Sunday, October 27, 2013

M Doughty used to be in Soul Coughing/Sons of Hippies; October 27, 2013; Turner Hall

When a band chooses a name like Sons of Hippies, there are a few things I expect.  The first is that they are actually sons, so I was surprised to see the lead singer was a girl.  With a name like that, I expected they would either be terrible, like so many openers I’ve seen at the nearby Pabst Theater, or totally awesome, like the equally oddly named Donkeys who had opened for the Hold Steady here a few years ago.  Instead they were fine, perfectly listenable but not very memorable.

I don’t remember if I ever saw Soul Coughing during their three record run in the Nineties.  I feel like I must have at one of the many “New Music Festivals” I went to during that time, but I can’t say for sure.  Lead singer M Doughty has arguably become more popular under his own name since then, releasing catchy, but not as dancey, singer-songwriter fare for the hipster crowd.  But he obviously still enjoys playing these songs.  Look no further than the tongue-in-cheek name of the show, billed as “M Doughty used to be in Soul Coughing,” for evidence.  

The songs from El Oso, Irresistible Bliss and Ruby Vroom have held up well, just as insistent and intriguing as they were when I first heard them.  In opening song “This Is Chicago (This Is Not Chicago)” Doughty presents us with the troubling image of a man flying a plane into the Chrysler Building, though his monotone voice belies any emotion.  For the next hour he played all the best from those records, the only notable no-show was “Soundtrack to Mary,” the first song I ever heard from Soul Coughing, appropriately on the Something About Mary soundtrack.  For most of the songs he played guitar, backed by the unlikely duo of an adorably waif-like girl dwarfed by her upright bass and the actor-handsome dude behind the drum kit.  For others he stepped over to play the small box with keys that I don’t have a name for.  He excused the band to play DJ for a short set of songs, cuing up records to provide the whirling backing tracks.

In a night full of familiar favorites, the stand-out track was “Unmarked Helicopters” from the excellent X Files soundtrack, which featured music from the show as well as songs inspired by it.  I still remember hearing Doughty’s paranoid piece in an episode all those years ago.  “They said it was a weather balloon,” the obviously doubting Doughty says.  Totally killer.  Some of the silliest songs from his catalog are the best.  “Circles” with its repeated chant of “I don’t need to walk around circles, walk around in circles, walk around in circles,” does just that in your head.  It’s the repetition that makes these songs so easy to groove to.  “Super Bon Bon” doesn’t have one sensical line in the whole song, but its infectiousness is inescapable.  While I couldn’t possibly have been enjoying it as much as the guy behind us who I am pretty sure was having an orgasm, I was definitely wearing my own satisfied smile.  

Friday, October 25, 2013

Ha Ha Tonka/Samantha Crain/The Sleepwalkers; October 25, 2013; Club Garibaldi, Milwaukee

I’m not a person who cares a lot about birthdays, I have enough fun year-round, I don’t need a special day to have a good time.  (Staying home last year with a bottle of wine and three episodes of Supernatural was one of the best.)  But if Ha Ha Tonka’s Milwaukee show falling on the anniversary of my birth helped get more people out to see them, then that was just fine with me.  Of course I should have known that the group I was with would not let that the band remain oblivious to that information.  Halfway through their set they called me up for a lovely version of “Happy Birthday” and a round of hugs and kisses.  It was all very sweet, but I felt awkward just the same.

It also felt strange to be seeing them for the first time on a CD release tour that started back in September.  I’d hoped to tag along on more dates, but with a full-time merch girl, a light guy and a sometime fifth member, there simply wasn’t room in the van.  It made me miss the good ol’ days of 2010 when it was just me, the boys and tour manager James Dean.  Tonka has always been moving forward though, and their new record Lessons is evidence to that.  If Buckle in the Bible Belt was their explosive freshman year, then Lessons is their senior class project, in the gifted and talented class.  I have a hard time saying it’s their best record yet, though it certainly is, it’s just that I remain ever faithful to Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South, their darkly brilliant sophomore release.  The infectious “Staring at the End of Our Lives” is the song you put on repeat while “Rewrite Our Lives” is the one that that sticks with you.  The latter is a sister song to the former, while also part of the Synthetic Hearts trilogy in the record’s second half.  “Lessons” album-wide theme, in addition to its repeated phrases and imagery, make it a required committed listen.

Other than the new songs, the set really hasn’t changed much.  The catchy rockers from Buckle, “St Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor” and “Caney Mountain” as well as eternal acapella “Hangman” and its follow-up “Pendergast Machine” (sadly the only song they still do from South) have been part of every set for as long as I can remember.  Previous release 2011’s Death of a Decade gives us “Usual Suspects” and “Westward Bound,” though sadly my favorite song from the record “The Humorist” wasn’t in tonight’s set.  Still, since it had been several months since I had seen them, it was hard to complain about anything, especially when people I didn’t know kept buying me beers.  That’s one advantage of having your birthday recognized on stage.

Samantha Crain

Ha Ha Tonka

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Casey Neill & the Norway Rats/The Sparrow & the Sky; October 19, 2013; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

I’ve made it a rule to not book bands I haven’t seen, learned that the hard way, but I do make the occasional exception.  I let my best patron talk me into booking Nick Jaina with happy results (after all, being a preferred customer should have some advantages).  And when Scott McCaughey (Minus 5, Baseball Project, second guitarist in REM, and all around awesome dude) asked if I would be interested in having his friend and sometime bandmate Casey Neill play, I said yes.  One, because it’s Scott McCaughey, and much like Bill, he’s not going to steer me wrong.  And two, I’m not going to lie, I’ve wanted McCaughey with one of his many projects to play for years now, and figured this might help.  Even if it got me no closer to a Baseball Project or Minus Five show, having Neill & the Rats was a joy, a really great show, aided in no small part by local openers the Sparrow & the Sky.

I’d seen the Sparrow & the Sky twice before, both times with two of my favorite duos.  I didn’t remember much about their show with the Water Liars other than the fact that they were there, but the show this summer with Loves It! made an impression.  I remembered them being good, but I didn’t remember them being this good.  They claim it was the addition of Matt Nelson on banjo, but I don’t think that he could be solely responsible.  Singer/guitarist Stephanie Birr has a bewitching voice, intriguing and expressive, that inspires a captive audience.  Carson Maule who also sings and plays, is a perfect complement, and they sound great together.  Their set was mostly originals with one cover I didn’t recognize, but have been meaning to look up.  They also included a medley in which the uniting characteristic is that all the songs are “in a somewhat minor key.”   They cautioned us not to clap till the end, “or you’ll just look stupid,” but it was hard not to when every section was so good.  When I told Stephanie after their set that I wanted them to open every house concert I was only half kidding.

We all agreed that Liz should have been here tonight because she would have loved the Norway Rats.  There’s a hint of Irish in their earnest workingman rock, not to mention a good dose of Springsteen.  (Neill cheerfully admits to being a huge Springsteen nerd, as well as a Buffy the Vampire Slayer nerd.  We had a lot to talk about.)  It had been a little while since I’d had a full band in the basement, and it sounded great.  They were touring behind a new record, All You Pretty Vandals, whose title track with its chorus of “wreck the place and leave” is an addictive romp.  “My Little Dark Rose” is a valentine to their hometown of Portland (the rose city).  Even though Neill’s all star backing band tonight didn’t include the two most recognizable members (The Chet from the eels and Jenny Conlee from the Decemberists), they were pretty great.  Coincidentally enough, drummer Joe Mingus had played on several of my friend Marty Finkel’s records that he recorded in Portland.  Small, small, world.

I always warn bands that haven’t made a name in Madison that it’s hard to get people out to see someone they haven’t heard of.  You would think folks would just trust me by now, well, I think that at least.  It was a shame that there weren’t more people here tonight, but hopefully word of mouth will get a larger crowd out next time.

The Sparrow & the Sky

Casey Neill & the Norway Rats

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Father John Misty/some comedian; October 13, 2013; High Noon Saloon

I often say I hate comedy.  This isn’t true of course, I love to laugh, it’s just that so much of what falls under the heading of comedy just isn’t funny.  “Bridesmaids” isn’t funny, amateur improv definitely isn’t funny, bathroom humor isn’t funny.  Actually, sometimes bathroom humor is funny, but not very often.  The female comedian who opened for Father John Misty quite definitely wasn’t funny.  In fact, it was painful.  “It would be better if she was singing,” I complained to my friend.  Given how much I like girl singers, that statement says a ton.  Things started looking up once Father John Misty took the stage.

Josh Tillman, who went by J. Tillman for years, has managed to reinvent himself from a singer songwriter who I found tediously boring when I saw him years ago opening for Damien Jurado into someone intriguing and vital.  I can even overlook the fact that he was in the equally tedious harmony-overdose known as Fleet Foxes.  (It occurs to me now that there are a few other musicians who could use an alter-ego.)  I’d reluctantly listened to Fear Fun, his first release under the FJM moniker, after a friend said she thought I would like it, and I agreed to go to this show since it seemed the best use of her two free tickets awarded for being a High Noon fan of the month.  Both good decisions.  The record is hooky and smart and I enjoyed it, but I still wasn’t completely convinced I needed to see him live until I was persuaded to stick around for his set at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.  Playing from a behind a giant iPhone cut-out, he was charming and engaging, and I was happy I skipped First Aid Kit to see him.

He left the giant phone backstage tonight, though I wasn’t the only one who wondered why.  “Giant iPhone where are you?” he wondered during an uncomfortable moment in the show.  His last tour had been with a band and no doubt he felt more exposed all alone on the stage this time around.  As opposed to the depressing songs he used to sing, “Only Son of a Ladies Man” and “I’m Writing a Novel” are catchy, funny and straight-up entertaining.  I do hate being wrong, but discovering I was wrong about Father John Misty was a happy revelation.  I’ll definitely see him every chance I get.  Um, you know, if it’s free, or at least cheaper than the overpriced $25 ticket this show was.