Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sinterklaas and the Black Petes

I'm going to Amsterdam for my 30th birthday.

It's not that I buy into the hype about turning 30. Is hype the right word? Maybe not. More accurately, I'm not particularly intimidated by the idea of being 30. It's kind of a shame that I won't have a 2 in front of my age anymore, but more due to nostalgia than anything else. Plenty of my friends are over 30, and I haven't noticed anything scary happening to them. Though I have noticed that lately I derive great satisfaction from filling out any form that asks for my age. Twenty-nine! Still 29, damn it! But, in my head, I've been 30 for awhile. It's a side effect of planning everything months and months in advance.

Which brings us back to Holland. It's going to be a quick trip: my birthday is Tuesday 11/17, and I'll be back at work on Thursday. The point isn't really to see the sights. The point is to do something crazy for my birthday, because why the hell not? When a certain band announced a show in Amsterdam the day before my birthday, I was tempted. But when they announced a show an hour or so away in Eindhoven on the day itself, that decided it. A few days' vacation, and a memorable farewell to my twenties? Sign me up.

The plan is to meet up with some friends on that Saturday. In, um, Milan. Then on Sunday, P and I will fly to Amsterdam. Two awesome things are happening on Sunday about which I had no idea when this trip was booked. First of all, Andrew Bird is playing at Melkweg that night. Secondly, Sunday morning is when Sinterklaas arrives in Amsterdam on a boat from Spain, with his six to eight black men.

Hell. Yes.

Even if we don't make it to the waterfront in time for the actual arrival, I figure we'll be in time for residual merriment. And souvenirs. Oh please, let there be souvenirs.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I woke with a head full of songs

It's been another busily musical week. Between Friday and Wednesday I saw Andrew Bird, Unicycle Loves You, Liam Finn and Eliza-Jane, Tortoise and Wilco twice, Nicole Atkins, and the Avett Brothers. I think I've exhausted my ability to write coherently about concerts for the month of October, but lord, it's been fun. Here's a snapshot of the most recent shows:

Andrew Bird:
DVD filming, big song arrangements, "Headsoak," Josh on cowbell

Unicycle Loves You, Liam Finn & Eliza-Jane:
muffins-no-cupcakes jam, shiny new venue, The Beatles' "Birthday," "Cinnamon Girl"

Wilco and Tortoise, night 1:
disconcerting facial expressions, huge arena crowd, pumped-up band, plethora of photographers

Wilco and Tortoise, night 2:
looser band, singalongs, dancing fatigue, "Far, Far Away"

Nicole Atkins and The Avett Brothers:
super energy, super-loud bass, no stage barrier, broken banjo strings


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The past few days

Wisconsin Book Festival party. Readings by Michael Perry and Lorrie Moore (intro by Mayor Dave), and then after the signing, a nice set of music by Michael Perry and the Long Beds. I've seen Mike read on two previous occasions, but had never heard any of the pieces he read on Thursday. The Long Beds played a good, solid set of music - my favorite songs included the violin. I've said it before, but I love living in a city where a local-author book reading can come close to filling the Orpheum.

Liam Finn, Eliza-Jane Barnes, and Wilco in Memphis. Yes, Memphis. Saturday, free flight, good seat ... why not? I'd been obliquely promised a "fun show" last weekend, though I wasn't quite sure what that would entail. As it turned out, a lot that couldn't have been planned plus something that definitely was: Jody Stephens of Big Star jumping in on shaker and drums, and a jaw-dropping cover of Big Star's "In the Street." There was a period of time a few years ago when Wilco played cover songs with some regularity, but I hadn't seen it in so long I forgot it was possible. That, along with the non-acoustic live debut of "Country Disappeared," made for a memorable show.

I haven't even mentioned Liam and EJ's set. At their show in Madison, I was thrilled when they played one of two songs I hadn't seen yet and especially wanted to. In Memphis they played the other, "Red Wine Bottle." As a bonus, Glenn came out to play drums with them. As if that weren't cool enough, afterward there was a brief conference on the stage and Glenn stuck around for a blistering rendition of Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl." All that, plus Liam and EJ played a brand new song. I'm getting spoiled.

Beyond the main event, I did have a bit of time for Memphis itself on Saturday. I didn't get in early enough for any major tours, but did make it to Gus's Famous Fried Chicken for a very late lunch. (I had a slice of chess pie for dessert, and I still don't know what the hell chess pie is.) I also visited the Gibson Guitar Factory, wandered around Beale Street, and explored A. Schwab. The $1 pacifiers from Thailand were tempting, but I left empty-handed. I also caught a free performance at the Pepsi Pavilion off of Beale. No idea who was playing, but the vibe was happy and pleasantly buzzed. Oh, Beale Street and your open container laws.

We'd had the best of intentions to go see Norton Wisdom paint with some great musicians at the Poplar Lounge after the show, an event which we were assured had every chance of going strong until 4:30 a.m. (a.k.a. the time we had to leave for the airport.) By the time we left the Orpheum it was nearly 1:00, though, and we had to take a rain check or risk keeling over. Instead I got an hour or two of sleep before the flights back home. I couldn't afford to be totally dead the next day because...

Bon Iver in Milwaukee, with The Daredevil Christopher Wright opening. As this show was to be Bon Iver's last for an indefinite amount of time, I was thankful for the opportunity to attend. Sitting in the midst of a sold-out crowd at the Riverside felt different from standing against the stage at the Barrymore in Madison last December ... which itself, I'm sure, was a change from the Milwaukee show Bon Iver played in support of For Emma less than two years ago at Mad Planet. Less than two years, and so many accomplishments. So many new fans. Still, when Justin sat alone on the stage to play "Re: Stacks" - toward the end when he pulls back from the microphone a bit and everyone leans a little closer - the room felt very small. But when the crowd sang along at the top of its collective lungs with "Wolves," screaming over the final instrumental frenzy, the sound filled every inch of the theater's expansive size - and joyously so.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Energy spent

I started October out with a bang this year (at first I mistyped "with a band;" also accurate): four shows in four nights, from Iowa to Minnesota and back home to Wisconsin. Along the way there was pie, a runners' expo, overpriced beverages, Dillinger-related local history, and a dash of Beatles Rock Band. But the emphasis was on concerts.

Thursday and Friday I saw Wilco with openers Liam Finn and Eliza-Jane Barnes. This is pretty much my dream lineup right now, and I couldn't believe the good timing of the midwestern shows. Saturday was A Prairie Home Companion, fascinating to see live. My favorite aspect was watching the sound effects guy work his magic. Garrison Keillor spinning the Lake Wobegone tale without a script in front of him was unexpected and cool, as was Nels Cline joining the PHC band in a rendition of "Hound Dog." Sunday it was back home for Liam and EJ headlining a show at the Majestic right here in Madison.

As much as I love Wilco, the Liam/EJ performances had me the most excited for this stretch of shows. They didn't disappoint, although I hadn't anticipated such a sparse turnout in my own city. That gave Sunday a markedly different flavor from the opening sets in front of thousands Thursday and Friday. Liam and EJ appeared to have a fine time, and took the opportunity to do some things that work well in an intimate setting. But it simply didn't feel the same as being in the midst of a large group of people experiencing the show together. I enjoyed it, but not in the visceral way I enjoyed the previous two opening sets. I can't imagine the performers didn't share a bit of that sentiment, even if they didn't show it. Then again, I'm not a seasoned musician - who knows?

Big crowd or small, the show was a good one. We heard almost all of the songs from Iowa City and St. Paul, plus a few more. They closed with "Honest Face," one of two I'd been hoping to see for the first time. EJ had seen something on Wisconsin Public Television about Sunday night's harvest moon, inspiring Liam to play Neil Young's "Harvest Moon." That was a treat. Liam had also stumbled upon Madison's Harvest Fest this weekend and invited some folks he met there to the show: a bongo player and friends, including a freestyle rapper. They joined Liam and EJ for an improvised jam before the main set finale. That was certainly something I don't see every day. (All in all, that's probably a good thing.)

After the show, Liam and EJ hung around for a bit. Some people had driven quite a distance to see them (not that I'd know anything about that!) and it was nice to see that they're accessible to their fans. Paul mentioned August's 7WC show to Liam, and he asked if we'd seen the bottle solo. Affirmative! I'm looking forward to next Saturday, which may be my last chance to see Liam and EJ for the foreseeable future. I wish they weren't playing in Chicago the same night as Andrew Bird at the Pabst. Choices: blerg.

Setlist for Sunday (courtesy of Paul)
Plane Crash
Long Way To Go
Wide Awake On The Voyage Home
Remember When
Better To Be
Harvest Moon [Neil Young]
Energy Spent
On Your Side
I'll Be Lightning
Wise Man>
Second Chance
—"freestyle" improv interlude (w/guest freestyle rapper and Juan on bongos)—
Lead Balloon (w/Juan on bongos)
Gather To The Chapel
Honest Face