Saturday, September 29, 2012

Will Johnson & Anders Parker; September 29, 2012; Off Broadway, St Louis

Another bus, another city. It was nice to find out that not only is it pretty comfy, but Greyhound can be just as cheap as the Megabus, my ticket from Champaign to St Louis was only $5. After only seeing Will and Anders in my basement and unamplified for the last several years, it felt weird to be seeing them in a club, especially one as big as Off Broadway. They had chairs set up, which prevented some awkward standing around, and we went right up to the front row. Why not? Unfortunately Ryan Adams, best sound guy in St Louis and sometime Ha Ha Tonka tour manager who I absolutely adore, was not working tonight since his band was playing, but I will grudgingly admit this guy was pretty awesome.

Anders and Will played a couple songs together and then in the professionalism borne of having spent eighteen straight days of shows on the road together, did rock, paper, scissors to determine who would play first, or was it second? Neither seemed quite sure what “winning” meant. In the end, Anders stayed and Will left. It’s always a bit of a surprise at first to hear Anders sing, the giant of a man has a surprisingly gentle and beautiful voice. He played some new songs in addition to the gorgeously addictive “Dust to Dust” and the perfect “That Song.” They switched spots and Will showcased songs slated for the upcoming Centromatic record, some of which he had played at the house in the spring, all of which sound great. He also played a couple from the New Multitudes record which he and Anders had recorded with Son Volt’s Jay Farrar and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James. His “Chorine My Sheba Queen” steals the show on record and was pretty devastating live.

They were both delighted to see us, having half expected us in Chicago the night before. Anders admitted it wasn’t until after the tour was already booked that he looked at the schedule carefully and realized not only were there not any days off, but there was also no Madison stop. He hinted that he may be back early next year with Kendall Meade in support of a record they were doing together. Will hoped he would be seeing me in the spring as part of what has become an annual living room tour. I gave an enthusiastic yes to both.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Pygmalion Fest; September 27, 2012; Champaign IL

I was home for two days before taking another day off work and taking another bus. This time it was Greyhound to Champaign for one night of the Pygmalion Festival. Let me give a little shout out to Greyhound here. While the bus was not quite as nice as the ones that Megabus and Van Galder drive, it was certainly more comfortable with bigger seats and more legroom. Plus it was the only place all day that advertised “free WiFi” where it actually worked. Go Greyhound. While there was a multitude of bands playing at several different venues over the course of three nights, I was only going to see Zeus. I figured if they could come all the way from Canada to play a thirty minute set in Champaign, I could make the trip from Madison to see them do it. And it was worth it, I spent that thirty minutes in a daze.

Despite the fact that the immensely (and somewhat inexplicably) popular Best Coast was the headliner at the cavernous Canopy Club that night, there was only a smattering of people there when Zeus went on. There were a few fans like me, but most were early arrivals, many of whom were predictably blown away by their killer harmonies and impressive musicianship. For every band like Fleet Foxes who haven’t figured out that everyone does not need to sing all the time, there’s a band like Zeus where every member should have a microphone. Which, funnily enough, they don’t. Instead they do it Beatles style, the two doing backing vocals share a mike. The similarities don’t end there, that’s the band I name when asked what they sound like. It’s hard to say a band is like the Beatles without sounding pretentious, but well, there you have it.

Their fleeting set was over in a heartbeat, but it included cuts from their last two full length records plus their signature, but still satisfying, cover. Highlights included “Are You Gonna Waste My Time” and “With Eyes Closed” from the new Busting Visions and the haunting two part “The River by the Garden” and “Kindergarten” from their first release Say Us. The child in the latter has some issues “I don’t want to hit the other kids in anger, oh but I do, but I don’t want to,” pretty heavy, but it avoids being gimmicky. If I were writing the set list I might have left off the cover of Genesis’ “That’s All” but that’s only because there were so many of their songs I wanted to hear, like “Marching Through Your Head” which does exactly that. I’ll admit that channeling Phil Collins is an attention getter and their un-ironic cover is pretty spectacular.

After their set I went over to the merch booth to see if they had anything I could spend money on and ended up getting another shirt and telling their merch guy I’d come all the way from Madison just to see them. “We’ve never played Madison,” he claimed before correcting himself, “oh wait, once. You must have been one of the five people there.” I handed him a card and told him they should come play my basement, to which he declared, “Done!” Oh please, oh please.

I stuck around the rest of the night, but other than seeing Jim Elkington play drums (who knew?) with Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab nothing was that interesting. All those silly people who packed in later for and Best Coast missed the best band of the night.


Laetitia Sadier

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Thursday, September 20, 2012

On tour with Firewater; September 20-24 and October 4-6, 2012; Everywhere

Volunteer tour managing a six piece band, only one of whom I’d met before (once, four years ago), for eight shows from New Orleans to Denver and then from Minneapolis to Cleveland is probably not everyone’s idea of a dream vacation, but it certainly was mine. It wasn’t quite as crazy as it sounds; Firewater is on Bloodshot Records after all (admittedly an unlikely pairing, but it works). The label manager Scott Schaeffer was managing the other two thirds of the tour, and he’s known lead singer/songwriter Tod A forever. Still I wasn’t quite sure I was making the best decision. On the morning we left Kansas City for Denver (another eight hour plus drive) one of the guys asked why I was leaving them the next day, so soon. “I didn’t know if I would like you guys,” I replied, “I didn’t want to commit to too much.” But the truth was now I didn’t want to go home, I did like all of them, a lot, and I would have done the whole tour if it wasn’t for the real job.

I’ve spent plenty of time on the road with Ha Ha Tonka, so I knew what to expect from being on the road, and I knew all about doing merch, but this would be my first time “TM-ing this shit” (as Lennon would say). I overlapped two dates with Scott, hoping to learn from him, but the truth was I was pretty clueless when he left and I became the one in charge. It didn’t help that my first date was Riotfest in Dallas. A mostly punk rock festival, this was its first year in Texas. The venue was some “your name here” corporate sponsor amphitheater, but to me it was the good old Starplex amphitheater, site of many a classic rock show during my time in Dallas. I saw David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan there, as well as Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Buffet and George Strait, just to name a few. It was hot as hell there- 105 when we arrived- and it hadn’t cooled off much at all by the time they went on at 8 pm. What on paper sounded like a great gig turned out to be kind of a nightmare. They were the last band on a second stage which was running late, which meant they went on against NOFX on the main stage. Second stage also meant no hospitality, and beers were $10 or more. Then, after they played I got forty plus minutes of runaround trying to get paid since my second stage wristband wouldn’t allow me backstage, where the dudes had apparently been waiting for me. However, the time the band was actually playing was pretty amazing. The handful of people in front the stage couldn’t have been happier to be there, some had driven hours and paid the fifty dollars for the festival ticket just to see Firewater.

The enthusiasm of the fans was true everywhere we went. Most people couldn’t believe they were finally going to see Firewater, saying they’d been waiting five years, ten years, or their whole lives to see them. Lots of people drove lots of miles. A trio followed us from New Orleans to Austin to Dallas. I met people from Des Moines in Kansas City, from Louisville, Iowa City and Baltimore(!) in Chicago, and from Cincinnati in Cleveland. And if they were excited before the show, they were even more so after. Merch sales were decent every night despite the fact that we didn’t have T-shirts and most of the people who came up to the merch table looked over the display and said they already had everything.

Firewater is Tod A, lead singer, guitarist and the only constant member in their twelve year history. Each record and every tour saw a different band. All of them good, every one has something to recommend it. In addition to 2008’s Golden Hour and the brand new International Orange!, Bloodshot has released Firewater’s entire back catalog (with the exception of The Ponzi Scheme, which is still owned by Universal). This is the first time in years that some of these CDs are available. Still, when people asked which one to get I had no problem highly touting the new one. Its ridiculously catchy songs get in your head and stay there. And they play well live too. “A Little Revolution” and “The Monkey Song” were part of every night’s show, which saw some variables from night to night. For instance, “Three Headed Dog” didn’t make it onto a setlist until Dallas, where we needed something darker. The highlight every night was (surprisingly) the mostly instrumental “Bhangra Brothers” which featured a center stage performance from percussionist Jazz. Even after eight shows I wasn’t tired of the audience participation portion which they always gladly gave.

Other highlights included the gig in Kansas City where the bartenders bent over backwards to keep us happy and the promoter couldn’t stop smiling; he couldn’t believe Firewater was playing his venue. In addition, the two Ha Ha Tonka members, Lennon and Brett Anderson, who live in KC came out to the show. It was nice to be able to put them on the list for once. In Cleveland on the last night of the tour they played every song they knew and Tod treated the audience to a solo version of an old Cop Shoot Cop song “Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead.” “You’re showing your age,” he chided the audience when they went crazy after the first line. Most of all the highlight of every day and night was getting to hang out with seven really great guys, every one of them smart, witty, charming and handsome. Oh, and foreign, did I mention that? Of the bunch, only Tod had been born in the USA and he’s been living in Istanbul for the last two years.

Yep, pretty much a dream vacation. If there is a spring tour, as Tod hinted there may be, sign me up.

Firewater/Zydepunks; September 20, 2012; Tipitina's, New Orleans