Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sleeping in the Aviary/Caroline Smith and the Good Night Sleeps/Icarus Himself; May 31, 2012; High Noon Saloon

Tonight’s Sleeping in the Aviary show was a celebration of “Vomit on Vinyl.” While that may just sound like the end of drunken hipster party, it’s actually announcing the release of Expensive Vomit in a Cheap Motel in LP form. Of the four, I am not sure why this was the one to get the 12” treatment, but Aviary’s second release has long been my favorite. Each has its charms, but Vomit was everything I had wanted their first record to be, acoustic guitars, hooky sing-along choruses and most importantly “Gas Mask Blues.” It’s a dark, haunted, driving tune and, by SitA standards, it’s also an epic.

It had been awhile since I had heard it live, so I was glad of the special occasion. Celeste breaks out the musical saw for the controlled chaos that leads up to the pivotal line, “If you have my daughter I don’t know what I will do, ‘cause I’m gonna want to hit her when she looks like you.” And that’s when all hell breaks loose. Intense, and amazing. Many of the songs from Vomit showed up in tonight’s set, and it sounds like many of them for the last time (which I am more than a little sad about). “Write On” and “Girl in the Ground” were awesome. It wouldn’t be a SitA show without some kind of musical or theatrical experiment. Tonight they asked the members of the other bands to set up at various places around the bar and all play along on one song. It wasn’t quite the success they had hoped for, lead singer Elliot Kozel did look a little disappointed, but it had moments of cool for sure. Another noteworthy moment was drummer Michael Sienkowski on banjo. Yay!

I certainly wasn’t intending on spending $45 on merch tonight, but well, that was what happened. I’d planned on picking up Vomit on vinyl of course, but after opener Icarus Himself’s terrific set I realized that I had never gotten their last record. And I got the last of a limited vinyl pressing of Career Culture. I’m not sure can name another band that gets better every time I see them. Completely unexpected was the “release” of a new inBOIL CD. I use the quotes because Phil Mahlstadt‘s side project is about as DIY as they get. The CDs are home burned and hand-labeled, and the handmade packaging has to be seen to truly be appreciated. The cardboard book contains several delightful pages of fun. The CD is nestled into the last page, the sleeve opening like a clam shell as you separate the pages. The middle page has the lyrics to all the songs hidden behind Advent calendar style windows. The first page is the crowning glory, as you raise the cover to reveal a pop-up scene of the three musicians who are inBOIL. It would be an ambitious design for production, but all the more impressive to know that they did it themselves. Nice work. Oh yeah, and the CD is pretty great too. Those boys never cease to amaze me.

Icarus Himself

Caroline Smith & the Goodnight Sleeps

Sleeping in the Aviary

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Eef Barzelay/The Heligoats; May 27, 2012; Indie Coffee

Eef Barzelay, the lead singer and only constant member of the band Clem Snide, played a show at this tiny coffee shop several years ago, and it doesn’t make any more sense now than it did then. The Indie Coffee staff, who were asking only a $5 donation for the show, seemed ecstatic to have him back and I had to wonder if maybe they are friends. We got there early enough to get seats, but by the time the show was well under way there were people sitting on the floor and filling in every available space. Barzelay and the Heligoats (Chris Otepka) played unamplified, and Barzelay in particular seemed to enjoy the freedom of it.

The Heligoats played first, sounding better than I remembered, before Barzelay took the “stage.” His set started a little rough, his guitar seemed out of tune and the songs unremarkable. In fact, I even thought about leaving, but things improved quickly, to the point that by the end of the show I thought it was pretty awesome. Barzelay is hilariously and consistently inappropriate. I was blushing, and I was glad that the kids who had come with their parents were playing downstairs, safely out of earshot. He was affable, charming and funny. He was happy to take requests, too bad I was too chicken to yell mine. In addition to playing the best of Clem Snide and his solo records (“I Love the Unknown” and “Ballad of Bitter Honey” the highlights respectively), he also chose some great covers. The band recently released an earnest album of Journey covers, so it was not a surprise when “Faithfully” showed up mid-set. What was a surprise was that no one seemed to recognize it. Not true of “Don’t Stop Believing” which had folks singing along. Even more of a crowd pleaser was Bryan Adams “Summer of 69,” especially the raunchy “long lost” verse that Barzelay had access to as a long-standing member of the Bryan Adams fan club. Sometimes it is hard to know when he is kidding. I know he was about the verse, but it’s hard to know about the fan club.

Throughout the show I kept thinking how much better it would have been in my basement, starting with Michelle saying “this would be so much better in your basement” as it started to fill up. Barzelay had sent an e-mail several months back to the Clem Snide mailing list offering private house concerts for $1K plus travel. I think he may be negotiable on that point since I did e-mail him after the show offering my venue the next time through. He thought it sounded like a great idea. And then I’ll ask him to play “Ice Cube.”

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Donkeys/Advance Base; May 26, 2012’ Mo’s Irish Pub

I believe in getting to a show in time for the opening band because you never know when they will be your new favorite band. My best example is that the first time I saw Chris Mills he was opening for Robbie Fulks. Nothing of that magnitude has happened in a long time, or is honestly ever likely to, but two of my favorite bands right now I first saw as openers. Canada’s Zeus were my must-sees at SXSW after I saw them open for Jason Collett in 2010, and I’ve been listening to the Donkeys ever since I bought their CD after they opened for the Hold Steady last year. And when I say I haven’t stopped listening to them, I mean it quite literally, Born with Stripes hasn’t been on the shelf more than a couple weeks since I bought it. There are days at work when it is all I listen to, hitting play every forty some minutes for the entire day, only when there is no one else around of course.

I’ve been waiting for them to come back to Wisconsin ever since then. I wouldn’t have chosen a show that started at 11 pm in Milwaukee for my next chance to see them, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. It was all a little strange, from the time to the place. Mo’s Irish Pub is just that, an Irish Pub, and I get the feeling they don’t have bands very often. Both were explained by the fact that this was an after party sponsored by the Pabst Theater for the Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes show earlier that night at the Riverside. And while that was the reason, it doesn’t make a good one. Very few people showed up for the “party” and even fewer were actually listening. I know this because after the show three of the four band members thanked me for listening. I, of course, told them to play at my house next time.

They were just as great as I remembered them, except this time I knew most of the songs. I sang along with everything, there were only a few older and a few new songs where I couldn’t. A big part of their charm is that there are three singers in the band, which gives them more variety of sound than your average single frontman band (and coincidentally, that same thing is part of what makes Zeus so awesome). The drummer, a wild haired giant who towers over his average height bandmates, may have the best songs, notably the lovely “I Like the Way that You Walk,” but the floppy haired young Dylan lookalike who played bass most if the night is probably my favorite and his “Oxblood” was the track I chose for my best of 2011 CD. It was a short set and a late night, but I wouldn’t have missed it.

Openers Advance Base turned out to be very likeable. The band features members of Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, who I’d been aware of but never seen. The trio had a wistful, simple charm, which is probably to be expected when one of your main instruments is the autoharp. The lead singer’s non-traditional voice wasn’t for everyone, but I found it cathartic and calming. If I’d brought more money with me I would have bought their record too. As it was I only had enough for a Donkeys shirt and the new 7” single. Ah, who am kidding, if I’d brought more money I would have bought more Donkeys stuff.


Advance Base

The Donkeys

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

M Ward/Chris Scruggs; May 23, 2012; Barrymore Theater

I thought maybe M Ward had gotten over being camera shy. There weren’t any restrictions on photos at his just-because-I-can show at the much too small Schubas last December, and I took a bunch of pictures at his SXSW showcase this year, though it does occur to me now that maybe I shouldn’t have. I was in the front row at the church but that was far enough away that he couldn’t playfully kick the camera out of my hands like he did to an embarrassed fan tonight. Granted they should have known better, there were signs everywhere in the lobby saying there would be no photographs allowed. In fact security told me to take my camera back to my car, which would have been difficult since I biked there. The only reason I got to bring it in was that I promised not to take any pictures, and, more significantly, I know the manager there. I stuck by my word even though it was very tempting to pull it out when he was so close. Ward believes that if you are taking photos you aren’t paying attention to the show, and he likely has a point. I was engaged enough in his show that I forgot that usually I would have snapped dozens of pictures.

The new record A Wasteland Companion had been out a couple weeks already by the time he made his stop in Madison, so I was surprised he didn’t draw more heavily from that record. Instead he pulled just a few tracks, notably the catchy “Primitive Girl,” and no, Zooey Deschanel wasn’t there to do backing vocals, thank god. My favorite song of his, “Chinese Translation,” appears to be everyone else’s too. Loud cheers went up as soon as he played the distinctive opening notes and everyone sang along. Ward’s music has a timeless quality to it; his voice sounds like it could be coming from fifty years in the past or sometime in the future. The music is quiet, but catchy, it’s reverb laden melodies getting caught in your head for days. Two other moments stood out in what was a very entertaining show. The first was “Big Boat” for the encore, its absence had been my only complaint the last two times I saw him. This piano pounding rave was the song that got me interested in Ward; I’d dismissed him after seeing two unremarkable shows early in his career. The second was the appearance of Kelly Hogan who joined him for Daniel Johnston’s “I Go Home.” Hogan’s amazing voice sounds good with anyone’s, and makes them sound better to. What a treat.

Apparently the rumor was that she was going to sing a song with opener Chris Scruggs, which made sense since she had sang on his record Anthem, but that didn’t happen. I guess maybe she was running late? Scruggs did just fine without her help. I’d seen Scruggs with other bands on several occasions, first with BR549, with M Ward at Schubas, and with Tristen at SXSW, but I’d never seen him play his own music. I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was pretty classic, old-timey Nashville. After all he comes by his notable last name honestly, Earl Scruggs was his grandfather. Scruggs was more of showman and the music was a little slicker than I had expected, but I did enjoy it enough to buy a CD. I’ve seen him play fiddle and steel guitar with other bands, but he stuck to the electric guitar tonight, which is just fine, he’s pretty good at that too.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Kurt Vile & the Violators/Black Bananas/True Widow; May 21, 2012; High Noon Saloon

I'm not going to lie, I really came to this show because I just wanted to see some music not in my basement.

There was a lot of hair.

True Widow

Kurt Vile & the Violators

Friday, May 18, 2012

Jon Langford & Skull Orchard; May 18, 2012; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

It may seem a little deceptive to call it “& Skull Orchard” when the only skull on stage other than Langford’s was violinist Jean Cook, but only if you don’t know Cook. She lives in New York and usually when I see her playing with Langford it’s at SXSW or last year’s massive Hideout Block Party for which Skull Orchard was joined by the Burlington Welsh Men’s Choir. But there she was in my basement, playing the straight (or maybe I should say sober) man to Langford’s antics. She looks slightly bored most of the time, but her playing is always enthusiastic and she gamely tolerates Langford’s antics.

The last time Langford played the basement two years ago it was pretty amazing, but this seemed even better. At that time the songs which made up the first Skull Orchard record were hard to find, and I didn’t know many of those tunes which he had just re-recorded with the choir. When I did finally hear it, I’ll admit that what I pictured when he described the choir was not what the record ended up sounding like. It was much less choir-y. The record, appropriately dubbed Skull Orchard Revisited, comes packaged in a coffee table worthy book featuring Langford’s artwork about growing up in Wales, fitting, as that is what many of the songs were about.

The night started with a bang, or should I say a snap. In a case of serious déjà vu, he broke a string just as he had last time, however this time it was on the very first song. Everyone talked amongst themselves until he was ready to resume “1, 2, 3, Forever.” Every song got an introduction, and every story was as good as the song, and sometimes a lengthy one. “We’re only going to get through five songs at this rate,” he joked after a particularly lengthy intro. The ones about his hometown of Newport were the best, even though they were seldom complimentary, “while the rest of Britain has become gentrified, Newport is still a shithole. I like that about it.” The song “Youghal” (sounds like Yawl), one of my favorites, is about the town where Moby Dick was filmed in the 50’s, and arguably that was the last thing that had happened there. Signed photos of Gregory Peck and John Huston decorate the walls of the neighborhood pub, and when the bartender asks if you want to watch “the video” he isn’t talking about anything X rated, he’s talking about Moby Dick. Some of my favorite songs, like the terrific “Nashville Radio” and the cautionary tale “Are You an Entertainer,” are a part of every Skull Orchard and solo set, but it was a definite treat to hear the infectious murder ballad “Delilah” as a sing-along in the basement.

Langford is a cider drinker, and I had bought him two kinds, the British Magner’s and the Minneapolis brew Crispin. However he got a better offer from the audience when one of them handed him her own home-brewed cider. Since he already had a Crispin opened, he claimed that one bottle made him bigger while the other made him small. “I better take a sip of this one,” he theorized, picking up the Crispin because I feel like I am getting big enough to fill the whole room.” As usual there was lots of silliness, mock-sexy dancing and standing on chairs, but thankfully he didn’t make good on his threat earlier in the night to “take off all his clothes and eat his guitar, piece by piece.” Actually, I’m not even sure why he had threatened it.

Last time he brought some of his prints with him and at the end of the night I was the only one who had bought one. Tonight however, whether it was the amazing show or the fact that I could run credit cards (thanks Square) he sold four (!). I think it is safe to say he will do it again sometime.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Michelle Shocked; May 17, 2012; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

“It sounds like the answer to my prayers,” was Michelle Shocked’s response to a fan’s suggestion that she play at the House of Righteous Music on a night that had been marked TBA on her calendar forever. The timing could have been better, I already had two shows this week- Will Johnson on Tuesday and Jon Langford on Friday – but I couldn’t say no. I put the fan who had put us in touch in charge of hospitality and said let’s do it. After all, as I said in my show announcement, I once heard Shocked’s excellent song “Anchorage” while shopping at Woodman’s. This was as close to a mainstream artist as KHoRM had ever gotten, even if her mainstream popularity was nearly two decades ago.

I only have one of Shocked’s CDs, Short Sharp Shocked, so I didn’t expect to know many of the songs she played tonight. Surprisingly, I knew quite a few, and I have her iPod to thank. She said as she had been driving from show to show across the country she’d been listening to a lot of music. For some reason that record was on it, and every time one of the songs would come up, she’d think “man, she’s good,” not realizing immediately that it was herself. After an opening set from the audience, which consisted of singalong songs like “This Land is Your Land” and likely worked better in concept than in practice, she went right for the kill, opening with “Anchorage.” This was the updated version, we found out that “the brand new baby girl” in the song had just given birth to her own baby girl, and that they no longer live in Anchorage, in fact she had stopped to visit them on this tour, and most importantly that her friend felt left out because she never gets mentioned by name, “How come it’s all Leroy this and Leroy that?” After she finished she quipped, “some of you might want to just leave right now.” If you had you wouldn’t have heard some of the other great songs from that record like “Old Woman” and “The L & M Don’t Stop Here Anymore.”

There were two themes tonight. One was “Roccupy,” a reference to the Occupy movement that started in New York and gained momentum across the country. In fact, Shocked had been arrested in the breakup of the Occupy LA camp. Shocked has always been political, often using the stage as a platform for her beliefs and this show was as much about that as it was music. She had invited several guest speakers to tell their stories about homelessness and foreclosure and she littered the stage with protest signs and popped a tent on top of the organ.

The other theme was much less heavy and much more artistic. As she set up for her show she unfurled several large banners emblazoned with paintings of iconic women. The first was blues singer Billie Holiday, the second actress Marilyn Monroe, the third artist Frida Kahlo, while the fourth, which she called gratuitous, was of her. The artwork had been done by her “sweetheart,” painter David Willardson, whom she called in the middle of the show. After the audience gave him a hearty greeting, he expanded on his reason for each of the paintings as Shocked held her phone to the microphone. Each of the paintings had an associated song, which she had planned to play on her Casio keyboard. She had been heading up the steps to get it out of her car when she saw the old organ my brother had “donated” to the basement years ago. “Does that work?” she asked. To the best of my knowledge it did. So I vacuumed the cobwebs and wiped the dust off and we moved it to the stage. I sent my brother a picture of her playing it mid-show, “look, Michelle Shocked is playing your organ!” “You mean your organ,” he shot back. At the end of the night I had her sign it.

If that seems like a lot for one show, it was. She played for nearly three hours with only one short break, though she did give people the opportunity to leave earlier. A little after ten she said that if you needed to relieve a babysitter or get to bed, you could leave now, because the show was over. She made the same announcement at 10:30, but continued to play requests until almost 11. With all that was going on this week, I had hesitated to do the show, but in all honesty it may have been one of the easiest shows I’ve done. It sold out in days, Shocked was grateful, and it was a name that people who don’t know any of the other artists I host actually recognize. And that is something.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Will Johnson/Evan Murdock; May 15, 2012; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

It’s a delight to see Will Johnson’s living room shows turning into an annual event. This was his third consecutive spring visit to the House of Righteous Music, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who embraces the living room concert esthetic more enthusiastically. For his visits Johnson has eschewed the PA, preferring to sing and play unamplified. This setting is much different than his day job with Centro-matic where he usually plays electric guitar with a full band behind him. In fact, it is so different that there are songs he has no idea how to convert from one to the other. It happened when I asked for “Spiraling Sideways” last year, and to another guest’s request this year.

While most of what he plays on these tours is songs from his solo releases, like the gently powerful title track from the Little Raider EP, all Centro-matic songs aren’t automatically off the table. In fact, tonight we got a significant taste of what is slated for their next record, as well as a few selections from last year’s excellent Candidate Waltz. The best of these though was “Flashes and Cables” from what remains my favorite record of theirs, Love You Just the Same (though Waltz is a good second). The haunting song had been the high point of last year’s show, and may have succeeded again as part of a two song encore.

His most recent release found him heading in yet another direction. On New Multitudes he, along with Son Volt’s Jay Farrar, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and frequent KHoRM visitor Anders Parker, took the lyrics of Woody Guthrie and wrote their own music. Johnson just may have stolen that show with his “Chorine My Sheba Queen.” Tonight he chose one of his other excellent contributions, “V.D. City,” introducing it as the only song of the night about venereal disease, to which I had to point out that the night was still young. It’s a surprisingly catchy song, despite its stinging indictment of an amoral lifestyle. To wit, “Must you pay your way to this city with an hour of passion’s desire? I pray that I’ll not see your face here where the millions now burn in flames.”

Last year I hadn’t thought to get an opener until it was too late. This time I didn’t wait till the last minute, and I knew exactly who I wanted. Evan Murdock used to be half of the Kentucky Waterfalls, a much-loved local band, but I have to say I prefer him solo. I figured he would be a good choice to play an unplugged set of his own. Murdock currently plays with a band, but since Johnson was playing solo he only brought his accordion player along. He’s somewhat new to the accordion, as he freely admits, and there were few obvious wrong notes. Those were all forgiven when he compared the instrument to a crabby baby… a heavy, crabby baby. Murdock’s collection of tearjerkers was a good match. I’m already looking forward to next year.

Evan Murdock

Will Johnson