Over the course of five records the Great Lake Swimmers have gradually lightened up. The band has always specialized in moody, captivating songs, remaining interesting despite their hushed tone. Their most recent release New Wild Everywhere is their most up-tempo to date, and if it isn’t exactly music you can dance to, it is at least a toe tapper. The record had been out barely a month but they took the opportunity at the High Noon to showcase a lot of the new songs. The catchiest of these is the gambler’s lament “Easy Come, Easy Go,” a bouncy irresistible tune which is also their first single. While it doesn’t quite break a sweat, the title track also makes a case for their new image. Until tonight I didn’t know the story behind “Ballad of a Fisherman’s Wife.” Lines like “What if it happened in your backyard, what if it happened to you, I bet you’d go crazy too,” made more sense once he told us that the song was written about the Gulf oil disaster for the Waterways Alliance which is dedicated to protecting the earth’s water.
Smiling lead singer/guitarist and songwriter for the band Tony Dekker seemed genuinely pleased to be in Madison, telling us several times what an honor it was to be back. The band has played here many, many times since I first saw Dekker opening solo for Andrew Bird at Café Montmartre. Yes, Bird at Montmartre, which should give you an idea of how long GLS has had a relationship with our town. There have been many memorable shows over the years, including a show at the chronically chatty Montmartre during which you could have heard a pin drop and appearances at summer festivals the last two years. I managed to alternately embarrass and redeem myself at those by yelling too loud for “Imaginary Bars” which apparently caused the sun to come out on a gray rainy day, and then asking him to repeat it the next year. The only constant member other than Dekker has been multi-instrumentalist Eric Arneson whose electric guitar and (especially) banjo are key to their sound. The several songs in a row that featured the banjo, including the aforementioned “Ballad,” were probably the highlight of the show.
Dekker has always been masterful at selecting covers, Neil Young’s “Harvest,” Tom Waits’ “Innocent When you Dream,” the excellent Carter Family song they played last summer, and tonight was no exception. Tonight’s encore was Gram Parsons’s “A Song for You,” which worked beautifully as a duet with Miranda Mulholland who took Emmy Lou Harris’s part. I’ve said before that I find Mulholland superfluous, she has a lovely voice and is an excellent violinist, but most of the time I don’t want to hear anyone other than Dekker sing. Considering that I find Arneson to be the only necessary band member, I was surprisingly accepting of the new mandolin/guitar player. In fact, other than dreading the inevitable “this is our last song” for the second half of the set, I was pretty much happy all the way around. I love this band more every time I see them.