Friday, January 31, 2014

The National; January 31, 2014; The Republik, Honolulu

I didn’t even check to see if any bands were playing in Hawaii while I was there, because as my cousin Johnny who lives there knows too well, no bands ever play there.  So it was a bit of a surprise to find out that The National was going to be playing a relatively small (for them) venue my second night in town.  I like National, I think Matt Berninger’s voice is quite swoonworthy and their songs are always unobjectionably listenable, but I’m cheap and I stopped seeing them long before they were selling out five nights straight at the Chicago Theater.  In fact I enjoy telling people that the first time I saw the National they were the opening opening band for the Pernice Brothers at a small venue in Milwaukee that wasn’t even half full.  When I bought Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers after the show, I bought it from Berninger himself.  Still, I was on vacation, so I didn’t even blink when the tickets were $40, I was going to see a band in Honolulu!  And not one with ukuleles and grass skirts.

After Sad Songs I didn’t even buy another record until High Violet made everyone’s top ten lists a few years back.  I liked it of course, but to me it all starts to sound the same after a while.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a really good same, but the same nonetheless.   I did recognize a few of the songs tonight, so I have to guess that they came from that record.  It was a high energy show, flashing lights on the screen behind them illuminated a large band which included horns.  Berninger always looks a little uncomfortable on stage, he paces nonstop, keeping his head down while he does so, seldom making eye contact with anyone, but growling out lyrics with conviction.

The venue was cool enough, a big box of a room with a capacity somewhere under a thousand.  They seemed to be encouraging the “bottle service” at the back of the room, which unfortunately led to more socializing than paying attention to the band.  In fact, it seemed like much of the crowd in the back half of the room was just there because it was something to do.  Like I said, bands don’t play Honolulu very often.  The chatter at times overwhelmed the band, and I had to concentrate to tune out the talking.  This was especially annoying during the encore when they did an unplugged number at the edge of the stage.  I wanted to shush everyone in the room, pay attention!  After all, bands don’t play Honolulu very often.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Dietrich Gosser/Old Earth/Jeremiah Nelson; January 26, 2014; High Noon Saloon

I really wanted to follow Chris Mills and the Distant Stars to St Paul tonight, but I was leaving for Hawaii on Tuesday and I figured I should work a few days before being gone for a week.  But even more than that, I didn’t want to miss Dietrich Gosser’s record release show for the stellar Oh! To Begin.  The tracks were released on Bandcamp last September, but it took a little longer to get the LP pressed.  It’s worth the wait, it’s a quality pressing on heavyweight vinyl, and the trippy Norman Rockwell-esque cover photo looks great on 11x11 cardboard.  The photo, taken by Audre Rae, shows a little boy standing on the Terrace watching a band (which is actually Dietrich & company) with an egg carton tied to his back.  It’s really weird and totally adorable, a picture truly is worth a thousand words.

There was talk of how different these songs were from his previous work, but it was everything I expected it to be.  Gosser makes awesome records, and that’s what I expected.  They play great live too, a delicate balance of Dan Kuemmel’s inventive percussion, Gosser’s fantastic voice and guitar work, and Jeremiah Nelson who adds atmospheric guitar (and produced the record). As fitting a release show, there were many tracks from the new record as well as old favorites.  Perhaps the standout of these was “Noah’s Ark,” one of my favorite tracks from near perfect record What the Buzzsaw Sings.  “Well that moonshine always got him singing songs about Noah’s Ark, one drunk sailor and an olive branch, one empty aching heart,” may be the best line Gosser’s ever written.  It was a great set, I’m glad that I braved a truly crappy Sunday evening to be there.

Of course there was the added bonus of two great openers.  I hadn’t seen Jeremiah Nelson play since he had moved back to Madison this summer, and it was great to hear some of my old favorites, especially the smartly catchy “Drugs to Make You Sober.”  Backed by Luke Bassuener on drums  and Blueheels drummer Adam Cargin on bass, the songs rocked a little more than the solo versions.  The drum and guitar “experimental folk” duo Old Earth reminded me of someone, though I can’t put my finger on it.  I definitely liked them, and made a mental note to see the Milwaukee band next time they were in town.

Jeremiah Nelson

Old Earth

Dietrich Gosser

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Chris Mills & the Distant Stars; January 25, 2014; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

Chris Mills played the House of Righteous Music several times in the first couple years I was doing house concerts, but he hadn’t been back since 2008.   The last time in town he wanted to play a club, so I got him a show at the High Noon.  There was a decent crowd for a Sunday night, but after splitting the door between three bands and paying the sound guy, no one made much money.  This time through I think he decided the house wasn’t such a bad idea, though he did joke about it the night before at Schubas.  Half his band had come from Norway, where he makes bi-yearly trips to teach Norwegian school children about American folk music.  Drummer Paal Hausken and guitarist Christer Knutsen seemed to be enjoying their tour through the Midwest, despite the fact that Chris seemed to think he wasn’t showing them the highlights.  A few days earlier they had encountered an idiot who suggested that Knutsen’s sweater said something about his manhood, and “tomorrow I’m taking them to a basement,” Mills laughed.  A sold out basement I added.  Jokes aside, I’m pretty sure they thoroughly enjoyed playing KHoRM.

I’d let a few more people make reservations than I had planned- I had a hard time saying no since I wanted everyone to see Chris- so I asked the band to set up in as small a space as possible.  And they did manage to fit a drum kit, keyboard and multiple guitars into a very small space.  Part of the crowd was thanks to one of my house concerts regulars who was celebrating a birthday, and he had brought a group of friends to continue the party that had started with dinner at his house.  His and another birthday in the room led to one of the best encore songs in the history of the basement, Knutsen and Hausken sang them Norway’s birthday song while Mills and bassist Ryan Hembrey looked on in amusement.

This was only the third night of the tour, and this version of the Distant Stars was adding a few more songs every night.  Knutsen was a fan before he ever met Mills, and knew most of his catalog, in addition to playing on and producing the new record, but Hausken was playing many of these songs for the first (or second or third) time.  Since I didn’t have an opener tonight I told Chris he would have to play longer than usual, he responded by saying Knutsen would play an opening set.  Brilliant, he played a genuinely gorgeous twenty minute set to start the show.  He hadn’t played many of these sweet, heartbroken songs in a long time, but you never would have guessed if he hadn’t told us.  They opened with “Wild Places” from the new record Alexandria.  It’s a slow builder that begins with Mills at the piano before the rest of the band joins in and the song swells to a close.  It’s an effective way to begin and quieted the crowd who didn’t immediately realize the show had begun.  The beginning of the show had some amusing rough spots, for example Knutsen blamed a bad solo on the fact that his boots were too big and he hit the wrong pedal.  At one point early on Mills introduced Hausken as “the only member of the band who hadn’t fucked up yet.”  And yes, he did warn us early on that there would be adult language.

When I saw Mills last year at SXSW the set consisted almost entirely of the unreleased songs from Alexandria and those from his previous record Living in the Aftermath, and that was what I expected from the show at Schuba’s and tonight’s set.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by a show that went way back in his catalog to pull out terrific songs like “Brand New Day,” “Crooked Vein,” “Watch Chain” and the emotionally dark, intense “Napkin in a Wineglass.”  The latter especially was a surprise, I hadn’t heard it live in years, but it turned out to be Knutsen’s favorite song.  Also back in the set were The Silver Line’s “Suicide Note,” the utterly infectious title track (which still may be the best song he’s ever written) and my personal favorite “Dry Eye.”  After running through many of the songs they had played the night before at Schubas, Mills announced they would be playing some songs they didn’t really know “because otherwise Kiki will be mad that we didn’t play long enough,” which was especially amusing given that I don’t think he thought we were convinced they knew the songs they’d already played.  After playing final song “Brand New Day,” the band all ducked down as the applause roared.  Then they slowly rose back up to play the encore, “there’s nowhere to go,” Mills explained.  Traditional set closer “Signal to Noise” followed.  The penultimate track was a cover of Big Star’s “Thank You” which went out to all the folks who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign to release Alexandria,

It was one of those nights where I couldn’t stop smiling.  Is it too early to declare my “show of the year”?  This one will be hard to top.  Thanks for coming back to the house Chris.

Christer Knutsen

Chris Mills & the Distant Stars

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Califone/William Tyler; January 23, 2014; High Noon Saloon

My favorite part of the Califone show tonight came after the show was over.  When I went to tell lead singer/guitarist/keyboardist/band mastermind Tim Rutili what a great show it was, the first thing he said to me was “Can we play at your house next time?”  The answer of course is a resounding yes.  For years Califone and Chuck Prophet had been at the top of my wish list.  Prophet played last May, so that left only one.  The Califone that took the stage at the High Noon tonight was not the band that had stayed with me so many times before, in fact Rutili was the only member in common with that band.  And while I definitely missed percussionist Ben Massarella , talented multi-instrumentalist Joe Adamik, and awesome guitarist and worthy ping pong rival Jim Becker, the band we did get was perfectly suited to backing Rutili’s haunting songs.

My only disappointment was that there weren’t more  songs from 2010’s All My Friends are Funeral Singers, the album where I finally “got” Califone, only the urgent title track made the cut in a set that was heavy on the more reflective songs from last year’s Stitches.  They opened with that record’s opening track “Movie Music Kills a Kiss,” one of the record’s lighter tracks, and from there wove a mysterious web of guitars, keyboards and percussion.  The two percussionists at the back of the stage chose to guide the songs rather than draw attention to themselves.  Despite serious guitar chops from the other side of the stage, all eyes were focused on Rutili who seldom looked up during a song, and who seemed taken away by what he was playing.  In between songs, he was engaged and funny, if sometimes uncomfortably.  “I wrote this song when I thought I wanted to sleep with my sister,” I was more than a little freaked out before he finished the sentence, “in law.”  Whew.  He also spent a lot of time reflecting on meeting an old girlfriend he hadn’t seen in decades the last time he was in town, one of many conversations he shared with the audience.

Nashville guitar player William Tyler joined Califone on this tour.  If I had been at the back of the room I’m not sure I would have enjoyed his intricate instrumentals as much.  Most of the intrigue of these songs came from watching him fashion them.  The guitar whiz who looked like he could be Jack White’s long lost and decidedly healthier brother spun intricate and unbelievable music from his twelve string guitar.  Definitely worth getting there on time for.

William Tyler