Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Features; March 29, 2012; The Rave Bar

The best thing about the Pabst Theater emerging as Milwaukee’s go-to venue several years ago was that it meant I never had to go to the Rave again. Most shows that used to be in the dark bowels of the gigantic and overwhelmingly creepy building are now hosted in the Pabst’s lovely theater, where you can get a PBR tall boy for three bucks instead of paying six for a cup of MGD. Since the Rave had switched to presenting mostly metal and rap, I figured I would never have to go there again. In fact, I don’t think I had been there since Chris Mills opened for Ben Folds upstairs in the ballroom. Yet here I was pulling up at show time outside the massive structure which seemed especially desolate tonight. There wasn’t any security, and I didn’t get wanded, in fact, I wandered around a bit before I someone pointed me to the door I was supposed to go in. And they let me bring my camera in. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.

The show was in the Rave bar, the smallest of the many venues housed in the building. It was a “New Music” night sponsored by 102.1 WLUM, and I’m sure like me most of the folks there had gotten free tickets. They may be my new favorite radio station- when I told them I wouldn’t be able to pick up my free tickets during business hours since I live in Madison, they mailed them to me. Sweet. It seemed a bit funny to call the Features “new music” when they’ve been a band since 1994 and their most recent release, 2011’s terrific Wilderness, was their sixth, a point that was not lost on the DJ who thanked us for coming to the show. Besides, it is nice to see them getting recognized for being awesome. The openers were a local band, two girl singers, a drummer, catchy tunes, and better than I expected. They had definitely brought some people out to the show and they enthusiastically sang along and snapped pictures on their iPhones. And they stuck around. Despite the relatively decent crowd, the Features looked like they thought maybe this was a bullshit gig as they set up their gear.

That thought was gone as soon as they jumped into the first song. From the second they started playing they were brimming with the energy that makes their shows amazing. Bass player Roger Dabbs never stopped moving and effortless drummer Rollum Haas, the not-so-secret weapon of the band, was a blur. I didn’t get a decent picture of either of them the whole night. Even though I had been listening to Wilderness (my favorite record last year) on repeat in my car for, um, a long time, the songs sounded as fresh as ever. Even my least favorite song on the record “Big Mama’s Gonna Whip Us Good” was great, due to my realization that “Big Mama” is Mother Nature and they are talking about global warming and our destruction of the planet, not some sort of creepy punishment, an a-ha moment I had reached on the car ride there. I’d been singing along for months without really listening to what I was saying. I wasn’t the only one singing along tonight. I was surprised to see that much of the crowd knew the words.

In addition to songs from Wilderness a few older songs also made the set list. The haunted”Lions” from Some Kind of Salvation was extra terrific. “Temporary Blues,” which asks rhetorically “my God what have I done?” about a temp job, became a little more real tonight when lead singer/guitarist Matt Pelham introduced the song by saying it was about working in a Pillsbury toaster strudel factory. I wish I knew whether or not that was true. They are easily one of the most consistently entertaining live bands out there. When I had to miss their Madison show the night before because of a late volleyball game, I didn’t even hesitate to drive to Milwaukee the next night; I knew it would be worth it. I only wish I could have seen more of their Midwest shows. Judging by the line to buy merch after the show, I was not the only satisfied customer. Hmm, I wonder if they need a merch girl? I work cheap (i.e. free…)

The Features

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Peter Case Band/Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express/Summer Twins; March 24, 2012; Shank Hall

Chuck Prophet was all over SXSW this year, but I missed every set, including the Twangfest party which I totally intended to be at. I adore Prophet, but I wasn’t too worried since I knew I’d be seeing him the week after I got back. I am not a huge fan of Shank Hall, the set-up often seems awkward and their no pass out policy seems ridiculous, but I go there when I need to. Prophet also seemed a little unsure about the venue, joking that it felt like he was playing some sort of weird private show for a secret audience. It certainly wasn’t a secret as I ran into several people I knew, some also from Madison. The co-headlining show with the Peter Case Band was a result of two tours crossing paths in Milwaukee. And it seemed like we were pretty lucky to be there.

The Peter Case band was scheduled to be Peter Case and Paul Collins (his bandmate in the Nerves) doing the songs of the Nerves, the Plimsouls and one of Collins’ old bands. They played several times around Austin, but I missed those shows too. A funny thing happened on the way to Wisconsin, Collins got kicked off his own tour. I don’t know the details, but Collins was left behind and Case continued on with the Milwaukee based rhythm section that had been Collins’s. Tim Schwegler was joining them on guitar for the next leg of the tour, and this was his first night. It was hard to tell exactly what was wrong with the band, but it sounded off. I thought it was the band, while a friend thought it was Case. We had been standing up close during Prophet’s set but I was having a hard time with the sound there. I moved back but it was only slightly better. Overall, it was a little disappointing. Additionally, I’ve decided I prefer Case’s bluesy folk, like he played at the house last fall, to his power pop.

Their job was made even harder by following Prophet, a consummate performer who has never disappointed me. He was on again tonight, blazing through songs from his excellent new record as well as some old classics. My only quibble, which I didn’t even realize till later, was the lack of any songs from 2010’s sublime record Let Freedom Ring. That record was colored by the recording sessions in a “state of the art” studio in Mexico City where power outages were a daily, sometimes hourly, occurrence. The new record stayed much, much closer to home, Temple Beautiful is a love letter to his hometown of San Francisco. Ably aided as always by his top notch band, which features his lovely wife Stephanie Finch as well as guitarist James DePrado and bassist Kevin T. White, he turned in a killer, if way too short, performance. The new face in the band belonged to drummer Kyle Caprista, a handsome guy who looked like he could be Chuck’s brother. And by that I actually mean Chuck Bartowski (of the NBC series Chuck), not Prophet.

New record highlights included the title track, “The Left Hand and the Right Hand” and the super catchy duet with Finch “Little Boy/Little Girl.” Prophet introduced Finch for a solo song of her own by saying that “like everyone else, Stephie has a CD out.” The track she chose was the same she played last time through Milwaukee, but I’ll admit “Tina Goodbye” is a pretty good song. As always, Prophet introduced the somewhat nonsensical “You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)” as something that may be too heavy for us to handle. It’s not. I still hold on hope for a Mission Express house concert one of these days, and that dream was buoyed by the fact that I got a double take and I friendly hi from Prophet earlier in the night. Now that he knows me he can’t say no, right?

Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express

Peter Case Band

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Jon Dee Graham & Friend; March 18, 2012; Continental Club Gallery

The first year I went to SXSW I booked my return ticket for Monday simply because it was a lot cheaper than going back on Sunday. Though there is never much music on the Sunday of SXSW weekend, 2009 just happened to be the year that Jon Dee Graham started his Sunday night “and friend” residency at the Continental Club Gallery. Located upstairs from the legendary Austin club, the Gallery only holds 49 people and it feels like the musicians are playing in your living room. Since it was the first year and everyone was in town, friend became plural very quickly as a parade of who’s who of musicians sat in with Jon Dee for a song or two, sometimes playing one of his tunes, but more often playing one of their own.

In the years since I have stayed that extra day just for this show. The second year his friend was Matt the Electrician whose lighthearted earnestness paired well with Jon Dee’s skepticism. The third year Kelly Willis took the hot seat, and though she wasn’t exactly prepared for Jon Dee’s challenges (“play the most recent thing you wrote” or “play something that will break my heart”), she was adorable and effervescent. An interesting thing has happened along the way. Sunday night has always been the night for Alejandro Escovedo’s big gig, a thirteen hour show downstairs at the CC with a waiting line that increases proportionately to the hours it has been going on. That first year I walked into the gallery just as the show started, this year if you weren’t in line by 7:30 (a half hour before doors, an hour before the show), you weren’t getting in. Meanwhile the line for Al’s show was short or nonexistent. The one perk of waiting in line was that we were standing right in front of the venue’s open front doors and caught nearly all of Jesse Malin’s set.

Tonight the friend was again plural with several guests joining in until no more would fit. The night started with recent New West signees The Mastersons, a duo consisting of ubiquitous sideman and guitar hero Chris Masterson and his wife Eleanor. We had kinda sorta heard them during the chaos and ultimate disappointment of the Bloody Mary Morning Thursday at the Moody Theater, but I didn’t appreciate them at all. Tonight was better. The pair played songs from their new record, Chris on guitar, Ellie on guitar or violin. And it was quite enchanting. After thirty minutes or so sparring with Jon Dee, they scooted their chairs back to make room for Mike June, who is also a booking agent. Though he said he wished Jon Dee hadn’t mentioned that in a room full of musicians. I’ve exchanged many an e-mail with June booking last summer’s Jon Dee show and the upcoming Hobart Brothers show and I never knew he played till recently. The cautionary tale “Don’t Go Down to Newark” was a blast.

Chuck Prophet had been sitting up front, quite obviously enjoying the show, when it was his turn to join in. Jon Dee suggested he play “the Halloween song” (“Halloween in Castro”), but Prophet had other plans. He started with “The Left Hand and the Right Hand” about a famous pair of gangster brothers, which he dedicated to all brothers, naming off a few pair “Dave and Ray,” “Phil and Dave” and those guys from Oasis. His terrific new record Temple Beautiful is a love letter to his home city of San Francisco and a frontrunner for my record of the year.

For his next track he called his wife Stephanie Finch up for the catchy duet “Little Boy, Little Girl.” The Mastersons had been joining in quietly up until this point, but Ellie saw her moment when Finch sang the line “Little boy, little boy, can you tune a violin?” She stepped in with a gorgeous violin line that brought a giant smile to Prophet’s face. Finch returned to her seat but Prophet stuck around to play with the evening’s next guest, Garland Jeffries. I’d never heard of him before Thursday and here he was again. Jeffries played two very pretty songs, much mellower than his high energy set at the Gingerman, before giving up his seat to Alejandro Escovedo, who snuck upstairs to play a few songs while his own show continued downstairs. Prophet and Escovedo have worked together frequently, so Prophet was right at home adding fiery guitar licks to Escovedo’s songs.

The time goes quickly up in the Gallery and despite the fact that there were still more musicians Jon Dee could have called on, he wrapped up the night with the always charming Matt the Electrician. After he finished, the thunderous applause for a terrific evening worth of music dictated that there be at least one more song. And that song was, of course, “Dreaming of Muhammad Ali,” a song of hope that Jon Dee likes to send audiences off with. Since there was a shortage of guitar cables at this point he played his acoustic up by the mike. When it came time for the solos, he assigned them, “Chuck your solo is hope, Matt yours is faith, and Mastersons, you have teamwork.” I never stopped smiling. It was a terrific night of friends, and a great night of music.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

SXSW 2012; March 14-20; Austin TX

Year four. The list worked so well last year I’m going to use it again.

Most amazing showcase set- M. Ward at the Congregational Church on Wednesday. I drank way too much at the Guitartown/Conqueroo party early in the day but miraculously sobered up enough to make it over to the church for M Ward that night. He did several songs solo, many of them new, before calling out his band for the rest of the set. Highlights were new song “The First Time I Ran Away” and the always awesome “Chinese Translation,” plus bonus guest appearance from Chris Scruggs. Being badge-less and wristband-less I got there two hours before he played to make sure I got in. It wasn’t necessary, but I did get to see terrific sets from truly awesome and adorable Tristen (yes, a girl) and handsome and charming Irishman Foy Vance.

Most amazing day party set- Zeus at the Dizzy Rooster on Thursday. Zeus was my must see at this year’s SX. I fell in love with them when they played a show in Madison with Jason Collett (they used to be his backing band) and I’ve been waiting to see them again ever since. It was a short set, day parties always are, but I sang along to nearly every song. The ones I didn’t know will be on their new record Busting Visions which comes out March 27. Their CD release tour will keep them in Canada, but it might just be time for a road trip north. I did give one of them my card, and implored him to play my basement, after all Madison isn’t that far from Canada.

Best party line-up- Tough call, I didn’t really stay in any place long enough this year. Guitartown/Conqueroo was theoretically great, Jon Dee, Hobarts, Silos, Steve Poltz, and even Thomas Dolby, but like I said, I drank way too much. A random stop at the Blurt party at the Gingerman on Thursday resulted in the solid line-up of Joe Pug, Jon Langford and Skull Orchard, Rosie Flores and Garland Jeffries.

Best party- Bloodshot party at Yard Dog on Friday. I love selling merch, and luckily the nice folks at Bloodshot like to let me sell merch. It was a little weird without my boys Ha Ha Tonka there, but I still had a blast. Plus, being merch girl got me to the front of the line every time I needed a beer.

Most disappointing party- I want to say Rachel Ray’s Feedback, but the truth is even though we stood in line for two hours and never got any food, we did have three margaritas and a beer and we got to see Imagine Dragons. They weren’t the Features, but they were quite enjoyable and they did have the biggest bass drum ever… which they offered to give away to the first person who got completely naked. No one did, but I’m guessing after a few more hours of free booze they would have had some takers. No, the biggest disappointment was the Bloody Mary Morning at the ACL Live Moody Theater. We did get a decent breakfast taco but they ran out of Bloody Mary tickets right before we got in, only to get more as we were walking out.

Biggest disappointment- Being stranded on the sidewalk in line outside the Belmont for almost all of the Features set at the Do 512 party. If I’d realized they were giving away free booze all day I would have gotten there earlier. To drink some of it of course, but also to make sure that I saw more than the last song.

Band I saw the most- I wish it had been Zeus or the Features or Great Lake Swimmers, but surprisingly I didn’t see anyone more than twice and those were all Bloodshot bands. Without a focus like the Wrens or Ha Ha Tonka I think I distributed my time better.

Band I wish I’d seen- Shearwater and Ian Moore. They were the only ones on my list that I didn’t see at all. I had just seen Shearwater here a month ago, but that was why I really wanted to see them again, they were awesome. I did see Moore, but only on the sidewalk outside the Continental on Sunday. He didn't play as much as past years, and his showcase was Tuesday night before I even got to town.
SXSW 2012 Day 4
Rachel Ray Feedback @ Stubb's
Imagine Dragons

The Launch Pad @ Peckerheads
Great Lake Swimmers

The Big One @ the Belmont
The Features

Bloodshot Records showcase @ Red-Eyed Fly
Deadstring Brother

Maggie Bjorkland

Cory Brannan

Thursday, March 15, 2012

SXSW 2012 Day 2
Riot Act Media @ Swan Dive
The Pharmacy

Nick Jaina

Red Gorilla @ Dizzy Rooster

Blurt party @ the Gingerman
Joe Pug

Skull Orchard

MISRA showcase @ Frank
Water Liars

Black Swans


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