When I saw Walter Salas-Humara at SXSW this year I expected we would talk about him playing the house prior to the Steel Bridge Festival in Sturgeon Bay, WI. Instead he told me that he would be playing “something called the Shitty Barn” and he couldn’t play in Madison near the same date. I don’t think he expected me to be as excited as I was. “That’s awesome!” I told him, “the Shitty Barn is great.” And my excitement was genuine. I had only been there once before, last summer for a breathtaking Southeast Engine show (that I was very jealous of), but there is nothing shitty about it. Like the basement, it’s a great listening room, and everyone there is there for the music (or maybe for the big fire they often build). I love Salas-Humara, but I’ve had a hard time getting people out to see him for his solo visits to the basement. I hoped there would be a bigger crowd at the barn, and there was.
I was less excited as the date drew near, I was in the middle of what would end up being ten shows in ten days in six different cities and I was exhausted. The task of making the hour drive out to Spring Green seemed insurmountable. But was I ever glad I did, this was the best show I’ve seen this year outside of the House of Righteous Music. And the joy came from unexpected places, like finally understanding what a powerful song “Susan Across the Water” was, and watching Salas-Humara’s backing band, made up of members of the Wooldridge Brothers, work out songs as they played them. The bonus of the night was that super sweet and talented bass player Jack Rice was a part of all of it.
I’d heard of the Wooldridge Brothers before, but this was my first time seeing them. They are your standard Wisconsin roots rock band- lead singer with a terrific voice and an acoustic guitar, a female backing vocalist with a tambourine, a lead guitarist on electric, a skilled drummer and Jack Rice. They sang catchy, heartfelt songs that made me smile. Their attempt at Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” didn’t succeed as well as their originals, but their shrugged “oh well, we tried” was endearing. Oh, and they are actually brothers, lead singer Brian and guitarist Scott (who looked more like he could be Peter Mulvey’s brother with his soul patch and guitar technique).
After their set there was a short break before Salas-Humara took the stage. He played the first half of his set solo, and that was when the light went on. I’d heard “Susan” dozens of times, both live and on the album of the same name, but apparently I’d never really listened to it. Shame on me. The affecting story of lost love nearly made me cry tonight, and I felt silly for not having really heard it before. He called Rice up to the stage to sing backing vocals on the lovely “Commander Perry,” (not actually the name, but it was something like that) making me think they need to sing together more often. I’d already been having a pretty great time but it got even better when once Scott Wooldridge and their drummer joined the duo on stage. If I’d been sitting at the back I wouldn’t have had a clue about the interactions on stage, but I was sitting close enough and saw them figure it out as they went. And that made it all the better. “Second time I’ve heard that song,” Scott said after their first song as a band, to which the drummer replied “I’ve never heard it.”
It seemed that he hadn’t heard any of the songs before, which made his playing all the more remarkable. He watched Salas-Humara closely, peering over the top of his glasses attentively. He looked relieved after a particularly tricky song and even more so when Salas-Humara said the next was a “simple four.” “I can do that!” he exclaimed. Rice seemed to be the one most familiar with the material, but he too had to learn as he went especially when they got to a new song that Walter said “none of them had heard before.” It was going so well that Walter asked for the backing vocalist to come up and sing on a song. She looked terrified since she didn’t know the song, but Rice guided her through it and it sounded great. When they came back for a deserved encore, the drummer protested, “four o’clock in the morning, that’s when I’m getting home to Chicago,” but he didn’t seem that upset about it. Too bad he couldn’t see the small boy standing in the open garage door behind him who concentrated very hard on playing air drums with two actual sticks like he was taking a lesson. He did a great job on the show closer Lucinda Williams’ “Change the Locks.”
It was a pretty magical night, and any hesitations I’d had about making the drive seemed ridiculous in retrospect. If I’d have missed this, well, obviously, I wouldn’t have known what I missed. I felt like the kid on the trike at the end of The Incredibles, “that was awesome!!!”
The Wooldridge Brothers