Madison’s quartet of eastside summer festivals are some of the best entertainment you can find for the price. Since the price is free, the Waterfront Festival, Fete de Marquette, Orton Park Fest and Willy Street Fair attract as many music lovers as they do art lovers, food cart lovers and families looking for all ages fun. And most of the folks in attendance fit into more than one category. I think it is fair to say that there were a few more Jon Dee Graham lovers by the end of the night. Graham and his rhythm section, the Fighting Cocks, put on perhaps the best show I’ve seen them play outside the basement. The Fighting Cocks are seldom the same two musicians, today it was longtime Graham sideman Andrew Duplantis on bass and a new face to me, James McMurtry’s drummer Darren Hess. While he may have been a new face to me, it turns out he goes way back with Jon Dee, having played with him before he even released his first record.
I had been in Minneapolis the night before to see Jon Dee and company at Morrisey’s. The swanky Irish pub was an unlikely venue for the band, the tiny stage and free admission didn’t exactly bode well for the band, but it turned into a pretty great show with enough quietly respectful fans to balance out the folks who were talking. Tonight was another story, with a festival stage under them they had room to spread out and really deliver. Jon Dee’s enthusiastic and infectious charm converted the uninitiated and impressed even those who were already in the know. He drew from his impressive catalog choosing some of the most effective songs from his canon. Always my favorite, “Airplane” and its lead in “I’ll Wait” were stunning, and a few people even joined in on the chorus to the latter, repeating the mantra as Jon Dee encouraged, like “you’ll really be there.” I’d asked for “Lucky Day” but was just as happy with another track from It’s Not as Bad as It Looks the artfully wounded “Beautifully Broken,” with its message for all the “drugglers and strugglers, God’s broken little birds.” As happy as the crowd was with the set, I don’t think anyone was happier than Jon Dee himself. “I think we reached some people tonight.” I think he’s right.
The final band of the night, the Bottle Rockets, had been watching from the side of the stage, and they seemed a little intimidated about following the force of nature they had just witnessed. But if anyone can bring the energy, it’s them. Always a killer live band, they did not disappoint. The handful of new songs bode well for a new record and the selection of “virtual hits” (fan favorites that should have been) should sell a lot of copies of the upcoming Bloodshot reissue of their earlier material. The massive 46 track two disc set compiles their first two releases, self titled and Brooklyn Side, along with live tracks and outtakes. Any Bottle Rockets show wouldn’t be complete without “Indianapolis,” “Radar Gun” and “$1000 Car,” but one song we don’t always hear is “When I Was Dumb.” My favorite song, they know it is the one track I will always ask for. When they hadn’t played it before the encore, I was pretty sure it was off the list for tonight, but I was about to be pleasantly surprised. When they came back lead singer Brian Henneman announced the song, saying “sometimes she gets it and sometimes she doesn’t, it just proves that sometimes it pays to be a pain in the ass.” I was embarrassed, but delighted. In fact with half the bands on today’s line-up having been basement alumni, I felt pretty special all night. Thanks Orton Park!
Jon Dee Graham & the Fighting Cocks
The Bottle Rockets