Thursday, September 30, 2010

With my shiny new star-spangled tennis shoes on

On Tuesday, September 28th, everyone in the world came to downtown Madison.

Well, maybe not everyone, but I can't remember a day when I was presented with so many big-name opportunities in my own city.  The National and Owen Pallett had been scheduled for months at the Oprheum, and the Drive-By Truckers were at the Majestic.  Then, a couple of weeks ago, it was announced that President Obama would hold the first of four "Moving America Forward" rallies in Madison.  Ben Harper would be the musical guest.  Last week, I heard Jason Isbell was performing for free at the Wisconsin Veteran's Museum Tuesday afternoon.  And just a couple of days ago, The National was added to the Obama rally bill along with Mama Digdown's Brass Band.  Daaaamn.

I was nearly paralyzed by all the choices, along with horror of the downtown crowds and diverted traffic that would doubtless await.  In the end, I decided I could attend the rally - or try to - and make it back to the top of State Street in time for The National's show.  Surprisingly, I didn't have trouble finding a spot in a downtown parking garage.  I was lulled by the relative calm of State Street into grabbing a coffee and newspaper before moving toward Library Mall to find the end of the line.

Hahahahahaha!  By the time I found the end of the line, I'd walked with throngs of others from the base of Library Mall at Park and Bascom Hill south to University Avenue, west to Charter, north on Charter to Linden, and a few blocks west down Linden.  That's the better part of a mile, folks.  And people continued to arrive behind me.  (I'm not counting all the people who cut, which must have at least tripled the length of the line in front of us.)  Was it even worth it to wait?  Library Mall isn't that big, and I knew it would take at least an hour to get back once the line began moving.  But, I was there, so figured I might as well try.

It did take more than an hour - I walked through the gates as Tammy Baldwin began her speech - but I did get in.  Hooray!  It was too full to get anywhere near the front of the stage, to put it mildly, but walking around behind the stage gave intermittent views at relatively close range.  I got there just in time for The National to come out and play two songs, "Fake Empire" and "Terrible Love."  More speeches followed, including an appearance by Russ Feingold - proving rumors of his skipping the rally to be false.  Ben Harper played some songs.  I took in the scene, which included an impressive number of cops and men in suits and sunglasses, a few black choppers overhead, and honest-to-goodness snipers on the roof of Memorial Library.  Then Tom Barrett introduced Barack Obama, the first sitting president to appear in Madison since Harry Truman.

I enjoyed Obama's speech (and the fact that he talked about getting up to shenanigans in Madison when he first moved to Chicago, and got in a few Bears-Packers barbs).  But in the back of my mind, I was also thinking, "Crap, I need to make it back to the Orpheum."  I didn't have to worry about the show itself, since the band was still there watching the president's speech.  Still, I hate cutting things close.

Finding my way out of the security labyrinth proved more difficult than entering.  From where I stood at the rally, I could see State Street a mere block away, overflow crowds bunching around the security barriers.  So close, yet so far.  In order to get there, I had to walk up Observatory Drive and essentially cut across campus and back.  I still wound up arriving before doors at the Orpheum, since the show's start time had been pushed back.  A long line greeted me, but by then "long line" was a relative term.  Once inside I confirmed that the high stage was back, which meant arrival time didn't matter much anyway.

Owen Pallett was great in the opening slot - another reminder that unfamiliar openers aren't just something to be politely endured until the main act.  As Owen played the violin (and keyboard) and employed a looping technique, I couldn't help thinking of Andrew Bird.  Pallet's style seems a bit more classical and less ... whimsical?  The songs aren't really similar, but I can now safely say I enjoy both.  I particularly liked the song about the skyline of Toronto.

Around 9:15, The National took the stage.  Though this was my first National concert, my interest in the band was in fact sparked by a live performance.  Totally unfamiliar with their music, I happened to be watching Letterman earlier this year on a night when The National was the musical guest.  They played "Afraid of Everyone," and by the end of the song they had made a big impression on me.  Over the next few months I picked up and became very familiar with their three most recent albums, which served me well on Tuesday.

It's always interesting to see a band live for the first time.  I had some notions of what a show might be like based on their music and a few interviews and reviews, but of course the reality was something different.  I expected them to put on an intense, energetic show, which they absolutely did.  I didn't expect them to be as funny as they were between songs.  People apparently love to play "Slow Show" at weddings, even though, in the words of one of the Dessners, "This is the song where Matt talks about his dick."  Matt Berninger pointed out that the whole song isn't about his dick ... it's mostly about getting married.  There were anecdotes about the Dessners' cousin, Jeff, who played hockey for the UW and now sells insurance in Minnesota, and how Mrs. Dessner disapproved of a particular song because of all the yelling, and thought early on that they ought to find a pretty girl to be the singer.  (Matt concurred.)  Lots of talk about Obama - the band had met him for the first time that day, and were still riding high.  "He looked super nervous when he met us," Matt joked.  He later told the crowd that they'd been trying to figure out what to say to the president.  Drummer Bryan Devendorf's sentiment of choice?  "You rocked it, sir!"  Matt added that Bryan had been wearing dark glasses and a headband at the time.  "And then [Obama] ignored the rest of us and went off to do shots with Bryan."  

That was between songs.  During songs, the band was all business: which is to say, they gave an emotional, energetic performance.  Being a first-timer, I don't know what their concerts are typically like, or which songs might make longtime fans check their watches.  From my perspective, though, the setlist was excellent.  Songs I'd been hoping to hear were there: "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," "Abel" (the song with all the yelling), "Afraid of Everyone" (for the media), "Bloodbuzz Ohio" (dedicated to the swing states), "Fake Empire," the slow-building anthem "England."

Toward the end of the show, Matt noted that this was one of the best days they'd ever had.  The performance of "Mr. November" was especially appropriate that night, and though Matt didn't venture off the Orpheum's eight-foot stage, he did drape himself halfway over its edge, a sea of hands reaching out to touch his back and shoulders. And I couldn't have been more surprised to find myself near tears at the end of "Terrible Love," shouting the refrain over and over with the the band and 1500 others.  "It takes an ocean not to break."  I don't know what it means, exactly, but at the same time I do.  What a cathartic song.  In the end, that's what the best rock concerts can offer.

Back in August, I had to decide whether to see The National in Milwaukee or The New Pornographers in Madison.  I chose TNP.  Would I choose differently now?  I'm not sure.  Reason says I'd still go with the show in town, but it would be a much tougher decision after Tuesday.

Monday, September 27, 2010

England and Scotland

I'm neither English nor Scottish.  So why did my trip to the UK feel so much like visiting part of my own history?  I suppose it's a combination of factors.  Until world history in high school, the majority of history we learned in school was Anglocentric.  It's just so much a part of our culture here, or at least mine growing up.  Part of our stories, our historical sites, our media.  When the American Revolution was fought, none of my ancestors had anything to do with it ... unless it was that stray Native American line.  But mostly, my ancestors were off in Greece and Italy and Austria-Hungary and Belgium and Denmark, not caring at all.  In my head, though, that's not how it goes.  So I was excited to spend some time in a place that already felt, in an odd way, like my territory.

What did I do on my trip besides see concerts?  Plenty.  Though I had a few free hours in London last summer, I was pleased to spend a bit more time there this year.  Not nearly enough, of course.  But I had afternoon tea with Paul at The Wolseley, explored a proper British department store, walked across the Thames, and paid a visit to the original Reckless Records on Berwick Street.  We left for Newcastle-upon-Tyne from King's Cross Station, and if it weren't for construction issues, I would definitely have visited Platform 9-3/4 too.  I'd like to take in London by the gulp rather than small sips, but this will do for now.

In Newcastle, we visited Grainger Market, which opened in 1835 and boasts the world's smallest Marks & Spencer store.   It also has some yummy food.  We ate both a lunch and a traditional English breakfast there, all made with market ingredients.  Side note: breakfast sausage in England and Scotland beats the hell out of our weak, wrinkly American version.  But I'm not a huge fan of black pudding.  Grainger Market wasn't the only place we sampled the food and drink of Newcastle: a cafe called The Scrumpy Willow and the Singing Kettle makes a mean banana lassi.  And I thought lassis were only made of mango!

From Newcastle we went to Glasgow, arriving on the same day as the Pope.  We steered clear of Papal activities, though, keeping occupied well away from Bellahouston Park.  We wandered around the city centre, Buchanan Street, Argyle Street, and the Barras neighborhood.  Glasgow's architecture is pretty great, owing much to Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  My first thought upon seeing some of his designs was of local hero Frank Lloyd Wright.  They were contemporaries in the Arts & Crafts world at the turn of the century, it turns out, but Mackintosh's work seems more fanciful somehow.  I also admired a huge metal art deco peacock on the Princes Street Shopping Centre.  Mackintosh didn't have all the fun in Glasgow.

I took a solo day trip to Edinburgh on Friday, armed with maps and advice from locals Iain and Ann. Clouds rolled away in the morning, leaving me with a bright, sunny day to enjoy the city.  I walked to the top of Calton Hill, exploring the Old Calton Burial Ground on the way.  I strolled the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle and spent hours exploring its nooks and crannies, admiring the spectacular views.  I ate wild boar sausage at the castle cafe, and visited St. Margaret's Chapel: the oldest building in Edinburgh, dating back to the 1100's.  I got some excellent shopping in on High Street and the surrounding area.  I wandered down wynds and closes, and visited the small Writer's Museum.  I found the statue of Greyfriars Bobby.  I browsed at the Central Lending Library, reading a chapter from a book debating whether Jane Eyre could have been happy in the years following the book's conclusion.  And I got back to Glasgow in time to pick up a late dinner from Wagamama.

The next day was my last in Scotland, and I finally took the Clockwork Orange (Glasgow's subway) west.  Signs for the Papal Mass still pointed the way from Ibrox to Bellahouston Park, though the Pope himself had Popemobiled away days earlier.  My destination was House for an Art Lover, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  I loved it.  It blows my mind that house and furnishings were dreamed up by Mackintosh when the Victorian style was still in vogue.  The smooth, clean lines and abundance of light seemed decades ahead of their time.  Aside from the house, I walked around in the park and enjoyed more art and gardens.  On my way back, I nearly got swept up in the tide of red-and-blue-clad Glaswegians headed to Ibrox for the afternoon football game.  I  bought myself a scarf from one of the many street vendors set up near the stadium.  A couple more hours puttering around Buchanan Street, and then it was time to take a bus to the airport.  I flew to London that night, and back home in the morning.

So that was my trip.  I'd love to get back to Scotland, and see more of the countryside next time.  I'm not sure when I'll be able to make that happen, but I've learned that you never can tell.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Watch the miles flying by

I'm freshly back from the United Kingdom, with a lingering desire to keep traveling.  Rock tourism once again gave me the push to book a holiday I might otherwise have waffled on indefinitely.  Thanks to some helpful scheduling, I checked a major item off The List!  As is customary, my trip had a musical component and non-musical component.  In this post, I'll talk about the concerts: Wilco in London, Newcastle, and Glasgow.

London was an afterthought in planning, but I'm grateful it worked out.  Originally I had my eye on the two northern GA shows, which fit in with work and let me visit Scotland.  After researching routes, though, it made the most sense to begin in London.  Since both Paul and I were arriving on the day Wilco was playing, shouldn't we try to attend?  Fortunately, despite the short notice, everything fell into place.  We were treated to an excellent show at Royal Festival Hall, and I would have been bummed to miss the onstage debut of Synthesizer Patel!  Sanjeev Kohli appeared in character with a keytar during "You Never Know," to the confusion and/or delight of all.  Songs like "Poor Places" and "Reservations" sounded great from our seats, as did "How to Fight Loneliness."  The unlikeliest-song-during-which-to-bust-a-string award went to "Some Day Some Morning Sometime," and Jeff had to wait for a new guitar before making the intended transition into a scorching "Laminated Cat."  On a secondary note, we had fun people spotting.  With a comedian like Sanjeev making cameo appearances, Philip Selway opening, the 7 Worlds Collide gang, and friends like Bill Fay, Wilco has amassed many London connections.

Newcastle was a shorter show than London, but the general admission atmosphere was a nice change of pace.  The crowd was enthusiastic, though in terms of makeup and dress it couldn't measure up to the attendees of a certain other show.  The O2 Academy in Newcastle houses multiple venues, and in the secondary theater, the night's headliner was Skeletonwitch.  Hopefully nobody went to the wrong concert by accident.  Jeff did some great impressions of the black metal band Venom, natives of Newcastle; and we got a great version of "Shouldn't Be Ashamed."  Though Jeff's displeasure with a videotaper and underwhelming security caused a bit of friction late in the show, it was another solid night of rock.  And there was one more to go.

My last show was at the Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow.  The venue has character to spare.  It's an old dance hall on the third floor of a building with wooden stars on the ceiling, and the decor and fonts reminded me of a style I'll call "70's bowling alley chic." The neon sign outside puts all other signs to shame.  Barrowlands crowds have historically been known to chuck bottles of piss at the stage, but happily that element didn't seem to be in attendance for Wilco.  Instead, we got one of the best shows I've seen in awhile.  It was one of those nights when every song seemed to be performed at 110%, and the crowd roared its approval in between.  The show was again shorter than those we'd been seeing in the U.S., but it didn't suffer for it.  There were many highlights, but my favorite moment was recognizing the opening chords of the encore's final song: "Kicking Television" at last!  I was thrilled that Jeff remembered my request, and they were willing to play it.  Later I figured out I last saw "Kicking TV" in May of '05.  As great as it sounded in Glasgow, I wonder why it doesn't appear more.  But if it did, maybe it wouldn't pack such a punch.

It seems likely I won't have another chance to see Wilco until well into 2011.  I'm glad I made this trip across the pond for one last hurrah in 2010.  Then again, I'm always happy to have gone.  I must note that this wasn't my last rock tourism trip of 2010, however.  Stay tuned ... there's some more chipping away at The List to be done in October.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Twice if you're lucky

Plenty has happened since the last time I saw Crowded House in August 2007.  Though the band hasn't toured these parts since Time On Earth, I haven't exactly suffered from a Finn drought.  There was the Split Enz concert in Wellington, 2008; Neil solo and with the 7 Worlds Collide brigade at Largo in 2009.  Young Liam also toured the midwest in 2009 with that other band I like.  But when 2010 brought a new Crowded House album and tour, I was happy to sign on for the local concerts: Chicago and Milwaukee.

The two venues didn't have much in common.  Chicago's show was at the House of Blues, with a raucous, drunk, very enthusiastic audience.  In Milwaukee the band returned to the lush Pabst Theater, with a smaller, more attentive, (mostly) more sedate crowd.  I had a good time at both shows, but oddly Milwaukee featured more audience banter and interaction.  Mark Hart even climbed down into the crowd during the show, tasked with deciphering the request of an inebriated audience member.  Mark was sidetracked by someone else, which was for the best: the man wanted Neil to play a song by himself.  However, Neil was determined to find out what the guy was saying.  He announced that if someone could land a paper airplane onstage with a transcription as well as their own request, he guaranteed they'd play it.  What an offer!  I can't fold a paper airplane, but from the third row I'm sure I could have fashioned something that would fly far enough.  The only thing stopping me was a complete lack of paper.  Maybe the drunk man's comment wasn't worth hearing, but I would have reported the hell out of it in exchange for "Catherine Wheels."

Nevertheless, I have no complaints about the songs that were played over the two nights.  Chicago's setlist held its own with songs like "Chocolate Cake" (echoing the jokes we'd made at dinner when Sam got free birthday chocolate cake at the HoB restaurant) and the insanely fun "I Got You."  (I challenge anyone to stand still during "I Got You.")  A guitar-tuning jam evolved into a cover of CCR's "Born on the Bayou" with Mark on lead vocals.  Neil's dad was hooked up to watch the show by video chat, via a laptop that sat onstage the whole night.  At the end the crowd got the opportunity to say hello, and listen in as Nick Seymour ask the elder Mr. Finn a few questions.  "Is it a nice day there in New Zealand?"  "No, it's a terrible day."

Milwaukee's setlist was substantially different from Chicago's, featuring eight songs that hadn't been played on Sunday.  I was pleased to hear one of my favorites from the new album, "Amsterdam," even if  the song seems to cast the entire city as a bastion of immorality.  The verse of "Black and White Boy" spliced into "Private Universe" was also a treat (I'm not counting that as a ninth different song), and I could sing along to classics like "Mean to Me" and "Weather With You" all night.  But when Neil sat down at the keys to play "Message to My Girl," the acoustics of the Pabst really came through.  Speaking of the theater, Neil seemed to find the confluence of consonants in "Pabst" entertaining.  He also mentioned the Pfister Hotel.  "You're probably used to it, but I find it quaint and exotic."  And, once again, Wayne's World came up.  I wonder if Dana Carvey and Mike Myers are aware of being the world's Milwaukee ambassadors.   

After the Milwaukee show was over, I lingered outside chatting with friends.  When I finally headed to my car I noticed the band had begun to emerge from the theater.  Having scored a setlist earlier from the soundboard, I decided that stopping for a bit would be worth the later bedtime.  At long last, I met Neil Finn.  For about ten seconds.  (I don't think letting him and Sharon past at the soundboard after Wilco in Wellington counted as a meeting.)  The rest of the band signed my setlist too, and it was a nice ending to my two days of Crowded House.  There was talk that the band might return to play a few big-market shows in the U.S. next year.  I'd prefer Madison, of course, but if the Crowdies come within my Mad-Mil-Chi concert radius, I think you can count me in.  

For the accurate setlist as played, look here.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you

On Saturday, the Hotel S'n'S basement show celebrated its sixth year of bringing together our group of friends from across the U.S. and Canada.  The big question was, would it be the last?  There had been talk that the Tweedys might not do the auction again, at least for awhile.  We figured we had better stuff as much fun into this weekend as possible, just in case.

As if that's ever a problem.  Friday night kicked off with our annual party.  This year's theme: Vampires at a Discotheque.  August didn't leave me with much spare time, so I ended up with one of my lamer theme costumes.  Just some ninety-nine cent plastic vampire teeth and some "vampire blood" spray candy.  Luckily, Paul's "Vampire Weekend" getup picked up the slack.  Many of our friends couldn't make it to town until the next day, but Sam and Sooz's friends filled in the gaps. We spent Friday night happily drinking blood punch, playing Rock Band, watching Sam's mix of old commercial clips on the big screen, and dancing to Gaga and the whole vampire party mix.   

And then Saturday arrived.  Some of us made the traditional gourmet encased meats run to Hot Doug's in the early afternoon, and then it was on to Hotel S'n'S to finish preparations.  I had my pie pops to artfully arrange, and the food kept rolling in.  As usual, our potluck was truly outstanding.  Walrus brought not only the soft serve machine and plenty of fixings, but a sno cone machine as well.  Cathy brought a flan cheesecake and Japanese-style curry.  Dick's meat returned after a one-year hiatus, to much fanfare.  Kris and Alison brought brisket from Smoque and the famous mac 'n' cheese.  Sooz's orzo, Kristina's slaw, Uyen's little Guinness cupcakes, Tamala's stuffed bread, a donated keg of Alpha King ... and much more.  We ate and drank well all night long.

The Tweedys arrived a bit earlier than usual, and we got down to business.  Ever since year three, the show's format has remained the same: each person requests a song, then chooses someone to go next.  Jeff has some warning of the songs we're planning to ask for, but that doesn't mean he can or will play them all.  Still, I think we got an especially high percentage of granted wishes.  I was thrilled to finally hear Richard and Mimi Farina's lovely "Reflections in a Crystal Wind" live.  "Big Rock Candy Mountain" was a surprising treat, and the Elizabeth Cotten song "Freight Train" was one of my favorites of the night.  Another was our own favourite Canadian, Judy, lending a hand with some tricky lyrics in Neil Young's "Look Out For My Love."  

Cover songs are rare and therefore notable, but Jeff's own songs provided the heart of the show.  "More Like the Moon" is nearly perfect, and Saturday night's performance was no exception.  "Nothing Up My Sleeve" made a welcome return, and "Misunderstood" turned into an excellent singalong.  Of course, who could forget Jeff serenading Zelda the pug, asleep at his feet, with the third verse of "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart"?  Racy!  Zelda remained unmoved.

A major part of our show is the atmosphere.  As I mentioned, this was year six, and things felt comfortable and familiar.  From both performer and audience came plenty of sarcasm, storytelling, joking, drinking (okay, that was really just the audience) and general tomfoolery.  We don't use a PA, and the central air was turned off so Jeff wouldn't have to sing over it.  Conditions in the basement quickly became hot and sweaty, which somehow added to the merriment.  This may be cheating, but during one of the breaks I got in a song request for an upcoming show.  Strike while the iron is hot?  Or something.  I also learned that a "new" song we overheard at a South Bend soundcheck is actually by Linda Thompson.  Clearly I need to brush up on my British folk artist catalogs.

The show ended hours after it began with our traditional "Candyfloss" sing- and dance-along.  Before that, though, we got in one more cover: Big Star's "Thank You, Friends."  Never have the lyrics to that song felt more appropriate, dancing around Sooz's basement and belting it out with some of my favorite people in the world.  As Jeff stood amongst us, playing, I thought ... damn.  We certainly have been lucky.  "Thank you again!" morphed into "Thank you Jeff!"  Tipsy and sentimental?  Sure.  Singing from the heart?  You bet.

After the show came the sweaty group photo, the distribution of posters, and a few other things.  By the time Susan and Jeff had gone, it was officially Sunday morning.  Time for a second (third, fourth, whatever) round of eating, and then the music to begin again in the basement.  We had multiple guitarists lending a hand this year, and two egg shakers in addition to the Dr. Teeth tambourine.  Just call us a band.  Mart's set was the postshow highlight for me, as it always is, and Rob provided some tasteful assistance.  My favorite song, I think, was "I Am the Walrus."  After having played Ringo on that song just the night before, I was content to shake an egg shaker and sing along.  Music and friends: a wonderful combination.

The fun didn't end with Saturday (er, Sunday morning.)  Eleven of us met for brunch at Milk & Honey, to say goodbye before more planes departed the Windy City.  U, Heidi, Paul, and I followed that up with a walk around Grant and Millennium Parks, before heading back to S'n'S to scarf down leftovers (Japanese curry and slaw!) and watch the Emmys and Mad Men.  It was almost Monday before I reluctantly headed back home.  Yes, Harry McClintock, I would like to hang the jerk that invented work.

Was this the final year of the private show auction?  We don't really know.  When we won that first auction in 2004, it seemed like this whole situation was too good to be true.  By 2010, I know it was too good to be true ... but somehow it was true nonetheless.   Jeff and Susan have done amazing things for all of us, and even more amazing things for the charity.  If this was the end, we had a hell of a run.  If this wasn't the end, then here's to the future.  As a matter of fact, here's to the future regardless.  Thank you, friends.


I've had a Wilco-intensive month or so, with some New Pornographers thrown in for good measure.  But things are about to get Crowded Housey, beginning Sunday.