys I have ever met, so why can’t they keep band mates? Original drummer Dustin Harigle quit on the eve of a short tour of the Midwest (including a stop at the House of Righteous Music) several years ago, forcing them to do the tour drummerless. They replaced him with Cody Smith who seemed a great fit for the band till he recently also quit. They told me they have a new drummer but he couldn’t make this gig due to a prior engagement. Even before Smith left, they’d lost keyboardist Andy Schell, which left me wondering who would fix the van. His makeshift mechanic skills were nearly as important on the road as his musical ones. I can only speculate that none of them had the drive and determination that Sweeney and Schnabel do. Even as Sweeney has started a family, the band still tours frequently, and spending long hours on the road for little money isn’t for everyone.

So it was just the two of them, but honestly that is all they really need. It is certainly all I need. Sure they rock a little harder with the full band, there’re more blistering guitars and throat shredding vocals, but I’ll take the two of them trading songs on acoustic guitars any day. It was a big stage for just two people, especially when one would step back to let the other play, and their white T-shirts blended in with the big tent they played under. Both have upcoming solo releases, Sweeney’s first, Schnabel’s second, and they drew heavily from these, so the bulk of the set was unfamiliar. Most of those I did know came from Schnabel’s first solo CD, the excellent When the Stage Lights Go Dim, a reflection on life on the road with its too-late night and too-young girls. “I hardly ever play this song live anymore, but you’re pretty cool, so I’m going to try it,” Sweeney said looking at me. “If I forget the words you’re going to have to help me out,” he continued before playing the first couple notes of the song I knew it would be. One of the first Two Cow Garage songs I ever heard and still my favorite, “Saturday Night” is the story of choosing a good time over someone you love, all the while swearing that “I’ll make it up to you, next Saturday night.”

I might not have even known about this show if it wasn’t for Bloodshot’s e-mail about Bloodshot bands in the Midwest. After seeing Whitey Morgan and the 78’s listed for this event, I checked the rest of the line-up and was delighted to see Two Cow on it. Morgan is a recent Bloodshot roster addition. While they won’t do anything to change the perception of the label as a strictly alt-country haven, they do outlaw country better than just about any other current band. The obvious reason for this is Morgan himself, an imposing man with an impressive beard, you believe he has lived all the hard life stories he tells. In spite of that, bass player Jeremy Mackinder may be the coolest man on stage, his mound of curly red hair a fiery swirl as he plays. The real secret to the 78’s sound, unsurprisingly, is the pedal steel. It’s high and lonesome song adds that extra layer of emotion to everything they do. Live they play mostly originals with the occasional well-chosen classic country tune thrown in. He even dedicated one of these to the Two Cow boys, calling them his new friends, “even though I just met them I can tell they are cool.”

The five piece band filled the stage better than the slight figures of the Two Cow boys, but they had nothing on the band before them. The multiple piece Jambalaya Brass Band played the sort of contemporary Cajun jazz that was perfect for chilling on your blanket on the lawn. Not that you could actually chill, with temps in the upper 90’s, but you know what I mean. The last band of the night was the Budos Band. I was curious, but it had already been a long day at the end of a long weekend. Thanks to WMSE for putting on this remarkable free event. I hope to see you again next year.

Two Cow Garage

Whitey Morgan & the 78's

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Sugar Maple Fest featuring the Shotgun Party; July 30, 2011; Lake Farms Park

Josh Harty had his CD release show the same night as the second day of Sugar Maple fest, but I didn’t make it. I felt bad, but as I see it, it’s his own fault. I was too exhausted to go to the High Noon after spending most of the day at the traditional music fest. I went to see the Shotgun Party, basement alumni and guaranteed good time. They are a can’t-miss show anytime, but even more so this time since it was, sadly, their last time playing Madison. The band is splitting up and following different paths. It isn’t an ugly break-up, they all still love and respect each other, but I guess they felt it was time. Of course I never would have booked the Shotgun Party in the basement if they hadn’t mentioned their friend Brennen Leigh when they first contacted me. And I wouldn’t know the Fargo-born Austin musician if it weren’t for Harty who is also from Fargo. So you see, it is totally his fault that I didn’t make it to his CD release show.

I was planning on seeing both of their sets, one early and one late in the afternoon, but on my way there I got a flat tire on my bike. I haven’t had a flat since my tire was mysteriously slashed at the swimming pool when I was in fifth grade. I was about a mile away from home, and I did exactly what I did after discovering my flat at the pool, I walked my bike home and asked someone to fix it. Then it was my dad, today it was the nice gentlemen at Willy St Bikes.

I’m not a fan of girl singers. My joke is usually “what’s worse than a girl singer?” The answer, “Two girl singers.” But that is not the case with the Shotgun Party. Guitarist Jenny Parrot has a very distinct voice, a girly yodel that fits her perfectly, while fiddler Katy Rose Cox has a more traditional voice, but one that blends with Parrot’s nicely. Parrot usually sings lead, but Cox has a few songs of her own. Some of the best are the duets between the two, like the high-spirited “Great Big Kiss” from their new CD Here’s What You’re Getting. Their set drew from all three of their releases going back such classics as “Gladiola” and the naughty “Canned Peaches.” In addition to the entertainment on stage, we were treated to some very entertaining dancing on the floor in front of it. Foremost among the dancers was a remarkably unselfconscious teenage boy in a tight pink Shotgun Party shirt. He bought the shirt even though it was a girl’s shirt, claiming it was discrimination not to have pink in men’s sizes. When Jenny asked for two volunteers, his hand and that of one of his many dancing partners, and adorable redhead in a yellow dress, shot up. Jenny handed them each a maraca and told them to “go crazy” during “Why When I Cry.” They took her advice and the stage bounced noticeably as they danced around the stage.

The last time they played Sugar Maple, two years ago, Katy had to miss it because she was on tour in Europe with another band. Filling in was the fiddler from the Asylum Street Spankers. This year it was bassist Andrew Austin-Peterson who was absent, having already left the group. His replacement… the bass player from the Spankers. Luckily he seemed to have the wardrobe necessary to play with the Shotgun Party and he looked sharp in red next to the two girls.

The band has definitely made a lot of friends and fans of all ages in Madison. They will be missed.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Bobby Bare Jr with Carey Kotsionis; July 29, 2011; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

It used to be that Bobby Bare Jr. didn’t want to play Madison or house concerts. Now it seems he’s anxious to do both. Not even four months after an appearance at the High Noon, his third visit in less than a year, he was playing the basement bringing with him the remarkable Carey Kotsionis. He’s done several of these house shows recently, playing unamplified in people’s living rooms across the country. I offered him the PA, but much like Will Johnson, he passed, preferring the freedom of not being plugged in. Actually, he had wanted to play the entire show in the backyard, but after I warned of mosquitoes and noise, he was convinced to at least start in the basement. However he couldn’t be coerced to play an encore unless everyone followed him upstairs and out the back door where he ended the night with “Come Visit Me in Music City.” One of my favorite songs of his, in it he claims “the cops all carry capos in case you want to change your key” as he extols the virtues of Nashville. Later people told me they were glad he hadn’t played the whole set out there since they got a night’s worth of mosquito bites during a five minute song.

Before the show I had asked him if he was entertaining requests, from his response I was pretty sure he wasn’t, but at least he asked what it was. Kotsionis claimed that if he wasn’t going to play “The Monk at the Disco” than she would, and she spent the next several minutes trying to figure out Bare’s tune. Turns out it is more complicated than either she or I thought, and it was apparent she was not going to be able to play my favorite song, at least not tonight. Luckily it seems Bare was just teasing me, and he wasn’t even through the first set when he announced after playing several songs from Young Criminal’s Starvation League, “Flat Chested Girl from Maynardville” and “I’ll Be Around,” that he was going to stick with that record and played the song. It is arguably his catchiest tune, and the fish out of water tale which deposits a holy man in a club where a tall bartender offering to sell him blow is the least of his problems was definitely a hit with the crowd.

Much like the night at the High Noon, Kotsionis came dangerously close to stealing the show. The spunky little girl in the dress and cowboy boots played a killer set all her own. When I was introducing her at the start of the second set, I confessed “Don’t tell Bobby, but Carey was the real reason I wanted to do this show.” From upstairs came an accusing voice, “I heard that….” Even though this year was the first time I had seen Kotsionis, it turns out I’d been hearing her for a long time since she’s the voice on many of Bare’s records. I’d always assumed it was Deanna Varagona since that was who I’d usually seen play with Bare live. Once I heard Kotsionis it was obvious how wrong that assumption was. She ended her set with the title track from her debut EP, “Magic Cowboy Boots,” a track that live she prefers to play a capella accompanied only by the stomping of her own boots. Impressive.

Bare returned to play a few more songs to end the night. One of these was “Cover of the Rolling Stone.” The Dr Hook hit may seem an odd choice for him, until you learn that the song’s author Shel Silverstein was a close friend of his father and that Silverstein offered the young Bare advice and opinions up until his death. Bare assembled an all star cast to cover his songs on a tribute CD and was also hosting a free concert in New York featuring many of the performers. It is probably surprising to people who only know Silverstein from his children’s books that he was a prolific songwriter and in addition to “Rolling Stone,” he wrote “A Boy Named Sue” for Johnny Cash. Bare talked more about this the next morning on the public radio show “Whad’Ya Know?” which he had been asked to appear on. When we met the host Michael Feldman before the show he said that he would have like to have come to the show but he didn’t know where it was. Which was too bad, because that might have finally convinced my mother that what I do is legitimate.

Bobby & Carey on Whad'Ya Know

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Murder by Death; July 24, 2011; Wicker Park Fest, Chicago

When I was buying my ridiculously cheap Megabus ticket ($6.50) for this weekend, I looked at Sunday’s line-up to see if there was anyone worth sticking around for. Blitzen Trapper was playing, I like them, but then I remembered how terrible that last record was. On the other hand, Murder by Death might just be worth staying for. I’d seen them twice last year when HHT was on tour with them. And while I didn’t fall madly in love with them, I did find them entertaining if perhaps a little samey. After meeting them all the night before at a party, I was even keener to give them another chance.

Hands down, my favorite thing about them is Scott Brackett. Okkervil River lost one of their greatest assets when multi-instrumentalist Brackett left the band. Their loss is Murder by Death’s definite gain, and his backing vocals, keyboards, accordion and especially trumpet add so much that I can’t imagine them without him. My second favorite thing is cellist Sarah Balliet. The pixie-ish wife of lead singer Adam Turla spends each song as if in a trance, and I do love the cello in rock music. My third favorite thing is that many of their songs are about drinking, how can I not love a band like that? I admit to paying much more attention to them this time than the previous two, and I enjoyed it.

I’ll certainly see them again, especially if tour manager/sound guy/all around awesome dude James Dean (who does the same for Ha Ha Tonka) is with them. Wait, I think I need to re-write that list of things I like best.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Ha Ha Tonka; July 23, 2011; Wicker Park Fest, Chicago

I saw Ha Ha Tonka a lot last year, pretty much once or twice a month for most of the year. This year I will probably end up seeing them even more than the sixteen times I logged last year, but it hasn’t been nearly as well distributed. There was the flurry of activity at the beginning of the year, SXSW, where I saw them a ridiculous six times in four days, my awesome week on the road with them out west two weeks later and then dates in Madison and Iowa City just after that. Now here it was the end of July and I hadn’t seen them in three months. I know, it doesn’t sound like a tragedy, but trust me it is.

It was a sweltering day, the early rain had burned off into oppressive heat, but I still wouldn’t have minded getting there a little earlier than I did. I wiggled my way close to the stage, only to spend half their too short forty minute set praying for the sun to drop behind the top of the stage. It was hot on stage too, but I’ve never seen them turn in a lackluster performance not matter what the circumstances. In fact, that may be exactly what I love so much about them. They always play hard, whether they are playing to six people or 6,000. Bassist Luke Long dumped half a bottle of water over his head early on, it may have cooled him off, but it made him even hotter.

Today’s set was a reverse of what I had gotten used to earlier in the year. It kicked off with debut record classics “St Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor” and “Caney Mountain,” which usually show up as set closers, and ended with “Usual Suspects” from the new Death of Decade, their go-to set opener for the better part of a year. My absolute favorite song “Close Every Valve to Your Bleeding Heart,” a song so amazing I still get shivers every time I hear it, wasn’t part of the set, but that’s OK. I know I will hear it again sometime. Drummer Lennon Bone confessed that he had worried about that as they put together the set list, “what if Kiki’s here?” There weren’t any surprises, but that’s OK too. They won’t surprise me till they finally play “Surrounded” the unfairly forgotten gem from second songwriter Brett Anderson.

There aren’t many bands I could see play essentially the same songs and still enjoy it every single time. But I do enjoy it. It’s been worth every bus ticket, plane ticket and drive.

After the show when the merch was packed up (of course I jumped in to help) and the equipment loaded out, I was offered a pretty special opportunity. “Do you want to go see Chance in a play?” Lennon asked. I’ve met Lennon’s charming brother Chance several times, and knew he had a number of talents, but I didn’t know he was an actor. “Yes,” I replied immediately, “I really do.” We headed downtown to see The Last Act of Lilka Kaddison at the Looking Glass Theater. This was the first run of an intriguing play that had received its final rewrite the day before it opened. Chance played the lost love of the title character as a ghost and in a number of flashbacks, and he was remarkable. We found out later that David Schwimmer had been in the audience, but I was more impressed with the actor that I knew personally.

Chance Bone onstage after the show with one of his props

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Jon Langford and Walter Salas-Humara; July 21, 2011; The Frequency

At first Welshman Jon Langford and New Yorker Walter Salas-Humara seem an odd pair, but on closer inspection it actually makes perfect sense. There are many parallels, Langford formed seminal punk band the Mekons in the UK over thirty years ago, while back here Salas-Humara started the Silos, a critically praised roots rock band. Members from both of these bands have come and gone, but both remain a constant presence. In fact, Salas-Humara is the only constant member of the Silos. Langford has released many of the records from his many bands on Bloodshot Records out of Chicago, a city which he has called home for two decades. The Silos released their 2007 record on the same label. But what may be the main factor that brought these men together is their artistic output not with a guitar but with a paintbrush.

Their techniques couldn’t be more different. Langford creates detailed paintings, populated with images of cowboys, skulls and revered musicians- Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, John Cale, often styling an entire painting after one of his songs, painstakingly fitting the lyrics into the context of the artwork. Salas-Humara paints dogs, Walter’s Dogs he calls them appropriately enough. They are not painstaking, they aren’t even realistic- they have spaghetti legs, tongues hanging out, sometimes two heads- but they are adorable. He has recently expanded his art into other areas- T-shirts, handbags, and stuffed animals- and he even offers “portraits” of your dog. While it may have been the art that brought them together for that first show, it is their camaraderie that has kept them doing these shows, each year expanding to another city.

It was supposed to be an 8 PM show, but at 8 PM they were just starting their dinner at the nearby Tornado Room, Langford’s dining spot of choice for better than ten years. Salas-Humara started the night, playing several songs before Langford made his way to the stage. The show was even more cooperative than the one the year before. There were a couple songs on which they both played guitar, but usually while one was playing a tune, the other tapped on the bongos. Yep bongos, trust me, it sounded cooler than it sounds. Just watching their enthusiasm (especially Langford’s) on the oft-maligned drum percussion pair was a highlight of the show. Both have more than their share of dark songs, but they are endlessly jovial on stage. Salas-Humara in particular has what is perhaps the most winning and infectious smile I have even seen; it lights up his face and the room.

While Salas-Humara featured songs from the Silos’ new release Florizona, Langford mined a group of songs that once were old but are new again. His most recent Bloodshot offering is Skull Orchard Revisited, a book featuring his art and stories as well as writings from his father and brother centering on his childhood in Newport, Wales. Most of these songs were originally featured on the first Skull Orchard release, but they were re-recorded with the Burlington Welsh Men’s Choir for this special release. The Vancouver group is also much cooler than they sound, instead of turning it into a Mormon Tabernacle spectacle; they add depth and beauty to the songs. My favorite of these is the story of how the filming of the epic Moby Dick brought a temporary spotlight to the depressed Newport. “All the locals were extras, all the locals got paid,” it was enough to get me to finally rent the classic. (Spoiler alert, Ahab really is bat-shit crazy and Ishmael is the only one who survives the expedition.) He also delved into last year’s Skull Orchard record, the excellent Old Devils including “Luxury” and “Getting Used to Uselessness.”

Salas-Humara had a number of requests but he honored the classic “Susan Across the Ocean,” a heart-breaking song of loss. I’ve been lucky enough to have had both of these terrific artists play my basement and they weren’t going to let that go unrewarded. During “Sheila” a song of mistaken identity, one verse became “You say your name is Kiki, you look like Sheila,” which made more sense than Langford’s improv suggestion of “Gaynor,” to which he finally added “Gloria Gaynor.” With two sets and a long break, the show went much longer than it should have, but it is hard to complain about something this entertaining.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Hamell on Trial/Galynne & Markondrums; July 15, 2011; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

The ranks of people who have only played the house twice lost another member as Hamell on Trial made his third appearance in just over two years. With a one man show as tight and scripted as Hamell’s you don’t expect many changes from time to time, especially when the shows are less than a year apart, but he surprised me by starting off the night with a half dozen new songs. He’d been writing songs at a furious pace since the last time I saw him, posting one a day to his website for 365 days straight. While the new songs were great and the audience reception was enthusiastic, it seems that people just want to hear the old stuff. The loudest applause of the night was for the songs that he plays every time. And when it came time for requests, it was for those from his Hamell catalog, like “Don’t Kill,” that he plays most every time. But I’m not going to lie, I would be disappointed if he didn’t do “John Lennon” or “The Meeting.”

The first of those tells a story he says is absolutely true, where as a child he ran into John Lennon when he and Yoko were in his home town. The tragedy is that he ran into Lennon literally, and was promptly told to “Fuck off” by his idol. The second could be considered Hamell’s creed and contains some of his best lines describing exactly what it is he does. “I’m like the Beastie Boys except I’m only one,” he claims, later saying “I’m like Nine Inch Nails except I don’t need machines.” The meeting is between him and us, the songs and the guitar, and it features some of fastest strumming. In fact it always amazes me that the battered 1940’s Gibson acoustic has survived the many years of abuse that he gives it. They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

Like the songs, he tends to use a lot of his jokes over and over, but the audience doesn’t seem to mind that either, laughing like they were hearing for the first time. They’re that good. The best of these was one I didn’t remember hearing before about a penguin and some vanilla ice cream. Ask me about it, it’s pretty hilarious. Hamell’s ridiculously adorable son Detroit also told his joke again, pulling the microphone down to his level to tell the one about the UPS man. Yep, that one. The truly new thing this time was that Hamell had brought some of his art with him. The brightly colored paintings often feature a musical theme, and I love my painting of the guitar player with bottles strewn around his feet playing songs to the moon.

I met openers Galynne and Markondrums when they came to my first Hamell show. This time they were joining Hamell for his three shows in Wisconsin. They describe their music as “soulful, conscious, sing-a-long pop songs.” It wasn’t really my thing, but they were lovely people. I especially enjoyed meeting Galynne’s charming son Jordan who palled around with Detroit most of the night despite being twice as old as him.

I suspect Hamell has joined the list of artists who will only place my house when they come to Madison. And that’s pretty cool.

Galynne and Markondrums

Hamell on Trial