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