Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Promise Ring; June 30, 2012; The Terrace

Wisconsin band the Promise Ring broke up nearly ten years ago after their last release Wood/Water. They had long railed against the emo tag they were branded with and after W/W wasn’t as well-received as their previous releases, they decided to call it a day. Lead singer Davey Van Bohlen went on the form Maritime, which specializes in equally catchy, but more poppy songs. I really never expected a Promise Ring reunion, and what a great surprise it was. They were playing on the Terrace following the Rhythm and Booms extravaganza which is conducted from across the lake in Warner Park. After the bloated music and light display, which included a Whitney Houston tribute medley, the Promise Ring was a breath of fresh air.

Like the Dismemberment Plan last year, another emo band that that hit the reunion trail, the Promise Ring sounded even better than I remembered. Their twenty five song set list flew by and I recognized nearly every song on it. Despite Wood/Water’s poor reviews, it’s more grown-up and yes mellower songs blended seamlessly with the more manic tunes from Very Emergency and Nothing Feels Good. The pretty and introspective “Stop Playing Guitar” reminded me what it was that people didn’t like about the record, no one wants to believe that their musical heroes would rather be doing something else.

As much as I like those songs, Very Emergency has always been my favorite. Released before Van Bohlen was sidelined with a brain tumor, these songs don’t have a care in the world. Songs like “SOS” and the longing “Jersey Shore” were stellar, but it was “Deep South” that stole the show. The ridiculously poppy perfect song positively bubbled with excitement, and is bound to be stuck in my head for weeks, probably months, after. In fact, it was so awesome that the guy who had been yelling for it intermittently up until that point, just kept yelling for it the rest of the set. That is a “play it again” I could support. I was surprised by the relatively young age of the crowd. They looked like current or recently graduated college kids, too young to have been into them the first time around. Then again, I was always on the old side of their crowd, at least that hasn’t changed.

Hopefully this short reunion tour, which also included a stop at Summerfest, won’t be all we hear from the Promise Ring this decade. The band seemed to be having a great time, and Van Bohlen in particular couldn’t have been more adorable. I do like Maritime, but I sure do love the Promise Ring.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Jon Dee Graham & the Fighting Cocks/Josh Harty; June 29, 2012; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

I’m not sure what I can say about Jon Dee Graham that I haven’t said a million times before. After all, this was his seventh time at the house and I’ve been a fan since many years before that. What was new this time was that he had a brand new, not yet released, record with him. The perfectly named Garage Sale finds Graham venturing into new areas that don’t quite fit his Texas singer/songwriter image. The most unexpected of these is the intriguing “Radio Uxtmal (Venceremos)” which is a sort of Mexican dub-step track, yes really. While he hasn’t quite figured out how to play that one live, and I’d be surprised if he ever did, he played plenty of new songs on his way to delivering another of his breathtaking trademark basement shows. For someone who has been in the business as long as he has, it is impressive to see the joy of performing still so strong.

This time through he was accompanied by bass player Andrew Duplantis (a longtime Fighting Cock, making only his second basement appearance) and drummer George Duron (a basement first timer who fit right in) who were given the daunting task of drinking for Jon Dee and me since both of us are on the wagon (long story in my case, longer in his). It was a task they took seriously, and I realized early on that I was going to need more Spotted Cow and called for back-up. These are professionals of course, and you would never guess that they had downed a twelve pack between them by the end of the show. Playing the basement has always given Graham a comfort to try new material, things he wouldn’t play elsewhere. “We’re going to play a song that George doesn’t know at all,” he admitted, “and that Andrew only knows marginally.” “Isn’t that every song?” I asked, and yes, out loud, apparently not drinking doesn’t keep me quiet.

There was a stretch where “Airplane” had gone missing from the set. Those were still amazing shows, of course, but I missed my favorite song, a song so amazing that it frequently brings tears to my eyes. So good it’s like being sucker-punched, you never saw it coming, and so astute I marvel at the lyrics every single time. Happily, it has reappeared as a regular along with its album (and live) lead-in track “I’ll Wait,” an under two minute song about moving on. The first time I saw Jon Dee it was on the Summerland tour and that remains one of my favorite records, so I was happy to hear both “October” and “Black Box,” a pair of rockers so powerful if anything were to actually rear the roof off the basement it would be one of those.

A few friends were seeing Jon Dee for the first time. Judging by how pleased they looked at the end of the night, it was probably a lot like my first time.

Josh Harty

Jon Dee Graham & the Fighting Cocks

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Spring Standards/Sons of Fathers; June 28, 2012; The Frequency

The Spring Standards had just been on the Conan O’Brien show, which is pretty darn cool, but apparently no one in Madison watches Conan O’Brien because the crowd was pretty slim for their headlining show at the Frequency. They didn’t really seem to mind and they poured all their energy into a very entertaining show. Still, they couldn’t resist bringing up their brush with a star. “He’s really tall,” singer/percussionist/keyboard player Heather Robb stated, “but what most people don’t know…” She paused and giggled, trying to think up some unusual fact, “…is that he really likes a bit of cake.” The made-up fact caused her to laugh even more.

The Standards did a whole tour with Ha Ha Tonka, but strangely enough I had only seen them play once before tonight. I met them in Madison but had missed their set that night (volleyball). I saw them play the next night in Iowa City, but now I don’t feel like I really appreciated it. Tonight, however, I think I did, and it was pretty awesome, and I liked them even more (as people and musicians). They are friendly, funny, sweet and really amazing musicians whose voices sound terrific together. Instead of being disappointed with the small crowd, they used it as an opportunity to come down on the floor and get personal with a couple songs unplugged. The first was a very pretty original, the second as part of the encore was James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James.” After going through college with a Taylor-obsessed roommate, I didn’t think I ever needed to hear that song again. I was wrong.

Three of the four band members sing, while the fourth (Noah) jumps around joyfully while playing guitar, bass, and pedal steel. OK, so not much jumping while playing the latter. There’s Heather, who’s sweet and sassy with a beautiful voice. The other two are named James, distinguished previously by Ha Ha Tonka as James the Savior (his dark hair was longer then) and King James (for no apparent reason). As well as sharing lead vocal duties, the three also share drumming duty, but they do it in a very unique way. Each member has at least part of a kit in front of them as if they had taken turns choosing pieces from a complete kit, which makes for some intriguing percussion. Their music is much more complex than I realized at first, but still catchy and upbeat. It’s good stuff.

They stayed with me that night, and as I gave them the tour of the basement they commented that they should play there next time. Sounds good to me, especially since they are obviously OK with small crowds.

Sons of Fathers

Spring Standards

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Steve Poltz; June 20, 2012; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

It’s hard to describe Steve Poltz to someone who hasn’t seen him, but when you do finally come up with the words they usually aren’t about the songs. His songs are good, smart, well-written and melodious, but what you really remember is that the guy is hilarious, and that you laughed so hard you cried. His is a stream of consciousness hilarity, there isn’t anything he thinks that he doesn’t say, no matter how ridiculous or insane it may sound. He’s been this way for as long as I’ve known him, but tonight he had a revelation. “Kiki,” he said to me, “I’ve just realized something tonight… I’m not right in the head.” He looked completely serious about it, like maybe he was concerned. “I know,” I told him, “that’s what so great about you.”

He is touring behind the new Noineen Noiny Noin, which may sound like gibberish, but was actually the answer when Poltz asked an Australian how long he had been coming to their country. If you say it with your best Crocodile Dundee accent it translates to 1999. And Poltz loves to say it. He played most of the songs from the record, as well as several from the accompanying bonus EP titled Noineen Noiny Noin and a Haff, each time announcing the record title with obvious glee. In fact, the only thing he liked saying as much as Noineen Noiny Noin was “Kiki’s House of Righteous Music.” And he said it a lot. When he wasn’t doing his best Aussie accent, he was doing his French. One of the laugh till you cry moments came when he was telling the story of how he would get his sister in trouble in church by making her laugh. In this story it was reciting the “Our Father” in an outrageous French accent. I would have been in trouble too.

However the real make your stomach hurt moment had to do with a bag of porn and a Kermit the Frog voice. You’ll have to see the video because there is no way to describe the story of how he was in the hospital croaking “bag of porn” as he was about to be put under anesthesia. I cried. While the record may have an Australian inspired title, the songs come from all over. Wait… did I just miss a chance to say Noineen Noiny Noin again? Sorry about that. Anyway, his musical travels also take him to “Croatia” and feel the “Serbian Breeze,” while “Ordinary Dude” is obviously Irish inspired. The most unexpected track is “Check Your Head,” which owes more to Beck’s Midnight Vultures than the Beastie Boys record of the same name. I completely disagree with his assertion “Some Things about Me You Should Know,” but I adore “Killing Myself to Be with You” which is vintage Poltz.

He may not be right in the head, but that is exactly what makes him so entertaining.