Monday, March 25, 2013

Stars/Milo Greene/Said the Whale; March 25, 2013; Turner Hall, Milwaukee

I hadn’t seen Stars (or “stArs” as they apparently prefer to be designated) in several years, perhaps six or more, and that may have also been the last time I had bought or even listened to a CD. They are likeable enough but I had other reasons for wanting to go to this show. One was to hang out with my friend Nick who (almost) only likes Canadian bands with girl singers (the last time I hung out with him was at Tegan & Sara); the other was to see Said the Whale. I’d actually done some research this year before heading to Austin, determined to see some new bands. I’d downloaded a list of 100 recommended bands from NPR (assembled by former Onion AV Cub editor Stephen Thompson) and listened to it several times. I had a short list of bands that stood out, and Said the Whale was one of those bands. Their ridiculously catchy “Love Less” jumped out at my every time. I missed them in Texas but they were nice enough to come to me, well almost.

The way it looked on the website California band Milo Greene would be playing first, so I was a little confused when the band that started the evening wasn’t the least bit annoying. I’d seen them headline a very crowded show in Madison back in November and had to leave halfway through because, as I explained to the people I was there with, you can only take so many “whoa-oohs.” Once the band playing introduced themselves as Said the Whale I was less confused. Like MG, they have a lot of people who sing, and a cute girl who plays keyboards; it’s a mistake anyone could make. Their short set was enough to make me want to buy the CD though they seemed to be charging Canadian prices, so I decided to wait and get it from my favorite record store.

Once MG took the stage it made a little more sense that they were playing second. They’re apparently popular (which I guess I should have figured out from their Madison appearance). And I think a fair amount of people (all the ones singing along on every song) were probably there for them (though $22.50 seems a little steep just to see an opener). I was pleasantly surprised that they weren’t near as annoying as last time. Probably because their set was over before the “whoa-oohs’ got too annoying, but also because they didn’t have to follow the awesome Bahamas this time.

I have three Stars CDs, though like I said I haven't listened to them in years, but I thought I would probably still know a few songs. That number turned out to be one, the immediately recognizable “Your Ex-Lover is Dead.” Not that it mattered really, all their stuff is kinda the same anyway. It’s all catchy, sort of dancey, and a little twee. Like what it would sound like if the musical offspring of Belle & Sebastian and the B52s grew up in Canada. Frontman Torquil Campbell was more flamboyant than I remembered, and sweet voiced co-frontperson Amy Milan more earthy, meanwhile I’m not sure what planet the drummer came from. Their enjoyable set was made even more entertaining by the multiple disco balls that decorated the stage. One disco ball makes me happy, that many, downright delirious.

Said the Whale

Milo Greene


Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Saw Doctors/Sean Michael Dargan; March 24, 2013; Majestic Theater

It’s been a long, long time since the Saw Doctors have played Madison. So long that that they couldn’t even remember the name of the place they played last. “Fitchburg Days!” someone in the crowd shouted out. They looked slightly confused by that, I don’t blame them, while it is nearby, technically Fitchburg Days isn’t Madison, it’s Fitchburg. Since we were right up front, Marcus got guitarist/vocalist Leo Moran’s attention and told him this was the third time they had played and the first was at Luther’s Blues. He looked relieved at that information, as if that cleared everything up, and he thanked Marcus. They’ve been a band much longer than that (1986 according to Wikipedia), so it seems funny that I’ve known of them as long as they’ve been playing Madison.

It’s also kind of funny that not much has changed since then. That was ten years ago or so, but you’d never know it by the set list. I know they’ve had new records since then, and I’m sure they played a few new songs, but the bulk of the set was favorites that I’ve heard them play every time I’ve seen them. The sweet “Clare Island,” the loyal “Green and Red of Mayo,” the sing along “Hay Wrap,” the dance-along “Tommy K” and of course the infectious travelogue “N-17” (Ireland’s equivalent of the Interstate, though they are all more like highways). This was the first time I had seen them since we’d lucked into a show while we were in Galway, seven or eight years ago. And while it was awesome to see them in their hometown then, this was just as good, and the fans just as enthusiastic.

While the set list hasn’t changed much, a few other things had. In the past, it seemed as though Leo and Davy split the lead vocals. Tonight though, it was definitely weighted in Davy Carton’s favor. He had lost the ridiculous long hair he was sporting the last time I saw him, though he was wearing a pair of skinny jeans, making him the oldest dude I’d seen wearing them. He wore them surprisingly well though, and the effect was more odd than icky. This left Leo playing guitar, and he did that better than I remembered, I think he’s been practicing.

The band has always been centered on those two, and whether the musicians around them change from time to time I actually have no idea, though I would have to guess yes. What I do know is that the cute young drummer was new. It sounded like they were calling him “rookie” but on further review I’ve decided his name is probably Ricky. In a band of average looking dudes, he was the one I was watching, and I don’t think I was the only one. You could almost hear every heart in the room break when they brought him to the front of the stage and handed him a guitar for a surprisingly good version of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game.” Heck, that alone would have been worth venturing out on a Sunday night for, but the Saw Doctors are a reliably fun, good-time band and tonight was no exception.

Sean Michael Dargan

The Saw Doctors

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Mike Nicolai/Jay Moran; March 23, 2013; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

I wasn’t expecting a huge crowd for Mike Nicolai; after all it had been so long since he’s last been to Madison that I wasn’t even doing house concerts the last time he was here, though he and Beaver Nelson did stay at the house and play some ping pong after their show at the High Noon. (And no, I hadn’t met either of them before I that night.) Despite having several sold out shows already this year I still find it hard to get people to come see an act they haven’t heard of, so it was nice that there were a few folks who came just because they’d been to see Robbie last month and had such a great time. Between them, friends of the band and my handful of regulars it was a crowd that just exceeded awkward.

It was odd that Nicolai picked this moment to go on tour. He hasn’t released anything new in a few years, and in fact he didn’t have anything to sell at all. That may be a first. Instead he encouraged us to go online and download it there, and to buy CDs from the opener. Most of the shows on his short tour up from his current home of Austin and back down were solo shows, but Minneapolis and Madison got a treat from drummer Brien Lilja, who lives here. He’s a subtle yet expressive drummer, perfect for Nicolai’s wry, observational songs, and I felt like he really added a lot. Nicolai didn’t talk much between songs, saving his sense of humor for the music, and he often seemed a bit uncomfortable that we were all paying such close attention. When you are used to playing in bars, I suppose the attentive crowd in the basement can be a little unnerving.

Opener Jay Moran didn’t seem the least bit intimidated, likely because he knew half of us. This was his first time playing at the house, though he’s been here several times. He was an excellent opener, funny and engaging, with a good dose of charm thrown in. Most people know the familiar Madisonian as a sideman with Freedy Johnston or as part of the cheeky cover band the Know It All Boyfriends, but he has several CDs worth of music all his own recorded with his band Emmittville. They are smart slices of Heartland rock, and they worked just as well solo as they do with a band. He had a great time playing and told me to keep him in the loop for openers. I’ll quite definitely do that, I wish I would have thought of him sooner.

Jay Moran

Mike Nicolai

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Top Ten Things about SXSW 2013

10. My effort to see new bands. While I didn’t make any discoveries on the scale of the Features or Tristen, I did see some good new music, on purpose. I downloaded NPR’s 100 bands to see in Austin and listened to it several times, weeding it down to less than half almost immediately. It resulted in me seeing Air Traffic Controller, Fierce Bad Rabbit and the adorable Ivan and Alyosha. Plus there are a few bands that even though I didn’t see them in Austin I will be on the lookout for them here. I already marked my calendar to see Canadians Said the Whale with Stars in Milwaukee.

9. The Bloodshot Yard Dog party. Not only is it a ton of fun, but it’s the one day I don’t have to worry about schedules because I know where I will be all day. This year’s line-up was solid enough with old friends the Waco Brothers finishing the day with their typical fiery set. The Deadstring Brothers and Lydia Loveless were back, as well as intriguing newcomer Luke Winslow King, who’s one to watch. Perhaps the best set of the day came from former and apparently future Bloodshot artist Bobby Bare Jr who brought along a band and fired up the classic Bare Jr song “You Blew Me Off” with a record store owner on backing vocals.

8. Anders and Kendall. The former Varnaline leader and the current Mascot leader team up for what may be this year’s prettiest record, Wild Chorus. Live they look an odd couple but once they start singing they are obviously a perfect match. Bonus- a backing band featuring Konrad Meisner, who unfortunately will probably not be with them on tour this spring. They were the first thing I saw and it was a great way to start this year’s fest.

7. The Hilton Garden Inn. After two years staying further away from Sixth Street, it was good to be back “home.” My futile attempt to catch a cab on Sixth Street a couple years ago to get back to our hotel three miles outside of downtown made it clear I did not want to stay that far out ever again. Not only is the location more convenient, the beds are super comfy.

6. Tacorrido. The drive through taco stand gets Jon Dee Graham’s seal of approval, and not just because the name is a pun. He ordered me three tacos, my favorite was the carnitas- pork marinated in orange juice and Coke. That explains the bright orange color, I’m just glad I didn’t have to drink it.

5. Ian Moore. I didn’t get to see Ian play at all last year, his showcase was on Tuesday and I didn’t get in till Wednesday, though I did run into him on the street which only made me feel worse. It had been a year and a half since I’d seen him play last, and that is far too long. His showcase at the Continental was stunning, and his too short set earlier in the day at Yard Dog was terrific (and included a guest spot from Scott McCaughey on “Muswell Hillbillies”). He also returned the favor by sitting in with Ken Stringfellow who played after him, talk about having a ringer on guitar. The songs from the Posies co-leader made me want to buy the new record. Best of all, Ian said he would love to get back to the basement this year. Not as much as I would love it.

4. The Continental Club. The venerable Austin venue was my showcase headquarters this year. I was there four out of five nights, and I would have been there the fifth if I hadn’t been too tired to see Josh Rouse at midnight on Thursday. Bloodshot switched their showcase from Saturday to Wednesday and moved it here from the Red Eyed Fly. Friday after the Yard Dog party I headed across the street for killer sets from Jon Langford and Jon Dee Graham (who hadn’t even registered for a showcase but got one anyway). The latter dedicated “Airplane” to me, and it made me cry. Saturday the door guy recognized me when I showed up for Ian Moore, Bobby Bare Jr and a recommended set from the very entertaining Split Squad which features members of the Plimsouls and Fleshtones. I was back on Sunday for a double dose of Jon Dee.

3. Josh Rouse. I wish I would have seen him more than once, but his set at the Paste party proved that the Yep Roc show back in October was not just a one night stand for me. I am officially back in love with him after many years. The new record Happiness Waltz has all the qualities that made his 2003 release 1972 so great, and none of what made the records that followed that so boring. I already have a ticket to see him June at the City Winery in Chicago. Swoon.

2. Jon Dee Graham. Last year he said he felt like he didn’t see me much, and that was true. I made up for it this year. I caught his set at the Guitartown party (which he claims made him play extra hard) on Wednesday, and his showcase on Friday. Sunday was all about Jon Dee. There was the gospel brunch at Strange Brew, which had just been voted best new venue and best acoustic venue at the Austin Music Awards. The two hour set also featured the always great Scrappy Jud, Seela, and Guy Forsythe. That night it was Jon Dee and Friends at the Continental Gallery, which could have also been called Jon Dee & people who have played in my basement. Walter Salas Humara, Beaver Nelson, Steve Poltz, Mike June, Freedy Johnston, and Matt the Electrician all took the stage. I wasn’t planning on seeing Jon Dee with the True Believers downstairs at midnight, but I did.

1. Chris Mills. This was my fifth year at SXSW and the first time that Mills has also been there. I only got to see him play twice, but pleasantly I kept running into him. His Wednesday showcase was in a conference room at my hotel. Despite the sterile surroundings, it was a pretty great set, thanks to a terrific bunch of new songs and a killer band which featured Clint Newman on guitar, Justin from Okkervil River on keyboards, and of course the rhythm section of Ryan Hembrey and Konrad Meisner. And Anders Parker showed up to see him. The second was a short duo set with Clint at Gingerman for a day of music curated by Jon Langford. Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor provided lovely backing vocals on the classic “Signal to Noise” one of the only old songs he played. Awesome.

Honorable mention to the Goo Goo Cluster 100th Birthday Party at the Cedar Street Courtyard for not only booking the terrific Features to play, but also for feeding me my only meal between 6 am and 8 pm that day. Yes, Goo Goo Clusters are a well balanced meal as long as you have one of each kind, original, supreme and peanut butter.

SXSW, March 17, 2013

Gospel Brunch @ Strange Brew

Jon Dee & Friends @ Continental Club Gallery

Saturday, March 16, 2013

SXSW March 16, 2013

Ivan & Alyosha @ Peckerheads

Ian Moore & the Losey Coils @ Yard Dog

Ken Stringfellow @ Yard Dog

Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison @ Yard Dog

Laura Cantrell @ Yard Dog

The Wagoneers @ The Continental Club

Split Squad @ The Continental Club

Chris Schiflett & Dead Peasants @ The Continental Club

Ian Moore & the Loosey Coils @ The Continental Club

Booby Bare Jr @ The Continental Club