Friday, May 31, 2013

They Might Be Giants/Moon Hooch; May 31, 2013; Turner Hall

It appears that They Might Be Giants are timeless. It had been ten years or more since I last saw them, probably around the release of 1998’s John Henry, but they didn’t seem much different. Keyboardist (and notably bass clarinetist for one song) John Linnell especially looked exactly the same as last time. They still exude a geeky charm with their silly songs about spaceships and presidents and how things work, all of which are enthusiastically received by their hipster nerd audience. You know, the kind in Doctor Who T-shirts. Despite the time lapse since the last time I had been in the same room with TMBG, I still knew at least half the songs, as they went back to classic records like Flood and Factory Showroom repeatedly. In fact the second song out of the gate was the ridiculously catchy “New York City,” a cover song from the latter record that they have made their own, and which may be my favorite song of theirs. When “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” showed up only a few songs later I figured I could leave happy right then.

Of course I didn’t, because there was still lots of fun to come. After playing “The Guitar,” which mashes up “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with their original lyrics, Linnell admitted that was probably the millionth time they had played that song, and all he could think about the whole time was how hard to was to sing “space ship” like it was two separate words, “because I care,” he added. The entire band was having an issue with stage insecurity because they claimed the stage at the historic Turner Hall slanted down, and in fact, had gotten worse since sound check, so that it felt like at any moment they may tumble off the stage into the audience. Even so, they claimed to love playing here. And the sold out crowd loved them right back. Turner Hall does have its charms, from the magical women’s room door which opens easily despite being ten times the size of a regular door to the hilarious photos of former directors hanging along the stairs (seriously, check out the eyebrows on that dude), but sound quality is not one of them. It sounds like a barn, because basically it is. Still, that didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment.

That’s partly because I was with a huge fan, who excitedly exclaimed “this is my favorite part!” when the two Johns (the other is Flansburgh who mostly plays guitar) donned sock puppets, or “avatars” as they called them, to make a few jokes and sing “He’s Loco.” Appropriately, his favorite song is “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head,” though it seems like that is the song the avatars should have sang. Having just seen them a few months ago in Chicago, he declared Milwaukee’s set list was better and more varied. They played several songs from new release Nanobots, including the catchy title track and an ode to Nicholas Tesla, who I am beginning to appreciate was pretty much the ultimate genius. I enjoyed those just as much as the songs I knew. The requisite trotting out of the hit “Birdhouse in Your Soul” in the first encore was still great, and the accordion and voice version of “How Can I Sing Like a Girl” from Factory Showroom was an unexpected surprise.

I was worried that since I hadn’t seen them in so long I wasn’t going to know many songs or enjoy them as much as I had all those years ago. I was wrong. Like I said at the beginning, They Might Be Giants are timeless. It remains to be seen if openers Moon Hooch have the same longevity. Odds are against it, but if the very vocally enthusiastic audience tonight was any indication they should do well. The trio paired a drummer who played a hypnotic dance beat with a pair of hyperactive saxophonists. It was something different and interesting, it’s no wonder TMBG picked them as tourmates.

Moon Hooch

They Might Be Giants

Monday, May 20, 2013

Robbie Fulks & Band; May 20, 2013; The Hideout

The last time Robbie Fulks tackled a whole record it was Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming. This time he took on an even less popular release, 1978’s Street Legal. I missed the first one but there was no way I was going to miss this. I’m certainly a Dylan fan, but other than opening track “Changing of the Guard,” I couldn’t even remember what was on Street Legal. So a few weeks before the show I got it out and listened to it, and remembered that I really like this record. “Senor,” “Baby Stop Crying,” “True Love Tends to Forget,” all really great songs. Like most of Dylan’s late 70’s/early 80’s work, it’s overproduced, and there are ridiculous backing singers and saxophones. But seeing as that was the Dylan I first knew- my first Dylan record was 1982’s Infidels thanks to the video for “Jokerman,” and I’ll fight anyone who says a bad thing about it- I have a special fondness for that time period. In his post about the show, he promised half re-worked versions and half more faithful. As he also noted, never mind the fact that nine tracks doesn’t not divide in half. I couldn’t wait to see what he would do.

Opening track “Changing of the Guard” was definitely one of the re-worked ones. He dialed the gloss way back, starting the song with just an acoustic guitar, adding the rest of the band in gradually. Highlights were a violin and dual keyboards, played by jack-of-all trades Casey McDonough and “new guy” Scott Stevenson who I remembered from the year-end show. Stevenson remained on piano while McDonough moved to bass, “never to be seen again” joked one of the backing singers as took a spot behind them. This was the biggest band I’d seen Robbie with, especially since these Monday shows are often just him and a guest. While there wasn’t a saxophone tonight, I was glad to see that he kept the backing vocalists. One was the wife of Liam Davis (of the Not Ready for Naptime Players) who is also starring in Seussical, the second was a member of the Steppenwolf Theater who I swore Robbie introduced as Norah Jones, but on second though may have been Laura. The third was also the violin player who Robbie says he had met just three hours earlier. She was also terrific on trumpet for a mellow and moving version of “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” on which Robbie played 12 string electric mando-guitar. It’s perhaps my favorite song on Street Legal and one of the only ones from this record that Dylan still does live. Of course, like Fulks’, Dylan’s live version sounds completely different from the one on the record.

All of the songs were great but it was the final track that really impressed. “Where Are You Tonight (A Journey through Dark Heat)” isn’t a song I even remember from the record, despite the fact that’s it’s six and a half minutes long, but I’ll remember it now. It became truly epic in their hands. In all the years that I have been watching Gerald Dowd drum I don’t think I have ever seen him play harder or with more intensity, it was truly thrilling to watch. Wow.

When Robbie had picked up the keyboard they were borrowing from Dave Max Crawford he asked what they were doing that night. When Robbie told him it was Dylan’s “Street Legal,” Crawford responded, “trying to save it from its terrible reputation huh?” I believe they just might have done it.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Chuck Prophet; May 19, 2013; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

That’s right, three shows in three days. A few people asked if I had done this before, and the answer is no, but I’ve been close. Exactly a year ago I did three shows in four days, which was hard, because two of them were on work nights. Back in February I did three shows in two days when Robbie Fulks & the Pussycat Trio played two shows in one night due to popular demand. That was surprisingly easy. And so was this. Most folks who host house concerts do so infrequently, one a month at most. I’ve always said that any time that someone I want to play can play, I’ll do it. And when I got an e-mail saying Chuck Prophet could play on May 19 I didn’t hesitate, even though I already had the previous two nights booked. Prophet has been at the top of my wish list to play at the house since I first actually thought about who would be on my wish list. I’d been ignored by his booking agency, and I probably would have given up if Mission Express members Kevin White and James DePrado hadn’t encouraged me to contact his manager. A couple years and many e-mails later, I had myself a show.

I’d been hoping to have the full band, but I was perhaps even happier to get Prophet solo. I’d only seen him sans band a couple times, he doesn’t do it very often, and those shows were pretty great. There was the solo set at the Yep Roc 15th Anniversary celebration, and a remarkable opening set at the High Noon where he stole the show from Alejandro Escovedo. I’d argue the latter was the best I’d ever seen him. I expected the show to fill up fast, and it did, until it got to 40, then reservations trickled in for the next two weeks till it was full.

Prophet arrived later than he’d meant to, but sound checked quickly and I was able to let everyone into the basement soon after. I like to be known as the venue that starts relatively on time, and this fell within my fifteen minute window. Prophet was loose and gregarious throughout the show, his trademark grin in place. He once again asked us to sing on a few songs, and everyone obliged. While he claimed it sounded great, I’m not so sure. There was a minor breakdown in “Temple Beautiful” where he paused for a moment, I thought he broke a string, turned out he was waiting for the drummer. “I’m used to playing with a big rock band,” he laughed. Since he didn’t have the Mission Express behind him, he did tend more toward the mellow songs. “Pin a Rose on Me” was gorgeous, and early track “Homemade Blood” emotional. Every time he plays it I make a mental note to track down that record.

The songs from Temple Beautiful were great as always. In addition to the sing-a-longs (the other was “Willie Mays is Up to Bat”), he did the always excellent “Left Hand and the Right Hand” (about San Francisco’s infamous Mitchell Brothers, who he describes as “Cain and Abel if they went into the live sex business”) and a solo duet on “Little Boy, Little Girl.” Yep, you read that right. Originally a duet with Stephanie Finch, he sang both parts, the female part in the regular microphone and the male part into the cool, old-timey, echo-y mike that he uses (“you should have to pay extra for this” he laughed). He asked for requests a couple times, but only played a few. Maybe he only asked to confirm that here were some fans in the house. “I like Waylon,” chimed one audience member. “I like Waylon too” he smiled, explaining that he had done a song by song cover of Jennings’ Dreaming My Dreams, “and it’s out there… it’s not very good but it’s out there.”

He ended the show by saying that if every town had a person like Kiki hosting shows like this, “there would be peace in the Middle East, and that van out in the driveway? That van would be paid for.” That was sweet, but even better was the fact that he said he had a great time and he can’t wait to do it again. Neither can I, but in the meantime, I’m going to start working on some of those other people on my wish list. John Wesley Harding I’m looking at you.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Anders & Kendall; May 18, 2013; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

You would think that getting a pick in the Isthmus would translate to at least a few more people at the show, but sadly that was not the case for Anders & Kendall. I could count the attendees on two hands and still have a few fingers left over. There was guy who came because he saw the pick, but he got there late and missed the whole show. He did pick up a few CDs at least. There was a lot going on tonight, BB King at the Overture, Kristen Hirsch at the High Noon. The latter surely had some effect on my show, and I admit I kept clicking the “win tickets” link in my weekly e-mail before remembering that I had someplace better to be that night. So it meant even more to me that a couple of guys who had been to the house a few times before picked this show to go see someone they didn’t know for the first time. At least somebody trusts me.

This was Anders Parker’s fifth time in the basement. The former Varnaline frontman has never drawn big crowds, but he seems to really like playing here, and thankfully keeps coming back. Five times is enough to put him solidly in second place on the leader board (though “first loser” was probably not the right way to phrase it), but still far behind Jon Dee Graham who will play his ninth show in July. Parker had a very good reason to be on tour this time, his record with Kendall Meade (of the band Mascot) was released earlier this year, and I’ve already named Wild Chorus the year’s prettiest record. Meade has sung on every record Parker has put out since Varnaline’s swan song Songs in a Northern Key. This record has inherent sweetness to it, a joyful passion, and Parker said it was the first time he’s been able to successfully co-write songs with someone.

They opted to play unplugged, as they have most of the house concerts on this tour, which also included several club dates. Given the size of the crowd, unplugged was just fine, but it meant that Meade especially would have to project to be heard over Parker and the guitar. Not being tethered to microphones gave them the freedom to move around during the set, and they spent much of facing each other and their relaxed camaraderie was obvious and infectious. For most of the night Parker played guitar, and Meade sang, occasionally picking up a tambourine. Unlike most singers with nothing to play and no mike to hide behind, she looked perfectly comfortable. There were a couple songs where they both played guitar and those seemed even more special.

I’d have to go back and check the rack listing, but I feel like they did most of the songs on Wild Chorus. The exuberant “I’m Not Ready” with its inherent stick-in-your-headiness may be the best of these, though it may be a tie with the passionate album opener “We’re on Fire.” I had included that video with the e-mail announcing the show. Apparently not many people watched it or there would have been more folks here, it’s that catchy. To round out the material they played a Mascot song or two and ended with the title track to the best of Parker’s solo records “Tell It to the Dust” for an encore. I wish everyone could have seen it.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Gurf Morlix; May 17, 2013; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

Gurf Morlix finds the present tense. He really does, “it’s terrifying,” he quipped during his third appearance in the basement. It took a moment before the giggles from the crowd meant they had figured out his double meaning. So it’s appropriate that Gurf Morlix Finds the Present Tense is the name of his new record, his first of all new material in six years. His previous release, 2011’s Blaze Foley’s 113th Wet Dream, was a collection of covers written by the memorable Austin character who was a good friend and whom Morlix played with many times before Foley’s senseless death in 1989. He claimed he tried to keep the body count down on this record, limiting it to only one after racking up eighty or so on the last. At first I thought he meant musicians in the band, but I eventually figured out he meant characters in his songs, each of which has a story to tell.

He also had a few (hilarious) stories to tell between songs. Several of them he also told last time, and I still haven’t figured out if they were really his or if he read them in Reader’s Digest. One of these involved being asked to play at the funeral of an unidentified homeless man. As you can guess it didn’t turn out as planned. Another was why he will never set foot in a Starbuck’s again. Many of his stories had to do with Foley, even though these were even more unbelievable, I was pretty sure these had happened. After all, this was a man about whom the legendary Townes Van Zandt said “he only went crazy once, decided to stay.” One of the most hilarious involved a little old lady who pointedly locked the door when Foley was hitchhiking. She had no way of guessing that Foley would later write the silly “Wouldn’t That Be Nice” hyperbole about the incident. Opposite of that song stands the heartbreaking love song “If I Could Only Fly,” a song which Merle Haggard recorded twice and called the “Greatest Country Song Ever.” “And if anyone should know, it’s Merle Haggard,” Morlix declared.

He also featured many of his own songs during his nearly two hour set. These didn’t have the instant memorability of Foley’s compositions, but they were well-crafted songs and he was happy to share the stories behind many of them. Opening track “My Life’s Been Taken” is about a bad decision that changes a life, while “Bang, Bang, Bang,” is, unsurprisingly, about our culture’s obsession with guns, made even more poignant by the reference to Foley. My personal favorite was the strong imagery of “A Series of Closing Doors.”

As always, Morlix delighted and charmed the crowd, a natural storyteller and laid-back performer. This was the first time he didn’t have to go to bed early or had made arrangements to stay elsewhere. And he surprised me by cracking several beers as we stayed up late. I introduced him to family favorite Ed Henry, and made him a copy of Country & Eastern which he promised to listen to exclusively on his six hour drive, he introduced me to Stompin’ Tom Connors, the Canadian Woody Guthrie. While YouTube yielded nothing on Henry, we were able to watch many videos of Connors. I told him to come back anytime, and meant it. Who knows, maybe next time he’ll have an Ed Henry cover for me.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express/Mike Benign Compulsion; May 9, 2013; Shank Hall

Yes, I know Chuck Prophet is playing at my house next week, but that’s a solo show and this was a band show, and besides, do I really need to justify seeing Prophet as often as possible? And tonight’s show seemed extra awesome. Prophet is ridiculously cool, like Fonzie, you know, if Fonzie were actually cool. He says everything with a wink and a grin, asking a guy up front if he needed a hug, “because you really look like you need a hug.” When another audience member raised her hand excitedly, hoping for a hug, he deflected her, “I don’t have time to hug everyone, but this guy really looked like he needed one.” He called on the audience several times to do some singing, first on the title track to last year’s excellent Temple Beautiful and later on that record’s “Willie Mays Is Up at Bat.” Before asking us to sing the “whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, ooh, ooh” from the latter, he jokingly described our effort on the former as pathetic. And I thought we had done a pretty good job shouting back “Tem-ple Beau-ti-ful” in time with the song.

Most of the songs from the new record showed up later in the set, along with the aforementioned two, “Castro Halloween,” and “The Left Hand and the Right Hand,” which as always he dedicated to brothers everywhere, made the set. Usually with a band it seems like the record where you discovered them will always be your favorite, and while Hurting Business will always have a special place because of that, with Prophet it seems like I like every record more than the one before. The last time I had seen him in Milwaukee he got a bit of a surprise when he asked if anyone had a request, everyone shouted back “Pin a Rose on Me” nearly in unison. He had no choice but to play it. This time the random collection of songs shouted out didn’t require such action, “OK, those are some good ideas” he replied when the shouting had stopped, “but we’re going to play this.”

Prophet knows how to pick a great cover, and perhaps the best tonight was the Flaming Groovies “Shake Some Action,” which he announced as the national anthem of San Francisco. Additionally his lovely wife Stephanie Finch stepped from behind the keyboard, strapped on a guitar and took two songs at the mike, the second a duet with Prophet. You would think it would be hard to be in a band with your spouse, but for them it looks like the greatest thing on earth. The rest of the band has remained fairly stable over the years, the always excellent James DePrado on guitar and Kevin T White on bass, but the Mission Express must be hard on drummers, since this was the third new one in just over a year. Prophet seemed to take great joy in announcing his name “Vicente Rodriguez!” like he was coming up to bat.

Local opener the Mike Benign Compulsion was fairly entertaining, and became more so as their set went on. They weren’t particularly tight, but their 90’s power pop was rather infectious. I had Matthew Sweet “Girlfriend” flashbacks more than once. I applaud them for resisting the urge to go with a cheesier name like “Mike Benign and the Tumors” or “the Malignants.” Though admittedly it was pronounced different than expected.

The Mike Benign Compulsion

Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express

Friday, May 03, 2013

Kelly Hogan & her band; May 3, 2013; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

This was Kelly Hogan’s fourth time in Madison since the release of her record I Like to Keep Myself in Pain last year, and I wasn’t sure if everyone would be as excited about another show as I was. I needn’t have worried, there was a capacity crowd once again and they were treated to a pretty stellar show. One regular had wondered before the show if he really needed to see her again, only to enthusiastically strike that earlier thought at the end of the night. She made a conscious effort to mix it up a little from earlier appearances, while I was sad to see “Papa Was a Rodeo” go, the replacements were worth it.

She still played many of the songs from Pain, and “Nice Things” and “Haunted” were as amazing as always. The former features words written by Jack Pendarvis and music by Andrew Bird and it’s a killer, a dark, heartbreaker whose melody gets into your head and stays. The latter is a Jon Langford song, one of my favorite songs from his Old Devils record and which Hogan knocks out of the park. This was the first time I had heard the Wilco song “Open Mind” that Jeff Tweedy had given her for the record. Since they also ended up putting it on their record she decided not to put it on hers, but I’m glad she does it live. Even though “Rodeo” wasn’t in the set, she did another Stephen Merritt composition, the melancholy “Plant White Roses,” which is “a song that may or may not be about gardening” The first time I ever saw Hogan was a long, long time ago, singing with John Wesley Harding at Martyr’s, in a nice example of symmetry she covers his “Sleeper Awake.” (I also told her to put in a good word with Wes about playing the basement someday.)

The best part of the night actually happened about an hour into the evening after the “official set” was over. Whereas they were straight shooting earlier, Hogan indicated this part of the set was going to be both guns drawn, shooting into the air, “pow, pow, pow” she demonstrated with her fingers. She’d been bragging about her band all night, and rightfully so, but this is where they really got to show off. Guitarist Casey McDonough set the bar impossibly high right off the bat with a tear-jerking version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” “Brave choice” I thought when he started, “perfect choice” when he finished. He drew what may have been the biggest applause of the night and reduced bassist Nora O’Connor to tears. She’d been wowing the crowd all night with her backing vocals, but she really got to impress when she and Hogan shared the lead on the stunning tune “Mama Don’t Like My Man,” which I am pretty sure some of the band learned during sound check. Drummer Gerald Dowd sang lead on the Charlie Rich classic “Life Has It’s Little Ups and Downs,” which like many of his tunes was written or co-written by Rich’s wife, whom Hogan is obviously a fan of since they followed it with another of her songs.

The crowd again included her friends and neighbors from Evansville. Her landlady brought flowers and homemade applesauce, while her neighbors brought their son who was seeing his first show (I forget how old he was but it was less than ten). As always, Hogan was witty and charming, personal and at times confessional. Several times after admitting something she wouldn’t usually say on stage she would shake her head, smiling, “it’s the basement.”