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)