Sunday, April 29, 2012

Fountains of Wayne/Nicole Atkins; April 29, 2012; High Noon Saloon

The last time I saw Fountains of Wayne I was not impressed, granted I missed half the set for a volleyball game, but I felt like they really didn’t want to be there. Whether that was true or not, it didn’t make me run out and buy a ticket for the show this time around. I waited till day of to make my decision, only to find out that it was supposedly very close to selling out. Those rumors were exaggerated, but it was a good sized crowd on a Sunday night. The truly surprising thing wasn’t that it was a big crowd, no, the surprise was that they were so old. And I’m not talking old like I am, I’m talking thinking about retirement old. Apparently, the main crowd for the band whose biggest hit was about a crush on the mom of a schoolmate turns out to be not the kids from whose point of view the story is told, but their parents.

Fountains of Wayne started their career with a string of three nearly perfect pop records, their self-titled debut (1996), Utopia Parkway (1999) and the truly sublime Welcome Interstate Managers (2003). The records since have been hit or miss, I haven’t listened to the disappointing Traffic and Weather (2007) more than a handful of times, but last year’s Sky Full of Holes marked an improvement. It seems they agree with that assessment, because they picked their set list perfectly, leaning heavily on those first three records and picking the best from the new release. I couldn’t have been happier. The set included such great songs as “Denise,” “Leave the Biker,” “Bright Future in Sales,” “Winter Valley Song,” and “Little Red Light.” They chose wisely from Sky, especially since the sweet “A Road Song” name checks Wisconsin and Green Bay, while the cautionary “Richie and Ruben” may be the catchiest on the record. The ridiculously infectious “Hey Julie” from Interstate featured three audience members doing a very good job on the percussion that drives the song.

They turned their big hit “Stacy’s Mom” into a very different, lounge worthy version with crooning vocals from lead singer Chris Collingwood. Bass player (and co-songwriter) Adam Schlesinger remarked snidely that they would be playing that song at the Ramada Inn for years to come. The whole night was pretty great, but the song that made me the happiest was the ballad “No Other Place,” with its perfect line, “It may be the whiskey talking, but the whiskey says I miss you every day.” They ended the set with their first hit “Radiation Vibe,” and as I have seen them do before turned it into a medley of 70’s and 80’s classic rock. Guitarist Jody Porter, who I didn’t remember looking so amusingly Spinal Tap before, took several of the songs while opener Nicole Adkins returned to the stage for a verse of “White Wedding,” which was more interesting than her sleepy set.

Despite going in somewhat pessimistic, I didn’t stop smiling the whole night. Next time I won’t wait to buy a ticket.

Nicole Atkins

Fountains of Wayne

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Matthew Ryan/Brandon Sampson; April 26, 2012; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

The last time I saw Matthew Ryan it was at the High Noon and the place was packed, so I was a little surprised when he contacted me about playing in the basement. I was also surprised when the show was met with mild disinterest, as of show time I only knew of about a dozen people who were coming. Luckily more than that showed up, thanks in no small part to the fact that opener Brandon Sampson knows a lot of people in Madison. He went to Luther College and apparently there is a fair alumni presence in town. Sampson lives in Pine Island Minnesota, so named because of the two rivers which frame the town, making it an island of sorts. He hosts something called the Americana Showcase in nearby Rochester and Ryan had been his guest the night before. Apparently Sampson has built a very loyal clientele there and large crowds turn out for the monthly shows, something I am quite jealous of.

Initially Ryan had thought they would run the show in the usual style, Sampson would play an opening set, there would be a break, and then he would play, but instead he decided to do the show as they had the night before, with the two musicians trading songs. He opened with three songs, Sampson played three, after that they just went back and forth. This was a good decision. Not only did this make for some lively banter between the two on stage, but it also allowed them to trade shots of tequila. After finishing off the remainder of the bottle of Patron they had brought with them, Ryan asked “if anyone had any tequila in their pocket.” The audience didn’t, but I pulled out the partial bottle of Cuervo I had in the cupboard. During the break I told Ryan that it was “Wilco’s tequila” that Califone had left when they stayed at the house after opening for them. A fact that he repeated at the opening of the second set, to which an astute audience member commented that past tense might be more appropriate.

Indeed, they did make a pretty good dent in what was left of the bottle, but if anything it made the show even more entertaining. By the end it had gotten a little silly, but before that there was a lot of good music. Sampson has played in the band Six Mile Grove since he was a teen, and he sent me his band’s new record Quiet Little Town ahead of the show. I listened to it quite a bit, and the tunes had sunk in, I knew almost every song he played. He started the night with the quieter numbers and built up to more rocking songs like “Evangeline,” written for his son Milo before he was born when he was sure it was going to be a girl, and “God Save the Queen” on which Ryan played a “Neil Young solo,” which apparently means a one note solo. I was completely charmed by Sampson, his gorgeous voice, his lovely songs, his easygoing manner, and I made a mental note that I need to get to Rochester for one of his showcases.

Ryan wears his acoustic slung low, like a punk rocker or a bass player, which contrasts with songs that are more or less folk rock. He has jumped around stylistically over the years, never releasing the same album twice. While his most recent record I Recall Standing as Though Nothing Could Fall is somewhat mellow, 2008’s Matthew Ryan Versus Silver State has a few more rockers, and those seemed to be the stand-out tracks tonight, “American Dirt” was the winner of those. His voice is warm, with just a little bit of a growl, like all the best folk singers. While I was worried that he would be disappointed with the small crowd, I shouldn’t have been, he embraced it, at one point going around the room and having everyone introduce themselves. We’d discussed earlier how we don’t remember faces or names, and he proved it by calling several people by the wrong name. Though that might have had something to do with another phenomena we talked about where you meet someone who looks just like someone you met in another city… or maybe it was just the tequila. Either way, this was one of my favorite shows of the year.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Robbie Fulks with Robbie Gjersoe; April 23, 2012; The Hideout, Chicago

Robbie Fulks has been doing a (more or less) weekly residency at the Hideout for over two years now, but tonight was an unusual one. He actually played his own songs. Most weeks he has a theme, invites a guest or guests, they get together before the show and learn an evening’s worth of songs. In the past he’s done shows honoring jazz musicians and country greats, mash-ups of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Leonard Cohen, Thelonius Monk and the Monkees, most reverent, some irreverent, always fun. His frequent partner in crime is Robbie Gjersoe, a pretty amazing guitar player who’s played with an impressive list of musicians over the years, the Flatlanders and Kelly Willis just to name a couple. He was scheduled to play tonight, but he almost didn’t make it due to a car accident and an abusive air bag. It almost looked like the show was about to become even more unusual, it might have been Fulks solo. Fortunately Gjersoe felt good enough to play despite some residual pain.

The two make a great pair, and tonight’s show was similar to what their two previous basement shows have been. There were some classic oldies from Fulks’s catalog, like the barroom weeper “Tears Only Run One Way” and the fiery ode to the south “North Carolina Is the Cigarette State.” The latter in particular allowed the pair to show off their flatpicking skill. The solos were inventive and entertaining, an absolute joy to watch. Toward the end of the set Fulks asked if there were any requests, and several shouted out song titles. After a little more talk and some thought, he changed his mind, “Screw that, I’m not going to play any of the songs you requested.” He did however allow a regular show-goer to choose between Monk and Mingus. “Well, you should do Mingus,” she reasoned, “because you just did a lot of Monk,” referring to volume two of Monk versus the Monkees which had just happened a few weeks before. When called back for an encore they were indecisive about what to play. A friend of mine called out for a new song that I didn’t know. That they played, I guess he was just waiting for the right request.

It was a great time and another very worthwhile two dollar bus trip. Heck, me and the bus even got a shout out from Fulks. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Tommy Womack/Robby Schiller; April 21, 2012; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

It’s a weird feeling to hear a song that you’ve only heard once before twelve years ago and instantly recognize it. But that’s what happened to me tonight. I didn’t know there was a Todd Snider/Jack Ingram/Tommy Womack connection when I booked Womack, I just knew him as the author of the Cheese Chronicles and the funny half of the duo DADDY with Will Kimbrough. Though I guess since I initially knew of Kimbrough because he used to play guitar with Snider, I maybe should’ve been able to put it all together. But when Womack played the hopeful “Come Back to Bowling Green and Marry Me” I was instantly transported to a bar in Neenah, maybe Automatic Slim’s, where the band that opened for Jack Ingram (who I first met when he opened for Todd Snider… is this all making sense?) played that very same song. I was so taken by it that I made the lead singer sign my CD “Kiki- Come back to Bowling Green and marry me.” Though despite that proposal, right now for the life of me I couldn’t remember who it was.

I asked Womack after the set if anyone who used to open for Jack Ingram a decade or more ago covered that song. He named a couple, but it was Pat Haney that rang the bell. Mystery solved. The only mystery remaining was how I still remembered that song so distinctly even though it isn’t on the CD. I guess that is the kind of memorable song Womack writes. He played a lot more of them in the basement tonight. Funny songs, sad songs, catchy songs, songs with well-developed characters. He had a bit of a cold that he hasn’t been able to shake, which may explain why he wasn’t as funny as I remembered him being. Well, except for an impromptu, and inappropriate, bit about Jesus and masturbating after he said that the two things people don’t find funny are jokes about Jesus and masturbation. All of which came in response to the fact that he had changed one of his lyrics to fornicate from masturbate.

It seemed like Robbie Schiller would be the perfect opener for this show, he’s funny and he writes amazing songs. He may have been a little too perfect because I thought he stole the show. With the Blueheels on hiatus, the opportunities to hear Schiller sing are few and far between. In fact he has been avoiding the music scene for some time. But when I asked him to open this show he said he realized that everything he hates about playing shows doesn’t apply to the basement. When he arrived later than I was expecting, I told him I was worried he forgot, and he told me he wasn’t that guy anymore. From the first song it was obvious that wasn’t the only thing that changed. His voice, which had always been powerful and quite definitely unique, is even more amazing now. Still as powerful, but smoother, prettier, in fact at times I thought he sounded a little bit like Cat Stevens. It sounded funny when I thought it during the show, and it still sounds funny when I write it.

“You know how when people have a traumatic experience, their hair turns white?” he asked. “Well. That’s what happened to my voice, I had a traumatic experience and it changed.” “Your voice turned white?” an audience member suggested. Schiller smiled, “Yeah, like it could get any whiter.” As promised, he had a whole bunch of songs I hadn’t heard, all of which will go on an album, if he ever gets around to it. I hope he does, because these are some pretty amazing tunes. In fact, I only knew two of them, and one of them was a cover. Many of them were quite short, barely hitting the two minute mark, but all of them made an impression. Of the ones I knew, one was “The Wolves Outside,” a song he used to do during his sets at Mickey’s on Tuesday nights. The other was a request from the elderly people that he plays for once a week, a stunning version of “Danny Boy.” Well chosen. I hope to have him back again soon, I know he is game for it.

Robby Schiller

Tommy Womack

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Pines; April 20, 2012; Stoughton Opera House

“You know,” David Huckfelt claimed halfway through the night at the Stoughton Opera House, “if we could play rooms as nice as this all the time, our self-esteem would be a lot higher.” It’s hard to believe the Pines have any problems with self-esteem, they’ve just released their a new critically praised CD Dark So Gold and they’ve had the fortune to open up for some pretty impressive musicians including an extended run with fellow Minnesotan Mason Jennings and two shows here at the Opera House, one with Greg Brown and the other with his wife Iris Dement. I don’t blame Huckfelt for being a little overwhelmed for their first headlining show here. The Opera House is a thing of beauty, restored over the last decade to its former glory, and it is a true listening room, something Madison is sorely lacking (you know, other than my basement). For the occasion the duo, which also includes Benson Ramsey, brought the full band, drummer J.T. Bates, keyboardist Alex Ramsey (Benson’s brother) and bass player James Buckley.

Even with the full band their music remained as light and graceful as always. The group took advantage of the piano on stage, especially for the new songs, some of which feature extended keyboard intros or outros. He was hidden behind Benson for most of the night, but it was always when he was seated at the worn but gorgeous sounding baby grand that I realized how much Alex adds to their sound. Bates is as comfortable playing behind hip hop acts as he is behind folk notables like John Gorka, and he’s a good fit for the Pines knowing when to hold back and when to step up. This was the first time I had seen them with a bass player, though it seems likely I’ve seen him before since he has also played with a who’s who of Minnesotans. Like Bates, he knows his role. The sixth member of the band was the quietest, although according to Huckfelt, they never go anywhere without him. “We know this is a very old building,” he began, “and we didn’t know what kind of crow problem you might have,” he pointed to the scarecrow behind the drum kit, “so we brought him along just in case.”

I’d heard several of the new tunes last fall at the CafĂ© Carpe in Ft Atkinson, but they brought out many more of them tonight. In fact most of the first set centered on the new Night as Gold which features standouts like Ramsey’s “Cry Cry Crow” and Huckfelt’s “Rise Up and Be Lonely.” After a short break (when I tried unsuccessfully to find an ATM nearby) they revisited many of the songs from their previous release Tremelo, featuring record openers (and usual set openers) “Pray Tell” and “Heart and Bones.” The first features Huckfelt on lead vocals while the latter gains a haunted grace from Benson’s young Dylan voice. At the end of the set we were treated to their interpretation of Spider John Koerner’s “Skipper & His Wife” and their gorgeous “Shiny Shoes” with its terrific line “no matter how hard you try, you can’t put the tears back in your eyes.” The night flew by and before I knew it they were leaving the stage. Luckily they didn’t make the crowd work too hard for an encore, though they were an enthusiastic bunch they didn’t seem to expect any more after the band said they done. I like that about the Opera House. I also like that since I was unable to find an ATM to buy the new CD, the great staff there figured out a way I could use a card.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Hobart Brothers & Lil’ Sis Hobart; April 10, 2012; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

Many musicians work crappy jobs while they wait for the day where they can make a living off their music. Turns out a lot of them work the same crappy jobs as Jon Dee Graham and Freedy Johnston found out. Years ago they had both spent time washing dishes, as Jon Dee puts it in the song “Dishwasher,” “in a restaurant where I could not afford to eat.” From this common bond came a songwriting partnership, and a name, the Hobart Brothers, named for the most common type of commercial dishwasher. After Susan Cowsill (yeah, like those Cowsills) joined Jon Dee on stage during SXSW in 2010, they found another member of their family. At Least We Have Each Other, a twelve track CD with seven bonus tracks of demos and alternate versions of the songs, was released earlier this year. Even though they take turns singing, the writing process was truly collaborative.

So what do you do when you go on tour with only twelve songs to your name? You tell a lot of stories and you play a few covers. The Hobarts were particularly good at the former. Most of the stories had to do with growing up famous courtesy of Cowsill. She met a slew of celebrities as a child and had all kinds of stories about it, for example she went to the premier of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with Kenny Rogers. Jon Dee was referring to one of these adventures when he said they should “play the first kiss song.” Unsurprisingly, Freedy heard it as “the first Kiss song” and wanted to know which one that was. “Beth,” Jon Dee laughed, “we’re going to play Beth.” In fact, what he meant they were going to play was “Daydream Believer” since Cowsill’s first kiss (“the first voluntary kiss” she corrected) had been from the Monkees’ Davy Jones. He had only kissed her on the cheek but it was covered by Sixteen magazine and she cried all the way to and from the meeting.

At times the story telling threatened to overtake the show, and one of the trio would have to say “that’s it, we’re playing a song now.” Jon Dee and Freedy played guitar, Susan played tambourine and they all sang. Cowsill sounded best singing lead, especially on “The Ballad of Lil’ Sis” when she wails “Baby, didn’t I love you, just as hard as I could?” and on the sweet “Sodapoptree.” She also added backing vocals to many of the songs, sounding surprisingly good even though her voice is lower than Freedy’s curiously high one. Freedy’s best song of the night, if you don’t count his always terrific cover of “Wichita Lineman,” was “Sweet Senorita” a song about a truck driver in love with a Mexican prostitute, which of course doesn’t end happily ever after.

Of course my favorite songs of the night were Jon Dee’s. “Why I Don’t Hunt” finds him with a change of heart as a kid after killing a blackbird, for which he would get fifty cents, while “Dishwasher” detailed an anonymous love note he found in the street many years ago on the way home from that dishwashing job. Perhaps the most personal was “All Things Being Equal” about the collapse of the cotton industry with the advent of synthetic material. All his family needed to decide where their next move would be was a bottle of whiskey and a map of Texas.

It was a terrifically entertaining show, even if it wasn’t musically the best I’ve ever seen. Sometimes the storytelling and the secret telling threatened to take over the real reason they were there. Still, I couldn’t stop smiling the whole night. This is a family I would like to be part of.