Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Bottle Rockets; December 30, 2012; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

“This is our third time doing this,” lead singer Brian Henneman announced to begin the night, “you know how it works.” That way is that we request songs, they play them. Pretty simple, though beware that Brian will chide you if you waste your request on “Gas Girl,” the shortest song in a catalog that spans seven records and twenty years. In fact, on the eve of the biggest party of the year, he asked that at midnight tomorrow we take a moment at midnight to celebrate their two decade milestone. And they’ve weathered it well. “When we first got into this business, they said we weren’t attractive enough to make it,” he recalled, “but I think we’ve grow into it. We’ve gotten better looking over the years.” I had to smile thinking back to first time I saw them and a friend turned to me dismayed, “Kiki I can’t be attracted to any of them.” It’s surprisingly true though. Gone is the long hair and metal band T-shirts, replaced by hairstyles and button-ups. And it certainly didn’t hurt that the new guys (both who have been in the band eight or more years) are the adorable John Horton on guitar and the very handsome Keith Voegele on bass.

There weren’t many surprises, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Bottle Rockets show, request or otherwise, where they didn’t play “the big three” of “Indianapolis,” ”$1000 Car” and “Radar Gun.” Despite having seen them more times than I can count, I’ve never gotten sick of that trio. They’re all catchy, clever and memorable, which is probably why they were some of the first requests called for. I realize they want to slow it down sometimes, but I don’t always need to hear “Get Down River,” and I wouldn’t miss “Smokin’ 100’s.” This time I echoed Michelle’s call for “Hey Moon,” one of the catchiest break-up songs I’ve ever heard, and it worked. The last time I didn’t make any requests, figuring they know what I want to hear. Well, they do, but that didn’t mean they remembered to play it. I made a point of mentioning that at the beginning of the night. It worked. Toward the end of the night, John whispered “WIWD” to Brian, who responded with “what would Kiki do??” He continued, “This just goes to prove that if you are a total pain in the ass about us playing a particular song, it becomes your song.” It might not sound like a compliment, but I’m pretty proud that “When I Was Dumb” is now my song, no matter if I’m there or not.

In the course of the night they ended up playing most of their debut record, home to “Moon,” “Rural Route” and the devastating “Kerosene.” But there were also requests for more recent material. “The Long Way” and “Get on the Bus” from Lean Forward were both popular, and it was great to hear the title track of the unfairly forgotten Blue Sky.

It’s hard to imagine a more solid and entertaining live band on the planet than the Bottle Rockets. I sure am glad that they like playing at my house, because, yeah, I do know how it works, and I really like it.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Robbie Fulks Year End Wrap-Up; December 29, 2012; Fitzgerald’s, Berwyn

If you’ve seen Robbie Fulks play you know he’s an impressive guitar player with a wide vocal range and immense wealth of musical knowledge. You probably also noticed that’s he’s a great and quick witted storyteller, but nothing shows off the depth of his comic genius like his year end shows. This year after the band played one song he announced that they would be doing the “so-called” comedy section first, in case anyone was only there for that and wanted to leave after. I’m not sure if anyone did since I was right up front and had no idea what was going on behind me, nor did I have any intention of leaving.

He was aided in this comic marathon by his willing and able band. As usual Grant Tye was on guitar and Gerald Dowd behind the drum kit. Apparently bass player Mike Fredrickson was a last minute cancellation and was replaced by Casey McDonough, who can apparently do it all. Last year he played keyboard, but this year we got Scott Stevenson who was almost exclusively referred to as “new guy” and even sang a song about it. The first order of business was the Rap of the Dead, which happily made a return after being absent last year. It is easily the single most impressive part of these shows. The meticulously comprehensive rap must take weeks to memorize. I was worried that somehow he was going to forget Davy Jones but he showed up halfway through. Perhaps the best line was “Mitt Romney… might as well be.”

Early on, Fulks turned to Gerald and called him Mike. Gerald protested that he should know his name by now, but Fulks claimed that Mike had cancelled too late and he would have to play his part. He did that by donning a large white afro and a pair of garish blue glasses. That was only the first of many wigs, which included a pair that looked appropriate for the British Parliament. As usual there were costume changes and hilarious songs, the best of which was a tribute to the “God particle” also known as the Higgs boson. “There’s a boson, down in Higgsville” the song went. The comedy section also relied heavily on Joe Dempsey who again this year provided some of the biggest laughs, though admittedly his turn as a cranky old man to end the set wasn’t near as good as Robbie’s who seems as though he is destined to be a cane shaking “get off my lawn” senior.

The second set played like a greatest hits record as the band tore through the songs they have been playing live for years. It’s hard to argue with a set that includes “Let’s Live Together” and “Nickels and Dimes.” Perhaps the biggest surprise was Gerald getting a turn at lead singer. I already knew he could sing, and I knew he could write a great country song (the tear in my beer instant classic “I Didn’t Finish Drinking Last Night” that he played in the basement back in March), but I didn’t know he could also do power pop. Though from his time in Frisbie I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. “I Do” was not the sappy wedding song you might have expected from the title, much colder than that, the chorus claimed “I want to say I don’t like to make you cry but I do.”

After Robbie stopped taking his year end show on the road (he played several New Year’s Eves in Madison), there were several years where I didn’t make the trip to see this ridiculously entertaining show. I won’t make that mistake again.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Waco Brothers' December 28, 2012; Schubas, Chicago

I see the Waco Brothers several times every year at SXSW, but I'm always busy working merch for Bloodshot. It isn't until I see them in a setting like this, where they get all my attention, that I really appreciate how awesome they are. The capacity crowd seemed to appreciate it as much as I did. It was even more remarkable knowing they had to come back the next night and do it all over again.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Neil MFing Diamond; December 22, 2012; High Noon Saloon

The Neil Diamond cover band opened for Waylan St Palan & his Magic Elves in a pre-Christmas show. Considering the fact that the lead singer sounds exactly like Neil Diamond, I wish they would have done some of the songs from his classic Christmas album. Yes, Diamond is Jewish, so what?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The August Teens; December 15, 2012; High Noon Saloon

Who knew the Ventures Christmas record was so cool? Not me, that's for sure. Their inventive surf rock versions of Christmas classics as interpreted by the August Teens made me want to run right out and get the original. Even better, this was a happy hour show with plenty of holiday cheer. Happy holidays!

Dietrich Gosser; December 15, 2012; Mad City Music Exchange

Benefit for the Keep Wisconsin Warm Fund

Friday, December 14, 2012

Jon Dee Graham/Mike June; December 14, 2012; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

I have a few rules to my top ten lists, one is that no artist can appear more than once. Surprisingly for a procrastinator like myself, I’d already made mine for this year, but after this show I replaced Jon Dee Graham’s show back in June with tonight’s. It seems impossible, but every show he plays is better than the one before. The next day that belief was confirmed when a patron told me that he had run into another audience member that morning who looked at him with disbelief and asked, “was that show as amazing as I thought it was?” already knowing the answer.

Graham is great with a band, but he may be even better solo. There’s so much emotion channeled into that voice and that guitar. He said after that he had consciously played songs that he doesn’t usually play at the house, and “Robot Moving,” with its correct use of the word irony, was evidence of that. I’d never heard the story behind that one, but it was a good one. He’d received a card from his sister who had obviously commissioned her unwilling son to do the artwork. Amidst a field of “angry” Christmas trees was a tiny silver stick figure with the label “robot.” “Thank you,” he’d declared emphatically upon receiving it and that inspired a song, awesome. He also went back into his catalog for the unabashedly romantic “Majestic of Love.” There was plenty of new fare from this year’s Garage Sale, like the equally heart-tugging “Yes, Yes,” the surprisingly upbeat “Orphan” and the haunted “Codeine/Codine.”

I love all his songs but there are a few I’ll admit to loving more than the rest. One is “October,” the ferocious rocker from Summerland. That was the record he was touring behind when I first saw him, so there’s always been something special about it. Also, my birthday is on October which seems special too. There have been shows were he hasn’t played the song he knows is my favorite, and that’s OK, but when he does play it, well, I’ve been known to get a little emotional. Tonight as he strummed the chords that make up “I’ll Wait,” the precursor to his stunning “Airplane,” I could already feel the emotion. By the time he got to the first chorus it was undeniable. Another longtime fan stood next to me, “I’m glad I’m not the only one crying,” she whispered to me. At the end of the night I told Graham he’d made Sue and I cry, “good” was his response. I think he wants people to feel as much as he does.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Freedy Johnston/Louka Patenaude; December 8, 2012; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

The holiday season usually proves slow for touring bands and show goers alike, but the House of Righteous Music has been extra busy this year with four shows booked for December. The first of these was Freedy Johnston. I have been a fan of Johnston’s since This Perfect World came out in 1994. And he’s been a fan of Madison since then; the record was produced at Smart Studios with Butch Vig (who would later become a co-conspirator in their irreverent cover band Know-It-All Boyfriends). I’ve seen Johnston many, many times over the years, and if you had told me at any of those shows that someday he would play my basement I would have called you crazy. Crazily enough, this was actually the second time he played the basement this year, the first time was with Jon Dee Graham and Susan Cowsill as the Hobart Brothers & Lil’ Sis.

Something about the basement seems to bring out the best in the performers, whether it’s trying new material, telling the stories behind the songs that they’ve never told before, or playing songs they don’t usually play (usually as a request). And Johnston did all three. I was peering over his shoulder as he wrote his set list in the dining room. “Was there something you wanted to hear?” he asked, before continuing modestly, “not to assume that you know my songs.” I asked for “Seventies Girl” and he said he’d be happy to play it, to which a surprised Jay Moran (merch girl (his words) for the night) claimed he’d never heard him play that song, “and I love that song!” He also took Chadd’s request for “Responsible,” Bill’s for “Lucky One” and Hilton’s for “something he never plays live.”

It didn’t take long for him to check off Hilton’s request. Between telling the story behind the song “The First to See the Earth,” which had never been played live before, and tuning his guitar it took several minutes before he even played it. “Geez Freedy,” he chided himself, “you should be on the second song by now.” Not that anyone was complaining, his rambling stories with their tangents were just as entertaining as the songs. On several occasions he would finish an introduction with “I don’t think I’ve ever told that story before.” Halfway through the set my sister called for “Seventies Girl,” also her favorite. “Don’t worry Kiki, I told you I’d play it.” I protested that it wasn’t me, but it did get the song played right then. And it was awesome. I’ve waited a long time to hear that live. Alas, he couldn’t do them all, Gina’s request for “I’m Not Hypnotized” was met with “I wish I could play that.”

The songs slated for the long-awaited Neon Repairman were really terrific and stuck with me after just one listen, such as the aforementioned “Leave the Earth” which is about Yuri Gagarin, and the title track which parallels “Wichita Lineman.” He pulled out the ukulele for one of his only covers of the night. “I’m convinced Nick Lowe wrote this song on the ukulele,” he announced before playing a pretty sweet version of “Cruel to Be Kind.” (I think he may be right.) That song tied opener Louka Patenaude’s intriguing version of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” for best cover of the night.

Yep, another great night of music in the basement. I know that for sure because both performers said they couldn’t wait to do it again.

Louka Patenaude

Freedy Johnston

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Boo Bradley; December 1, 2012; Mad City Music Exchange

Benefit for the Keep Wisconsin Warm Fund

Lamplighter Session featuring Peter Mulvey, Randy Sabien and Count This Penny; December 1, 2012; Café Carpe

As reliable as the holidays, Peter Mulvey’s takeover of the Café Carpe happens every year about this time. This year there were going to be eleven shows, covering every weekend from now till just before Christmas, a musical Advent calendar of sorts. Each night features a different panel of guests with Mulvey playing the ringleader for an evening of songwriters in the round. I usually try to make at least one of these; it wouldn’t be the holidays without it. This year the choice was easy since tonight Mulvey was joined by Madison favorites Amanda and Allan Rigell of Count This Penny and the terrific violinist Randy Sabien. I’d only seen Sabien once before (also with Mulvey), but I didn’t expect him to be the comic relief.

When his turn came around the first time, he announced solemnly, “this is a seasonal number,” before playing a popular tune reworked into a lighthearted Christmas song. This continued for the rest of the evening, and each time he made his pronouncement it was a little funnier than the time before. An example was his version of “Yesterday,” where “Christmas seemed so far away, now it’s only days away.” Since I knew him only as a fiddler, it was surprising to see him play guitar for most of his own numbers, to which a mock annoyed Mulvey commented how dispiriting it was that Sabien was better on his second instrument than he was on his first. “Actually,” he replied, “it’s my third.” When not playing his own songs Sabien joined in with Mulvey and Count This Penny on theirs. It’s unlikely he’d heard CTP’s songs much before this afternoon, but he played them like he’d played them on the record.

Despite being relative newcomers to the local music scene, and this being their first appearance at the Carpe, CTP definitely held up their part of the show. They played most of the songs of their impressive sophomore record Pitchman, making the most of Amanda’s gorgeous voice and Allan’s smart storytelling. They switched the bass guitar back and forth between them depending on who was backing the other. Highlights from the pair included Allen’s suicide (or was it?) ballad “Mountain,” a cover of Nick Brown’s “Living This Way” and of course the indelible title track. While they played their own songs perfectly, they looked a little lost when the other two played. Amanda claimed afterward that their New Year’s resolution was to get better at their instruments.

Mulvey was terrific all night, playing songs I knew by heart and ones I hadn’t heard before. He didn’t seem to mind a bit that the Rigells hadn’t joined in on other songs, and he looked quite pleased for the entire evening, saying afterward that he thought this was the night to beat. I didn’t make it to any of the other nights, but I am pretty sure he was right. A friend who was seeing Count This Penny for the first time just kept whispering “Best. Show. E-ver.” to me. That might be going a bit far, but it was terrifically enjoyable.