The Up Past Their Bedtime Players featuring Justin Roberts, Gerald Dowd and Liam Davis; March 3, 2012; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music
The last time Justin Roberts and the Not Ready for Naptime Players (drummer Gerald Dowd and bassist Liam Davis) were in Madison to play one of their highly entertaining children’s shows I had a house concert the night before and they stopped by. They stayed for dinner and the first half of the show, and I believe maybe a light went on. We decided that the next time the three of them would do a show in the basement the night before their kids’ show. But then they didn’t come back for nearly two years. Still, as soon as this weekend’s shows in Minneapolis and Madison were confirmed, Dowd contacted me. I already had the Water Liars scheduled for the next night, but I didn’t hesitate, much like I didn’t hesitate when the Bottle Rockets booking agent contacted me the same day. Of course I had to do it.
What resulted may have been one of the best shows the basement has seen. In fact, several folks said it was THE best, and they’ve been to enough to know. There weren’t a lot of people there, just over a dozen, and I knew all of them except one brave couple who probably had no idea what they were getting into. The trio passed on the PA, preferring to do the show unplugged. They opened with a cover, Gillian Welch’s “Hard Times,” on which they all took a verse, the other two joining in on the chorus. “We didn’t write that one,” Dowd (or was it Roberts) explained. “But I know the parents of the person who did,” Davis offered, waiting a second before adding “they love me.” All those years of harmonizing on stage have led to some pretty solid and intuitive vocal interplay, or maybe they just worked out the harmonies in the van on the way down from Minneapolis.
The evening proceeded like any other songwriter in the round night, each one taking a turn, except I don’t remember any other rounds being this hilarious. When it came to Roberts he read our minds. “I know you are all expecting me to sing a lot of songs with f*ck in them, but I’m not going to do that.” What he did play was a song he had written for Dowd’s young son Truman who apparently is quite enthusiastic about trains. “Always Looking for Trains,” was a sweet, quiet, song, with an infectious chorus (I’m still singing “chugga chugga chugga choo choo”). In fact, most of his songs were on the softer side. Which may have to do with the album of lullabies he’s working on, but perhaps more to do with taking a break from the hyperactive songs he plays for the kids. Even his John Hiatt cover, the gentle and honest “What Do We Do Now,” during their round of covers was atypical Hiatt.
As I hoped he would, Davis pulled out some classic material from his 90’s band Frisbie. “You Rule” was a standout track on their debut album, and it sounded great with just him and a guitar. He also played a song he’d never played in front of an audience; in fact it wasn’t even done. He hurriedly scribbled words on a sheet of paper while looking at his phone, finishing it “with the aid of technology.” Roberts claimed he was looking for a rhyme for “I love this girl,” and helpfully suggested “unfurl the squirrel. Davis’s cover was from a band called the Diff, who I am pretty sure is fictional, despite the extended back story he had for them. In fact, I am pretty sure it was a Frisbie song.
Dowd’s cover was the most familiar, a respectful and sentimental cover of the Outfield’s “Lose Your Love” which featured Roberts on xylophone. Dowd was the most surprising of the bunch, mostly because I had never heard a song that he had written before. In fact I had only recently seen him play guitar for the first time. The most memorable of his songs was “I Didn’t Finish Drinking Last Night,” a classic country tear-in-your-beer song that he wrote for George Jones. “So if anyone knows him, I’d appreciate it if you give it to him.” Davis claimed that he’d searched for the song online for months before Dowd confessed he’d written it. It certainly bore the strong influence of Robbie Fulks whom he’s played drums with for over a decade.
I had been begging for a Monkees cover from the Bottle Rockets two nights before, but I never thought to ask these guys for one. So I was taken completely by surprise when they finished with “You Just May Be the One,” a terrific Mike Nesmith song from the record Headquarters. I’m not exaggerating; it brought tears to my eyes. I could not have scripted a better ending to what had been an outstanding and ridiculously entertaining show.