Saturday, November 30, 2013
Saturday, November 16, 2013
Of all the shows that I host that are under-attended the fact that Will Johnson doesn’t sell out continues to baffle me. If his band Centro-matic was playing the basement it would sell out in a heartbeat (well, I would hope so at least), but people don’t seem to realize that this is the heart of that band, the songwriter, the voice. Plus, he’s extremely awesome solo, and he was especially swoon-worthy tonight. He tried to wrap it up at an hour, but I told him I frankly was not ready for him to be done yet. I then asked if I could make a request. “Um, maybe,” he replied looking nervous. “Chorine My Sheba Queen?” I said hopefully. The track from New Multitudes, a collection of Woody Guthrie songs with original music, is the standout on a disc that also features the distinctive voices of Son Volt’s Jay Farrar, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Anders Parker. He pulled out a cheat sheet that he didn’t need and played a stunning version of it.
This was the fourth time Johnson has played the basement, and even though I am always disappointed with the turnout, he never seems to be. In fact, he seems to love playing here, and am I ever glad. He chided me for booking the show when I already had three other shows this month, it’s too much he said. But of the four shows, this was the one I was most excited about. And this was my favorite of the shows he’s done. The song selection drew from his most recent solo record, the slow-burning Scorpion, as well as more upbeat tunes from the most recent Centro-matic record Candidate Waltz, and from his extensive back catalog. As good as the songs were, at the risk of blaspheming, his banter may have been even better. He railed against the McRib, the most nonsensical of all fast food, calling it an effing lying sandwich to hilarious effect, and reflected on the ridiculousness of Texans driving in a blizzard (which he had navigated in Buffalo a few weeks prior). After the show, he kept Michelle and I in stitches another hour, mostly by continuing his McRib rant. He was slated to do a storyteller type songwriter in the round show at the end of the month and threatened that all he was going to talk about was his most hated sandwich. Beware Denver.
I gave opener Paul Otteson first pick of my November shows and after listening to everything, he decided on tonight’s show. While he honestly may have been into what Johnson is doing, and I agreed this show was the best match for him, it may have been the promise of playing completely unplugged that actually convinced him. Like Johnson, he projects much better than expected without amplification, and his always perfect voice may have been even more stunning in this setting. He certainly relished the opportunity, commenting several times on how great it was to play like this. He’ll be the first person I call next time there’s a PA-free show. Unlike the also-unplugged Damien Jurado show a few months back, where it seemed like the whole audience was holding its collective breath, tonight was loose, comfortable and a whole lot of fun. I can’t wait till Will comes back.
Friday, November 15, 2013
I always claim I only book bands I’ve seen, but I’ve been known to break my own rule on more than one occasion. In fact, I did it two months in a row. When Jann Klose’s manager/booking agent contacted me about a house concert I had no idea how she had found me, but Klose’s resume was impressive enough that I took a look at the links she had sent me. There were features on east coast TV and Entertainment Weekly’s Artist to Watch, but what intrigued me the most was that his voice had been featured in the new movie “Greetings from Tim Buckley.” The biopic used Klose as the singing for voice for the troubled folk icon. Since it was six months in advance, my calendar was open and I said sure.
Klose has developed a following in nearby Chicago, but this was his first time in Madison. I always warn bands that I have a hard time getting people out to see someone they haven’t heard of, but Klose didn’t seem too disappointed with the small crowd. He understood that it would take time to develop the sort of following that he already has in many other cities. I think he won over many of them with his set. He does have a great voice, soothing and charming, and his tunes, even solo on acoustic guitar, are hooky and interesting. His just short of an hour set included many of the songs from his new record Mosaic, including opening track “Make It Better,” which he also opened with tonight.
When I was trying to think of the ideal opener I thought of Centime, the project of singer/songwriter Sean Michael Dargan and the husband and wife team of Annelies Howell and Danny Hicks. Sadly, Howell informed me that Centime has disbanded. I was especially sad since I had only seen them twice. But it occurred to me that she and Hicks probably had an assortment of songs that they could play as a duo. I was right, and they jumped at the chance to put together a set. They asked if they could bring along a drummer who is also Hicks bandmate in another local band Bing Bong, and I said sure, hoping that Klose wouldn’t mind being outnumbered by the opening band. There were some rough edges, but as always Howell was fantastic. The set included a few covers from people like Peter Mulvey and Jeffrey Foucault, as well as mostly originals, some of which were slated to become German Art Students tracks. It was great to have them, it isn’t often I can introduce a band as being something you can’t see anywhere else.
Annelies, Danny & Brian
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
My basement schedule for November was filling up pretty quickly, but I didn’t even hesitate when Mike Nicolai sent David Dondero to me looking for a show. I knew Dondero as a member of Conor Oberst’s Team Love stable of artists, which would have been enough right there, but I’d also really enjoyed his set with the Faders (with whom he’d released a split single) at Schubas a couple years back. I usually have a pretty good idea of how many people are going to show up on any given night, but if anything the numbers are usually short of my most hopeful estimates. Tonight was not looking like a big crowd, I had twelve people on my list and I couldn’t imagine many more than that walking through the door on a Tuesday night. Sometimes I love being wrong. A surprising 38 people came to see Dondero with opener Marty Finkel, many for whom this was their first visit to the basement.
Finkel had told me earlier that he wasn’t going to take any money for playing tonight. Dondero was the touring musician, he protested, he needs the money. Of course, he thought, like I did, that it would be a sparse crowd. Later when I asked if he was sure he didn’t want his ten percent, he took it reluctantly, only to spend it all on Dondero’s records. Finkel sold a few of his own discs too. Much of his set came from his brand new EP that he claimed is even better than the full length released earlier this year. It had been several years since the release of Simple Life, so it is exciting to see him so productive again. And these are some really good songs. I’ve followed Finkel over much of his songwriting career, having reviewed his first CD for Rick’s Café many years ago, and it’s been fun watching his talent mature. The songs from the EP haven’t sunk in yet, but Can’t Be Found be found certainly has some that have stuck with me. One of those is “Benjamin,” which he introduced as being about The Graduate. With lines like “Benjamin, you are breaking up the family,” I can’t believe I didn’t figure it out on my own. Marty apologized after the show that my favorite track “Still Afraid to Die” hadn’t made the set list, but he claimed it was difficult to play without the band (actually I think he said it “sounds like crap”), but it was such a great set I didn’t even miss it.
It’s easy to see why Oberst signed Dondero, they share the ability to write a smart and catchy song, as well as the occasional vocal similarity. In person, he’s charmingly awkward, telling us a little more than we needed to know about how the hotel breakfast had disagreed with him and seeming surprised when we wanted him to play longer than 45 minutes. One of the highlights of the show was the honest and engaging “This Guitar.” The title track to his most recent vinyl release (the download is available from Bandcamp, there is no CD version) is a cousin to the Magnetic Field’s “Acoustic Guitar,” addressing the instrument as if it were not only animate, but also sentient, blaming it for failed marriages, as well as drug and alcohol problems. An even more direct attack on the addictive nature of alcohol is titled simply “Alcohol.” You get the feeling that Dondero used to really like to drink, but decided he’s one of those people who probably shouldn’t. You can tell he misses it. Like Oberst, he owes a debt to Bob Dylan. The hilarious “South of the South” draws a direct line back to Dylan’s “Talking Blues” songs (which he in turn swiped from Woody Guthrie); the play-by-play of getting pulled over somewhere south of the south is worth the price of the vinyl, and maybe even of getting a turntable. Live he expounded on the story even more, for great comic effect. He finished the night with a request, “The New Berlin Wall,” a social commentary equating building a wall between the US and Mexico to the one that divided a city.
Thanks to all the folks who surprised me on a Tuesday night. And a big thanks to Finkel and especially Dondero for such a great show, please come back anytime.
Sunday, November 10, 2013
I love Lou Barlow. I love his soothing croon of a voice, I love his floppy hair (which honestly could currently use a cut), I love his self-deprecating humor, I love Folk Implosion, I love his solo stuff, I love the songs he sings in Sebadoh. I don’t really love the songs the other guy sings so much, but tonight I found another thing to love about Barlow. Don’t laugh, but I just realized what a great a bass player he is. Yes, I would think he would have had to have been to be in Dinosaur Jr, but didn’t he get fired from that band? More than once? OK, maybe not, but in the past when I saw Sebadoh I didn’t pay as much attention when Jason Lowenstein took the mike. Tonight we were right up front stage left, a bad place to be when Barlow was singing, but a great place to be when he was playing bass. Instead of switching guitars like they did at the High Noon, they would switch spots. This gave me a great perspective to admire not only his bass playing, which was intricate and melody driven instead of just rhythm, but also the fact that he has pretty awesome arms. They concentrated on songs from the new record, Defend Yourself, which I had listened to just enough to make them familiar, but there were a few older songs thrown into the mix. Pretty great. Yep, I sure do love Lou Barlow.