Sunday, April 27, 2014
Friday, April 25, 2014
The Flat Five had just made their KHoRM debut in December, so April seemed a little soon to come back, but I trusted their judgment on this. After all, I’d have them play every week if they’d do it. I was a bit surprised when I found out a few days before that the Flat Five turned was actually going to be the Flat Four. Turns out drummer Alex Hall had other commitments and couldn’t make it. I adore Alex, and his drums and accordion add a lot, but he is the only member they can get by without. As Nora O’Connor promised, it meant even more sweet harmonies. It was another marathon of amazing music, with the band occasionally breaking down into the Flat Two or Three. O’Connor and Kelly Hogan took a seat in the front row to allow keyboardist/guitarist Scott Ligon and bassist Casey McDonough a chance to play a few songs on their own. McDonough eventually earned his seat on the futon, “you’ve earned an entire futon warehouse,” Hogan joked. As always, their easy camaraderie and hilarious banter (the most hilariously inappropriate coming from Hogan) were as much a highlight as their impeccable song selection and gorgeous vocals.
I always think I know a lot about music until I see the Flat Five and I only know a handful of the covers they play, and most of them are Monkees songs. This time we got three songs (!) from the criminally underrated group, of course, none of them were actually written by the band. The country western vibe of “What Am I Doin’ Hangin’ ‘Round?” comes courtesy of Michael Martin Murphy, and was lovely as sung by Hogan. “Pleasant Valley Sunday” makes sense when you know how much they love Carole King. My favorite of course was a perfect version of “Love Is Only Sleeping,” which they had also done last time around. I did less squealing, but it was just as awesome. They switched out their winter songs (I was a little disappointed, I argue “The Winter is Cold” is great any time of year) for springier ones. The first song I remember hearing Hogan and Ligon playing together many years ago was the Free Design’s “Kites Are Fun,” a trippy colored song about the joys of “flying.” They love a lot of bands, and most of them I’ve never heard of. There was a two-fer from the Dixie Cups, and lots of talk about Joe South. The latter was someone I wasn’t familiar with, but turns out he wrote a bunch of hits for other people. The best known of those is “Rose Garden.” After having “Birds of Feather” stuck in my head for a week or more, thanks to O’Connor and Hogan’s infectious “na na’s,” I started listening to a lot of Joe South. “Birds” is still stuck, but I did discover a lot of other great songs of his.
The one name I did know well was that of Ligon’s brother Chris. His “Florida” is a sunny, gorgeous, harmony-filled dream, while “Poop Ghost” is just kinda weird. They are talking about making a whole record of his songs, which would be the first merch the Flat Five would have. The fact that the only way to hear them do these pop gems is to go see them (or search them on YouTube) is what makes it so special. The fifty other people in the basement that night seemed to think so too, even after two and a half hours folks were yelling for more. Hopefully, they’ll get it soon.
Thursday, April 24, 2014
I’ll be honest; I usually book things for me, but this show I booked specifically for my sister Liz and our friend Marcus. The Saw Doctors is their favorite band, so when two of the members decided to do a series of small clubs and house concerts, they encouraged me to contact the booker. As expected, they both loved it, but I was surprised how much I loved it. I can’t imagine a more genuine pair, Leo Moran may have said “Thanks a million” a million times, but he meant it every time. They had gotten into Madison the night before and Anto Thistlethwaite had called to see if I wanted to come meet them for a drink. I can see doing that if they knew me, but they didn’t. They were delighted with soundman Ron Dennis, who’s the best and most thorough sound guy I know, and that’s exactly why I asked him. I was worried they might be high maintenance, their stage set-up sheet was the most specific I’d seen for a house concert, but they were the opposite.
They’ve released two CDs of their own, Flyin’ It and Pushin’ It, on which they revisit a few Saw Doctors songs, but also feature many new songs. I was surprised by how many Saw Doctors songs they did. As he does on the CD, Anto covered Leo’s “Share the Darkness,” which he calls “his second favorite song that Leo’s ever written. I wanted to do my favorite song of his, “All Kinds of Girls Make My Willy Go Hard,” but Leo doesn’t remember how it goes.” Probably for the best. They also did the title track to Villains, a true folk song on which they ponder who the real bad guys are. The beautiful “True Love Stays with You Forever” was a treat, while “Tommy K,” which features its own dance that Liz and Marcus were happy to demonstrate, may have been the biggest surprise. The night ended with the timeless “Clare Island” complete with sing-along and stroll around the basement.
In between were dozens of songs I’d never heard before, but that were instantly memorable. Another Woody Guthrie moment came from the credit union song. It’s a place where “they treat you like a person, not a pimple” and you could get a home renovation loan without anyone getting hurt. “All credit!” Leo would sing, and we’d all answer back “You said it!” “Carmel Mannion’s Son” came complete with an involved story, though not as long as the one that preceded their cover of Dylan’s “Most of the Time” wherein Anto was called upon to get Bob Dylan high, and a strange evening ensued. Apparently, most of that story was true, or so they said.
There were some notable folks in the audience tonight. I’ve done 120 plus shows, and this was the first one my mom attended, thanks to another sister who drove down from Minnesota and didn’t give her a choice. She may have thought it silly before, but I think she gets it now. There were also many Irish ex-pats in the house, which was apparently more than expected. Leo roundly made fun of the fact that the Irish are never on time for a show, due to their tendency to spend too much time in the pub beforehand. “I’ve never had any other nationality ask for a song that’s already been played,” Leo mused. When they protested he asked, “Who were the last people to arrive tonight?” I was impressed he’d noticed. There was much good natured ribbing between the performers too, mostly about the fact that an Irishman and an Englishman were getting along. There’s more to Anto’s story than just being the bass player for the Saw Doctors for the last dozen years, he’s also a founding member of the Waterboys and played saxophone and mandolin with them. He played both tonight, as well as guitar. I am pretty sure that was the first sax in the basement. Toward the end of the evening he did the Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues,” which may have been my favorite song he did all night. I told him about seeing Ted Leo sing it once, which he thought was pretty cool, even though he had no idea who Ted Leo was.
I haven’t been nervous about a show in a long time, but I was surprisingly nervous about this one. I shouldn’t have been, they couldn’t have been more charming or grateful. I’m pretty sure they will do it again sometime.
Sunday, April 20, 2014
I wasn’t cool in 1998 but I was lucky enough to have a friend who was, and he hipped me to all kinds of music I wouldn’t have heard on my own until years later. I first saw the Mountain Goats at the Empty Bottle in 1999, opening was a teenage Conor Oberst, and it was love at first listen for me. Back then the Goats’ John Darnielle was still making lo fi recordings, though by now he was releasing them on CD instead of the homemade cassettes he started out doing. I loved those early records, the fuzzy home recordings were lyrically brilliant and the seemingly simple melodies infectious. The Coroner’s Gambit and Tallahassee in 2000 and 2002 came as a surprise, those records actually sounded produced. I felt bad, but they were my new favorite Mountain Goats records. After that I kept buying the records, and they were all fine, but nothing came close to Gambit and Tallahassee. Even the recent shows failed to move me, though admittedly I hadn’t seen one in seven years. Still, when a friend asked if I wanted to see Darnielle play a solo show on Easter Sunday, I said yes, and just like that I was back in love with the Mountain Goats again.
He started off with a handful of old songs, the first going back all the way to Zeopilote Machine, his first real release. He was going to play it, that is, if he could only remember the first line. “Is (a name I’ve forgotten) here?” When an answer came from somewhere in the audience, he asked “How does “Alpha In Taurus” start?” Luckily his friend knew. That was one of a handful of surprising songs that he played, many of them going way back in his career. My two favorite records were featured heavily, from Gambit came “Island Garden Song,” “There Will be No Divorce, and the urgent opening track “Jaipur.” Of the latter he said he had put it on the set list the night before, but then skipped it, and that he was tempted to skip it again tonight. In a moment of self-analysis, he decided he must have some sort of fear of that song that he was determined to overcome. Once I heard which song it was, immediately identifiable by the opening line, “I had dreams of sugared pastries, cooked up in clarified butter,” I was happy he did. Speaking of great lines, “No Divorce” has one of my all time favorites, “You gathered your hair behind your head, like god was going to catch you by the ponytail.
He moved between the piano and guitar, relishing the chance to play some of the slower songs that he doesn’t get a chance to perform with the band. He talked about learning that everything didn’t have to be played at breakneck speed, it was OK to slow down the melody. “In fact,” he quipped, “that’s how ‘Coroner’s Gambit’ came about.” He picked a couple songs from the deeply personal Sunset Tree, which dealt with growing up in an abusive home. “Dance Music” talks about finding an escape in records, while “This Year” is just about surviving. He also took the opportunity to talk a lot about the songs and where they came from. The unreleased “Song for Black Sabbath on Their Second US Tour” revealed an affection for Ozzy Osbourne that is only surprising if you don’t know Darnielle, he has a knack for finding the beauty in any style of music. Witness his covers of “The Sign” or “FM.” For example he finished the second encore with a gorgeous piano ballad version of Osbourne’s “Shot in the Dark.”
Perhaps the only song better was “No Children” from the amazing Tallahassee. He preceded it with a rant about the days before no fault divorce, when you were forced to stay married to someone who would turn you into a shriveled husk of what you were if you didn’t have a good reason to not be together anymore. It was especially cathartic to hear the crowd sing along with such hate filled lines as “I hope you die, I hope we both die,” and “Our friends say it’s darkest before the dawn, we’re pretty sure they’re all wrong.” I couldn’t stop smiling that night and I have stopped smiling since. It’s good to be in love again.
Thursday, April 17, 2014
I’ve done many “living room shows” with the Champaign based Undertow over the years. David Bazan has played something like four hundred of them back and forth across the country, and Damien Jurado, Tim Kasher and now Richard Buckner have all followed suit. Undertow has turned booking a house concert tour into an art form. They set them up so that it’s easy for people who don’t do it all the time to host a band in their house. For me it’s so easy that I don’t even think about it when they ask if I am interested in hosting. Almost all of them sell out without me doing any work at all. I’ve seen Richard Buckner several times over the years, but he never really connected with me the way that he seemed to with so many of my friends. Still, it was a no-brainer to have him play. For most of these shows I recognize a number somewhere between one and none of names on the list they send me, but tonight I knew a surprising amount, split evenly between names I recognize from my own mailing list and people I know from seeing them at other shows.
I was expecting him to be the strong, silent type in person, but I was surprised how gregarious he was. He knew many of the people I had hosted, and many of those I had coming up. He was especially excited to hear Califone was going to be playing soon (me too!). And then he smiled, and wow. The Silos’ Walter Salas-Humara has the best smile on tour today, but Richard Buckner is a close second. He usually keeps his head down when he plays, and keeps between song banter to a minimum, had I known he had that amazing smile I would have talked to him a long time ago, and I never would have missed a show.
Tonight’s was a good one, as expected I enjoyed his mostly somber songs more in the basement than I had on other occasions, his distinctive voice sounding pure and clear, unamplified. I recognized a few of the songs since he went back to old material. His label had just re-released his first record so he had gone back and learned many of the songs from that record. “It was hard,” he explained, “I usually fall asleep when I listen to myself.” Which may be the funniest thing anyone has said in the basement about their own music. It was impressive to watch the sold out crowd hang on every word. Talking to folks later, many thought it was one of his best shows. I hope he liked playing here, because I’d have him back any time.
Saturday, April 12, 2014
It’s hard to imagine a more sincere songwriter than Micah Schnabel. He wears his heart on his sleeve and emotion pours from his voice, his urgent strumming conveys as much as his smart lyrics. “This is the closest thing I’ve ever written to a love song,” he claimed early on, “I failed miserably.” He’s wrong though; every song is a love song, full of passion. Mostly it’s about being in love with music, living on the road and trying to make everything work. They should all be hits; they’re all so damn catchy and anthemic, and you wish you knew all the words (and there are a lot of them), so you could sing along. After each song you think you’re never going to get it out of your head till the next song gets in there and wiggles around.
It’s impossible to pick a favorite, when he asked for requests I couldn’t pick one but I am sure he played them all anyway. “When the Stage Lights Go Dim” is an honest look at the life of a touring musician, all the late nights and hangovers and broken hearts. The title track to his first solo record “American Static” was a burnburner, “It’s American static, so automatic, five, four, three, two, one,” like he’s counting down a rocket launch. “Thanks for asking, but things have never been worse,” he says in one of the only songs he played that didn’t feel autobiographical. In fact it seems like things are going pretty great. He’s traveling with his artist girlfriend, doing what makes him happy. “I love doing this more than anything, so when you ask me to do more,” he said before the encore, “it isn’t very hard to convince me.” In fact the only thing that didn’t seem right was the rental car they were traveling in. “It’s red,” he said, “and that just doesn’t seem to fit me, I think it’s messing with my head.” In fact it seemed weird to see him in anything other than the Two Cow van which advertises “Hot Leathers” the company that prints all their T-shirts.
I’d asked him to stop thanking me, after all, like I always say, I do these shows for me, but there is one thing I will take credit for. He ate his first mushroom ever tonight. Hard to believe, right? “I grew up white trash, eating nothing but pizza, Coke and Wendy’s cheeseburgers,” he said by way of explanation. Not only were mushrooms served, they were the main part of the meal. Eating a Portobello mushroom must seem weird to someone who’s never had any mushrooms. The good news is he liked it.
It’s always entertaining having Robby Schiller open a show. Those who only know him as the lead singer of the Blueheels don’t know what they are missing. His solo stuff bears a heavy Harry Nilsson influence but he’s always surprised when people call him on it. When one woman started singing “take the lime and the coconut and mix them all up” after his hilarious song about hippies doing acid, he laughed, “I don’t expect the people who see me to have heard of Harry Nilsson. He was even more hilarious than usual; a pre-show whiskey seemed to have loosened him up. “What does this thing do?” he exclaimed after putting the capo on the neck of the guitar, “this changes everything!” That’s funny, because it does.
He opened with Nick Lowe’s “The Beast in Me,” covered memorably, but not better, by Johnny Cash on his American Recordings record. He also pulled out the classic “Danny Boy” which he sung with conviction early in the set. The fan favorite seemed to be “Outdoor Cat” which he wrote from the point of view of the cat next door watching his cat through the window. “Oh to be an outdoor cat, bathed in baby bunny blood, a puff of feathers when I sneeze,” drew many laughs. He promises all these new songs will be on a record soon. And in fact most of them were new, I only knew a few and “Meaner than the Wolves Outside” was the only one I would call old. I love that he feels so comfortable playing in the basement that he will try out new songs. In fact he told me he liked playing the house so much that he would open for a lamp in my living room. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I’m pretty sure it is a compliment.