Friday, July 27, 2012

Jason & the Scorchers; July 27, 2012; Schwoegler’s Valley Lanes, Belleville

I was pretty sure that tonight’s show was going to be of the “once you get past the fact that it sucks, it’s kinda cool” variety, (ie shows at the Oneida Casino in Green Bay, where the stage is behind the bar), instead it just kinda sucked. There was plenty to like of course. It was only $5, the bar had a pretty delicious fish fry, and it was Jason & the Scorchers after all. But there was no stage, so only the people in the front row ringing the band could see and honestly it just didn’t sound good.

It’s likely been said before that Jason Ringenberg can’t sing. And that’s true, but he can’t sing in a Bob Dylan sort of way, not in the way that I, for instance, can’t sing. His nasally twang is not for everyone, but I’ve always enjoyed it (unsurprising, I like Dylan too). When I say it didn’t sound good tonight, it’s not because it was in a bowling alley with a rented PA, it’s because I thought Jason’s voice just didn’t sound good. I know, blasphemy, but that’s what I heard. On a related note, the Scorchers do a pretty sweet cover of Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” which is pretty much my favorite moment of their shows. That was true again tonight.

I stood for half the set, but it was a surprisingly tall crowd and I never got a good sightline. After awhile I retired to our table and listened to the rest of the show over the din of chatter from the girlfriends whose boyfriends were up front and other people who weren’t really sure why they were there other then there was something going on at the Bowling Alley on a Friday night and they were going be there. I guess that is maybe why I was there too.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Baseball Project; July 24, 2012; High Noon Saloon

The Baseball Project pulled off a rock & roll double-header tonight, appropriately enough for a band whose every song centers on America’s favorite pastime. They played an early show before the Madison Mallards game at Warner Park, and then packed it all up and drove to High Noon to unpack it all and do it again. While the early show was more family oriented, the late show had no such restrictions. For instance, the hilarious “Ted Fucking Williams,” a live favorite, became “Ted Freaking Williams” for the Duck Pond crowd. Tonight’s show was billed as a Baseball Project/Minus 5 line-up, but they’d be hard-pressed to back up that claim. A few Minus 5 songs (as well as it seemed a few Steve Wynn songs) made it into the line-up, but only later in the night did they go to the bullpen after they had exhausted their line-up of Baseball Project songs. The band was of course exactly the same for these songs, but since the only constant member of the Minus 5 is Scott McCaughey that isn’t surprising. One more band was also represented, REM’s Mike Mills, who frequently subs for original BP member Peter Buck on tour, broke out “Don’t Go Back to Rockville” for the encore. I’ve seen him do it before, but it’s still exciting every time.

Some people may think that a bunch of songs about baseball would be as boring as the game itself. This band is not for them. As a fan, but certainly not a fanatic, I find their records educational as well as entertaining. For instance, I had never heard the strange tale of Harvey Haddix before. He pitched twelve perfect innings (three up, three down) only to give up a hit in the thirteenth. They argue that pitching a perfect game is an exclusive club, at the time of the song only seventeen had done it, and we should “add old Harvey to that list.” The ridiculously catchy chorus names those pitchers, a group which contains the well known as well as the unknown. After each song they delighted in announcing the player the song had been about like he had just taken a solo, “Harvey Haddix, everyone, Harvey Haddix.” Eventually they had to admit that most of the players they were saluting were dead. There are a few odes to modern day players. “Ichiro Goes to the Moon,” for example, salutes Yankees player Ichiro Suzuki.

Perhaps the most amusing song of the night came from Volume 2- High and Inside. Steve Wynn co-wrote “Don’t Call Them Twinkies” with Minnesotan Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, and Finn sings it on the record. While on tour Wynn has been asked if it is difficult to play the song without Finn, and he always answers, “No, it’s difficult to play because Mike will only play it under protest.” Mills, an Atlanta fan, looked visibly annoyed at the line “Rob Gant was clearly out.” “Fair Weather Fan” gives the whole band a chance to defend the fact that they each cheer for multiple teams since they have lived multiple places. Even so, their first hometown team is still their favorite.

The Baseball Project may be a gimmick, but that does make their songs any less catchy or their shows less entertaining. In fact, the opposite, this is a talented bunch of musicians writing great pop songs about something they enjoy, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Matt the Electrician/Nick Brown; July 19, 2012

I wouldn’t have thought a tour opening for the Weepies would do that much for someone’s career, but there were almost three times as many people in the basement as there was the last time Matt the Electrician played. Which is good news indeed, Matt is a sincere and genuine performer with just as many hilarious as sentimental songs about his wife and kids. It’s no wonder that he connected with a whole new audience on that tour. His growing fan base also includes the youngest house concert attendee yet, a five month old baby was in the audience, complete with his own personal tiny blue headphones. Even though basement shows seldom get that loud, I was happy to see they were being responsible. Apparently, he’s been to a couple shows already and he knows what he likes. He was fairly well-behaved during Nick Brown’s opening set, but got fussy during MtE. Maybe the song “Animal Boy” hit a little too close to home.

The song is one of many Matt has written for his kids. When his son was young, he was hungry all the time, leading to the nickname Animal Boy. I guess he still is; Matt told the story of making the kid burritos which he gobbled down quickly. When he asked for more, Matt refused, to which his son replied, “But dad, I am the animal boy.” His latest obsession has to do with numbers. He warned us not to get him started, but that didn’t take much. It all started with the fact that he was noticing the time 11:11 more often than would seem likely, which led to Google searches and the whole pseudoscience of numerology. He’s been making wishes right and left based on the supposed good luck of 2:22 and 5:55 and all the others. He again brought along the banjelele, a tiny four stringed instrument that I desperately wanted to be called a “manjo.” While it’s tiny plink seems more suited for Don Ho impersonations and Tiny Tim tributes, Matt uses it in a slightly more serious and interesting way.

Only the songs were serious in Nick Brown’s opening set, the banter in between was nothing but silly. As bass player in the Brown Derby, Brown doesn’t get a chance to talk much, and he obviously he saves it all up for his solo gigs. His rambling monologues at times bewilder but mostly bemuse his audience. Brown had been slated to open for Jon Langford back in May but smashed his finger moving a bookcase. This was his first gig since then and he gamely played despite the fact that the damaged nail was barely holding on. “Someone may end up with a very gross souvenir,” he warned. Brown had just released Slow Boat, a collection of original songs funded by a very successful Kickstarter campaign. The catchiest of the bunch is “Light Beer and Heavy Hearts,” the first song where he claims the title came first, the song second.

The record’s most poignant number is “Melanie” about a man convicted of killing his girlfriend’s stepfather twenty years after the incident. The true story, which Brown covered while a newspaper reporter in a tiny town in Vermont where not much happened, ever, is told from the shooter’s point of view, and it’s a heartbreaker. The record is terrific, full of smart songs and Sons of the Pioneer style backing vocals. It gets my vote for best local release. This was Brown’s first time in the basement, but I will definitely be asking him back. I know a lot of great local songwriters, but few have such great banter.

Nick Brown

Matt the Electrician

Monday, July 16, 2012

Robbie Fulks with a (not THE band); July 16, 2012; The Hideout

Tonight's theme was "Lovin' on Levon," a tribute to the drummer of the Band who had sadly passed away in April. Robbie had an all-star cast for this get-together, in fact he said he had to turn a lot of people down since "everyone wanted in on tonight's show." I think he chose his bandmates wisely. Vocal duties were distributed between Robbie, the terrific Nora O'Connor, keyboardist Chris Neville, and sweet-voiced drummer Gerald Dowd. Highlights included anything Dowd sang and a stellar version of "The Weight" which included verses sung by the bass player's thirteen year old daughter (who had recently made quite a splash on America's Got Talent- rightly so, she was fantastic) and an audience member who paid $5 to sing the Chester verse (and acquitted himself well). The night ended with Robbie and Nora doing Springsteen's "Atlantic City," which Helm used to do live.

Rest in peace Levon, rest in peace.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Billy Bragg “Happy 100th Birthday Woody;” July 11, 2012; Barrymore Theater

Nearly two years ago I went to see Billy Bragg at Turner Hall. More because I thought I should than because I really wanted to. The show was surprisingly good, and I didn’t regret for a minute missing Ha Ha Tonka in Madison (which should give you an idea of how good it was). He was exceedingly charming and funny, and the songs, played solo on electric guitar, were well-chosen and intense.

So when Billy Bragg came to Madison’s Barrymore Theater, I went because I really wanted to. What a difference a city makes. I hadn’t expected to pay $25 for a political rally, and had someone told me that’s what I was doing I would have passed. The show started innocently enough. For the first half Bragg was seated playing an acoustic guitar for a selection of the many Woody Guthrie songs that he has set to music. It was a fitting birthday tribute to a Guthrie who has reached a wider audience thanks to the efforts of Bragg and Wilco. He played many songs off of the Mermaid Avenue records in addition to some not yet released. “Way Down Yonder in the Hollow Tree,” which posits “there ain’t nobody who can sing like me,” was terrific as was “Against the Law” which catalogs all the things that are illegal in Winston Salem, a list so long that the list of legal probably would have been shorter. Admittedly I could have done without the extensive explanation of the sexual subtext of “Ingrid Bergman,” but the randy crowd seemed to enjoy it.

In fact, there wasn’t much they didn’t love. All I heard from friends afterward was how amazing it was. Apparently they didn’t mind that he only played (what felt like) eight songs in the second half and spent the rest of the time speechifying. He had joined the solidarity sing-along that noon at the capital, so you would think he would have it all out of his system. But if there is anything he likes better than music, it’s talking about social justice, especially when he has a sold out audience of encouragement. I was bored, frankly. Next time Bragg is in the area I likely won’t feel the need to go.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Neil Diamond; July 8, 2012; Marcus Amphitheater, Milwaukee

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Neil Diamond, he is seventy after all, but this show was pretty much everything I expected. He didn’t take many chances, the set list was almost strictly “greatest hits,” I knew almost every song, but that was what the crowd seemed to want. In fact, judging by the crowd around us in the general admission lawn seats, they not only wanted songs they knew, but they only wanted ones they could dance to too. Every time he started a slower song the chatter doubled, which was more than a little annoying. I was delighted when the pack of overweight moms and their clueless teenagers that had been standing near us moved on. At the end of the night “Turn on your Heartlight” was the only song I could think of that he’d missed, and I didn’t miss it. The ET inspired tune (which was silly to start with) has not aged as well as he has.

Instead of a doddering old man, we got a performer. He strolled around the stage, chatting amiably in between songs, and playing guitar on more than half of them. If he seemed a bit like a ringmaster at times it was legitimate because he had fifteen musicians backing him. There were guitars and keyboards (two!), a horn section and big voiced backing singers. One of the lucky ladies behind him took center stage for the Barbara Streisand half of the heartbreaking duet “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.” Another lady took center stage, if only in photos, for the encore. “Coming to America” was dedicated to his grandmother who had made the trip from Europe for a new life in the States. The tunes I enjoyed most were his early ones, the energetic “Crackling Rosie,” the meditative “Shiloh,” and the carnival-esque “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show,” where my sisters and I gleefully sang the lyrics one of us had misheard years ago, “Pack up the babies and crabby old ladies.”

In fact the only disappointment was that Diamond didn’t seem to know that monster sing-along “Sweet Caroline,” in addition to the “ba ba bahs” and cries of “so good, so good, so good,” is supposed to end with the chorus sang double and then triple time. Maybe the Tawnies can teach it to him. While they’re at it they could let him know that he doesn’t have to sing the correct lyrics every time. In fact, just a few familiar words is all you need and make the rest up.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Shane Sweeney/Todd May; July 6, 2012; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

It had been a busy summer so far, and I worried that doing on a show on the Friday following the Fourth of July would be a bust. I shouldn’t have worried, not only did enough people show up to make it respectable, but they all took the “suggested” donation very literally. I had suggested $7, they all gave more. Which turned out to be a very good night for Two Cow Garage’s Shane Sweeney and his friend fellow Columbus musician Todd May. I hadn’t thought of it, so I was amused when a friend pointed out that I had a Sweeney Todd show tonight.

May definitely got the joke, asking playfully “Does anyone need a haircut?” at the end of his short opening set. Sweeney had bragged about May’s songwriting, and rightly so. His songs were smart, catchy, and sung with feeling. He has an everyman look about him which made his music even more disarming. Sweeney was happy to oblige when May called him up toward the end of his set for a song. Sweeney’s gravelly, Tom Waits-ish voice doesn’t play well with everyone (backing vocals for Franz Nicolai come to mind) but he and May sound great together.

The last time Sweeney had played the basement he’d had a late-night discussion, possibly alcohol fueled, with my sister. Two things came of that conversation, the first was that she really wanted to hear him play a Tom Waits song, the second was that he learned how much she hated Rod Stewart and he wanted to change her mind. While his voice bears no resemblance at all to the Scottish singer, it was the Stewart cover that was the more memorable. In fact it was pretty awesome. Sweeney is a sucker for lyrics and something about “You Wear It Well” resonated with him. Later that night he recited the words back to us, in case we hadn’t ever gotten its full meaning. He didn’t have to convince me, I like Stewart, even if that particular song reminded me more of the cheesy 70’s radio of my childhood than it did of its author’s songwriting brilliance. It was an inspired choice, and May demanded that he sing it every night the rest of the tour.

Of course there was plenty of Sweeney’s original material in the set, much of it from his first solo record which had been released late last year. The record is a good one, full of his wry observations powered by his distinctive voice, but the first song I ever heard him sing will always be my favorite. It was my first trip to Twangfest, we were early for Robbie Fulks instore performance at Euclid Records, and we caught most of the set by three quiet boys, two of them hunched over acoustic guitars. It was hard to believe that the quiet brilliance of “Saturday Night,” a heartbreakingly honest song about relationships, came from the same band that exploded onstage later that night. I still get a little choked up every time I hear it, and Sweeney is always good enough to play it for me even though he seldom does it live anymore.

Yep, Sweeney is a pretty special performer. I don’t know why I was worried, even if it had been just me and two friends in the basement he would have given the same amazing show.

Todd May

Shane Sweeney

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express/Josh Harty Band; July 5; 2012; East Side Club

Booking an early evening show on the lake in July probably looked like a great idea when it was booked since there is no way they could have known that Southern Wisconsin would be in the middle of its worst drought in decades, and that the misery would be compounded by triple digit temperatures. I guess when you are playing in this kind of heat it helps to be so freaking cool. Even though I was sweating sitting in the shade, with a bandana around his neck and a big hat shading his face, Prophet never seemed to really mind the heat.

His new release Temple Beautiful is a tribute to his hometown of San Francisco, and it is pretty great. The go-to song is “The Left Hand and the Right Hand” about brothers Jim and Artie Mitchell, whom Prophet describes as a modern day Cain and Abel. (Watch the video starring creepy disembodied hands here This was the first time I’d heard the story behind “White Night, Big City” which is dedicated to Harvey Milk, one of SF’s truly good guys. The title track is a tribute to a long gone punk club. It’s bouncy and fun with catchy chorus of “shoo be doo bop wop.” Only Prophet can take that sort of nonsense and make it sound profound, as he does with "You Did (bomp shooby doobie bomp)." A song that he likes to introduce as being so heavy we probably aren’t ready for it.

I don’t think anyone would have blamed him for cutting his set short but he certainly didn’t skimp. Of course “Summertime Thing” made an appearance; it’s hard to imagine a more perfect song for a night like tonight. As far as I know it’s the closest thing Prophet has had to a hit, but he has reinvented it over the years, and it’s great live. His wife Stephanie Finch took her turn at the mike with a song from her record. “Count the Days” was the second song of hers I’d heard and it convinced me to buy Cry Tomorrow after the show. Prophet has a knack for the perfect cover, often digging up garage rock nuggets for his shows. I’ve seen him do the Flaming Groovies “Shake Some Action” before, and it is one of his best.

While Prophet and band had the advantage of a setting sun for their set, Josh Harty and his band had no such relief, which made their blistering opening set even more amazing. They played a familiar set, including Dietrich Gosser’s “Empire Bar,” which Harty likes to mention is “the song my dad hates.” Seeing as he’s a preacher and the song is about too much time spent drinking whiskey, it is no surprise. It was pretty miserable, but they were certainly pros. Extra props to drummer Chris Sasman who had the hardest job of the night.

Yep, it was a show well worth the heat. Maybe next time Prophet plays Madison it will be in the cool confines of the House of Righteous Music. I can only hope.

The Josh Harty Band

Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express