Boy, this one's hard to write about. Its always a bummer going to see a band and being one of just a handful of people in the room. You feel bad for them. Some bands have the self-confidence to say "well this was a bad gig" and play an awesome set anyway. Examples I've seen include the Fleshtones (misbooked at some country rawk joint in Champaign-Urbana), the Rev. Horton Heat (very early in their career, a memorable night at the old Toad Café where I was one of 7 people there and they played like it was a full House of Blues), John Otway on a weeknight during the summer in a college town, and any number of bands that had the misfortune to be booked at Quarters when Voot Warnings was over at the Uptowner. Its just harder to write about this when the band is friends of yours, and they didn't rise to the occasion, as I'm convinced they could have done. I didn't even take pictures, not because the lighting sucked and it would present a challenge, I just didn't feel like it. It would have been like photographing a bloody car accident for the sake of a picture of real blood. I'm not interested in that kind of photography.
The problem with the White Hot Tizzies, comprised of two guys I've known about as long as I've lived in Milwaukee, is that they are a band based on Rob McCuen's considerable swagger. This is the first time this incarnation has played out. Last time I saw Rob doing his songs, I think it was still called Love Bully (it could have also been Rob McCuen and the Ruins), and I thrilled to his "I'm AJ Foyt." When Rob McCuen is on, he's freaking ON, and nobody can beat him. But when he's not on, well...
Rob writes and plays great songs. Absent from Saturday's set was his best song ever, the pop resignation "Life Imitates Art." Rather he, and Dan "Myles" Mullen on guitar, ran through a set of what is clearly Rob's favorite pop songs of all time (most of which are British Invasion era top 40 hits): plenty of Beatles, Kinks, your occassional Johnny Rivers ("Secret Agent Man"), a touch of Bowie. I don’t know why they didn't do more of Rob's originals, its not like there was this huge crowd of wallpaper-loving yuppies demanding the covers. They might as well have broken out of the comfort zone of tunes he and Myles can play in their sleep. The setlist was culled from the setlists of those many bands they've played in together and seperately: a gazillion Mark Shurilla creations, Plasticland, a few surf acts. No AJ Foyt imitating art tonight.
On one hand, "AJ Foyt" and "Life Imitates Art" require swagger, a cocksure swagger that requires one to believe he's king of the world, bigger than the Beatles, to pull off, and when you're playing in a bar with two people nursing their cocktails its hard to work that up. And McCuen's stage attitude, which is endearing when it works, wasn't working tonight. His disappointment in the size of the audience was so transparent that his attitude wasn't Ferris Bueller charming. It was clearly bitter, and as I advised him later, "Don't blame the people who didn't come on the people who did. We still paid cover." (Well, I paid mine in the form of a cocktail for Rob, but that's not the point.)
Rob opened the set with a few acoustic tunes on the guitar, and let down the wall as he sang about his dead friend, and a few other of Life's Little Disappointments. That part worked. In fact, it worked very well. There's a huge heart underneath all that ballsiness, and it's clearly hurting. The other thing that worked were the parts where he and Miles harmonized on the Beatles and the Kinks. There's some beauty underneath all those scars, and they've found it. But the parts where Rob would throw out demeaning remarks to the audience, calling us farm animals and decrying the music scene in Milwaukee -- sorry Rob. You weren't being the supreme dick we all still love because its endearing. It wasn't just an act. You were pissed, and you chose to take it out on your audience, and because you weren't on top of the world, it wasn't endearing. It was bitter, and it was sad, and any heart and soul you showed us tonight you covered up with jism, on a night when you didn't have much to spare. Miles has a few more things to be bitter about lately than you, and yet Miles retained his charm and professionalism. He's been there too, schlepping all his gear only to get paid some chump change and have his audience comprised of the neighborhood drunk who's fallen asleep on the barstool by the third song. (He used to play in a band with James "Tess" Tessier, remember?) He's been there.
I've been there too. I've been on the dais at Quarters (and that alone is depressing) with more people on the stage than in the audience, a sullen bartender annoyed that his tip jar is empty because the freaking band couldn't bring anybody in, my husband (boyfriend at the time) in the audience only because he knows he has to be if he expects any action that night, the doorman pocketing the $5 he did manage to extract from passers-by and claiming he got nothing, and me wondering if I should even plug my damn guitar in or just call it a night. I take the Fleshtones way out, and declare it a public rehearsal, trying out new stuff, getting reaction from the one friendly face in the crowd, and chalking it up to experience.
Rob, you're bigger than this. Shit, when you're AJ Foyt, for three perfect glam pop minutes, you are bigger than the Beatles. Act it.