Thursday, January 31, 2013

Lucinda Williams/ Kenneth Bryant Band; January 31, 2013; Stoughton Opera House

Lucinda Williams has never struck me as a very comfortable performer. In fact, there have been shows where I wonder why she tortures herself like that. Surprisingly, tonight, on Stoughton Opera House’s relatively small stage with only guitarist Doug Pettibone beside her, she was as comfortable as I’ve ever seen her. Oh, she still had her security blanket, a book of lyrics, on a stand in front of her, but I got the feeling she wouldn’t flip out if she accidentally forgot to turn the page before starting the next song. (Um, yes, that did happen once.) She seemed relaxed in front of the eager and attentive capacity crowd at the gorgeously restored old theater as she sampled a career’s worth of material. After a few songs I got used to the fact that she looked older than I remembered, and that her unruly bleached white hair made her look like a troll doll.

In addition to “Born to Be Loved” from her most recent release Blessed, she also tried out a new songs “A Place in my Heart” and “I Look at the World.” All of which sounded great, but failed to stick with me, a trend I feel started with the record World Without Tears (the title track of which was her opening song tonight). The more recent material was balanced with older songs, going all the way back to “Change the Locks” from her self-titled release. The parallel structure of the song finds the protagonist going to greater and greater lengths to avoid the addressee, progressing from changing the locks to changing the name of the town. She also drew heavily from her best-known and arguably best record Car Wheels on a Gravel Road which made up almost a third of the set. The title track, the ironically angry song “Joy” and the ode to Blaze Foley “Drunken Angel” are some of the stand-out cuts on a record that has stood the test of time. The latter is perhaps my favorite of all her songs (even more so now that Williams former guitar player Gurf Morlix enlightened me to Foley’s music with his album of covers), so I was delighted that she still plays it.

To the surprise of the audience and apparently even the organizers, Williams brought an unexpected opening act with her. The Kenneth Brian was exactly the sort of band who look like they might have ambushed a tour, showing up one night to play and then just tagging along for the rest of it. There were three men, all sporting impressive facial hair- the band’s namesake and two others who played on some of the songs. Then there was a girl with a pretty voice and a fiddle who I swear was introduced as Ellie Mae (turns out it is Lillie Mae). She played and sang well enough, but she always looked like she was on the verge of falling over. Whether it was from intoxication or from just getting way too into the music I couldn’t tell. When she came back later to play some songs with Lucinda she wasn’t any steadier, and looked unsure that she should even be there.

Usually the acts at the Opera House play two sets, but since there was an opener Williams only played one longish one. The Stoughton venue is lovingly run by Bill and Christina who put in long hours to make sure the venue stays on track. Unfortunately when tickets went on sale for this show there was a computer malfunction which halted sales and required them to do the orders by hand. I think everyone had pretty much forgiven the headache by the night of the show, but in her musical introduction Christina asked for forgiveness one more time. Her unique sung introductions are part of what makes the Stoughton Opera House a great place to see a show, and tonight continued a winning streak.

Kenneth Bryant Band

Lucinda Williams & Doug Pettibone

Sunday, January 27, 2013

FRZN Fest with Kelly Hogan and the Pines; January 27, 2013; High Noon Saloon

It was a rare opportunity for me to be able to say "both these bands have played in my basement" about the line-up for the fourth night of the vowel impaired FRZN fest. While it's been a few years since the Twin Cities based Pines played the house (their first Madison gig outside of Andy Moore's 30 Minute Music Hour), Hogan and her band had been there just two months prior. This was Hogan's third Madison stop since the release of her terrific record I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, and the band had shifted slightly once again. The record features some big name studio musicians, including Booker T Jones (of Booker T and the MGs fame), but on tour she brings along her Chicago friends. Let me go on record as saying I prefer the latter. Guitarist Jim Elkington was off with Freakwater, so Casey McDonough, who had played bass the first time Hogan hit town, moved to guitar. Keeping their seats in the game of musical chairs were the amazing Nora O'Connor on bass and backing vocals and one of my favorite people in the whole world, Gerald Dowd on drums and vocals. Despite the weather outside being frightful, there was a decent crowd inside. They were rewarded with great (and a little emotional) sets from two great bands.

The Pines

Kelly Hogan & Band

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Anne Heaton/Whitney Mann; January 19, 2013; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

I don’t usually book people I haven’t seen (something I learned the hard way), so it was especially hard to say no to Anne Heaton since she’d been pointed my way by the always terrific Peter Mulvey, who’s played the basement three times before. I mentioned that fact to a friend who responded “I love Anne Heaton!” That was enough for me, I e-mailed her back and said I’d love to have her. It took awhile to come up with a date, but eventually we settled on this weekend in January. Since I thought Heaton was an east coast based musician, I couldn’t figure out why she was so flexible on dates. It’s not like a trip to the basement would be a one-off that would pay for a whole trip. Turns out she and her charming husband Frank, who accompanies her on guitar and backing vocals, along with their gorgeous young daughter have relocated to Evanston, just north of Chicago. The couple is also expecting another child, and when I asked Heaton if she minded if I took video, she looked worried. “But I’m so gigantic,” she protested. Once I reassured her it was just for me, she agreed.

Despite being “gigantic,” Heaton put on a great show. She was bright and bubbly, witty and charming. Her self-deprecating sense of humor and patience with the capacity crowd reflected a strong stage presence. I can see why Mulvey likes her. While the new record is full of pretty songs and stories, I found that I liked the songs she introduced as being older ones the best. They were lighter, more playful. The sweetest moment of the night came when she was able to sing a song she had written for her friends Meg and Kevin who live in Madison and were in the audience, along with many of their friends. The song reveled in the magic of a couple who knew they were right for each other as teens. Opener Whitney Mann engaged the crowd from the second she opened her mouth. I’d first seen Mann with a band opening for Blake Thomas a couple years back, but it wasn’t till I saw her play the Johnny Cash tribute last year that I realized how good she really was. She’s petite, but her size belies her voice. It’s powerful and undeniably gorgeous. I had asked her several times before to play, but this was the first time she was able to. She’s very busy, and I felt lucky to get her.

It’s no secret that I am not a fan of girl singers. I have my favorites to be sure, but there aren’t that many of them. I’m glad I took the chance with Heaton and Mann. And oh yeah, the friend who urged me to book her, turns out she couldn’t make the show. It didn’t matter though. I was sure this show wouldn’t draw more than a couple dozen people, but thanks to Carl, who made it one of his events, it sold out. I can’t thank him enough.

Whitney Mann

Anne Heaton

Friday, January 11, 2013

Nick Brown; January 11, 2013; High Noon Saloon

When local musician Nick Brown advertised his happy hour show at the High Noon as a CD release, I was sure he must have been talking about a sophomore record. After all, the Kickstarter funded Slow Boat had arrived in the hands of its supporters back in August, and that was even several months after the predicted release date. Though I should have known with his first release titled Slow Boat, he wasn’t going to rush into his next effort.

I have to say though, this was a show worthy of a CD release. He started with the full band for a couple songs, then pared it back to just a duo with his Brown Derby bandmate Kyle Motor for a stripped down take on some new songs (so maybe there will be a second record, eventually…). I cannot lie, those songs sounded pretty sweet. Gradually the band returned, and at times he had as many as seven other musicians on stage with him, most of whom I knew. Another Brown Derbian, the always excellent Andrew Harrison, played lead guitar, while Pat Logterman of the Cork & Bottle String Band and the Dirty Shirts played upright bass. The only disappointment was that the latter didn’t have a microphone, his silly banter with the Dirty Shirts was always a highlight. In fact his only rival in that department is Brown himself who always has me shaking my head and cracking up. Keyboardist Rusty has been a little less busy musically since Josh Harty hit the road for a year, so it was nice to see him on stage.

The band reached its fullest potential when Evan Murdock, also a great singer songwriter, brought his mandolin to the stage, along with backing vocalists Amanda Rigell from the terrific Count This Penny who has a flat out gorgeous voice, and the only guy on stage I didn’t know. Rigell shines every time she opens her mouth, but she was particularly good on the duet “Hand in Hand.” Another highlight was “Feeling that Way” which Count This Penny also covers. My favorite song of his has always been “Melanie,“ a true and heartbreaking story of a crime of the heart prosecuted twenty years after the fact and comes from his newspaper days in New Hampshire, where moose in the road was usually the most exciting piece of news. It’s a sad and always affecting story. “Light Beer and Heavy Hearts,” the “only song I’ve ever written where I had the title first,” is as fun as the name would imply. Having only seen Brown solo before, it was a treat to see him with such an accomplished band. Despite only having two, oops, I mean one record to his name he had no trouble filling the two sets for this happy hour show, thanks to a cover or two like Mo Bandy’s silly-serious “Bandy the Rodeo Clown.” And of course Brown’s own hilarious ramblings.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The Best of 2012

Top Twenty Albums of 2012

1. Zeus Busting Visions
2. Chuck Prophet Temple Beautiful
3. Bahamas Bar Chords
4. Firewater International Orange!
5. Beaver Nelson Macro/Micro
6. M Ward A Wasteland Companion
7. Shearwater Animal Joy
8. Water Liars Phantom Limb
9. Great Lake Swimmers New Wild Everywhere
10. Salim Nourallah Hit Parade
11. Jon Dee Graham Garage Sale
12. Langhorne Slim This Is the Way We Move
13. Jim White Where It Hits You
14. Jay Farrar, Will Johnson, Anders Parker, Yim Yames New Multitudes
15. Jason Collett Reckon
16. Count This Penny Pitchman
17. Cory Brannan Mutt
18. Peter Mulvey The Good Stuff
19. Spring Standards Yellow/Gold
20. Andrew Bird Break It Yourself

Top Twenty Shows of 2012

1. Jeff Mangum/Andrew Rieger, Laura Carter, and Scott Spillane; February 7; The Athenaeum Theater, Chicago
2. Zeus; June 4; Schubas, Chicago
3. Southeast Engine; August 10; The Shitty Barn, Spring Green WI
4. The Afghan Whigs; August 4; The Metro, Chicago
5. The Promise Ring; June 30; The Terrace
6. Firewater; October 6; The Grog Shop, Cleveland
7. Beaver Nelson/Marty Finkel; August 16; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music (KHoRM)
8. The Up Past Their Bedtime Players (Justin Roberts, Gerald Dowd & Liam Davis); March 3; KHoRM
9. Jon Langford & Skull Orchard; May 18; KHoRM
10. Bahamas/Dietrich Gosser; April 4; The Frequency
11. Jon Dee Graham/Mike June; December 14; KHoRM
12. The Bottle Rockets; March 1; KHoRM
13. Steve Forbert/Sam Llanas; February 25; Café Carpe, Ft Atkinson
14. Shearwater/All Tiny Creatures/Coo Woo; February 19; High Noon Saloon
15. Bob Dylan; August 21; Mayo Civic Center, Rochester MN
16. Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express/Josh Harty Band; July 5; East Side Club
17. Matthew Ryan/Brandon Sampson; April 26; KHoRM
18. Robbie Fulks and Friends “I Heart the Velvet Underground;” January 16; The Hideout, Chicago
19. Spring Standards/Sons of Fathers; June 28; The Frequency
20. Yep Roc 15 Year Anniversary; October 11-13; Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro, NC

All venues Madison unless otherwise noted