Saturday, August 27, 2011

Orton Park Festival, August 27, 2011
The Josh Harty Band

Great Lake Swimmers

Friday, August 26, 2011

Great Lake Swimmers/Snowblink/The Lumineers; August 26, 2011; SPACE, Evanston IL

The Great Lake Swimmers were scheduled to play the Orton Park festival the next day, but I felt like I needed to see them in a quiet listening room instead of outside with a bunch of drunk Madisonians, especially since I hadn’t seen them in pin-drop conditions for quite some time. So I engaged in my favorite new hobby, riding the Megabus for $2.50 round trip to Chicago, and headed down there Friday afternoon. SPACE is a very nice room, but this is the first time I had been there for a sold out show (good for them by the way), and I was lucky my bus arrived 45 minutes early or I would have been standing in the back of the room instead of in a well-located seat.

First band the Lumineers was a joy to watch. High energy acoustic music with a distinct old-time flair, it was easy to get caught up in their infectious songs. The winning combination of male-female vocals along with mandolin, cello, and keyboards (all handled by the baby-doll adorable Neyla Pekarek) in addition to the standard guitar-bass-drums configuration made them a crowd favorite. They sealed the deal by playing their last two songs from the back of the room, proving that they didn’t any of the modern conveniences of electricity. I should have bought a CD, and I’m still not sure why I didn’t. I was pretty sure I wanted nothing to do with second band Snowblink from the second they started setting up. I don’t mean to be catty, but sometimes you can judge a band by what they wear, and her dress was one of the ugliest I have ever seen. I also questioned the deer horns glued to her guitar, turns out that was the coolest thing about the duo. Everything I hate about girl singers was on display here, I couldn’t wait for them to be done.

Of course it was worth the wait. The Great Lake Swimmers continue to astound me. Their music is breathtakingly beautiful, and while they have picked up the pace on the newer songs, I’m always amazed that something that mellow can be so good. It may be the most difficult trick in the book, and they have aced it. It’s been two years since the terrific Lost Channels came out, so I wasn’t quite sure why they were touring at this point when a new record had to be coming soon. Turns out that was exactly why, they’d been in the studio and they wanted to road test some of these songs before they released it. The new stuff was consistently great, picking up where Channels left off, keeping that record’s more upbeat style while showcasing lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Tony Dekker’s heart breaking/melting voice.

In fact my only complaint about the show was that the only voice I want to hear is Dekker’s but too often violinist Erin Aurich‘s voice overwhelmed his. I like Aurich , she’s adorable and a terrific fiddle player, and she has a great voice (though questionable fashion sense), I just don’t want to hear her. I would almost rather just see Dekker solo, so enchanted am I by him. Wait, I take that back, make that Dekker and guitar and banjo player Erik Arneson, that is all I need. Oddly enough, even though I had come to SPACE to see the band in a better listening environment, the Madison show at Orton Park the next day turned out to be the superior one. Girl’s voice didn’t bother me near as much and the only annoyance from the audience was a woman with a shaky egg who thought she was part of the band. Best of all, I had made a request in Evanston for the next day that he honored.

Last year at an overcast and drizzly Waterfront festival I had embarrassed myself by yelling, surprisingly loudly, for “Imaginary Bars” when they returned for an encore. A surprised Dekker looked at me, and I added a quieter, “please…” He played it solo, and when he got to the line “The sun fell down and went to sleep,” the clouds parted and the sun came out. Wanting to avoid a repeat embarrassment, I went up to him after the show tonight and asked for it for the next day. He smiled, “oh yeah, last year the sun came out.” “That was me,” I admittedly sheepishly. “You got it.” This year he introduced the song by recalling last year’s events, “let’s see if we can recreate that.” Again, he played it solo. It was exquisite. He looked at me after and smiled, “Thank you” I whispered. Thank you.



Great Lake Swimmers

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Hold Steady/The Donkeys; August 24, 2011; Turner Hall

The last time the Hold Steady played Turner Hall they sold it out. Tonight’s show was not sold out, in fact it wasn’t even that crowded. We’ve become accustomed to yielding ten to twenty yards once the band starts. Tonight we backed up only a few feet as the show started. We couldn’t help thinking that maybe no one likes them anymore. After all, the last record got a lukewarm reception from fans who couldn’t quite figure out why after four records Craig Finn has suddenly decided to start singing instead of talking his way through every song. The departure of keyboardist and backing vocalist Franz Nicolay was also puzzling, he had been a crucial part of their sound since joining the band. It was his keyboards and backing vocals that gave the Hold Steady their Springsteen sound, and they seemed to like it that way. For the record, I like Heaven is Whenever, a lot. It took a few listens but it grew on me quickly.

The first time I heard these songs live, in the unlikely location of Hayward WI and the three words I never thought I’d hear “Thank you Hayward!” Nicolay’s absence didn’t seem as obvious. That was likely because there was a keyboard player, he was just hidden at the back of the stage, sitting down and playing and singing backing vocals. This time there was no buffer and his absence was starkly obvious. This resulted in a weird phenomenon, at least for me, the new songs sounded the best while the old songs seemed a little off. Maybe it is because Finn is now actually singing on these songs too, and that is something I’m just not used to. Or maybe it is something else, I just don’t know what. I was delighted to hear songs like “Massive Nights,” the glorious ode to high school, Homecoming and drinking, and the false accusations and petty jealousy of “Little Hoodrat Friend,” and of course Finn’s wild gesturing between “cigarettes” and “eyes” in “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night,” but honestly, the new songs sounded better.

There’s also the matter of guitarist Tad Kubler. It would appear he has a stylist, or at least someone who told him his current cut was a good luck for him. We joked that the only way this was acceptable was if his girlfriend did it, and she was still in cosmetology school. Not that there is anything wrong with that of course, appearance shouldn’t matter, but it was just so damn distracting. Overall, I certainly enjoyed the show but the jury is out on whether I go very far out of my way to see them in the future.

The nicest surprise of the night was the opening set from the awkwardly named The Donkeys. I’ve become accustomed to terrible openers in Milwaukee. Turner Hall has a better track record than the Pabst, where I have to think long and hard to come up with an opener who wasn’t dreadful (the Thermals are the only one I can think of). So I wasn’t expecting much from Donkeys. They had started right on time and were already playing when we walked up the stairs to the massive ballroom. It didn’t take long for me to proclaim I liked them, and only a few songs more before I decided I would buy a CD if it was $10. I stopped short of naming them my new favorite band, the Features still solidly occupy that spot, but I did buy a CD even though it was $12. Most of the foursome sang lead at some point, and their distinct voices made for an interesting mix. My favorite was the bass player who reminded me of a young Bob Dylan if he’d been taking hair styling tips from Lyle Lovett. After the show I encouraged them to come to Madison sometime, and they said they definitely wanted to come back to Wisconsin. I hope they do, because until then I am just going to yell “Donkeys!” at every other band I see. Thanks Hold Steady for introducing us.


The Hold Steady

Monday, August 22, 2011

Matt the Electrician/ Galynne & Markondrums; August 21, 2011; High Noon Saloon

Matt the Electrician (yes, he really did used to be an electrician) is kind of a sissy. He writes deeply sentimental songs about his wife and children, and talks about them frequently and lovingly during his set. Additionally, he plays the un-manliest instrument ever, the banjele, a banjo-ukulele hybrid of course which I was hoping was actually called a manjo. He whistles, a lot. But somehow, instead of all this adding up to a nauseating folk singer stereotype, think the guy who gets the guitar bashed over his head in Animal House, he’s a smart, charming, and most importantly, very entertaining musician.

He hasn’t drawn the best nights to play Madison. He visited the House of Righteous Music on a Sunday and barely a dozen people showed up. He’s only been here once since then, opening for the Weepies for what seemed a ridiculously over-priced show. Someone must have paid the $20 and a lot of them must have remembered the name Matt the Electrician because there was a very respectable crowd for a Monday night. This time around he was traveling with Scrappy Jud Newcomb, who played guitar and did backing vocals. Newcomb is a fellow Austinite singer songwriter and part of the Resentments, a sort of “supergroup” of Texas musicians. I’d expected he would play some of his own tunes, but he took his sideman duties seriously.

I recognized many of the songs, either from the CDs I had or from seeing him as Jon Dee Graham’s “friend” at the Continental Gallery last March. My favorite of these is “Animal Boy” written for his young son who apparently is never satisfied, “You are an animal boy, you’re hungry all of the time, you are an animal boy, you think it’s always dinner time.” At the house he did a terrific cover of Rick Springfield’s classic “Jessie’s Girl,” complete with an extensive and hilarious intro, tonight they sprung the Police’s “Bring on the Night” with no warning at all. It was awesome. I wish Matt made it to Madison a little more often, it is always good to see him.


Matt the Electrician