Dark Horse on a Dark Night
That first band turned out to be an 3-piece called Ramova, out of Chicago, who won my heart if for no other reason than the vintage "The Loop - where Chicago Rocks!" t-shirt sported by bassist January Overton, who later told me she'd had the shirt since she was 13. I admitted to her mine doesn't fit me anymore, but I still have mine, a lovely reminder of a great summer I spent as a news intern at the former home of Steve Dahl. Punk attitude, with more competent guitar playing than you usually get with these kinds of outfits. In fact, almost metal guitar playing, on top of this fast and furious 2-woman rhythm section that had a Charlie Watts dependability. It just made me grouse more that I had to miss more of their set because of the stupid parking situation on the East side.
Up next, The New Loud. They seem to have come out of nowhere. One day, I'm sitting at home, updating my myspace page when I see they "want to me my friend", the next they're everywhere complete with a packed tour schedule, a pile of great reviews, a pro-looking press kit, and a new-wave look smack out of 1982, which is about as old as that Loop T-shirt I was talking about. "They are hell-bent to bring back new-wave," I said to a friend in the audience, as we waited for them to set up. They turned out to be good new wave, not one-hit wonder, forgettable poppy stuff (as their look would have implied), but with touches of Gang of Four minimalism, and New Order intensity. Maybe a little too tight. They've got great songs, but you can tell they're young because they were really concentrating on things, or maybe the polished punk look implied that, but I'd like to see them cut loose a little more often. Their penultimate song was a great little number that started off with keyboardist Jessie singing sweetly about losing control, gradually it built up to a frenetic jam where she belted out a blood curdling scream and roll and roll hollered it out to the end. They don't have to do this sort of thing for everything (it would get old fast), but this is the kind of cutting loose I'm talking about that seperated them from the really compelling live show they are from the "not bad, I'll see them if I get a chance" band their recordings imply. Their dynamic songs really work better in a live context, they just need to seize the energy that context demands and project it more on stage. I'll be back.
Ah, but the act I braved this treacherous driving to see, the Dark Horse Project, met the high expectations I had for them. After all, they're fronted by (God I bet she's sick of this term) "veteran singer/songwriter" Liv Mueller, but that's what she is. Veteran and professional, and a major contrast in the level of comfort she had on stage, where she assumed command of both the stage and the audience, started out with slow, dirgy numbers, and kept us going to the end. She writes angrily wistful songs that compliment her clear, alto, I'm Not Fucking Around voice, and she wields her electric hollow body guitar with bravado and authority, snappig off riffs that fill out the three piece. I think being in a three-piece is forcing her to play that guitar more adventurously, and that's a good thing. These days, she's only letting a little of her alt-country past sneak into the Dark Horse Project's repetoire, but its there. But she's going more into her (and mine) heroine's Exene Cervenka's musical territory (she's always been there lyrically) and I Iike it. I'm hearing Dream Syndicate there as well. On occassion, she took her voice up to a beautiful high register -- don't be afraid to go there more often, Liv -- on people like Tori Amos, it's grating, on you it works. Drummer Dan Niedjiecko puts exactly the right mix of basics and complexity to her stuff, and bass player Josh Rickun rounds it out.
Spotted in the audience -- Eva the frontwoman from the long-missed Ben-Wa Beat. She's probably been back in town forever, but still good to see her out and about. Also Julie Brandenburg, there to cheer her drumming brother on, and agree with me about Liv.
Liv Mueller is an object lesson in the stupidity of the record industry, because if there was any justice in the world, she'd be at least a mid-level star by now, playing rooms the size of the Pabst or Riverside, even if they're only "$10 shows." How many Liv bands have I seen and heard where I thought to myself "She's better than anybody else doing [this genre]. Why isn't she rich and famous?" I said this -- and I wasn't alone in Milwaukee in thinking this -- about the Lovelies. We said this about the Screaming Lillies even. She's beautiful, she has a stunning voice, she knows her way around a guitar and stage, she writes great songs, she freaking rocks -- what is wrong with the music industry? Maybe that's where the "Dark Horse" part of their name comes from. This one's definitely a winner, even if there aren't any A&R guys smart enough to be betting on it.