Monday, December 26, 2011

However close we get sometimes

Riviera marquee, Wilco 12/13/2011

The fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth shows of Christmas all belonged to Wilco. In 2008, the band played their legendary five-night Winter Residency in Chicago. In 2011, they did something similar: five shows at increasingly smaller venues. Monday night's show was at the Civic Opera House, home of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, capacity 3,458. By the following Sunday's finale, they were playing the 507-person Lincoln Hall.

Through the generosity and cooperation of others, much refreshing of ticket websites, and pinch of sheer luck, I managed tickets to all five shows. I set up camp at Paul's, and spend a great week in the company of friends. In addition to the shows, I managed to hit all of my top Chicago eateries, the MOCA for Andrew Bird's Sonic Arboretum exhibit, and two movies that show no sign of coming to Madison anytime soon.

The concerts, of course, were the week's main events. They all had their own special features: the faux snowfall and special guests Mavis Staples and Nick Lowe at the Civic Opera House, adding an unplanned (or at least not-on-the-written-setlist) "I'm a Wheel" to the end of the Riv show, a shirtless Josh on cowbell at the Vic, the sweaty rock show vibe of the Metro, the almost-unnerving intimacy of Lincoln Hall. I don't think I'd ever seen Wilco at a 500-person venue. There was plenty of conversation between the band and audience, and the room was quiet enough (at least for most of the first set) to hear the final notes of every song.

Throughout the five shows (spanning seven nights), the band went above and beyond expectations. The shrinking hometown venues were gimmick enough, if they needed one, but they also played ninety-nine different songs over those five evenings. They also bought coffee for the line of fans waiting outside in the cold before the Riviera, Vic, and Metro shows ... although Jeff joked that we'd be billed later.

To sum it all up: this was an excellent way to spend a week in mid-December. Any time Wilco wants to play five shows in Chicago, I'll do my best to be there. Even if/especially if it comes on the heels of a few other shows of interest.

The Eight Shows of Christmas concluded my concertgoing for 2011. Next week, it's time to recap - music, books, and travel - and look ahead to 2012.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Maybe you'll rest sometime

Bon Iver at the Orpheum

Over the past ten days, I have seen eight concerts. That's a pretty intense pace even for me, so I find myself both sorry that it's over and relieved to have some free time. It's certainly been a hell of a mid-December.

The Eight Shows of Christmas began on December 9th, when I saw Wilco in Milwaukee. It wasn't long since I last saw the band - they played Madison just two months prior. Despite the primo seats in Madison, I think I enjoyed Milwaukee a little more. The show was loud and featured a fantastic encore bookended by Outta Mind (Outta Site) and Outtasite (Outta Mind) - two versions of the same song, one complete with a "Jingle Bells" outro. Meeting up with friends for my first meal at Mader's and belting out "Who Stole the Kishka" at the Old German Beer Hall before the show set the tone for the night, and the week-plus to come.

Show Two was the next night: Bon Iver at the Orpheum in Madison. It was my first show at the refurbished Orpheum: new lower stage, and the floor seats nearly gone. This was a decidedly different feel from the small pit/seven-foot-stage Orpheum with which I was familiar. As far as I'm concerned, the changes are all to the good. Once again this was a sort of homecoming for the band; their first show back in Wisconsin since the tour began. The Madison show was sandwiched between Bon Iver playing the UIC Pavilion in Chicago, and two more arena shows in Eau Claire. Seeing the band in a relatively intimate theater, on the heels of four Grammy nominations, was a wonderful opportunity. The setlist wasn't markedly different from the shows I saw at the Riverside this summer, but the 9-piece band's songs seemed looser and less mathematically precise. There was more give and take. The version of "Blood Bank" that this lineup plays has become my favorite song to hear live, and the Madison performance absolutely delivered. The solo "Re:Stacks" felt more emotionally naked than ever, and we were close enough to see every detail.

Show Three was the following night: Ryan Adams at the Cadillac Palace in Chicago. I hadn't seen a Ryan Adams show since 2007 at the Barrymore, and the setting was quite different. 2007 was in a 900-capacity general admission theater, and 2011 was in a 2300-capacity opera house. Ryan was solo this time, and cycled between two guitar stations and a piano. He spent most of the show sitting, and even the "fast" album songs he played were reworked into slower, softer arrangements. He also talked to the audience - a lot. Possibly too much. My favorite parts of the show were old favorites like "Sylvia Plath" and "Come Pick Me Up," and the two improvised songs about the evening that Ryan composed in situ.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

November came and went

The Avett Brothers

It seems like November has gone in the blink of an eye - Thanksgiving is already behind us, and the weeks from now until Christmas promise to fly by. Let's turn back the clock to last weekend, when I saw an Avett Brothers doubleheader at the Riverside in Milwaukee.

I've only seen the Avetts a handful of times, including these shows, so perhaps it's not surprising I was unaware of their early entry presale policy before this tour. For most GA shows, it seems, the first 30 tickets purchased through the band's presale get early entry to the venue. I was lucky enough to be among the thirty on both nights, and let me just say: I highly recommend it. Especially during winter months.

I'd entertained thoughts of grabbing a balcony seat for the second night, but in the end I couldn't resist the allure of the front pit. In retrospect, I'm glad I chose to stand. I'm no expert on the Avett Brothers catalog or live shows, but judging from those who are, this two-night stand was one for the ages. Particularly Saturday night, despite the soundboard computer system crashing during the first song. Sorting things out took a little while, but the crowd was rewarded with a long, passionate set full of deep cuts - including a song that had only been played once before. Every song, from the ones I know well to those I'd never heard, was entertaining. The band's enthusiasm is infectious, and the crowd was happy to give it back.

As often happens when I see more than one concert by an artist within a short amount of time, I got that familiar itch: I wanted to see more. The fact that so many different songs were played over the two nights exacerbated the situation. It's probably a good thing for me that the Avett Brothers are more or less finished touring for the moment.

The Avett Brothers

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

November trips

View from Time Warner Center

I was in LA this week. Only, this time, I mean Louisiana. I volunteered for a business trip to Shreveport, so I'm now able to cross state number 46 off my list. I can't say that I got a particularly classic Louisiana experience - most of my waking hours were spent working - but I did meet many locals. I still have to make it to New Orleans one day, but until then, at least I've dipped my toe into Louisiana waters.

The trip to Shreveport came directly on the heels of another trip, this one for pleasure. U's birthday celebration took place in New York City, and I was happy to be a part of it. The fun officially began with a much-anticipated dinner of Momofuku fried chicken, and progressed from there to Slane to see the awesome Martin Rivas. In the ensuing three days I managed to fit in a Conan taping at the Beacon Theatre; Feist in Brooklyn; the 9/11 Memorial, Occupy Wall Street, Coney Island, and Brighton Beach with Allison, Jeff, and Nils; CocoMoCA, Central Park, the Jesse Eisenberg play Asuncion, and a visit to Kristina and Julio to meet their brand new baby girl. And more food, of course. Russian dumplings, Donut Plant, Meatball Shop, cookies from Levain. Mmmm. I'll be back, New York.

Momofuku fried chicken

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

When October rolls around

I saw Rhett Miller at the High Noon Saloon on Friday night. As usual, he played an entertaining show. There were Madison-related anecdotes - playing at der Rathskellar with Jon Langford, writing a song in a Madison hotel room while looking out the window at the capitol. Rhett played a pretty extensive set, too. He originally had two dozen songs on the setlist, but pointed out at some point that he'd already added at least three. Despite forgetting the start of one of the verses of "504," Rhett's efforts to play a "special" song he hadn't played in awhile were appreciated. I enjoy hearing the newer songs, but old favorites like "Over the Cliff" and "Wish the Worst" never disappoint. There's nothing quite like shouting "Success on someone else's terms don't mean a fuckin' thing!" with a rowdy Friday night crowd. The encore brought opener Alex Dezen on stage to join Rhett on the Tom Petty classic "American Girl," an unexpectedly satisfying treat at the end of the night.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Capitol city

Last week I saw Wilco in two capitol cities: Nashville, and my own city of Madison. The Nashville shows over the weekend comprised my second Ryman experience, every bit as good as the first. The old church sounds amazing, even from up front, and soul can be felt in every inch of the room. The Overture is a beautiful theater - downright formal compared to the Ryman, though I've warmed to it as a concert setting in recent months.

Seeing Wilco for the first time since Solid Sound back in June, I was eager to hear songs from the new album in person. Although I've seen a few performed before - solo, duo, and six-piece - that was before I really knew them. Over the course of these three shows I was lucky enough to see all but one. ("Sunloathe," I'll get you eventually.) "Capitol City," which opened the Madison show, was a fun and fitting beginning. "Open Mind" was debuted by a full band on the Ryman stage, also a fitting locale for the most traditional of the Whole Love songs. "Born Alone" soared, and "Art of Almost" fractured and built itself up again.

Then again, it wasn't all about the new songs. The second Ryman show began with "Less Than You Think," one of the most beautiful lyrics Jeff has ever written (in my humble opinion). I think Sunday was the first time I'd seen it played since early 2008, and it gave me goosebumps. "Shouldn't Be Ashamed" and "Box Full of Letters" were also welcome inclusions from A.M. I admit to missing songs from Summerteeth - only "Via Chicago" and "Shot in the Arm" were played over the three shows - but I have faith that they're not gone for good.

Wilco shows wouldn't be complete without the requisite stage banter. In Nashville Jeff's talk mostly centered around the crowds both nights, with a jab or two at the zealous security guards. In Madison, there were sports metaphors and some talk about the Brew Crew, though I can only assume Jeff is sending the team fewer good wishes at the moment against the Cardinals. He also brandished the actual proposal from last year declaring the members of Wilco to be honorary citizens of Madison. "We are home," Jeff proclaimed, reading the following passage:

WHEREAS, Wilco has visited Madison and played concerts here at least thirteen times since 1995 (including a show at Club DeWash in February of 1995); and,
WHEREAS, Jeff Tweedy says of Madison: ‘We really like it here’; and,
WHEREAS, Wisconsinites generally have a love/hate relationship with all things from Illinois but the sold-out show at the Overture Center on February 21, 2010 (sic) had only love for this band from Chicago; and,
WHEREAS, at least one member of the Common Council attended the show and can attest to its excellence; and,
WHEREAS, The Isthmus called Wilco ‘America’s shiniest rock object’; and,
WHEREAS, Duluth, MN may be cool, but we would not want it said that either that fine city or its mayor are cooler than Madison and our mayor (even if Mayor Dave is not sure who Jeff Tweedy is); and...

"I can't wait to whip this out when we get arrested later," Jeff joked.

Neither the Nashville shows nor Madison would have been the same without "36 Inches" and "I Love My Label," which saw the legendary Nick Lowe joining Wilco on stage. Nick's opening sets were terrific, and the happiness of everyone on stage during the collaborations was a joy to behold. Nick will be along again for Wilco's shows in December, including a stop in Milwaukee. I'm looking forward to seeing what else they might have up their sleeves. Seven-man cover of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," anyone?

Monday, October 3, 2011

In the city only for awhile

Chicago Theatre marquee

This weekend was a three-shows-in-three-nights deal for me, and it began on Friday night in Chicago with Fleet Foxes. (Fun fact: it was my fourth time at the Chicago Theatre, but two of the four have been for Conan O'Brien.) Fleet Foxes have come a long way since I saw them open for Wilco, and even since I saw them at Metro a couple of years ago. Selling out two shows at the Chicago Theatre is pretty impressive, and the band was up to the task. Although the pauses between songs felt a little long (or maybe just too quiet), the music was all it should be. I only saw Night 1, but the sound was superb and the setlist was thorough. It's hard to be really "varied" when a band has two full-length albums and an EP to its name, but we heard songs from all of them (including the newest record almost in its entirety) plus a new song from Robin Pecknold. It was cool to hear a solo song in the midst of the concert, but I could listen to the harmonies all night.

Monday, September 26, 2011

It was another time for me

Liam Finn played Lincoln Hall on Friday night, and I was there. This show felt more polished than the last time I saw Liam in Chicago, which makes sense - he hasn't just lost a band member, and they've been touring on the new album for awhile now. The new three-piece we saw at the Hideout has become a four-piece with the advent of Eliza-Jane Barnes. EJ's presence allowed the band to play a song from the Eliza-Jane/Liam EP, "Plane Crash," a great song I'd been missing at recent shows. The setlist was split about evenly between songs from FOMO and songs from I'll Be Lightning, plus the aforementioned "Plane Crash" ... and a cover song. At midnight it was Liam's 28th birthday, celebrated on stage with a toast and plenty of alcohol. The audience sang "Happy Birthday," and then the band launched into the Beatles' "Birthday." 

Oddly enough, this wasn't the first time I'd seen Liam and his band play "Birthday" on the Lincoln Hall stage. In 2009 they broke it out in honor of another birthday - crew or audience member; I can no longer recall.

After the show, Rob got Liam's signature on his well-traveled acoustic guitar. Liam also played most of "Come As You Are," a little post-show bonus for the loitering bar patrons. The show ended too late to hit Kuma's, but Liam playing Nirvana was a nice consolation prize.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tonight's gonna be a good night

Yesterday was my friend Sam's birthday! To celebrate her birthday, I met up with with Sam and a few other friends at the Hideout in Chicago for The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel book release party, to be followed by dinner at Longman & Eagle.

The evening started off on a high note as DJ John Tolva spun some records and the real live Mayor Rahm Emanuel circulated in the music room. When Dan Sinker (the author of the book and fake @MayorEmanuel Twitter feed) took the stage, he announced that the mayor had signed his book: "You are an asshole - Mayor Emanuel."

First on the agenda was a book reading from cab driver and author Dmitry Samarov, followed by four excellent beat poetry performances by Louder Than A Bomb, a group composed of Chicago high school students. Next, author Megan Stielstra read a selection from her upcoming book. After that, Dan Sinker took the stage again, to introduce the evening's mystery guest.

The musical portion of the book release event had been billed as "Surprise Musical Guest Performing the Music of the Black Eyed Peas," but astute readers of the @MayorEmanuel Twitter feed might have been able to hazard a guess. Back in January, when a certain musician performed at a fundraiser for the real Rahm Emanuel, the @MayorEmanuel alter-ego had a few things to say about it:


Dan Sinker never expected his flight of fancy to become a reality, but guess what? Sometimes it happens. Last night it did, as Jeff Tweedy got up and performed three Black Eyed Peas songs: "I Gotta Feeling," "Rock That Body," and the classic "My Humps." The last was performed dramatic reading style, sans guitar. Sometimes it was hard to hear the guitar anyway, over the roars of laughter coming from the audience. I could give more details, but why do that when I could just show you?

(from Time Out Chicago)

(from gigettink)

Jeff Tweedy recites "My Humps" from Jasmine D on Vimeo.

Dan Sinker finished things off with a reading from The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel, and then it was off to Longman with us. And eventually, my drive back home. Was I tired at work today? Amazingly, no! Must have been the rejuvenating power of the Black Eyed Peas and porchetta.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Five things: living room

Inspired by some of Allison's recent blog entries, here are five things I like in my living room:


1. Coffee table. I don't know much about its history, only that it belonged to my grandma and then my mom, it spent a lot of time in the basement, and I stole it when I bought my condo. It once had a glass top to protect the wood, but that broke a long time ago. The surface has seen better days, but I love the scalloped edges and the bird and flower inlay.


2. Curtains. I bought them at a store that was going out of business - I no longer remember what store - but they were something like 80% off.


3. Statue. He's about seven inches tall, and stands in the alcove above the fireplace. When I was in Senegal last year, our hostess was packing up to move at the same time our trip was drawing to a close. She could only pack as much as could ride with her in a crowded sept-place, so she asked if I'd like the statue. An local friend had given it to her as a token of friendship, and she wanted to pass that on.

Record cabinet

4. Record cabinet. In a rare burst of productive creativity a few years ago, I fashioned this myself out of an old crate down my parents' basement. I pried off a bottom cross-board so records would fit, removed old wheels, painted it black, and included a little 45-adapter detail. The picture was taken soon after I brought it home. Now there are more records inside, and - more importantly - an actual turntable on top!


5. Clock. When I went to Russia in 2001, my companions and I stopped at the home of a wood carver in a tiny village called Zarechye near Lake Baikal. He proudly brought out many items for our perusal, and I fell in love with this clock. I found a place for it in someone else's huge suitcase on the way home, and it's been keeping time for me ever since.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The lovely way the sunshine bends

I could live on a tropical island. No problem. During a visit to Hawaii last week - my second time in Oahu - I came to that realization. Maybe not in Honolulu, and maybe not full-time, but if anybody on a beautiful island needs a house sitter? Go ahead and enlist my services.

After craving the ocean this year, I got my fill in Hawaii - including a dream view from the 36th floor of the Hilton Waikiki courtesy of a complimentary upgrade:

Beach view

Ahhhh. Our time was filled with beaches, sunshine, shave ice, shrimp trucks, delicious seven-course meals (well, only one, which is probably a good thing), shopping, and oh yes, music. Last time work brought me to Honolulu; this time the impetus was a concert. Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone played at the Hawaii Theatre on our second night in town. My favorite part of the show was seeing the two of them together on a handful of songs during the encore. It's not a configuration I'm likely to see again (though not too far off from the Wilco 3 who performed in Madison a couple of weeks before I went to Hawaii in 2008.) Hearing new songs like "Open Mind" and "Born Alone" in this configuration was exciting, and fueled my anticipation for the new album. It was fun to see all the leis brought up on stage to welcome Jeff to Hawaii at the beginning of the show. If Wisconsin had a tradition like that, I wonder what we'd bring up? Cheese curds or custard, probably. Maybe snow balls.

Hawaii Theatre marquee

It was a blast traveling with some of my favorite people, as always. There was an impromptu ramen dinner on our first night in town. U and I made an afternoon escape to the movies. Mike and I had tropical drinks with a view of Diamond Head. I enjoyed a slightly sketchy late-night meal at Zippy's with Paul. We ran away from North Shore waves. I wish I'd had time to stay longer, but there's always next time.

Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head from the Moana Surfrider

Giovanni's scampi shrimp plate

North shore

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ocean update

A few months ago, I wrote about how much I missed the ocean. This week, I do something about it.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

You're in Milwaukee, off your feet

But before I was in Milwaukee, I was home for Gillian Welch's Thursday night visit to the Capitol Theatre. As always, Gillian was joined by partner Dave Rawlings, for what turned out to be a memorable night of music in Madison. Gill and Dave are an interesting case for me: I've seen and thoroughly enjoyed them twice headlining (and seen Dave more than that, with other musicians), but somehow haven't gotten into their recorded output yet. No matter. Their voices intertwined beautifully on the Capitol stage, and I needn't have known even the handful of songs I recognized to be enthralled. From the boisterous "Six White Horses" to the haunting "Long Black Veil" (performed at the front of the stage without amplification), the crowd hung on every word. The audience was both respectful and enthusiastic, a fact that wasn't lost on the musicians. "We should play Madison more often," Gillian said toward the end of the night. I know Madison agrees.

Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch

Up next were Bon Iver and the Rosebuds at the Riverside in Milwaukee, Friday and Saturday nights. These were the first shows of the supporting tour for Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and the first concerts Bon Iver had played at all since October 2009 in the very same theater. My, how they've grown. They're bigger in media stature: since Bon Iver last toured, Justin Vernon has worked on various side projects including a high-profile collaboration with Kanye West. And they're bigger in sheer numbers: the band that took the stage in Milwaukee was a nine-piece. These musicians brought the instrumentally complex songs of Bon Iver, Bon Iver to life in a most powerful way, and gave a shot of adrenaline to older numbers. I was blown away by "Blood Bank," but only after listening to the EP version this morning did I realize how much the new arrangement added to an already great song. Not every old song was embellished, though. An emotional high point of each night was Justin Vernon on stage alone with his guitar, singing "Re: Stacks."

Re: Stacks

Friday and Saturday's shows were both wonderful, but in a flip of the usual "second night is always better" concert rule, I have to give the edge to Friday. Nothing to do with the performances, but the first-show electricity and revelation of each new song would be hard to top. Wisconsin pride over the home-state heroes was palpable in Milwaukee, made concrete with Mayor Tom Barrett's declaration of Friday July 22nd as Bon Iver Day. Before the band came out that night, Assistant City Attorney Tom Gartner (who happens to be Justin Vernon's godfather) came onstage to read the official proclamation. On Saturday night Justin seemed relaxed, goofing around with the crowd, but on Friday night he had a hard time finding the words to say anything but a version of "thank you" between songs. The feeling was mutual.

Bon Iver

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Trees held us in on all four sides

Through the trees

Being a lifelong resident of Wisconsin, it's hard to believe I hadn't made it to Door County before last weekend. As is so often the case, what finally spurred me to make my way into the thumb of the mitten was a concert. Combined, that is, with good friends and the prospects of tasty regional treats and pretty scenery. I wasn't disappointed on any count.

Fish boil:

Fish Boil, Pelletier's

It's a Door County tradition: fun to watch and fun to eat! The picture shows the "boil over" conflagration, but cannot capture how brow-singeingly hot it was right there for ten or fifteen seconds. Yow.


View from Eagle Tower
Dusk at Fish Creek Beach

Door County - Fish Creek in particular - is lovely country. We hiked in the woods, traversed the downtown area, climbed a rickety 75-foot tower in Peninsula State Park, visited a lighthouse, and enjoyed various views of a calm, blue Lake Michigan.


Jeff Tweedy, sold out

Jeff Tweedy in Fish Creek wasn't something I was likely to miss. In keeping with the casual weekend getaway atmosphere, the whole show felt laid-back and relaxed. Banter flowed more freely than usual, and we got to hear a total of four new songs in solo form. Between the Vic shows earlier this year and our basement show, I'd heard two of them before, but "Dawned On Me" and "Open Mind" were both first-timers. (I picked up shades of Madonna in the rhythm of the former's solo verses, but nobody else seemed to share that particular association.) The showpiece of the night was an eerie, intense version of "Bull Black Nova." Sometimes the unlikeliest acoustic songs are revelations.

All that, plus more cherries than you can shake a stick at. Door County, I'll be back!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

I'll see you again

One Tree Hill

Tuesday night's show at Soldier Field in Chicago marked the longest elapsed time between my purchase and use of a concert ticket: because of the 2010 show's rescheduling, I bought this ticket in November of 2009. At the time, I managed to pull up a GA ticket after 20 minutes of fruitless refreshing on Ticketmaster. I was thrilled, envisioning one last major line wait for my U2 concert-going resume. I wanted to do the crazy line thing one more time.

A year and a half later, the day finally came around. July 5th, 2011 instead of July 6th, 2010. And as it turned out, with the show coming on the heels of a major weekend of shows and a holiday, I just didn't have it in me to show up the night before and wait in line. So came a major first for me and U2: I had a general admission ticket, and I showed up after gates had opened. I know! It's like I hardly know me!

As it turned out, I didn't wind up in a bad spot. I was about ten rows back from the outside ramp, on the Edge side. Really, not too different from a seat on the side of the stadium, except closer. (Though without the option to sit down, which admittedly would have been nice after about five hours in the heat and humidity.)

U2 took the stage around 8:50. They started off with four songs from Achtung Baby and a snippet of "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World." Those were joined later by "One," prompting Bono to claim they'd played a whole side of Achtung. "Well, almost a whole side." In addition the usual suspects, the band also dusted off nuggets like "Out of Control" and "Zooropa." This was my first time seeing "Zooropa" live. That, plus an acoustic Bono and Edge version of "Stay," comprised a welcome duo of Zooropa songs. In my opinion, one of the best U2 albums.

As the concert drew to a close I'd had a very good time, but decided that there hadn't been any huge surprises in the setlist. Not having looked at any setlists prior to the show, I wasn't even sure what I'd consider a huge surprise. That is, I wasn't sure until Bono started saying his thank you's at the end of the night. He mentioned that the twenty-fifth anniversary of band friend Greg Carroll's death had been a few days before, and that they'd written a song for him. My brain at that point: "OH MY GOD."

One disadvantage of not standing up front among the crazy fans was that I was the only person in my immediate vicinity who understood what might be coming: "One Tree Hill." A song I never dreamed I'd hear live. I knew only that the band had played it in New Zealand (and Chile) a few years ago. Of course, Bono dashed my hopes right away as he sensed what at least some of the crowd as thinking. He smiled and added, "We're not going to play it tonight." A few moments' pause. "Well, maybe we are going to play it." He turned to the band. "Are we going to play it?" Back to the crowd. "Let me check with the professor." Bono conferred with The Edge for a minute, and came back to the microphone. "Well, we'll play 'Moment of Surrender' and let them figure it out down below."

The band launched into their usual closing number, which was very pretty, but I was utterly distracted. They couldn't tease us with the possibility of "One Tree Hill" and then not play it, could they? At least try to play it? After "Moment of Surrender," there was more onstage conferring. Finally Bono came back to the microphone. "Here's the deal," he said. "If we screw up really badly, you can't put it on the internet." OH MY GOD. After a couple of false beginnings (Bono: "How does it start?"), Edge got the chiming guitar riff going. Holy shit. "One Tree Hill." I visited One Tree Hill in 2008. I wrote a report about "One Tree Hill" in the eleventh grade. And now I've heard "One Tree Hill" in concert. The U2 setlist websites were happy to provide the statistics: first time the whole song has been played in North America since 1987. For me, it made the night.

Next time U2 comes around, I'm hoping it will be to somewhere a little smaller than a stadium. And I think I'd still be up for one more crazy GA line wait, since I took a pass on this one. I can't wait to see what the band comes up with next ... but I'm there.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The rain applauds

Restricted Area

Last weekend, my friends and I (and more than 6,000 others) swarmed the Berkshires for the second annual Wilco-curated Solid Sound Festival. Despite some rain, we had a blast. Here are some of my favorite memories of Solid Sound 2011:

  • Wandering over to MASS MoCA on Thursday, hearing a bit of soundcheck, and climbing up into the "All Utopias Fell" exhibit overlooking the grounds. Being able to explore the deserted Airstream trailer in the company of friends, lounging around and spinning tunes, was the best (pre)fest kickoff I could have hoped for.
  • Playing giant instruments in the Wunderments gallery
  • After a power surge briefly knocked out the stage lights and sound on Friday night, the swell of the audience filling in the missing lines of "Radio Cure": "Oh, distance has no way of making love understandable."
  • Neil Finn joining Wilco for a cover of Split Enz's "I Got You" on the heels of Wilco's own "I Got You." This is something my friends and I have long dreamed of, and when it happened we were beside ourselves. I hope at least some of the performers on stage heard the frenzy of shrieking excitement coming from our corner, as well as the raucous singalong. Well, maybe I don't hope for that last part.
  • Late-night samosas from Samosaman!
  • The Handsome Family performing "So Much Wine," in Courtyard C
  • Jeff Tweedy dunking both of his sons in the dunk tank ... numerous times
  • The artisanal pencil sharpening of David Rees
  • Free bags of chips and Garrett's popcorn
  • Taking part in Rob's poncho rainbow photo shoot in between showers on Saturday
  • Holding up a $3.50 tarp from the Family Dollar during a torrential downpour on Saturday evening, snug and dry and belting out song hooks and choruses for forty minutes.
  • Picture with John Hodgman (proving that Evonne is a master of predictions)
    • Seeing a Glenn Kotche solo performance for the first time in years, with the added bonus of complementary background videos. I've missed "Monkey Chant"!
    • Liam Finn's sans-microphone pop-up performance in the Nari Ward gallery, among giant orange foam snowmen
    • Pronto synththily covering the wonderful "Paris 1919" by John Cale
    • Watching Thurston Moore and Nels Cline play with such intensity as Pillow Wand. (Which, incidentally, some of us think would make a good name for a vibrator.)
    • Relaxing in the sun for Levon Helm's festival-closing set, singing along as the huge ensemble performed "I Shall Be Released" and "The Weight"
    • Escaping to Williamstown for a wonderful Sunday night dinner at a new restaurant that hasn't had its official opening yet
    • Witnessing body shots at the Artery
    • The leisurely time eating and drinking and talking in the Albany Airport wine bar on Monday evening as friends drifted away one by one (or two by two) for their flights
    Solid Sound 2011

    Solid Sound 2011

    Liam Finn

    Solid Sound 2012, you're on.

    Solid Sound 2011

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011

    Outdoor music

    Despite Wisconsin's mostly miserable intro to spring this year, outdoor music season is upon us again! To celebrate, last weekend I took in two al fresco performances.

    The Baseball Project

    On Friday evening, The Baseball Project played at a Madison Mallards game. A small but enthusiastic crowd turned up for the pre-game concert in the stands behind home plate, and more folks arrived as game time drew closer. Seeing the band at the Duck Pond was a treat in itself, given their oh-so-appropriate subject matter. The ubiquity of parents with children inspired a family-friendly version of the song "Ted 'Freaking' Williams," among other baseball-related favorites. Each frontman also took the lead on one of his own songs: Steve Wynn's "Amphetamine," Scott McCaughey's "Lies of the Living Dead," and an excellent version of R.E.M.'s "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville" with Mike Mills on lead vocals. The Baseball Project looked as comfortable as one would expect at a baseball game, clad in sport-appropriate attire. (Steve Wynn joked that he wore a pinstriped jacket and slacks in honor of the Yankees.) There was also a classic Wisconsin ballpark touch: a fresh basket of deep fried cheese curds was brought to the stage midset. "This is the best day of your life!" drummer Linda Pitmon joked after Steve called attention to the cheesy treats. All this plus a free Maynard bobblehead and a Mallards win: a good night at the ballpark.

    Robbie Fulks and Nora O'Connor

    Sunday afternoon found me at the Yahara Waterfront Festival, enjoying music and empanadas (and "Recall Scott Walker" sign-sporting sailboats) on the shore of Lake Monona. I caught some of the Campbell Brothers' set, as well as Sleeping in the Aviary, but it was Robbie Fulks I came to see. Robbie's performance at the Second City 24-hour marathon every December is one of my favorite parts of the event, so I was happy for a chance to catch him in Madison with a full band. As it turned out, he even brought a bonus singer along: Nora O'Connor. Nora sang with Robbie for most of the set, including a couple of excellent duets. Nora also took lead on a verse of "The Girl is Mine," one of two Michael Jackson covers Robbie played. "The Way You Make Me Feel" and a rousing version of "Let's Kill Saturday Night" were my other highlights ... that and watching toddlers dance madly in the grass. Summer music season, can you stay forever?

    Monday, May 30, 2011

    The ocean

    Final Saturday sunset

    For the past week or two, I've been craving the ocean.

    I don't know how to explain it any better. You know that feeling you get when you really want to be somewhere? Not somewhere you've never been; that desire is different. I'm talking about a place you've been before. This deep feeling that you ought to be there again. That by not being there, you're denying yourself something you actually need. You might be okay without it for awhile yet, but sooner or later it's going to catch up with you.

    In my case, it's not one particular place. Any ocean would do. Specifically, a warm beach at night. In Waikiki, walking down the sand from bar to restaurant, no need to put my shoes back on. Or in San Sebastián, watching the sun set an hour later than it would here. Maybe even Panama City Beach, where late at night it does get quiet (in some places, anyway) and from my bedroom I can hear the waves breaking through the open patio doors.

    I visited a couple of local lakes this weekend, hoping one might be a good substitute. No dice. The lakes were nice, and I enjoyed walking around shores and piers. I'm fond of pretty much any body of water, to be honest. But this ocean craving, it apparently can't be fooled.

    Sunday, May 15, 2011

    You'll come back again

    MILF Fest
    Other entertainment options in Denton

    Eight months! Nearly eight months passed between the last time I saw a Wilco show, in Scotland last September, and the end of the drought last weekend. For me, that's a mighty long time between shows. Not that I had much a choice, of course. Still, it felt awfully good to be on my way to see the band again - this time, down south.

    Saturday night's show in Denton was an interesting one to start out with. It was held in a building at the University of North Texas: a lecture hall that had been converted into a concert venue for the evening. The seats were reserved, but it was apparent before the show began that it wasn't going to stay that way. There was far too much empty space between the stage and the seats for the crowd to remain docile. Sending more mixed signals was a barrier that had been erected about three feet from the stage. Barricades suggest that people are allowed to stand on one side of them, but security was enforcing a no-fan zone all the way back to the seats; a good ten feet or so more in some places. Thus, for the first half of the show, a complicated dance was performed. Fans would creep up, and then creep up a little more, then be shooed back by security, then creep up a little more, and so on. Eventually, there was only a foot or so between the intrepid front-line fans and the barrier. When Jeff made an exasperated comment and asked if everyone could just stand at the barricade itself, there was no more pretending. The reserved show officially turned into a GA show.

    The crowd trended young, at least up front, and was very enthusiastic. I was, too. The shows on this short spring tour didn't remotely approach the length we saw last spring on the Evening With tour - in fact, they were a few songs shorter than typical setlists of the past. No matter: I was glad enough to see Wilco, period. We won't be hearing any new songs until Solid Sound next month, but the band played a nice mix that was - fine by me - heavy on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. In fact, the written setlist had even more YHF intended for the encore, but it was not to be. The rowdy crowd discouraged choices like "Poor Places" and "Reservations," in favor of faster numbers like "Hoodoo Voodoo" and "I Got You."

    For me, Denton was a warm-up for the main event: Sunday night's show at Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa. I adore Cain's, and this was my third trip. If I can help it, I'll never miss a Wilco show there - in fact, I'd love to expand my Cain's resume. As expected, the wait in line was a hot one. The temperature was in the 80's, and felt much warmer in the sun. After the spring we've had so far in Wisconsin, it seemed like more than a fair trade. When we were finally let inside, the air conditioning felt delicious.

    Tulsa's crowd was great. Everyone roared approval after each song, often stretching from the end of one to the first chords of the next. It was also great to be standing with so many friends. God bless weekend concerts! The band seemed to enjoy themselves too. Jeff called Cain's their home away from home, asking the owner of Cain's - sitting in front of the barrier for a few songs - if that was okay. It was.  Wilco delivered a mostly upbeat set, as befitted the mood of the night. There were a couple of Mother's Day shout-outs (including a heartfelt bellow from Glenn as he stood on his drum stool before "I'm the Man Who Loves You,") and a couple of Woody Guthrie songs were played in honor of his home state. Well, they were tour standards, but the home state was acknowledged. The last Woody song was also the last song of the night; another "Hoodoo Voodoo" closer. Only, this time, crew member Josh busted out the cowbell and went to town. Dear lord. Typically he stays toward the back near the drums when he joins in, but on Sunday he went all out: getting down with Pat, dancing up to Jeff. It was funny, entertaining, and disturbingly erotic. I now know more than one lady who's interested in finding out if Josh is available for parties. Kudos to him, and the band, for ending the night - and the short tour - on a high note.

    Tuesday, May 3, 2011

    Tired and wired

    Last Tuesday, just two days after the big basement show weekend of 2011, I saw the National in Milwaukee. When the band announced a headlining gig at the Riverside in the midst of their tour supporting the Arcade Fire, I couldn't have been more pleased. Ever since their show last year at the Orpheum, after the Obama rally, I've wanted to see another National performance ... preferably one without a 7-foot tall stage, or a crowd that filled all of Library Mall. The Riverside was the opportunity I'd been awaiting.

    Right from the start, everything seemed to fall into place. I had the day off, so I was able to get to town, walk around, have lunch, and get in line at my leisure. I met some friends, and we got excellent spots right up front. Both opening bands (The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Twin Shadow) were good. They'd originally been scheduled for their own double bill at Turner Hall, before signing on as openers for this gig.

    The National put on an excellent performance, full of intense songs and amusing banter in between. They won over most of the audience even before the show started, when drummer Bryan Devendorf came out during the set change to artfully arrange seven John Axford bobbleheads amongst the gear. When half the band took the stage in Brewers hats (someone was even swinging a bat), the crowd was theirs. I'm a complete sucker for bands with Brewers swag. Successful pandering! Wisconsin pride!

    As Matt Berninger commented during the show, they did put together a pretty bleak setlist for Milwaukee. "We do have some happy songs. Honest." I enjoyed everything, though, and the upbeat songs were even more welcome in contrast. Unlike the Orpheum, where he may have been daunted by the tall stage, Matt had no qualms about entering the crowd at the Riverside. He left the stage during no fewer than three different songs - though he joked that he'd used the first as an opportunity to remove the bunchy boxers that were a present from his mother-in-law. Matt was roaming the theater for the entirety of "Terrible Love," and during "Mr. November," he draped himself off the front of the stage, absorbing the frenzied pats and grabs of the audience. Nothing electrifies a crowd like being joined by members of the band.

    In a set full of highlights, two songs in particular stood out as highlights of the night for me. The first was the the live debut of "Think You Can Wait," from the soundtrack of the film Win Win.  It's a lovely song, and being part of the first crowd to see it played was a treat. The second was the final song of the night, "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," which the entire band played without the PA system from the front of the stage. The audience sang along, and it was the perfect ending for a great night of music.

    Monday, April 25, 2011

    This ain't no Lounge Ax, people

    When the sixth Hotel S'n'S show happened at the end of last summer, we thought it could be the final one. The Tweedys had indicated that they might be taking a break from the private shows, at least for a year or two. But as it turned out, that didn't happen ... or it hasn't happened yet. In fact, we didn't even have to wait a whole year! Last Saturday found us back in Chicago, back in the basement for at least one encore performance.

    What can I say about the S'n'S show? You can probably fill in for me at this point. The preshow potluck was in full effect, with my baklava making a return appearance after the 2010 break for pie pops. Dick didn't bring his meat this year, but he did provide some tasty wings. Cathy's Japanese curry was back, there was delicious crostini, dip, Alison's mac and cheese (the most anticipated part of every potluck), stuffed bread, brownies, ginger cupcakes, pizza, a fennel salad, gourmet cheeses, candied bacon, apple crisp ... and so much more. Oh, and beer. Pleeeenty of beer.

    The atmosphere downstairs was cozy and relaxed. One of the advantages of an April show is that the basement doesn't turn into a sweat lodge in the absence of air conditioning. (August 28th, I'm looking at you.) We were just a bit toasty this time. During the show there were hilarious moments and poignant moments ... sometimes both at once. ("Wish You Were Here," I'm looking at you.) Jeff has been busy in the studio lately - in fact, he brought a couple of friends from the studio along to the show - which meant that he hadn't had a lot of free time to study up on songs. From the setlist, though, you'd never guess.

    This year Jeff began the show himself, picking a song from the submitted list of requests. It was the old written-in-the-dressing-room-before-a-show classic, "This Ain't No Lounge Ax." To our vast entertainment, Jeff changed up the lyrics to fit our venue. From "people sitting on the stairs" to "this is Hotel S'n'S," it was a great nod to the nights we've spent at Sooz and Sam's place over the years. It was also a bittersweet, because I think everyone wishes Lounge Ax were still open.

    The round robin requests began after the opening song, with a few tangents here and there, and the highlights came fast and furious. Here's an annotated setlist:

    -This Ain't No Lounge Ax
    -Corduroy Cutoff Girl ("I could only find hope in heists" - I never knew that line for sure before Saturday)
    -At My Window Sad and Lonely (resonator guitar!)
    -Casino Queen (I persist in thinking of it as the "ragtime version" which is probably horribly inaccurate, but oh well)
    -Passenger Side
    -Please Tell My Brother (silent audience during this song, even Zelda the pug)
    -Summer Teeth (Zelda chimed in with barks at the end)
    -new song - I Might (upbeat tune, contains the line "get well soon, everybody")
    -Henry and the H-Bombs [Mott the Hoople]
    -Cruel To Be Kind [Nick Lowe]
    -More Like the Moon (I love those Spanish guitar parts)
    ------intermission 1-------
    -Happy Birthday to roommate Paul and Pam (crowd singalong)
    -When You Wake Up Feeling Old (good timing after "Happy Birthday")
    -You Are Not Alone
    -Sixteen Blue (partial) [The Replacements]
    -Please Be Patient With Me
    -Jesus, Etc.
    -Either Way
    -I'm a Wheel
    -Wish You Were Here [Pink Floyd] (Kris owned those lead vocals)
    -Ripple [The Grateful Dead] (everyone on lead vocals, iPhones out in force)
    -A Magazine Called Sunset
    -If That's Alright
    -Pecan Pie
    ------intermission 2-------
    -new song - Capital City (on the folkier side of things, may or may not make the new album)
    -California Stars
    -One By One
    -Airline to Heaven (nearly Easter!)
    -Blasting Fonda
    -"Jeff Tweedy" is Playing at my House [LCD Soundsystem] (this was actually a jumble of "Losing My Edge," "The Message," and other rapping)
    -Dreamer in My Dreams

    The last two songs were group dance numbers. And group singing - do I even have to specify that part? After the traditional group photo, goodbyes, and donning of the silver-wrapped BK crown (not yet traditional, but it could be!), Jeff and Susan headed home. Plenty of us remained, singing and dancing and eating and laughing and playing guitar and banjo as the hours flew by. The sun was rising by the time I went to bed. (I resisted a "Shot in the Arm" quote there, guys.)

    There were a few more members of our usual crew missing this year than there typically are - a combination of scheduling and financial crunches, and at least one future baby. It was a wonderful weekend, encompassing many more activities than I've mentioned here, but I won't pretend I didn't miss absent friends. My fondest wish, if there were to be another basement show in 2012, is that we'll all be together again.

    Friday, April 22, 2011

    The raincoat that you wore when it rained today

    In case you hadn't noticed, I like to select my concert recap titles from the lyrics of songs played at the show in question. Typically, I don't think about what line I might use until afterward. I'll admit, though, that as soon as the Decemberists announced their April 19th show in Madison, just days after I saw them in Milwaukee on February 5th, it occurred to me that I'd have plenty of fitting lyrics to choose from. "Raise your glass to turnings of the season." "To cold climes comes springtime." "Summer swells anon."

    Well, the weather on Tuesday certainly put the kibosh on that. Rainy, sleety, sometimes snowy, it was not a pleasant spring day by any stretch of the imagination. Judging from the pockets of empty seats at the Overture Center (and the number of cars I saw off the road on my way downtown), the kibosh was put on the plans of more than a few people. However, those of us who attended saw a very good show - and likely the last one Wisconsin will see from the Decemberists for awhile.

    Justin Townes Earle opened the show, accompanied for most songs by a violin player/second vocalist. I'd never seen Justin before, but I'd heard tales. Some were about his offstage antics, but more were about his skill as a performer. At the Overture, the only allusion to non-musical activities came when Justin mentioned he'd been kicked out of thirteen schools ... before leaving in the ninth grade. Impressive? His performance skills, however, were readily apparent. Justin has a great voice, and seems to go off into his own world during songs. My favorite tune of his set was a blues number whose name I can't recall, but it nearly got a standing ovation from the crowd.

    When the Decemberists took the stage, there were actually only two of them to begin with: Colin and John. Together they performed a lovely, fitting rendition of "The Raincoat Song." The rest of the band joined in for "Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect," a song I hadn't seen live in a long time. It reminded me of the Intonation Festival in Chicago, and summer in general.

    The Overture sounds terrific, but it can be a somewhat sterile place for a rock show. Last time I saw the Decemberists there, in 2009, it was a general admission show that had been moved from the Orpheum. The crowd behaved accordingly, jumping over seats in some cases after the show began to get closer to the front. On Tuesday, by contrast, the vibe during the first few songs was very polite. That is, until someone from the balcony called out between songs for Colin to "tell everybody to stand up and dance!" Colin noted that there did seem to be some open seats on the floor, if anyone wanted to come down from the various balcony levels to fill them in.

    Of course, that was all it took for fans - mostly young fans - to scurry down and stand directly in front of the stage. This lasted for a song or two, until security cleared them out because of fire regulations. Colin tried to coax them into letting the kids back up, but to no avail. By that time, however, the empty seats had been filled and much of the crowd was standing. It felt more like a "real show," as Colin put it, for the rest of the night. Colin and Chris Funk had some fun with the security guards later on, with Colin playing his guitar directly at one of them and trading low fives, and Chris Funk attempting to seduce another during "The Mariner's Revenge Song." I couldn't see exactly what was going on, but he returned to the main stage with his shirt completely unbuttoned.

    Madison's set wasn't too different from the one the band played in Milwaukee in February, but there was plenty to keep things interesting for folks who had seen both shows. "Rise to Me" was gorgeous once again, and even more poignant now that I know the story behind it. Seeing Sara Watkins take lead vocals on "The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid" was excellent, and so was the "Crane Wife" trio played in order. And when Colin came out with a Wisconsin solidarity sticker on his guitar and said a few words before playing "This is Why We Fight," the band got the loudest and longest cheer of the night.

    "June Hymn" was the closing number, and it left me satisfied but longing for true spring and early summer. It also left me a bit sad, wondering if this was the last I'd see of the Decemberists for a long time. In a recent interview, Colin said after this tour the band will take an extended break; maybe three or four years. I've been lucky to see the Decemberists and Colin about fourteen times over the past nine years, and I'm happy that I took advantage of their appearances in Wisconsin (and sometimes Illinois) whenever I could. I enjoyed every minute of it. Whether I see them again sometime this summer on an unexpected trip, or I see them again in five years, I'm confident I'll feel the same.

    Monday, April 18, 2011

    The good part

    It's benefit season again! 2011 was the fifth year in a row that Jeff Tweedy played concerts at the Vic Theatre to benefit youth scholarships. This year, there was a also a table in the lobby on both Friday and Saturday night, manned by the Chicago Lighthouse. The charities that the Tweedys publicly support keep adding up, and the quality of the benefit shows is always top-notch. I've come to look forward to these late winter/early spring weekends as one of my favorite show weekends of the year. Friday and Saturday kept up the tradition.

    As in years past, the setlists for both shows were requests from the first thirty people in line outside. As much as Jeff likes to joke that this leads to bad shows with songs nobody else will enjoy, it's really one of the things that make the concerts special. (Obviously, given the five-year tradition, this is not lost on the decision makers.) There were no repeat songs over the two evenings, which was impressive. My picks this year were "Shake it Off" and "Monday," two songs that are unlikely to be heard at your typical solo show. Both sounded great, and I was particularly delighted with the resonator guitar version of "Shake it Off." My favorite part was Jeff playing the syncopated chorus beats Glenn usually handles by strumming below the ... bridge? Pickup? My guitar terminology may be rusty, but it really worked.

    Other standout songs included one more great version of "So Much Wine" (preceded by the tale of the "mayor's daughter" from Iowa), "Sonny Feeling" solo for the first time, "Dear Employer," and "Screen Door." Banter highlights were plentiful, and included an impromptu tribute to a certain friend of mine, a digression about banter grammar police (ahem), and a shout-out to teachers. There was fun before and after the shows, too: late dinners, bars, Record Store Day errands, studying Bruce Lee's fighting methods, the electric slide, and a Kuma's meal for Sunday lunch. I'll be in Chicago again next weekend among more visiting friends, and it feels a bit like this week is just a placeholder. Not entirely, though ... Decemberists tomorrow!

    Saturday, April 9, 2011

    In the wee hours of the morning

    In the not-so-distant past, I drove to Chicago to see weeknight concerts at the drop of a hat. These days, I find myself reluctant to tack five-plus hours of driving onto my typical workday. I've become more selective. I could probably count the number of performers for whom I'm willing to make the effort on both hands ... and most of those are unlikely to present me with the opportunity. One of them, though, happens to be Liam Finn. So when Liam announced a show with the Luyas at the Hideout, I was in. Even if it meant four hours of sleep.

    I love the Hideout. After all, it's the only venue whose stage has hosted performances by Jon Brion, Andrew Bird, Thurston Moore, Califone, and me. When I arrived shortly before 9 on Tuesday night, the doors to the music room weren't yet open, but the Luyas were still on before 9:15. Impressive! I enjoyed the Luyas' set, despite the vocals being the slightest bit twee for my taste. They made excellent use of lighting, and I liked the instrumental barrages. Until she mentioned it on stage, I didn't make the connection that lead singer Jessie Stein was the "female Bob Dylan" who appeared for a couple of songs last time I saw Liam at Lincoln Hall. (A concert about which I wrote the most half-assed blog entry in history.)

    After a short break, Liam Finn and his band (!) took the stage. This was the first time I'd seen Liam with a band - his band, that is - although he and Eliza-Jane were certainly joined by various guests in 2009. Chicago was the first show that the band played as a three-piece instead of a four-piece: Liam on guitar and drums, brother Elroy on drums, and Jol Mulholland newly transplanted from guitar to bass. I enjoy Liam's instrumental looping techniques, and I was glad to see that they weren't completely absent, but I think the band gave him a bit more freedom and allowed for a quicker pace. Plus, it allowed for double drumming on a handful of songs. In general, the more people who are drumming on stage, the happier I get.

    Liam and the band played a longer show than I'd expected. One of the night's highlights was "Lead Balloon" - the screaming chorus and theremin-stick solo never fail to deliver. We also got three new songs from the upcoming FOMO, due in June. I'm officially excited! One of those songs, "Roll of the Eye," was dedicated to the people of New Zealand. "Some people still have to shit in their backyards," Liam added, referring to the major earthquake that hit Christchurch in February. "Alabama!" yelled one audience member, prompting a ripple of laughter from the crowd. "Is that what it's called?" Liam cracked. Liam and Elroy were chatty throughout the night. "You did good, boy," Liam said late in the show, prompting a tongue-in-cheek reply from Elroy about big-brotherly approval. At one point the whole band took experimental puffs from a fan's e-cigarette, much to the delight of the guy's female companions. The band's finale was a song I've wanted to see live since the run of shows I saw in 2009, "This Place is Killing Me." At last! No covers this time, but hearing so many tracks from I'll Be Lightning was great.

    The show didn't go as late as I'd feared, and even allowing for half an hour or so of post-concert socializing, I was back on the road by midnight. As I said before, this drive isn't one I'm eager to make on workdays. But I'm glad I can still tell when it will be worth it.

    Sunday, April 3, 2011

    Every night is Friday night

    Last time I saw the Old 97's was in Grand Rapids in 2009. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy the show, but it didn't quite click with me the way 97's shows used to. There was a weird vibe in the crowd, and a fight broke out, which didn't help. I described the show afterward as "good, solid fun," and that was the truth. But dependable, "solid" fun wasn't enough to lure me to an out-of-town show Old 97's over the next year and a half. A Friday night show at the Barrymore, however, I couldn't turn down - even at the end of a busy, tiring week. Nothing wrong with a dependable good time, right? Well, as it turned out, I wouldn't describe the April 1st show as "good, solid fun." I'd lean more towards "really awesome."

    Teddy Thompson opened the concert. Everything I knew about Teddy, I learned from people standing near me before the show. There were a couple of very excited college girls there, one of whom had seen Teddy in Madison before and fallen in love with him. She was open to hearing the Old 97's, but knew little about them - Teddy was her reason for attending. (She said she assumed most of the other girls were there to see "Bret Michaels." Ha!) An older gentleman mentioned that Teddy had famous parents, though he couldn't think of their names offhand. This tipped me off that Teddy must be Richard and Linda Thompson's son, but at first I thought I was mistaken - the pleasant country drawl of his songs made it sound like he'd come straight up from Texas. However, his stage banter - very dry and amusing - left no doubt as to his Britishness. Most of his songs were pretty straightforward country, but not hackneyed or "Nashville." The most pleasant surprise for me was his eerily spot-on cover of Del Shannon's "Runaway." Be it covers or originals, I'd be interested in hearing more from Mr. Thompson in the future.

    Soon enough the lights dimmed again, and out came the Old 97's. They began with the title track of their latest record, "The Grand Theatre." Maybe I was just in the mood for some small-venue rock and roll - it's been awhile. Everyone near me up front was dancing and singing, fueled by alcohol but not completely wasted. The band followed "Grand Theatre" with "The Fool," and then Rhett got up on Philip's drum riser, leapt off, and launched into ... "Timebomb." Which was odd, because I seemed to recall that being a traditional closer. No matter; people were pogoing and shouting as if they'd been working up to it all night. When the song was over, the band said good night and left the stage. The house music came on.

    April Fool! I don't think anyone was actually fooled, but it was pretty funny nonetheless. The band returned after a minute or two, Murry commented on the fact that only a single cup had been thrown onto the stage, and they resumed the show. And it was a hell of a show. The energy level had definitely gone up after the "closer," and for the most part stayed there for the rest of the night. The 97's played a long first set, including a bonus internet request: one of my favorites, "Wish the Worst." They also played a song I'm pretty sure I've never heard live before, certainly not from the full band: "Cryin' Drunk." I couldn't help thinking of a certain hateful governor when Rhett sang lyrics like, "Walker says you're a cancer." Speaking of Walker, Rhett affixed a pro-union button to one of his guitar straps early in the night, and later said that he's a union member and stands with the people of Wisconsin. It was nice to hear.

    The first set ended on a hardcore rock 'n' roll high note, after Rhett gave himself a fat lip with the microphone and spit blood all over the stage during "Four Leaf Clover." He also bloodied his setlist, which was promptly stolen by a crazy male fan during the break. When Rhett came back out, he asked who had the setlist. As the crowd pointed to the busted fan, Rhett quipped, "You might want to get that tested."

    Standing near me during the show was an 11-year-old girl, attending her first concert. She seemed to have an excellent time. Rhett made sure to say hello to her, and later asked her name when he stooped for a drink. When he came out to play a couple of acoustic songs at the start of the encore, he asked if there were any tracks from his solo records she'd like to hear. When she shook her head no, he joked, "Oh, you don't like those." Her mother explained that she was a new fan, but she's learning. (The girl did thank him for asking, which was very polite.) Rhett ended up playing "Come Around" and "Need to Know Where I Stand." He explained that he'd begun the latter in California many years ago, but it never quite went anywhere ... until one night, when he was sitting backstage right here at the Barrymore Theater, and he suddenly realized how to make it into a song. A rendition of the always-lovely "Valentine" by Murry, with Rhett on backing vocals, rounded out the acoustic portion of the night, and the band came back on for four more songs - making it a total of twenty-nine on the evening.

    I'd been wondering how they were going to close the show, since they'd already played "Timebomb" and "Four Leaf Clover." The answer was ... "Timebomb!" Again! The second round was even better. By the time the band left the stage, they'd given me a much more exhilarating Friday night than I'd bargained for. It turns out that I don't always know what I'll get from an Old 97's show after all, and I couldn't be happier about it.

    The Grand Theatre
    The Fool
    Champaign, Illinois
    W. TX Teardrops
    Let the Whiskey Take the Reins
    The New Kid
    Buick City Complex
    Mama Tried
    Please Hold on While the Train is Moving
    Wish the Worst
    Designs on You
    You Were Born to Be in Battle
    Here's to the Halcyon
    Cryin' Drunk
    A State of Texas
    Every Night is Friday Night (Without You)
    Won't Be Home
    Four Leaf Clover
    Come Around (Rhett solo)
    I Need to Know Where I Stand (Rhett solo)
    Valentine (Murry and Rhett)
    Dance With Me
    Big Brown Eyes
    Murder (or a Heart Attack)

    Thursday, March 31, 2011

    So flattered by fate

    It's the end of the first quarter of 2011, and I finally got to see some Jeff Tweedy shows! On a short tour that hit just six cities, two of Jeff's stops were Madison and Iowa City. Clearly I was in for the short drive downtown on Monday, and Iowa City fell just within my reasonable weeknight range. Well, "reasonable." You know how I do.

    Madison and Iowa City ended up being very different shows. Madison was a little longer, and a little more ... in control. Which is somewhat ironic, because there were probably a few more more disruptive folks, if we're talking sheer numbers, at the Capitol Theater. At one point toward the end of the night in Madison, Jeff started to strum "Be Not So Fearful" in response to a shouted request, but was completely drowned out by other requests and actually gave up. In Iowa City, however, the show was all but taken over for awhile by one particularly loud and insistent disruptive girl (who at one point squawked that she was the daughter of the mayor of Cedar Rapids), in addition to plenty of beer bottle clinking and some random comments and mysterious ripples of laughter. None of this meant that either show was bad, and I think Jeff has been handling the unpredictable nature of audiences better and better.  It's just that, like it or not, the audience can shape the show. Mostly-ruly Madison got a few more songs, as well as more singalongs and general crowd participation. Iowa City got some extended exchanges with certain audience members, and a pointed dedication of "So Much Wine" by the Handsome Family.

    Not only was "So Much Wine" a fitting dedication for the mayor's daughter, it was also one of many musical highlights of the two shows. A new song, "Born Alone," was played in Madison and in Iowa City and is already stuck in my head. I loved hearing "In a Future Age" and "Airline to Heaven" in Iowa, and "Candyfloss" and "Pieholden Suite" in Madison. "Not for the Season" (or "Laminated Cat," if you prefer) was played both nights as well. Jeff mentioned in Iowa City that Nels gets credit for a lot of the guitar parts Jeff actually performed on albums, much to Nels's discomfort. "Loved your work on A Ghost is Born, Nels!" And Jeff's new(?) ivory resonator guitar proved perfectly suited for a duo of off-mic show closers.

    These shows plunged me full-tilt into the spring concert season in Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago. I've got another show tomorrow, then the Wisconsin Film Festival this weekend, another show Tuesday, a show the following Monday, and then Friday and Saturday and maybe Sunday, and then Tuesday, and then the next Saturday and Sunday, and then that Tuesday, then maybe Friday, and then the next week Saturday and Sunday, and then I have a work trip and suddenly it's mid-May. I feel a bit like I'm in a roller coaster car that's just begun its trip down the first big hill, gaining momentum. Too late to get off!