Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Social Distortion/Chuck Ragan; November 29, 2011; Orpheum Theater

Chuck Ragan

Social Distortion

Monday, November 28, 2011

Robbie Fulks & Jon Langford; November 28, 2011; The Hideout, Chicago

Robbie Fulks has been doing a Monday residency at the Hideout for the last several years. Most weeks he invites a guest and chooses a theme- Steve Frisbie and the Everly Brothers for instance. These shows have allowed him to explore and indulge many of his musical interests, which are far ranging indeed, everything from classic country to Thelonious Monk to an intriguing upcoming show featuring the music of the Velvet Underground. But when one of Chicago’s most recognized musicians came to visit no one was quite sure what would happen.

Punker gone country Welshman Jon Langford has lived in Chicago for almost twenty years; he’s released a slew of records with many different bands, several of them on the Bloodshot label. Fulks used to be on Bloodshot, which released his first three records, and he’s lived in Chicago about as long. Even so, they had only shared a stage once before, and oddly enough I was there. Fulks used to host a radio show on satellite radio called “Robbie Fulks’ Secret Country.” I had been lucky enough to be there with guests Langford and Cowboy Jack Clement, a been-there, seen-that classic country musician who had a wealth of entertaining stories about everyone from Johhny Cash to Jerry Lee Lewis. The combination was a winning one, and it was a great show. I almost would have predicted that tonight’s entertainment would have also featured the music of some old time country star, or perhaps a seminal punk band, but in fact it was all about Langford. Fulks usually runs these shows, but tonight he gave up the reins as his guest took over.

Instead of the usual format, this was more of a songwriters in the round type of event, with each of them taking a turn (or sometimes two in Langford’s case). They began the night with an original song written just for the occasion before moving into their own material, with the other playing usually along or adding backing vocals. The song choice was impeccable, Robbie dug into some of his earliest material, while Langford played many of my favorite songs. Songs like the hopeless “God Isn’t Real” from Southmouth (Fulks) were followed by the sage advice of “Get the Money” (Langford). The highlight of the night was Langford’s “Nashville Radio” sung by Fulks. The undeniably catchy song vividly chronicles the perils of the road to success. If I were picking I would have cued up Fulks’ “Fuck This Town” next, an equally bitter and jaded look at Music City. Another highlight was the title track to Gold Brick, which Fulks called the best song Jon had written, saying, more or less, “in fact you might as well give up now, because that was the high point.” A cover of “Okie from Muskogee” was just icing on the cake

The music was ridiculously entertaining; the banter even more so, with one-liners zinging back and forth. Too bad it couldn’t go on forever, but in fact it was one of the shorter Monday night residency shows, done just a little over an hour after it began. Still, it was certainly worth the trip, especially when I had the luxury of yet another cheap Megabus ticket. With the show starting and ending so early, I was even able to take the bus back that night. I can’t wait to do it again.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Blake Thomas; November 19, 2011; Stoughton Opera House; November 19, 2011

The Stoughton Opera House has hosted some pretty impressive names over the years- Justin Townes Earle, Greg Brown, Junior Brown, Tom Wopat, the Smothers Brothers, and now Blake Thomas. The formerly local musician who relocated to Minneapolis last year was an unusual booking for the venue, located above Stoughton City Hall (which causes some confusion for folks attending their first show here), but the booker is a fan and he was committed to this show. For his part Thomas made it worth the drive, assembling a band of Madison’s finest players- the ubiquitous Chris Wagoner and Mary Gaines on all manner of instruments and cello respectively, Chris Sasman on drums, Josh Harty on guitar, and Louka Patenaude on bass. The latter had played three string bass on Thomas’s most recent release The Window and the Light after a string broke just as they were about to start recording. Nonplussed, Patenaude played the session with the remaining three. He recreated that feat tonight, and it wasn’t even the same bass.

The band dressed for the venue, many of them in jackets and ties, with Thomas looking exceptionally sharp in his “wedding suit.” The perfectly fitting antique garment had belonged to his new wife’s grandfather, or maybe it was great-grandfather, and he had worn it just last month for their wedding. Other than the fact that your butt does get a little sore after sitting on the wooden seats for several hours, the Opera House is a great place to see a show, the sound is terrific and the room itself, renovated over the last decade, is stunning.

Tonight’s show was divided into two sets, each featuring songs from his four releases. The only non-original in the set was an old traditional song. Though after he said it was the only cover, Thomas amended that it “is the only planned cover, but we don’t want to burn any bridges.” The song was part of an unintended trilogy of waltzes to start the second set. Having only realized it as he introduced the third, he told us we would just have to live with it. Thomas and Harty took the stage for the first of those, joined by the band later on. In one of the songs, when Thomas reached the harmonica solo he had an unexpected malfunction and only an odd noise came from the harp. “Well, that was embarrassing,” he admitted before whistling the solo instead. At the conclusion, he tried again and played the harmonica part flawlessly. “I didn’t want you to miss out on that,” he grinned. The show had several lighthearted moments, whenever he needed to tune, he would ask the audience a question, “Quick, what’s your favorite animal? Shout it out.” A very loud “Beaver!” came from stage right. I was about to yell “Kangaroo” before I realized it that was the wrong answer. It isn’t my favorite.

The biggest surprise was probably “Captain My Heart,” from his second release 40 Minutes. I feel like the catchy tune, one of my favorites, has been absent from the live set for several years. All of Flatlands, his third release (and I still think his best), greatest hits were here, “Flowers,” the amazing “You’ve Got Me Feeling Like the Moon” and “Up In Flames.” When the gentleman sitting next to us asked the name of the latter, I mistakenly told him “Flowers,” which is exceptionally embarrassing since I had actually come up with the name for that particular song. The enthusiastic and attentive audience demanded an encore, but I am pretty sure they were surprised by the one they got. Thomas returned alone, and told the story of how when he started writing songs for FAWM (February Album Writing Month), whenever he would post them to the website they would be removed the next day. He then played “Matt Ladish Is On Fire,” a hilarious song that had become the traditional closer during his last month playing weekly at Mickey’s. It was a brave choice, but the audience, most of whom I am sure were hearing it for the first time laughed, a lot.

Thomas certainly proved himself worthy of the Opera House stage tonight.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Features; November 16, 2011; The Frequency

The Features were this year’s SXSW discovery for me. I encountered them unexpectedly at the Rachel Ray party, a party I had mocked for years coincidentally, early in the day, and the combination of a new favorite band and an endless supply of tequila made for one of my best afternoons in Austin. I found out tonight that they were all hungover for that show, I never would have guessed. The band has a fierce energy, propelled by drummer Rollum Haas who makes the incredibly complicated and inventive rhythms he’s playing look easy. Keyboardist Mark Bond’s crazy carnival melodies may be the best use of keys in a band I’ve seen, and bassist Roger Dabbs does more than just keep the beat. They’re a remarkable ensemble, fronted by one of the most enigmatic singers I’ve seen. In addition to Mark Pelham’s distinctive voice, he also projects remarkably well, often stepping off mike for one of their many rounds of “la la la’s.” Don’t be fooled, these aren’t Christmas carols he’s singing, they are intense songs and they pack a punch.

In fact most of the set ignored the slower songs that I think are some of their best in favor of the band’s upbeat music. They blasted through the heavy hitters of this year’s terrific Wilderness, destined to be my record of the year, before playing the slow dance “Fats Domino” for the encore. The intense “Lions” (as in “couldn’t tear us apart”) and the propulsive “Temporary Blues” from previous release Some Kind of Salvation as well as the new “Golden Comb” were set highlights. As I remarked after the Chicago show, even the slightly troubling “Big Mama’s Gonna Whip Us Good” sounded terrific, and a little less creepy, live. My friend seemed surprised at the Wednesday night crowd, which half filled the tiny Frequency, for a band she’d never heard of. All the more surprising because she is a little obsessed with Tennessee, she thought she would have heard of a band from Nashville, especially one with six full length records and this much buzz. Between their electrifying live shows and a song on the new Twilight movie soundtrack, that buzz is only going to get bigger.

Monday, November 07, 2011

AA Bondy/Gold Leaves; November 7, 2011; High Noon Saloon

AA Bondy admits that he wanted his new record be to be even quieter and mellower than his previous two records. And he’s succeeded. While his last two records had a few upbeat moments, notably the catchy “Vice Rag” from the American Hearts record, Believers never comes close to breaking a sweat. I always say there’s mellow boring and there’s mellow awesome, the latter being especially difficult to achieve, the Great Lake Swimmers, Pernice Brothers and Mojave 3 being some of the best. Bondy has always been just on the awesome side of the line, but he is getting dangerously close to stepping over.

Live he slows everything down even more. Songs like the terrific aforementioned “Vice Rag” are slowed to glacial pace, and “Killed Myself When I Was Young” seemed to be in slow motion. The set began with “The Heart is Willing,” perhaps the most buoyant of the new record, and went into lullaby mode after that. The stage was darker than usual, with most of the light coming from the video projection on the screen behind them, which only added to the sleepy mood. Here’s the weird thing, despite feeling like I was about to drift off during the entire show, I still enjoyed it. It wasn’t as good as his last, equally sedate appearance at the High Noon, but it was still good.

Amusingly, Bondy kept thanking us all for coming out on a Tuesday night. No one bothered to tell him it was Monday; I guess they didn’t want to harsh his mellow.

Gold Leaves

AA Bondy