Monday, March 29, 2010

Side trip

For a long time now, I've dreamed of taking a Route 66 road trip.  Gina and I made serious headway planning one back in 2005.  Sadly, it became clear that it would take a prohibitively long time to drive in both directions, yet be prohibitively expensive to rent a car one way and fly back home.  We settled for an abbreviated California road trip on Highway 1, which was wonderful.  Still, Route 66 beckons.

On my drive from Peoria to Wisconsin last Friday, I spotted a Route 66 museum ad on an exit sign.  I was conflicted: stop in Pontiac, IL on a whim to see what it had to offer, or scoot past Chicago before rush hour?  You probably don't need me to tell you that whim carried the day.  Click below for a photographic tour...

Monday, March 22, 2010

Last snow of the year

I'm not jinxing it!  It's just a fact.  Damn it.  Measurable accumulation at least.  Right?

This was the view from the country club where I attended Gina's bridal shower on Saturday.  It was a lovely time, Gina and Ryan received many fine things, and I'm realizing how close the wedding now is.  (Something of which I'm sure they are well aware.)  I wish my dress would ship already.  Stay tuned in coming weeks for stress about fittings and getting the entire outfit put together.  Wee!  But really, I am excited.  Lots of fun in store between now and early May. 

In my more immediate future, work.  Last time I went on a business trip, my destination was Beverly Hills.  Later this week I have another trip ... to Peoria.  Though this prospect is a little less thrilling, I have to admit that it's nice to not bother with flights and serious packing.  The older twin nephews' birthday party is this weekend, so I'll be squeezing in a family visit before coming home.  Must remember to wrap presents.

Apparently there is a river in Peoria, and my hotel is on it, so perhaps that will be nice?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Name me a song that everybody knows

Another post, another concert or two.  Over the weekend I visited the always wonderful (and this time cold and rainy) Chicago for a pair of Jeff Tweedy solo performances to benefit a youth scholarship fund.  I'm no stranger to these shows; this was my fourth year in attendance.  Still, I realize I can never predict the twists and turns each evening may take.

It's a well-established tradition now that the first thirty or so people in line each night get to pick the setlists for these concerts.  This leads to an eclectic group of songs: a mixture of the obscure b-sides Jeff always teases the crowd about, side project and former-band tunes, plenty of covers, and a few favorite staples.  We heard "Monkey Mess," a song written years ago by Jeff with his son's preschool class.  "Fake Plastic Trees," sounding ever more polished.  A new acoustic arrangement of "Poor Places."  A verse or two of a song popularized by Elvis Presley, "A Fool Such as I." The always-beautiful "More Like the Moon," with a slight lyrical variation that would only be noticed by a nerd such as I.   A brand new song Jeff wrote for Mavis Staples with a chorus of "You're not alone."  (That one wasn't a request, exactly, but came when an audience member asked Jeff what he would like to play.)  The song that surprised me most of all was "Shakin' Sugar," a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era outtake.  I would have never requested it, assuming it had no chance ... but I'm glad someone did.  And I'm certainly glad I was wrong.    

Impressing me most this year was the attention Jeff paid to playing all of the requests.  In the past, as far as I can recall, there have always been songs nixed or omitted, or alternate requests solicited.  Although one repeat song from Night 1 was not played on Night 2, I don't think anybody's choice was skipped this year.  Given how deep people dug for their requests, that's pretty remarkable.  My own request on Night 2 was a choice between two songs: either "Ashes of American Flags" from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, or "Single Ladies" by BeyoncĂ©.  I'm pretty sure I expected Jeff to pick the former, but instead we were treated to a mostly spoken-word, entirely hilarious dramatic reading of "Single Ladies" in full.  Oh goodness.  You'd be surprised by how many different inflections can be put on the line "Don't be mad once you see that he want it."      

Concerts weren't the only thing going on in the city over the weekend, of course.  There's also this holiday called St. Patrick's Day, and Chicago is kind of into it.  My companions and I visited the green Chicago River, and I bought a shamrock lei from one of the many vendors in the Loop.  (Two for $1.00 if they can't get them untangled!)  We also enjoyed a delicious dim sum brunch on Sunday, with bubble tea for dessert.  I should get down to Chicago for a weekend more often than I do, really.  Good thing I have two more on the calendar within the next month and a half.  Next time, it should truly be spring.

Also see:
2009 (sort of)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

They say that this is where the fun begins

On Saturday I headed back to Milwaukee for my second show of the weekend, The Avett Brothers at the Riverside Theater.  The Avetts are a prime example of performers who have grown in popularity since I first saw them.  In fact, it happened in a very short period of time.  I heard Avett Brothers buzz around Emotionalism on 2007 end-of-year lists, but didn't get a chance to see them until October of last year.  That show was at the Barrymore in Madison.  Though I think it did sell out, it didn't do so until the night of the show.  Fast forward five months to Milwaukee.  The Avetts had been booked to play Turner Hall, capacity slightly higher than the Barrymore.  That venue sold out, and the show was moved to the two-and-a-half-times-larger Riverside.  Which also sold out in advance of the show.  Not bad, Avetts.

Inside the pit, we found spots up front with a great view of the stage.  The unassuming openers, The Low Anthem, impressed with their set.  Comparisons were drawn to Duluth's Low, and I could definitely hear that.  I'd like to see them in a smaller setting with less background chatter, but they did a good job with such a big place.

As mentioned above, this was only my second time seeing The Avett Brothers.  Last time, I half-assed a review of the show because I was busy, though I did enjoy it very much.  I specifically noted the infectious energy on stage, despite having been told that as Avett Brothers shows go it was a relatively tame outing.  This time, I felt even more energy from both band and crowd.  Curious, at first glance, since the Barrymore is so much smaller and more intimate than the Riverside.  Maybe it's a sign that the Avetts are truly ready to fill much bigger spaces.  The band - especially Scott Avett - took advantage of the larger stage: jumping up and down, parading along the stage's edge, even laying down a few feet from us while furiously strumming the banjo during the encore.  It may still be true that the Avetts of a few years ago were more of a spectacle, but perhaps they're ready to let their music do more of the talking.

If so, they did an admirable job.  On this tour the band has a designated drummer, allowing more instruments to blend together on songs that require it.  The majority of those are from last year's excellent I and Love and You.  Despite some more involved arrangements on these newer songs, most of the Avetts' tunes aren't overly complicated.  The word that comes to mind when I hear them is "pure."  Some are pure fun, others pure energy.  There's beauty and sadness and sweetness.  (A little goofiness sometimes, too.)  And it all comes through most clearly in the live setting.  Some of my favorite moments Saturday night came when the audience sang along loudly ... in fact, on songs like "The Perfect Space," you could say we screamed along.  In contrast, other favorite moments came when there were just one or two people on the stage, like Scott's solo turn for "Murder in the City."  My favorite song of the night was "Laundry Room," in which a quiet, almost delicate beginning becomes a full-fledged rave-up by the end.

Even before I'd seen their live show, I liked The Avett Brothers.  Each time I see them, I come away liking them more.  At this rate, even that crazy Bayfield show up north in July might become fair game.

Monday, March 8, 2010

There's no rest for the restless

My weekend of Milwaukee concerts began with a Friday night Rhett Miller show at Shank Hall.  Though I was a Shank Hall novice, I felt at home as soon as I walked in the door.  It was classic midwestern style; I could easily imagine fish fries or bingo games being held there on off nights.  The Spinal Tap theme added to the general ambiance.   

The cocktail seating in front of the small stage brought back memories of the first time I ever saw Rhett, at the Madison Music Awards in 2003.  That was a seated pit show at the Barrymore (I know; what?) and had previously marked the only time I'd ever watched Rhett or the Old 97's from a chair.  I did miss dancing during the fast songs, but there was much leg tapping and chair bouncing.  And the seats did little to diminish the crowd's singalong enthusiasm.

As typical for a solo performance, the show was a laid-back affair.  The staples were played with gusto - "Question" with the verse en français, "Rollerskate Skinny," "Time Bomb" - but Rhett also mined the back catalog for a few rarer nuggets.  He introduced one song as something he almost never plays, though people yell out for it a lot.  "Maybe they yell for it because they don't think I can play it."  The song, as it turns out, was "Ray Charles," and he certainly can play it.  It was a welcome treat, and one that surprised everyone - apparently including the guy who had requested it before the show.  Despite some jokes about the fourth wall, Rhett also honored a few more requests from the audience.  One was another tune I haven't heard much live, "St. Ignatius."  

Also as typical for a solo performance, there was some amusing banter.  Rhett shared tips on convincingly speaking a foreign language (choose an ethnic cartoon character and try to sound exactly like it).  His possibly sexist overuse of the word "girl" in lyrics was discussed, and why he's absolutely fine with that.  Friday night's performance of "Big Brown Eyes" was distinguished by Rhett pausing in the middle of the song to tell a story about the Old 97's recording with Waylon Jennings.  Let's just say I'll never hear "an elixir" the same way again.  Rhett went on to sing the entire third verse in the style of Waylon Jennings.  (Hey, he and Jon Brion should get togeth... oh, wait.)  

  All in all, Rhett played 27 songs before the night was through.  And after the performance, after changing into a non-sweaty shirt, he come out to chat with fans.  As he gamely signed shirts and ticket stubs, posed for pictures, and made friendly small talk, something occurred to me.  The majority of performers I've been seeing for more than a year or two have grown to fill bigger and bigger venues.  For many of them, informally chatting with fans at the bar after shows is but a distant memory.  Then there's the other, sadder end of that spectrum: bands who used to fill large rooms and now introduce the queen of the county fair before playing to a smattering of diehard fans and incidental observers.  But Rhett Miller and the Old 97's are playing essentially the same venues I've been seeing them in since 2003.  They haven't blown up.  They haven't gotten noticeably less popular.  If they were to suddenly sell millions of albums and start playing the Overture Center, don't get me wrong, I'd be thrilled for them.  And I know long-term consistency in audience size probably isn't something performers exactly strive for.  But I have to admit I find it comforting just the same.  

Rhett Miller Shank Hall Setlist:
Like Love 
Barrier Reef 
Won't Be Home 
Wish the Worst 
Help Me, Suzanne 
Nobody Says I Love You Anymore 
No Baby I 
Four-Eyed Girl 
If It's Not Love 
Ray Charles 
Question (final verse in French) 
Designs on You 
Rollerskate Skinny (dedicated to J.D. Salinger) 
The Other Shoe 
I Need to Know Where I Stand 
Dance With Me 
St. Ignatius 
Big Brown Eyes (w/Waylon Jennings story, 3rd verse in style of Waylon Jennings) 
Our Love 
Another Girlfriend 
Four Leaf Clover 
Time Bomb