Sunday, March 30, 2014

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah; March 30, 2014; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

Interestingly, even though Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth would be the only person performing tonight, he chose to bill this show under the band name instead of his own.  It makes sense once you know that he is the only constant member of the band.  Much like Bright Eyes of the Mountain Goats, CYHSY is one man and whoever he decides to surround himself with.  The band made a splash with their self-titled debut in 2005 and has performed and released records sporadically since then.  Despite the dearth of releases, 2011’s Hysterical had just as much bite and vigor as the debut, all held together with Ounsworth’s unique voice, as intriguing as it is nontraditional.  For someone who is used to playing big festivals and big venues, moving into the basement (and living rooms) had to be a bit disconcerting, but Ounsworth says he prefers it.  He’d rather be playing these intimate shows for a small group of people that are paying attention than playing in front of semi-interested thousands.

He definitely preferred it to the last time he played Madison.  The group had been booked into a theater on campus, and the only people who showed up were the folks who had put it together.  Since I didn’t even know about the show, it obviously hadn’t been well advertised.  Despite the fact that they paid them a lot of money, it was still a fairly depressing gig.  Ounsworth wasn’t as chatty as Kasher had been the night before, often rolling one song into the next, making it difficult to know when to applaud.  The sold out crowd listened attentively, and fit in their appreciation when they could.  A few of the songs from Hysterical stood out, but for the most part it was all a pleasant blur, until the end of the night when he slid into “My Yellow Country Teeth,” what would probably be considered the hit from the debut.  It was thrill to hear a song that I’ve heard a million times sung live with just that distinctive voice and a guitar.  Ounsworth said the band had just finished up a new record and would be crossing the country again soon when it came out.  Sure enough within a week after this show, the Majestic announced a CYHSY show for June.  It will be interesting to compare the two performances.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Tim Kasher; March 29, 2014; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

I had just confirmed Clap Your Hands Say Yeah for March 30 when I saw Undertow was looking for a host for Tim Kasher in Madison on the 29th.  I love working with Undertow, they put together these living room shows so that anyone can do it, so for me they seem like a night off.  When I asked if I could do the Kasher show too, the Undertow guys were elated, “we thought it would be too much to ask!”  I knew Kasher’s band Cursive, and had seen them a few times (notably headlining a Pabst Theater show), and I listened to his excellent new solo record Adult Film a ton, but I was certainly nowhere near the level of fandom of the rest of the crowd.  Which was good, because they knew the right songs to ask for at the end of the set when Kasher invited the crowd to tell him “what they missed and where they screwed up.”

Two of those requests which stood out were “Album of the Year” and “Caveman,” both of which he claimed were among his favorite songs ever.  Before playing the latter he claimed, “I’d go watch me play this song!”  One of the most charmingly honest things I’ve heard someone say onstage.  Honestly, Kasher was nothing but charming, embracing the idea of these intimate living room shows whole-heartedly.  As opposed to most of the “living room” shows I’d done, Kasher got in touch in advance, checking in about load in times.  That gave me the chance to invite them to dinner and volunteer my PA.  He was accompanied on this tour by longtime bandmate Patrick who was a jack of all trades tonight.  He spent much of his time behind the drum kit, where he also had a keyboard, trumpet, and melodica.  That is until Kasher announced the “best/worst part of the show.”  “I just bought this drum kit right before the tour, and heck if I’m not going to play it!” he announced before switching seats with Patrick. 

“How much was it?” came the question immediately from the audience, Kasher looked taken aback, “well, that’s rude,” he laughed.  He continued giving the guy a hard time before admitting it was $350.  (I’ve been meaning to get a backline for the basement and that seemed like a pretty good deal.)  His drumming was certainly competent, if maybe a little awkward, but he was having a great time.  He evaluated his performance by saying that the kick was a little off, but “drumming great Thelonius Monk always said it takes years to master the kick.”  Pretty sure he made that up.  I didn’t know many of the songs other than those from the new album, but I’ve been inspired to go back and listen to a lot of his catalog, especially those released under The Good Life moniker.  For someone who is as big a Conor Oberst fan as I am, it’s like discovering that Oberst has an older brother who is just as talented.  Despite the fact that Kasher is from Omaha and has put out many records on Saddle Creek, also home to Oberst’s Bright Eyes, I never quite got around to mentioning how awesome it would be to have Oberst play the basement. 

Maybe next time.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Pigpen Theater Company/The Spring Standards; March 27, 2014; the Frequency

It was nice to know when I was watching the Spring Standards perform most of their set acoustic during SXSW due to sound problems, that I would be seeing them again so soon.  This time through town they were with New York’s Pigpen Theater Company, who apparently is a band that is also an acting company.  They certainly have some fans, among them a pair of basement regulars that I’d seldom seen outside my house.  After I expressed surprise to see them they said they wouldn’t miss Pigpen, and had traveled to Chicago to see them in the past.  I told them they were in for a treat since I was there for the opening band who they weren’t familiar with.  I was delighted that they loved them and look forward to seeing them in the basement, which they swear they are doing the next time through town.

I first met the Spring Standards when they toured with Ha Ha Tonka, but I appreciate them more every time I see them.  Three of the four sing (two guys and a girl), which gives the band several different sounds, they do backing vocals on each other’s songs and their harmonies are stunning.  Meanwhile the fourth member plays guitar, bass and pedal steel, all while jumping around as much as possible; every show is an attempt to get a non-blurry picture of Noah. It was another great set, with a few songs done off mike and off stage where they show off how great their voices really are.  I couldn’t stop smiling.  My only complaint was that it was far too short due to occupying the opening slot.  They were obviously enjoying touring with Pigpen, in telling us about what we were in for, Heather tried to explain “I love my bandmates, but it’s one thing to be on the road with three hunky guys, but in the next band…”  “There’s only one,” one of the Jameses interrupted.  She laughed and went with it, “That’s right, there’s only one, and you have to figure out which one it is.”

As much I enjoyed the next band, I spent most of their set doing exactly that.  The lead singer, a fair redhead with a stunning voice resembling David Gray’s, seemed too obvious a choice.  They certainly all had their qualities, including good looks and excellent musicianship, but I eventually decided on the multi-instrumentalist who looked a bit like Dylan McDermott, with the bass player a close second (they are nothing but trouble you know).  They kept their Mumford-esque set interesting by stealing a page from the Standards and doing a few songs unamplified.  They also invited Noah to play pedal steel on a few songs, and Heather to sing, the finale was Tonka-esque with almost everyone on stage.  I told Noah he should play on all their songs, to which he responded, “No more bands.”  He’d been on tour for most of the last two months and while it may have been exhausting for him, it certainly made me happy to see him so much.  Hopefully I won’t have to wait too long to have them in the basement.
The Spring Standards

Pigpen Theater Company


Friday, March 21, 2014

Jon Langford & Skull Orchard; March 21, 2014; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

I’d made a point of telling Jon Langford that next time he came back he had to bring guitarist Jim Elkington with him.  Not that I wouldn’t be happy having Langford all by himself, but I am a huge fan of the handsome and charming Brit, and he always sounds great playing with Langford.  The plan up until that day was that Skull Orchard would be Elkington and violinist Jean Cook.  He was doubtful at first, but Langford claimed Elkington’s baby situation had been solved with a series of nannies.  It seems that mothers aren’t the only ones who get “baby brain,” and he backed out at the last minute.  “You want to hear Jim?” Langford asked after giving me a copy of the new release, Here Be Monsters, “he’s all over the record.”  As expected, once the show got started I didn’t miss him at all, Langford’s silliness and Cook’s dry humor were all the entertainment we needed. 

I was pleased to be listed on the tour poster as “Kiki’s,” right after SXSW dates and before a whole series of shows across the country.  Langford was also pleased to be playing a sold out show in Madison, “meanwhile there’s 347 tickets left for Sunday’s show at the Hideout.”  Many of tonight’s songs came from the excellent new record out on In De Groot Records, a label he doesn’t quite know what to do with.  “This next song was given out for free by my record label, ‘because that’s what the kids want, they want music for free,’” Langford scoffed, “Give music away for free?  No problem, I’ve been doing that for 37 years.”  The dark “Drone Operator” was released as a single by Bloodshot last year, but was lightened up by a video from Hassan Amejal, “it takes a Moroccan to make it a happy song.”  “What Did You Do in the War?” also touches on themes of destruction, but also redemption.  On record Tawny Newsome sings with Langford, but he and Cook sounded just as lovely, meanwhile its infectious melody has a comforting timelessness.  The hopeless sounding “Mars” uses space exploration as a metaphor for unreachable dreams.

Throughout the show, Langford’s boisterousness was balanced by Cook’s faux boredom, his positivity by her resistance.  “Jean says we can’t play this one by ourselves,” Langford claimed, while she explained “I didn’t say we couldn’t play it, I said it would sound weird without the band.”  After asking us if we wanted to be a group, he taught us the sing-along chorus, complete with actions, “Beyond your reach, beyond your grasp, beyond your help,” and complimented us on our Welsh sounding accent and chair dancing.  Despite the less that pitch perfect audience participation, I would say it went pretty well without the band.  We got another chance to sing and dance later in the night on “Get the Money,” where the actions involve miming your mind fragmenting and pointing to your backside on the line “Don’t leave anything behind.”  There were also songs that hadn’t gotten out of the house much.  “I’m nervous,” Langford claimed, “we’ve never played this one before.”  “We played it yesterday,” Cook countered.  “Yes, but that was in my kitchen with the lyrics in front of me.”

I think it is safe to safe to say they had a great time.  They took a break after an hour, and then came back to play another hour plus.  After what seemed like a logical closer, Cook set down her violin.  “What are you doing?  We aren’t done yet.”  It was a great night of stories as Langford gave us the unabridged version of every song’s history, I didn’t ever want it to be done.