Saturday, February 22, 2014

Loves It!/Winn Dixie; February 22, 2014; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

I seldom do exactly the same show in the basement, but here it was just over a year since the Loves It! duo of Jenny Parrot and Vaughn Walters had last been in the basement and here was Winn Dixie opening for them again.  Many of the same folks were in attendance, heck, even the sound guy was the same.  It’s hard to ask anyone else to open, because no one is a bigger fan of Loves It! than (honorary Kentucky) Colonel Andy Moore.  It would be déjà vu all over again if not for one difference, both bands had added a bass player since their last appearance.  In the case of Winn Dixie, Kyle Jacobson (of the Whitney Mann band) sat in for a handful of songs on upright bass, giving their Appalachian folk a little more power.  On the upright for Loves It! was Kurt Johnson, a Wisconsin native who now lives in West Virginia via Texas.  Whereas Jacobson’s style was more traditional (but still awesome), Johnson was an inventive player, coaxing sounds out of his bass that you don’t often hear. 

Just as remarkable as his playing was his amazing collapsible bass.  Jenny told me I had to watch him assemble it, and I did the same for a few other folks when it came time to break it down after the show.  I should have taken video because in just a few simple steps an instrument as tall as me had been packed into a case half my height.  The bridge slides out, loosening the strings and the neck bends backward into the body through a secret panel.  It all fits nicely into a specially made case and the whole thing weighs less than fifty pounds, which means no extra fees when flying with it.  In fact, Johnson had bought it simply to travel to Europe with the duo, though apparently it could sound better.  “If I’d have known that bass was going to be here,” he said, motioning to Jacobson’s instrument nestled under the stairs, “I would have asked to borrow that.”

I certainly couldn’t tell, since, as predicted by Parrot, he made them sound awesome.  They’ve grown a lot since their appropriately titled first record “Yay!” which was recorded with a few spare hours of studio time.  The new All We Are sounds more like them, every time I listen to it I feel like I’m seeing them in the basement.  The show opened with the clever acapella “Katydid” just as the record does.  The traditional sounding tune shows off both their voices, and how good a songwriter Walters is.  There are some hilariously clever songs, like “(How’d You Like to Be) My First Divorce,” a terrific murder ballad “Western Swing Murder” and any number of torch songs, the latter sung by Parrott in her gorgeously baroque voice.  The show ended with a ridiculous number of demanded encores.  “We’ve never done this many encores!” Parrott exclaimed when they came back the third time.  “This is the most fun I’ve had in a long time,” she said.  Given the fact that the band plays around two hundred shows a year, that’s quite the compliment.  

Winn Dixie

Loves It!


Friday, February 21, 2014

The Western Elstons; February 21, 2014; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

The Flat Five- Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon. Casey McDonough, Alex Hall- put on one of last year’s best shows in the basement.  So when McDonough e-mailed me about a date for his other band the Western Elstons, which includes the boys from the Flat Five and guitar whiz Joel Paterson, I agreed immediately.  Since he had only experienced sold out shows in the basement, I had to warn him that not every show sells out and that it’s surprisingly hard to get people to come see a band they haven’t heard of.  In the end it was a decent crowd, about 80% sold, a mix of Flat Five fans and Paterson fans.

Paterson grew up in Madison and played frequently in the clubs around town before moving to Chicago a few years after I got here.  He still plays with local band the Cash Box Kings, and was sitting in with them the next night at the Crystal Corner.  After I sent the announcement, one of my regulars responded immediately and excitedly, “You mean I get to see my favorite guitar player in your basement?!”  Paterson is deserving of such status, he is definitely a guitar whiz and he makes it look effortless.  No scrunched up grimace guitar face here, no, he has a laid back calm that makes him even cooler.  In a band full of truly terrific musicians, he still stands out.  There were several chances for him to really show off his skills, instrumentals that gave him a chance to stretch on both electric guitar and lap steel.  During those moments, all eyes were on him.

The rest of the time it was hard to know who to watch.  They gave drummer Alex Hall a microphone for the first time, apparently he doesn’t get one for their regular gigs at Simon’s in Chicago.  Which is hard to believe, because not only can he sing as he proves in the Flat Five, he’s also got some stuff to say.  In this band though, all the vocals are handled by Ligon and McDonough, who sound amazing together.  The set list ranged from originals to the Everly Brothers to the Davis Sisters.  “One thing I learned from Kelly Hogan (who’s not here tonight),” Ligon explained, “is that it’s OK to sing a gender specific song the way it was written, whether it applies to you or not.”  They did a beautiful job on the heartbreaking Johnny Cash song “I Still Miss Someone,” and “(Set ‘Em Up) Let’s Toast that Lie Again“ written by Ligon’s brother Chris (who apparently has a trippy catalog all his own) was a gem.  Perhaps the best song of the night was “In Dreams,” where once again McDonough pulled off a stunning Roy Orbison impersonation.  In fact, the next night he was playing a show of all Orbison covers in Chicago.

Where the Flat Five specializes in sunny West Coast pop, the Western Elstons call classic country and early rock and roll home, which just goes to prove those guys can play anything.  I’m glad they are finally getting out of Chicago once in awhile.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Josh Harty/Paul Otteson/Robby Schiller; February 15, 2014; High Noon Saloon

Josh Harty left Madison almost two years ago, playing a “so long for now” show at the High Noon before he hit the road for a different kind of tour.  His idea- move around the country, pick an area, stay there for awhile and play the heck out of it.  He was in the South, the East coast, the Pacific Northwest and two trips to the UK.  It was a success, but it was a lot of work, and you could tell he was happy to be home.  Of course, he was only home for a few days before he got back in the car and headed to Kansas City for a CD release show with John Statz and the Folk Alliance conference.  Still, he does plan to be back in Madison more or less permanently starting in June.  For now we got this teaser of a show.

The shows he’s been playing across the country have all been solo, so he said it didn’t feel right to play a full band show.  Instead he chose cellist Mary Gaines and multi-instrumentalist Chris Wagoner to accompany him.  Their graceful, classical trained playing has always sounded terrific alongside Harty’s skilled guitar work.  A finger-picking whiz, he can out play almost anyone I know.  Despite the fact that I hadn’t seen him in 22 months (though to be honest, I thought it had only been a year), most of the set was still familiar.  Songs like “Home” and “You Were on My Mind” were like old familiar friends, you know, that I hadn’t seen in awhile, but we picked up right where we left off.  After a three song encore I was surprised when he returned for a second time.  It was welcome though since he ended the night with his terrific cover of Richard Thompson’s “Vincent Black Lightning 1952.”

Paul Otteson just may have the most gorgeous voice in Madison, a pure and stunning tenor that conveys emotional depths, even if I can’t always understand exactly what he is saying.  It took him a long time to release his first record, February Fables, but he’s been fairly prolific since then.  This was the first time I had seen Audre Rae sing with him, and I complemented after her on how great she sounded.  Not only did she not seem intimidated by his voice (see above) she handled his wordy songs with grace.  And I thought she was only an awesome photographer.  Most people only know Robby Schiller as the voice of the Blueheels.  Those people are missing out.  He has another voice that couldn’t be more different, a little Cat Stevens, a lot of volume.  He doesn’t play solo very often, you are more likely to see him behind the drum kit with Little Legend, so I have him open shows at the house just to see him.  There were a lot of new songs tonight with just a few old favorites.  “Meaner than the Wolves Outside,” the oldest song he played tonight and “Jay Cutler” were (I think) the only two, though he would only play the latter, which he wasn’t sure was still relevant, after being reassured it was still a good song.  Yeah it was me, and it is.

Welcome sorta back Josh, and thanks for the great show.

Robby Schiller

Paul Otteson

Josh Harty