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.