Sunday, February 26, 2012

Johnny Cash 80th Birthday Bash; February 26, 2012; Majestic Theater

Johnny Cash has been gone for nine years now, but I think he would have approved of this celebration. The organizers drew together a diverse collection of artists, from young up and comer Whitney Mann to the venerable Midwesterners, to pay tribute to the man through his songs.

The night began with Blueheels frontman Robby Schiller. With his much loved band on hiatus, the opportunities to hear his unique voice are few and far between. Appropriately for a Sunday, Schiller chose to draw his selections from an oft overlooked part of Cash’s catalog, the hymns. He related the story of buying “My Mother’s Hymn Book” at a record store 15 years ago. “Johnny Cash does hymns?” the puzzled cashier snorted, “that’s weird.” “Really? Why?” asked Schiller. “Because he shot that man in Reno just to watch him die,” came the response. “So do you also think that Sting is a pedophile and Ringo Starr lives under the sea?” Like Cash, Schiller sings these gospel songs with conviction and gravity. So his fourth and final selection was a bit of a surprise. “I don’t know if this is really a hymn, but it is a Johnny Cash song, so I know you’ll like it,” he said before playing the hilarious “Egg Sucking Dog.”

Schiller was followed by Brown Derby, who just last month saluted the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens on the anniversary of “The Day the Music Died.” In their matching outfits and kerchiefs, they looked the part of a classy country band and played it as well. Participants had been encouraged to choose more obscure songs, so I wasn’t that surprised when I didn’t know “Blister.” They made some brave choices in the auctioneer wordiness of “I’ve Been Everywhere” and the lengthy (and totally awesome) “One Piece at a Time.” That feat was matched by Whitney Mann. “I never thought I would do this song, it’s so long it’s like reading a book,” she said before playing “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer.” She nailed it without the lyrics, I was impressed. Of course, she already had my respect for playing the June Carter Cash song “Wildwood Flower.” Hers may have been the most inspired set of the night. In between there was a surprise guest, Barry Wayne Callen. "That's my god-given serial killer name," he joked before telling the story of how Johnny Cash saved his job. He followed the tale with a song he wrote about the event and his own take on Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" which Cash had covered on one of his final American Recordings.

The Midwesterners have made a career out of playing the works of classic musicians like Cash and Chuck Berry in addition to their original songs, so it didn’t take much work for them to show up tonight and play a long set. They mixed classics like “Ring of Fire” and “Fourteen Tons” with lesser known songs like “Mean Eyed Cat.” Lead singer Richard Weigel shared vocal duties with upright bassist Tom McCarty, who acquitted himself well, and guitarist D Ernie Connor, who admittedly doesn’t sing as well as he plays guitar. Up until this point the musicians had been limited to just four or five songs, but owing to their background playing Cash they were given a longer set. With two artists left to play, I would have preferred a shorter set.

Josh Harty does not play Johnny Cash songs on a regular basis, so I will certainly give him a break for needing the lyrics for his selections, but not for screwing up on “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” It seems it should know this song backwards and forwards, since I’m going to guess he’s woken up “Sunday morning with no way to hang my head that didn’t hurt.” Even so, he did the best job of making the songs his own, instead of just doing Johnny Cash covers. His guitar on “Blue Train” sounded like it was part of his catalog of original tunes. When he invited Whitney Mann back to the stage I was hoping for Johnny and June’s classic duet “Jackson,” but I certainly wasn’t disappointed with their version of “It Ain’t Me Babe.” It was amped up compared to Dylan’s version, but it didn’t quiet reach the hoedown of Cash’s.

The night ended with the Liam Ford band from Milwaukee who specializes in Cash. Like the Midwesterners, it was pretty obvious that they play these songs all the time. They were good, but I was looking for more interesting versions of Cash’s catalogs. Besides, it had been a long weekend. I had worried that much of the good-sized crowd was going to leave but I shouldn’t have. When I made my way out, there were still plenty of people, many of them dancing. I’m guessing several of them were looking at a Monday morning coming down.

Robby Schiller

Brown Derby

Barry Wayne Callen

Whitney Mann

The Midwesterners

Josh Harty

Liam Ford Band

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Steve Forbert/Sam Llanas; February 25, 2012; Café Carpe

The Café Carpe’s charming curmudgeon/owner Bill Camplin began the show by cautioning us that the two acts playing tonight were great musicians who have written a number of great songs over their careers, so while we may want to hear some of their earliest songs, we should be patient and allow them to play some new material for us. I didn’t quite do it justice, but it was a well worded introduction intended to stop people from yelling for “Closer to Free” or “Romeo’s Tune.” Still that didn’t stop people from calling for the latter when Steve Forbert asked if there were any requests halfway through his set.

No one would blame him if he didn’t play it. The song had been a hit in 1980 (it reached #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart), a constant on the radio then, and he was branded yet another “new Dylan.” Though he’s released two dozen studio, live and best of records since then, he never duplicated that song’s success. He must have played it a million times by this point, even so, there it was, the last song of the night. He went into it from another song, so we were unprepared, caught off guard. There was something downright magical about it. Hearing his distinctive voice singing that oh-so familiar song in front of an appreciative sold-out Carpe crowd, yep, magical is about the only word I can think of to describe it.

Thing is, I think we all would have been OK if he hadn’t; the set had been pretty terrific without it. Even so, Forbert is an eccentric performer. There was definitely some OCD on display when he insisted all of Llanas’s stuff be off the small stage before he began, and even though I had okayed taking non-flash pictures with his tour manager, I still half-expected him to yell at me. He contorts his face and body while he plays, not quite to Joe Cocker’s painful proportions, but it did look uncomfortable and some of my furtive pictures were not flattering. But none of that could take away from the fact that he is a truly entertaining songwriter playing great songs.

I don’t know much of his catalog, in fact I only have two records, so I was delighted to hear one of my favorites, “Your Time Ain’t Long” from Rocking Horse Head. It’s a song about living your life and not believing in nonsense like fortune tellers, and it’s catchy as hell. One crowd request was “The Oil Song,” and it was a good one. He says he first wrote the song about an oil spill in 1977, and he’s been adding verses ever since. There are fifteen now. “Don’t buy it at the station, you can have it now for free, just come on down to the shore where the water used to be,” he claims. He encouraged sing-alongs throughout the night, and the best of these was a newer song “Jessica,” where the audience spelled out her name like the most tentative backing vocalists ever.

Forbert looks terrific, his face still boyish, his hair still thick. In fact, at one point when he asked if there were any questions, one smitten female asked “How do you stay so cute?” It was hard to believe that opener Sam Llanas had listened to Forbert as he was growing up. Formerly of the BoDeans, Llanas has aged since I last saw him. His hair has thinned and grayed, and he looked older than Forbert. He still sounded exactly the same though, and I recognized the first two songs as ones he used to play during a residency at Linneman’s in Milwaukee nearly ten years ago. He had just played the Carpe two weeks earlier and I got the feeling this was a last minute addition. He talked about how his songwriting had been influenced by Forbert and even sang a little of one of his songs. “He said I could do that,” he smiled, before ending his short set with the perfect “Far Far Away from My Heart” to prove his point.

Sam Llanas

Steve Forbert

Friday, February 24, 2012

Elliott BROOD; February 24, 2012; Schubas

Every so often a band name just catches my attention. Without knowing anything more about Elliott BROOD other than that they were a Canadian trio, I noted all their shows on my 2010 SXSW schedule. Of course, I didn’t actually make it to any of them, but when I got back home I picked up their most recent release 2008’s Mountain Meadows. I liked it, silently wished I would have tried harder to see them, and put it on the shelf. I didn’t get it out again until earlier this week when we decided to see them instead of the Flat Five, nothing against them of course, but without Gerald it didn’t seem right. I liked it more than I remembered, and found myself listening to it over and over, alternating with the new Shearwater record I had just picked up. It’s catchy stuff, bluegrass-y rock with a propulsive beat and a vocalist who sounds like a less whiney Sam Llanas. Wikipedia calls it "death country", "frontier rock", or "revival music," all of which are close enough I suppose.

So I was a little surprised when they started the set with a hushed number. “That was a quiet, introspective number to start the night,” guitarist Casey Laforet announced before they broke into one of their signature banjo-propelled hoedowns, and they never looked back, from then on it was nothing but a party. Their new record Days Into Nights, which comes out on Tuesday, continues where that record left off, more infectious toe-tapping numbers that everyone should love. On this one I hear hints of the Cash Brothers, another Torontonian band I loved years ago who seem to have slipped quietly away. As it turns out both Laforet and lead vocalist/guitarist/banjo player Mark Sasso both sing, and their voices are remarkable similar. While Sasso switched between acoustic guitar and banjo, Laforet alternated between electric and acoustic. Early in the set he broke a string and rushed to replace it. “I don’t even know if it’s the right string,” he admitted as he threaded it into place, “it was the first thing I grabbed that looked like a guitar string.” After several attempts to tune it between songs on the electric, he gave up and sheepishly found the correct string.

It was obvious early on that the guys in Elliott BROOD really enjoy what they do, and they seem like the nicest guys ever. When I mentioned that to my friend, he replied, “of course they are, they’re Canadian.” Within the first fifteen minutes Laforet had asked three times how we were doing, but it didn’t feel like idle chatter, I think he really cared. And their audience obviously cares about them. It wasn’t packed, but everyone there was completely into the show. They also seemed to be quite drunk and/or Canadian. Sasso seemed surprised to a response he got when he mentioned a theater in Victoria and everyone hooted as if they had actually been there. For the last three songs drummer Stephen Pitkin, who looked an awful lot like actor J.K. Simmons (in a good way of course), passed out metal pie plates and wooden spoons to the crowd and told them to keep time. Many of the recipients took the task to heart, banging on the plates till they were dented and their spoons shattered into pieces.

As I was buying the (white!) vinyl and a bottle opener from Pitkin after the show, I complimented them on their well done merch display and told him I’d be happy to do merch on their next tour. I hope he knows I was serious, I bet being on tour with them is a ton of fun.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Taping the 30 Minute Music Hour with Icarus Himself; February 21, 2012; Wisconsin Public Television Studio