Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Flat Five; December 29, 2013; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

The Flat Five don’t get a chance to play together very often, but when they do, they don’t want to stop.  Most of the band had arrived at my house by 1 pm for the 7 pm show (pushed back from 6 due to the winner take all football game between division rivals the Packers and the Bears at 3).  They hadn’t played any gigs since the end of 2012 so they wanted some rehearsal time.  The Flat Five play covers, but they aren’t the songs you hear on classic rock or oldies radio stations.  I only knew maybe a third of the songs they played; admittedly some of those were from hearing them played over and over during their practice.  I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d never seen the Flat Five before, but most of them had already been in my basement.  The gorgeous voiced Kelly Hogan (who’s played here twice with her own band)and equally amazing Nora O’Connor (who plays bass with her)are the female contingent, while Casey McDonough, Alex Hall and Scott Ligon are the male delegation.  Casey also plays with Kelly, while Hall and I met when he played drums for Robbie’s Christmas show earlier in the month.  I’d never met Scott Ligon before, but when he arrived he told me he’d been here before.  I was slightly confused until he explained that he’d been with Kelly when they had stayed at the house when I was out of town.  Yeah I do that.

After four plus hours of rehearsal you wouldn’t think the show would have much energy.  You’d be wrong.  They took a break after the hour long first set, claiming they would come back and play until we begged them to stop.  They played another hour and a half for the second set.  They started off set two with one of the rehearsal songs, one which Ligon said his family used to sing while washing the car.  Since the song was a five part harmony version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” it makes you wonder what growing up in his family was like.  The wordy recital may have been the most unique thing they played, but there were plenty of surprises.  The best of which was the Monkees’ “Love is Only Sleeping,” Mike Nesmith has nothing on Casey McDonough except maybe a cooler stocking cap.  When they had rehearsed it earlier in the day I ran down the steps.  “SQUEALLLLLLLL!” I said when they finished the first run through.  “I LOVE that song,” I declared with obvious excitement.  That display got it dedicated to me to me during the show, mostly because Hogan found it hilarious that I had said “squeal” rather than actually doing it.  A close second on the highlight scale was a second Monkees song, this one completely unexpected, especially because I had no idea it was written by Harry Nilsson.  It came third in a trio of his songs, and I don’t think I was the only one who wasn’t expecting it.  “We don’t even know that one,” Hogan laughed at the end.  I never would have guessed, it was perfect.  I did my own little Davy Jones dance in the back of the room, you know, the one later copied by Axel Rose.

I wasn’t the only one having a great time, everyone in the sold out crowd was obviously enjoying this very special performance.  Even the two audience members under ten.  The harmonies were stunning throughout the show, and everyone got a chance to shine.  It was especially great to see Scott Ligon, often a sideman, take on a lead role in the band as he switched between guitar and keyboard.  It won’t be long before he’s back in the basement, again when I’m here.  One of his other bands, the Western Elstons, is playing in February.  In addition to including Hall and McDonough, the band also includes former Madisonian and guitar wizard Joel Paterson.  I’m guessing we can expect more harmonies and more great covers.  I can’t wait.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Jon Dee Graham/Mike June; December 14, 2013; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

Mike June and I have fallen into a comfortable routine.  Every summer, Jon Dee Graham’s booking agent and frequent tourmate sends Jon Dee and his band the Fighting Cocks up through the Midwest with the ultimate goal of playing the basement and a slot at Fitzgerald’s American Music Festival before turning around and heading home.  Then  he joins a solo Jon Dee on the same run just before the holidays.  The first they like to call “The Run for the Roses,” the second “The Run for the Mistletoe.”  It’s hard to say which I like better, while his show this summer was a powerhouse rock show over two sweaty hours long, this was more of an introspective storyteller show.  “I didn’t use to tell the stories behind my songs,” Graham confessed, “but screw that, I’m old now, and tired.”  You wouldn’t have guessed he was tired from the nearly two hour long show he put on tonight.

While some of the songs received entertainingly long introductions, at other times he would play three in a row without stopping for more than a thank you to the audience.  Many of the songs were familiar but the ones that weren’t stood out even more.  The most memorable of these came early in the set.  The story of a missing boy and the man who may or may not have abducted him and hung for the crime was a darkly sad song where no one was a winner and there were only losers.  Surprisingly his Bah Humbug-sounding holiday song “I Hate Christmas” finishes the title with the heartwarming “when I’m not at home.”  Also appropriate for this time of year  was the story behind “Robot Moving” which was inspired by a hand-drawn holiday card from his young nephew, who had obviously been forced to do it.  Under the angry evergreen trees which graced the front was a tiny arrow, when you flipped it over there was a tiny stick figure of a mechanical man.  “Robot moving” it was labeled.  The lyrics, which drew appreciative chuckles from the audience, tell of a man trying to make sense of life.  “Everyone says put one foot in front of the other, but the irony is that’s the only way feet work,” he posits, adding “I never meant to use the word irony in a song, but the irony is I never meant to live this long.”

The pleasant irony is that whether he meant to live this long or not, he is currently having the time of his life.  He’s happier than I have ever seen him.  He’s playing more shows like these across the country, in living rooms, basements, art spaces and rooms above the general store in a small town in Mississippi.  And that’s thanks to Mike June who has played over a hundred of these shows with him this year.  Though June has lived in Austin for many years now, he’s a Jersey boy at heart.  “How are you doin’?” he asked a couple songs in.  The crowd did what we do here in Wisconsin when someone asks us that question, we cheered wildly, translation “we’re doing great.”  “How are you doin’?” he asked again, and then again when we still didn’t give the right answer.   “See, I’m originally from New Jersey,” he offered by way of explanation, “and when someone asks you that, you reply with ‘how are you doin’?’ emphasis on the you.”  He tried it again and this time we got it right.  June’s songs bear similarities to the Garden State’s most famous musical son.  His are the songs of the working class, the average man, with all their problems and victories.  They are grounded, relatable songs, all belted out in his strong, comfortable voice.  He also had a Christmas song, though it wasn’t as heartwarming as Jon Dee’s had been.  In fact, it was flat out hilarious.  The narrator finds Santa in bed with his wife, shoot him in the balls, and spends Christmas in jail.  Ho ho ho.  

Mike June

 Jon Dee Graham

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Bottle Rockets/Otis Gibbs; December 12, 2013; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

The first time the Bottle Rockets played the House of Righteous Music it was a full-on rock show with spilled beer and standing room only in front of the “stage.”  On their second trip through they were doing a series of living room shows and had stripped it down to a more acoustic, but still plugged in show, the third time fell somewhere in between.  Two days before the show drummer Mark Ortmann called to tell me that they’d decided to do tonight’s show almost, totally, completely unplugged.  Only Keith Voegele’s bass required electricity, there were no microphones, no guitar amps, the most minimal drum kit you could imagine and a whole lot of John Horton’s mandolin.  They’d done these shows before, in other living rooms, but they hadn’t done it here, and it was remarkable.  Some songs were completely reinvented in this format and the whole show was a revelation.

One thing that was the same is that the show was all request.  Sitting down in front of the surprisingly hushed crowd, lead singer Brian Henneman asked “so what do you want to hear?”  “You’ve been here before, you know how this works.”  The requests kept coming for an hour and a half, drawing heavily from the first two records, which tied nicely into the deluxe re-release  of their self-titled debut and sophomore effort The Brooklyn Side on Bloodshot Records.  Unfortunately the double disc set with a staggering amount of extras including live cuts, demos (many recorded with Uncle Tupelo who Henneman toured with), and versions of the songs from Chicken Truck, their pre-B Rox incarnation, has proven so popular that they can’t keep it in stock and the band had only five copies left to sell tonight (all of which were snapped up before the end of the set).  They opened with the riding the range song “Lonely Cowboy,” followed by “Pot of Gold” which Henneman claims contains the most romantic chord in the Bottle Rockets oeuvre, though he claims he came upon it accidentally.  Of course fan favorites like the lighthearted trio of “Radar Gun,” “Indianapolis,” and “$1000 Car” were among the requests, as well as the disheartened  “Smokin’ 100’s Alone” and the gut wrenching “Kerosene.”

They had reached the end of the set and announced they were only going to play a few more songs.  Henneman listened to the requests, apparently waiting for the perfect one.  “What’s it going to be…” he pondered, waiting so long to decide that I finally made one.  “OK, I’ll say it, ‘When I Was Dumb,’” I called from the back of the room.  It must have been what he was waiting for.  I wasn’t going to, I wanted to give everyone a chance to get their song heard, but ultimately I had to know what my favorite song would sound like in this setting.  It wasn’t as wildly different from the original as some of the songs had been, but it was really great.  The Bottle Rockets in the basement has proven to be one of the most consistently entertaining and always intriguing shows I host.  Thanks again guys.

I’d only seen Otis Gibbs once before during SXSW at a Sunday afternoon fried chicken cookout and show.  I bought both CDs and invited him to come play at the house sometime.  I didn’t hear from him, but when I saw he was playing many of the dates on either side of my house, I asked the Bottle Rockets if it was possible for him to come to Madison.  It only took a few hours before I heard back from Bob at Undertow, and Gibbs was on the bill.  He was also happy to play unplugged, and wowed the crowd with an emotionally intense set of story-songs, but only after he requested that everyone put away their video cameras.  “Let’s just live in the moment,” he asked.  Perhaps my favorite of his was “My True Friends.”  “Everyone’s your best friend when you’re closing down the bars,” he laments, “but God bless the ones who really are.”  I gave him another card, hopefully he’ll want to come back.

Otis Gibbs

 The Bottle Rockets

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Jon Dee Graham/Mike June; December 10, 2013; The Keep at the Castle Theater, Bloomington IL

Even I thought it was a little crazy to drive to Bloomington IL on a Tuesday night to see Jon Dee Graham and Mike June only four days before they were going to be in my basement, but the look on Jon Dee's face when he saw us and the pizza we had down the street before the show totally made it worth it.  The show was in the balcony of the Castle Theater, a charming old theater right downtown where many of the acts that play the Majestic or Barrymore in Madison stop as they pass through southern Illinois.  This was the first time Jon Dee had played Bloomington, or at least as far as he could remember it was.  "When you've been on tour as long as I have, you can't always be sure," he joked.  Despite the fact that there were less than two dozen people scattered through the balcony, they were an enthusiastic bunch.  In fact, we even knew a few of them. Rob Hanning lives somewhere in middle of nowhere near the Illinois Iowa border, though he seems reluctant to give us the exact location.  He's traveled to Madison many times to see Jon Dee and Steve Poltz in my basement, and it was great to see a familiar face.  There was another couple there who recognized Michelle from high school in Peoria (seriously) and several random shows since.  They didn't know me, until I mentioned that I had shows in my house.  "Are you Kiki?" they asked excitedly.  They are on the mailing list now, hopefully they can make a show sometime.

Oh, and the pizza came from Tobin's Pizza, who in addition to their own pizza offer "Michealo's Pizza," a beloved pizza spot that had closed down.  It was a little weird, but am I glad they do, Michealo's pizza is amazing.  I'd go to another show in Bloomington just for the promise of that pizza.

Mike June

Jon Dee Graham

Friday, December 06, 2013

Robbie Fulks; December 6, 2013; The Harmony Bar

Robbie Fulks year-end shows are legendary.  The versatile musical genius pulls out all the stops with his wrap-up of the year that was every year at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn.  This holiday special was a little different.  Backed by handsome upright bass-player Beau Sample, angel-voiced Nora O’Connor, charming drummer Alex Hall and always amazing guitarist Robbie Gjersoe, Fulks led the band through a winter wonderland, some of it serious, some of it hilarious.  The obvious winner in the latter category was Fulks’ “Here Comes Santa with His Sack of Shit,” while tunes sung by any of the supporting players could have taken the award in the former category.  Even though the quintet had played together the night before, the whole evening had a “let’s just go for it” feel with sheet music shuffled in between songs.  No one is a master of the musical improv more than Fulks and he kept the show rolling, interspersing his originals with the holiday fare.  And yes, of course, they did the Peanuts’ Christmas song.

Fulks used this show to announce his return to the basement next month, and before I left at the end of the night the show was a third reserved.  Coming so soon after tonight’s show, I expected the furor over another KHoRM appearance to be less than a year previous.  I was wrong, it must have whetted their appetites.  The first show sold out in thirty minutes, and the second show filled up before I’d even announced it.  Making Fulks once again the hottest ticket in Madison.