Friday, May 30, 2014

Conor Oberst/Dawes; May 30, 2014; The Metro

I love Conor Oberst, and have for years.  I've only seen Dawes once, six years ago at my first SXSW, and didn't really care for them.  Turns out I still don't like them (it's OK, they don't need me, they have plenty of fans).  We missed most of their set, and I was all set to be annoyed until I realized one and a half songs was plenty.  It was great to see Oberst, but it wasn't my favorite show I've seen him do.  Dawes was better as a backing band than they were in their own set, but too often they thought they were THE BAND.  I'm already looking forward to seeing Oberst at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in October, or the next Bright Eyes tour, whenever that may be.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Pete Donnelly/Brett Newski; May 29, 2014; CJ's House, Milwaukee

I always like seeing a house concert at someone else's house.  Especially when that someone else is someone I know.  I first met Chris Johnson at SXSW several years ago, and have been meaning to get to a show at his house ever since.  Usually he's hosting Will Johnson the night before he plays my house and he sends Will on to me tired, a little hungover, and amusingly slap happy.  Tonight however he was hosting the Figgs' Pete Donnelly.  I enjoy the Figgs, and Donnelly especially, but not anywhere near as much as my friend Michelle does.  So when she wanted to go to Milwaukee for this show there were a lot of selling points.  She informed me that two other guys would be joining us, even though she told me a name, and that they have been to the house, I had no idea who she was talking about till they showed up.  They were terrific traveling companions.

While my set-up feels more like a venue in a house, seeing Donnelly and opener Brett Newski tonight was definitely a house concert.  They fit an amp and a mike stand between the fireplace and the coffee table, and the couches and comfy chairs were snuggled in around it.  Newski's short opening set was catchy and quirky, and I was completely charmed by Donnelly.  There were a lot of Figg fans there who had a list of requests.  Only one girl didn't seem to have done her research, requesting a song sung by one of the other band members.  Donnelly said he'd be happy to play it, except he only knew the bass part.

When I talked to him after the show, he was excited to find out that I also did house shows, and said he would love to come play solo or with the Figgs.  Whoa, the Figgs?  Really?  We definitely need to make that happen.  Yay house concerts!

Brett Newski
Pete Donnelly

Saturday, May 24, 2014

eels; May 24, 2014; The Vic

I'm a huge eels fan and I've seen them many times over the years.  I’m especially a fan of the live show, it’s always different and it’s always wildly entertaining.  The lone exception was a sit down show at the Park West years ago dubbed “The eels with Strings.”  It certainly wasn’t bad, it was just nowhere near the over-the-top show I’d come to expect from them.  So I was a little worried when I saw that this tour was going to be a “special seated show.”  Either that translated to another sleepy show, or alternately, to low tickets sales and this was a ruse to make it look like more people were there.  Neither was true.  While I can’t vouch for sure on ticket sales, most of the seats on the lower level were full and we ended up seated back by the sound board.  Though that might have been my friend’s plan all along, he insists by the sound board is the best sound in the house, and though he may be right, I’d rather be up close to the action. It was certainly a mellower show than some I’ve seen, it was no less enjoyable.

The biggest difference seemed to be the man named E himself.  Previous incarnations of his stage self have always included a disguise.  An aviator hat and glasses one time, or coveralls, head scarf, and dark glasses the next.  Even the last time through, when he looked as close to normal as I’d ever seen him in a track suit that matched the rest of the band, he still wore the dark sunglasses.  Tonight he looked like any other hip lead singer of an awesome rock band- suit, tie, and regular prescription glasses.  How about that, he has eyes!  Likewise, the new record The Cautionary Tale of Mark Oliver Everett seems to reveal more of E than past records, starting with the picture of him on the cover (again, eyes!).  It doesn’t stand among his best releases ever, that will always be the trio of Electroshock Blues, Shootenanny, and Souljacker in my book, but it is a solid entry to his catalog.

The set drew heavily from the last several records as E moved between guitar and piano.  Stand out tracks were “Last Stop This Town” from Electroshock and “I Like the Way this is Going,” both from the first encore.  The former has for years been a mix-tape standard for me.  Tonight’s gorgeous acoustic version, augmented by chimes and upright bass, couldn’t have been more different from the fuzzed out original, but it was no less awesome.  The latter was the highlight of the idyllic Tomorrow Morning.  It’s infinitely more optimistic than much of his material, and it was exactly how I was feeling.  In the regular set, the highlight came just past the midpoint with the trio of “Fresh Feeling,” “I Like Birds,” and “My Beloved Monster,” all live standards.  His regular backing band, who usually rock so hard, seemed just as comfortable on upright bass, pedal steel and playing with brushes.  I always say mellow doesn’t always mean boring, tonight it definitely didn’t.

(Well, unless you were talking about the opening band.)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Charlie Parr; May 22, 2014; The Shitty Barn

I love everything about the Shitty Barn in Spring Green, well except for the mosquitoes, and the fact that most of their shows on Wednesdays.  Wednesday is my volleyball night, and I am ridiculously loyal to my team.  So I was happy to see that two of their three non-Wednesday night shows were bands I really wanted to see.  The first of these was Charlie Parr.  I had first seen Parr opening for Ha Ha Tonka at Club Garibaldi in Milwaukee.  It didn't make much sense then, and seeing him play the second of two sold out shows to a silent crowd in Spring Green, it made even less sense.  His resonator guitar and banjo playing is addictive, his voice otherworldly, and his banter front porch swing charming.  This was the ideal setting for him.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Ian Moore & Kullen Fuchs; May 18, 2014; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

Ian Moore was the fifth house concert I hosted, and 120 some shows later his is still the first name I mention when people ask about me about my favorite shows.  Now that I finally got him back to the basement seven years later, I will be mentioning his name twice.  After having played mostly (loud) band shows for the last several years, Moore was once again heading out as a duo with very talented (and adorable) multi-instrumentalist Kullen Fuchs.  When they remembered to on this short Midwest run, they were playing songs from the Aerie EP they had released late last year.  They had only played one at Schubas the night before, but with all the time in the world they made an effort tonight.  Of course, the fact that they hadn’t played them much made for less polished songs than their usual fare, and they joked that this was the opening band’s set.  After “Battlelines” Moore apologized that he didn’t remember the order of the chorus tags, so Fuchs was left guessing every time.  Not only did the lack of time constraints mean they could play more songs, it also meant Moore could tell the stories behind all of them too.

“Extraordinary Love” was his effort to write a genuine song of comfort to his friends and family as they grew older and began losing loved ones.  He succeeded in sincerity without a bit of cheese, even though he couldn’t remember which key it was in.  He claims “Peregrine Blue” contains the best bridge he’s ever written, which considering his career is saying something.  Still though, he claimed, it was not Cheap Trick level bridge writing.  The Rockford band isn’t the only legend he admires, he’s also a huge Dylan fan.  And a geeky one at that.  He told the story of opening a Dylan tour back in the 90’s.  When he finally got a chance to meet him, he prided himself on being almost totally cool during their hour and a half conversation about old bluesmen.  Though he admitted there was a moment where he realized he was talking to Bob Dylan and got a little freaked out.  Dylan asked if he wanted to play on one of the songs, and he ended up playing “You’re a Big Girl Now” with Dylan every night.  As a huge Dylan fan, I loved hearing him play that song, though the night before at Schubas I was hoping it would be the chilling “Ballad of Hollis Brown” since they sound checked with that.

Moore began his career as a Texas blues guitar player, and even during these acoustic shows he takes time to set down the acoustic and pick up the electric for a couple tunes, one of which is always “Satisfied.”  Personally I prefer the gorgeous songs from Luminaria, where he isn’t afraid to mellow out or to stretch his impressive falsetto.  “Abilene” laments the fact that all of Texas isn’t as liberal or open-minded as his hometown of Austin, while “April” is reserved yet catchy.  He told the heartwarming story behind “Paint Me a Blue Sky” written for his mother, who died of cancer when he was young, and is the whole reason he plays music.  While on vacation in Door County, he went to her gravesite to play the song and brought along his two young sons who proceeded to spectacularly misbehave in the graveyard.  The story behind the gorgeous “New Day” is so long that Fuchs took a seat on the futon for it.  He’d told a version of it last time at the house, and I can’t do it justice here but it involves fly-fishing, writing a song with a guitar neck out the car window while speeding and playing a big gig sopping wet, more or less in that order. 

Fuchs didn’t have much of a break, for the rest of the night he was switching between trumpet, vibraphone, accordion and keyboard, sometimes all on the same song.  I always love the full band shows, but these duo shows seem extra special, and the ones in the basement are the best of all.  Hopefully I won’t have to wait seven years for them to do it again.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Brennen Leigh & Noel McCay/Nick Brown; May 15, 2018; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

This week in May marked the return of two house concert performers who had both played in 2008 and hadn’t made it back till now.  The first of these was Brennen Leigh, a Fargo native who now lives in Austin.  I first met her in Fargo through mutual friend Josh Harty.  Unlike Ian Moore, who I’d seen several times in between his first visit and his return, I’d only seen Leigh once since she’d been in the basement.  Since then she’d gone vegan, quit drinking and started performing with Noel McCay, it’s the latter that made tonight’s show so great.  More accurately it’s the two of them together that did it.

Both are accomplished songwriters and guitar players, at times it was hard to know who to watch they were both so good.  When she took the lead Leigh may have had the more memorable songs, several of which had her imagining herself as an old lady.  Her dad had given her the marketing advice to make a video for “I Want to Be an Old Lady” and have Betty White star in it.  Not a bad idea, the charmingly upbeat song enumerates the privileges afforded by old age, like driving a big car too slow in the passing lane.  “Elizabeth, Minnesota” was another, a sweet travelogue around a rural town conducted by an elderly narrator.  “North Dakota” could have been sold to the department of tourism it paints such a beautiful picture of the overlooked state.  Though first you would have to take out the verse about how drilling for natural gas was destroying the land.  For his part, McCay sung beautiful and classic sounding country songs that sound like they could have been written with Guy Clark, sometimes because they were.  His song “Are You Still Taking those Drugs” was an argument for growing out of the things you did in high school. Written after McCay ran into one of his best friends from his teens who didn’t recognize him, it was clever and persuasive.

The songs where they traded vocals were reminiscent of John Prine’s duets album In Spite of Ourselves, and took a page from Loves It!’s book of tricks.  Their opening number “Before We Come to Our Senses” reveled in the impulsiveness of love, while another song reflected on how vacationing in Lubbock would prove they were really in love.  “Sexist from Texas” and “Real Cowboy” both poked fun at some of Texas’s more prominent stereotypes, though Leigh admitted the biggest sexist she’d ever met was from Sweden.

Opener Nick Brown, accompanied by the always terrific Andrew Harrison on electric guitar, was his usual entertaining self, his uncomfortable banter as memorable as his songs.  He confessed he’d worn a short sleeved shirt this time since the last time he had “sweated like a pig,” quickly amending that it wasn’t the basement that made him sweat, it was just him.  Instead of the usual hard sell many bands take on pushing the merch, he only mentioned that they were on the table and “I think you know what I’m getting at.”  He also had a few new songs to supplement those on his debut release, and they were just as smart and catchy as the original bunch, though he seems to think his songwriting has taken a turn for the twelve year old.  “The new songs are called “Underpants” and “Ooh, That Girl,”” he deadpanned.  “He wasn’t this funny at the High Noon,” my sister whispered to me halfway through his set.  And she was right, his band show a few days earlier had been mostly business, but this is definitely the Brown I prefer.  

Nick Brown

Brennen Leigh & Noel McCay


Friday, May 09, 2014

The Both/Nick Diamonds; May 9, 2014; The Metro

On paper the pairing of Ted Leo and Aimee Mann doesn’t make much sense.  He’s a timeless punk rocker and she’s a headstrong folky songwriter.  The eternally young Mann, looking awesome in a miniskirt and Chuck Taylors, is known for her Magnolia soundtrack, her wistful songs pairing beautifully with the movie’s offbeat dreamlike charm.  The gangly and charming Leo is known for blistering live performances, and in my book, for bashing himself in the forehead repeatedly with a microphone till he bled during a set at one of the early Pitchfork festivals.  I half expected a Donnie & Marie style “I’m a little bit country, I’m a little bit rock & roll” duet during their set.  Instead we got a set that was equal parts songs from the new record, songs from their individual back catalog and engaging banter, because as different as they seem, Mann and Leo really have fun together.

The pair first starting working together on Mann’s last headlining tour when Leo was her opening act and he began joining her during her set.  An entire record came out of the collaboration, which isn’t as strong as either of their solo material, but it does showcase how surprisingly great they sound together.  Mann rocks harder, while Leo is more melodic and thoughtful.  “Milwaukee,” with its nonsense chorus about “a nucleus burning inside of itself,” is the catchiest of the bunch, and the even sillier “Volunteers of the America” sounds pretty.  The highlights of the set were Mann’s “Save Me” Leo’s “Bottled in Cork,” and of course Till Tuesday’s “Voices Carry.”  Mann claims she only plays her 80’s hit, which has definitely stood the test of time, to hear Leo sing falsetto backing vocals.  For his part Leo didn’t seem to mind at all.   They also really like to talk, the show would have been a lot shorter without their between song exchanges.  Some of the banter may have been slightly calculated (the recounting of a green room graffiti list certainly had been told before), but that was likely from having tested these stories and found what worked best over the course of their short tour.

Opening act Nick Diamonds from the band Islands had the thankless job of opening the show for a chatty crowd.  Seated center stage with a friend joining him on guitar and keyboards he failed to engage the crowd, even when Leo joined him on a Harry Nilsson song.  It obviously hadn’t been pre-planned, and Leo had to crouch awkwardly to share Diamonds microphone.  I enjoyed his short set, and was especially happy to hear the bouncy “Bones” from the first Islands record.  He shouldn’t feel too bad about failing to charm the crowd, they also talked through much of the headliners’ set.  Especially, surprisingly, upstairs in the VIP section which I was experiencing for the first time since a friend started working at the Metro.  When I complained that VIPs talk a lot, he responded “You knew that.”  Yeah, I guess I did, but it was still surprising.

Nick Diamonds

 The Both