Sunday, January 29, 2012

Peter Mulvey/Paul Otteson; January 29, 2012; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

After seeing Peter Mulvey in the middle of his bike tour last fall, I was convinced that pedaling all those miles was what made him so hilarious. Turns out, he’s just like that all the time now. Tonight’s show was my favorite of Mulvey’s three appearances in the basement. His first had been one of the Letters from a Flying Machine shows, a very well-done but more scripted affair where he read letters he had written to his nieces and nephews as a means to tell a story and introduce a song. His second, last winter, was an excellent show but almost solemn compared to tonight where his wit was non-stop.

Perhaps the most hilarious moment was when he was talking about Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch who said that gay marriage was like letting someone marry a table. “I agree,” he said, “because my brother is dating a table and when they come over it’s really awkward, because look at our table, it’s working.” He’s always been political, and prone to voice his opinions during a show, but tonight it was with a lot humor. In between off the cuff remarks like that, he wowed the crowd with what he does best, play and sing. His voice, which is addictive enough when he’s speaking, is a drug when he sings. Mulvey often seems a man out of time, as likely to sing a Hoagy Carmichael song as he is to cover U2. The former he did tonight, the latter on his covers record. He drew from his extensive catalog playing some of my favorites, from the tongue twisting, mixed clich├ęs of “Simon Stinson” to the reflective homesickness of “Sad, Sad, Sad, Sad, and Far Away from Home.”

He started his set by thanking opener Paul Otteson and praising his well-trained voice, before claiming that unfortunately that all ended now. Mulvey protests too much of course, his voice is amazing, but it’s true that Otteson’s is a wonder. It’s an instrument all its own, his high notes so perfect and so easy. Last year he released his debut record February Fables at a house concert and he revisited many of those songs tonight. The record is based on a number of Aesop’s Fables, and therefore all the songs have similar names, inevitably “the something and the something,” that I find difficult to keep straight. Even so, the songs are instantly recognizable and the record made my best of the year list. It was a pleasure to have Otteson back and the house.

Paul Otteson

Peter Mulvey

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Los Campesinos!/Parenthetical Girls; January 28, 2012; The Sett, Union South

I always say that I don’t trust lead singers who don’t play, but tonight at the new Union South I came up with an exception to that rule- cartoonishly effeminate singers don’t need a guitar, it would only get in the way of their prancing. The lead singer of Parenthetical Girls was just that, and he camped his way through their opening set like he was the female Morrissey. Their music reflected that influence and bore the imprint of Brit-pop. It was just as catchy as the Smiths, but it was much more light-hearted. Even though the group of students next to me was enthusiastic about them and rushed off to buy a CD after their set, much of the tightly packed crowd wasn’t as passionate and chatted through their set. He did get their attention on several occasions by jumping into the crowd and snaking through it, serenading the unsuspecting on the way. I had to laugh when I saw their T-shirts which boldly proclaimed “The more I get to know men, the better I like Parenthetical Girls.”

On second thought, there were actually two exceptions to the rule tonight. When there are seven people in the band, the lead singer doesn’t need to play simply because there is no need. There was plenty of joyful noise going on even when Los Campesinos’ singer Gareth Campesinos! (in Ramones-like tradition they all have the same band-centric last name) wasn’t playing keyboards or glockenspiel. The last time I saw them it was several years ago at a miserably packed Rathskellar on assignment for the Isthmus. Despite the fact that I hadn’t listened to the CD I bought that night, We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, more than a handful of times since I wrote the review, or heard their last couple releases, many of tonight’s songs were familiar, and they were all inescapably infectious. Their popularity hasn’t waned since then, nor have they skyrocketed to stardom on the heels of the Arcade Fire who made the large band and all that shout/sing so popular. I stayed clear of the first couple rows, which turned into a good natured mosh pit, and even found myself backing up as latecomers tried to wiggle closer, and found myself continuing to back up as the set went on. Not that it mattered, I enjoyed them just as much from there.

This was my first visit to the Sett, the new Union South’s large music venue, and I was impressed. It’s immediately obviously the venue doesn’t suffer from the chronic sound problems its predecessor Club 770 did, it was a cafeteria after all, and they also thankfully dropped that venue’s alcohol-free policy. In its place we have a good-sounding, large, well laid-out room with fast-moving beer lines at the back. I ventured into the balcony to see what the view was like from there. Terrific if you got a table along the rail, non-existent if you got there later. Though it doesn’t have the Rathskellar’s charm, it certainly sounds better, and I look forward to seeing more shows there.

Parenthetical Girls

Los Campesinos!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Tea Leaf Green/Ha Ha Tonka; January 19-21, 2012; High Noon Saloon, Lincoln Hall (Chicago) and the 20th Century Theater (Cincinnati)

This might be hard to believe, but I was out with Ha Ha Tonka for three days and I didn’t take any pictures. It wasn’t because I forgot my camera or that the venues wouldn’t allow it. No, it was because I had my second carpal tunnel release surgery the day of the High Noon show. No sympathy please, it was seriously amazing. Not only did the surgery only take ten minutes, but the numbness and pain that had plagued me for months was gone. Besides in a year surprisingly short on vacation, how else was I going to go on tour if I didn’t use sick time? So the reason I didn’t take any pictures was that it was my right hand, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out to use my camera without it. Besides, you guys have probably seen enough pictures of HHT here anyway, haven’t you?

All I knew about Tea Leaf Green before this weekend was that they were a jam band. What I knew about them after was that they were the good kind of jam band, the kind that sounds like the Grateful Dead. Because if you are going to be a jam band, that is the one you should want to be like. Their songs were catchy and interesting, and it made me want to listen to one of their CDs. They played two, hour plus sets every night with a half hour break in between. While that may be great for their dancing fans, it left little time in the night for the opening band. HHT started fifteen minutes late in Madison because at 9 pm there were only a handful of people in the room. They started fifteen minutes late in Chicago because a drive that should have taken two and a half hours took a staggering six thanks to a snowstorm. We arrived at 8:15, well past our 6:30 load in time.

That meant thirty minute sets every night, which distilled down to Ha Ha Tonka’s greatest hits. They opened with “The Humorist” each night, my favorite song off their most recent record Death of Decade, before launching into a whirlwind set that drew heavily from that and their first record. “St Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor,” “Caney Mountain” and the classic a capella number “Hangman” (which they have done every single time I’ve seen them) all came from their Bloodshot debut Buckle in the Bible Belt. After seeing them the ridiculous number of times I have seen them, you would think I’d be tired of Hangman but I’m not. Besides, they need to play it for all the people who are seeing them for the first time. There is no better showcase for their terrific harmonies. Unfortunately, my favorite record, their sophomore effort Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South, was slighted during these short sets, only “Pendergast Machine” was included. A stripped down version followed “Hangman” with only Brett Anderson’s mandolin as accompaniment.

Each night at the merch stand I met people who were seeing them for the first time and people who had come just to see them. I admire that, but I’m not sure I would have paid $15 just to see their short set. In Cincinnati a group of breathless young girls left right they were done, but made me promise that I would tell them they were amazing. I was happy to oblige. Another thing I never get tired of is telling them how great they are.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Robbie Fulks and Friends “I Heart the Velvet Underground;” January 16, 2012; The Hideout

I’d barely seen Robbie Fulks in the last couple years, but here I was seeing him for the fourth time in just over a month. All of the shows had been completely different, the song swap with Langford, the basement show and the hilarious year-end review, but tonight’s show showed just how far ranging his talents are. I’m not going to lie, I don’t really know much about the Velvet Underground, I only have one barely listened to record and I only know a handful of songs. Another thing that I’m not going to lie about is that I really only came to see drummer Gerald Dowd, but it turned out to be very worth it for the show and everyone involved.

He’s the best drummer I know, period. I’ve seen him play country, rock, jazz and children’s songs (which are really just perfect pop songs), and he is equally good at all genres. And he can sing too, his harmony vocals add a lot to songs by Fulks, Chris Mills and Justin Roberts. But tonight I got to see something I hadn’t seen before; I got to see him play guitar AND bass. For this show the band members, which also included Steve Dawson on bass and Liam Davis on guitar, each selected a few songs they would like to sing, and Fulks pulled it all together into a cohesive night of music saluting the seminal rock band while somehow avoiding perhaps their best known song. Since “Sweet Jane” is one of only three songs I know, I was left with “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Sunday Morning” as the only ones I recognized (and both were great).

Actually that’s not quite true. The friend I was with seemed surprised that I didn’t know show opener “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (which I am guessing is where the festival gets its name), but he seemed startled by the next song. “This isn’t a Velvet Underground song,” he said, looking confused. “I know,” I replied, “it’s Jonathan Richman.” Now this was inspired. They took Richman’s song “Velvet Underground” and in the middle of it answered his question “how on earth do they get that sound?” by going into a VU song. In my mind, that song, sung by Gerald, was as much as they sounded like the band they were saluting all night. He had the Lou Reed monotone that I associate with VU down. If I knew the original versions of these songs I would probably know better if that was true or not.

Perhaps the most interesting was a “song” called “The Gift” from their album White Light/White Heat. The quotes are necessary because it was more of a spoken word piece to an instrumental background than a song in the traditional since. Apparently in the original version, the story was heard in one speaker, while the instrumental in the other. Robbie put on his reading glasses and perched on a stool to read the story of Waldo Jeffers who decided he would mail himself to his long distance girlfriend Marsha. How does it end? Badly as you can imagine. I loved Robbie and Gerald, but Steve and Liam were just as great. I’ve never really been a fan of Dawson’s band Dolly Varden, but after seeing him tonight I might give his solo stuff a try. And Davis, the other half of Justin Roberts’ rhythm section, is always terrific.

As I said, I don’t know much about the Velvet Underground, but this show certainly made me want to hear more. It was another Megabus (or as Robbie likes to call it, “The people’s bus”) trip well worth it.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Weather Duo/Graminy; January 15, 2012; The Broom Street Theater

The Weather Duo

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Hussy/The Arkoffs/Bad Cop/Sons of Atom; January 14, 2012; The Crystal Corner
Sons of Atom

Bad Cop (from Nashville)

The Arkoffs

The Hussy