Thursday, June 16, 2011

Straight up oldschool at Humboldt Park

It was country night at Chill on the Hill this week, and not that crappy nu-country, either. No, the good folks at the Bay View Community Association dug up a trio of trios of great old school country that made for a warm night, despite the falling temperatures. Tonight's Streetza Pizza featured variety was Taco pizza, which I heard was good, but for a straight up oldschool country night, I opted for straight up oldschool cheese and sausage.

Starting off the night was the Hoosier Millionaires, fronted by the always ironic Ted Jorin (wearing an English riding outfit to signify his millionaire-ness) and I suspect a lot of the crowd didn't know what to make of them. They found covers to do that most bands wouldn't touch -- and certainly not country-style bands that lead with a ukelele. I mean, who the hell does "Theme from Three's Company"? These guys do. And they touch on some country classics as well, but I've said this before, you haven't heard Led Zeppelin until you've heard it done, ironically, with a ukelele. Thing was, the arey more-than-competent musicians who purposely butcher some of these songs. Bay View is loaded with plenty of hipsters who will get it, but I'm not convinced they're the majority just yet. Still, as I'd tweeted that night, the Millionaires' take on "What Is and What Should Never Be" requires a deep cleansing breath afterward.



Whiskeybelles
Originally uploaded by V'ron.
Right after that, we get Milwaukee's answer to the Dixie Chicks, the Whiskeybelles-- and in keeping with the oldschool theme, they're wonderfully tuneful, loose, but have perfect three part hamonies, no fake accents, and a set list that includes some nice originals along with covering Hank (Senior, that is, do I have to specify Hank Williams Senior when I'm talking about oldschool?) and Loretta. The Loretta Lynn covers especially suited these women -- a bassist, a guitarist and a fiddler -- as they were as sassy and salty as the Queen herself. I mentioned their perfect harmonies. I mean they were perfect. Yet -- and this is their gift-- the Whiskeybelles are wonderfully loose, making it sound and look easy so that the audience is engaged and involved. Really good set. My only complaint is that they may have gone on too long. This is the kind of music that needs to be a 45 minute set, leaving an audience begging for more. They went for at least an hour, and by the end of that, we were ready for something else. But that's a minor complaint. I would have enjoyed two 45 minute sets from them, and they're definitely on my "go see them again" list.



men in black
Originally uploaded by V'ron.
The night ended with a band I've been wanting to catch for awhile, God's Outlaw, a trio that spends a good portion of their time covering Johnny Cash and the rest of the time with originals that sound like the kind of thing Cash would have come up with. Here's the thing about Johnny Cash: how can you not love that music. Everything about Cash is so distinctly American, and this is the American to be proud of. God's Outlaw's lead singer doesn't look a thing like Cash, and his baritone isn't quite as deep as Cash's, but he intonation, delivery and attitude are so spot-on that it works. The bass player gets the rhythm by slapping the neck hard enough to get plenty of boom-chicka-boom-chicka, and their electric guitarist pickes out plenty of crystal clear twang to keep it real. Of course they played "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Get Rhythm" and "Ring of Fire" and their originals ("U-Haul" -- a story of knowing it was over because of the UHaul parked in front of the house -- stood out for me) had enough of that oldschool charm that kept me around, despite the sun going down and a chilly (and for me, underdressed for the weather) night. This is what country music is, kids, not that dreck that gets marketed as country these days. Stella even admitted it was fun, and this is a girl who claims to hate country. "No, girl, you hate nu-country. I do too. These three bands are the real stuff."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I went to Riverwest to see some bands....


VMR_0300
Originally uploaded by V'ron
Just like I'd tweeted on Saturday: I was at Quaters to see a band. Full stop. I was at Quaters. I was there to see a band. When was the last time anybody said that? I'll tell you when, oh, say about 1998 or so. Yeah, there was a little smattering of bands at The Rock Palace since then, but it was eventually edged out by the Hip Hop Experiment, the Freshening-Up-The-Place project, and others. Finally, a few fights and some tragedy, and the place gave up its cabaret license to save its liquor license, and went down not in flames, but some sad, smoldering smoke.
In the early 90s, Quarters was transformed from a dumpy shot-and-a-beer tap (the cheap beers through lines that were rarely cleaned were a quarter, get it?) into a dumpy hole in the wall punk palace. Ironic nicknames ensued: The Palace. The Gold Mine. It was the inspiration for the "Parabola of Rock." The Quarters heyday produced some of the most pathetic nights of my life and also some of the greatest rock and roll experiences I've ever had. As reported here, rumor had it the Gold Mine was going to be having bands again this year and that's become reality. Lots of great fresh punk are shaking the walls there again, but I have to admit, I needed somebody from the old school to drag me into that place again. And that oldschool somebody was the Grande Dame of Milwaukee Punk herself, Stoney Rivera and her band, the Psychobunnies.

Full disclosure: I played in an incarnation of the Psychobunnies in the early 90s. Some of the funnest eight months of my life. But you can't put two Saggitarian women on a stage together and expect that to last. (Or if it lasted, it would have sucked.) No, there is no sharing a stage with Stoney Rivera, and that's how it should be. She's a presence unto herself, a psychobilly queen with 30+ years of I-IV-Vs under her belt. And if there was anybody who could pull the old crowd into Quarters, it was her.

Opening the night was Dr Chow's Love Medicine, and they were saying farewell to their lead guitarist, Paul "The Fly" Lawson, who's moving on to other things. They must have sensed some of the old school electricity in the room, or maybe Frank Chandek's towering presence really filled up Quarters, but it was one of the better Dr Chow show's I've seen. (More full disclosure: my husband is the other guitar player in this band.) Dr Chow gets tighter and more confident in their originals every time i see them. While listening to them, I looked around and felt like it was 1993 again: most of the crowd was the crowd I would expect from back when I lived in Riverwest (and most of the crowd lived there at the time, too). Steve Whalen at the corner of the stage staring down the band with that shit-eating grin that, back then, could have been intimidating. Now, it's validation rather than intimidation: if he was in the back shooting the shit with friends it would be an insult. Darrell "The Brains" Martin scheming about the next Trash Fest. Paul Setser working the sound and if necessary, the door and the bar. Mark Shurilla, still a bit shy about coming all the way into the door, but still a fixture. The ghost of Tess was definitely present as we all raised glasses to him (and you best believe he still didn't pay cover.) This wasn't June, 2011. It was New Years Eve, 1994 and Stoney Rivera was taking the stage.

And after a long hiatus, (broken slightly by guest spots with Dr Chow over the past couple of years), it's like she hasn't missed a beat. She's clearly comfortable, and nothing shakes her once the lights are up. Even at one point when her vocal mike went out (would this be Quarters if the sound didn't crap out a couple of times?) she just hollered on through until Setser could make things right again. Standard Psychobunnies set complete with her originals and a Holly and the Italians cover that I always enjoyed playing, and some nuggets from her Dummy Club years ("Dancing in the Dirt" pretty much brought down the house.) She has that aura of a seasoned pro who knows exactly what people came to hear/see and gave it to them. She owned the house. And for a couple of hours on a Saturday night, I felt a good fifteen years younger, but wiser enough to order my beer in a bottle, thank you.

That night primed us all for Locust Street the next day. The Locust Street Festival is another of those reunion fests, where I see people I only ever see at Locust Street, but used to see all the time. Being out late (and getting old) prevented me from seeing the Beer Run this year, but Brian reports that he spotted a documentary filmmaker shooting with hi-def equipment and caught a bit ofDr Chow's noontime set, which seemed to carry over plenty of energy from the Quarters triumph overnight. After that was over, the kids and I started the first of many trips up and down the street. We didn't plan on seeing anybody in particular, we'd just walk up and down and see what we could see and eat what we could eat.

Let's get that out of the way right now: WTF happened to Klinger's? The wings are boneless! Yuck! Somebody needs to tell them (and the rest of the world) that boneless wings are not wings. Part of the greatness of wings is the flavor you get from cooking bone-in, and the fatty yummieness of dark meat. If you want white meat, order a grilled chicken breast. Now, these boneless "wings" are still good, but they're not the winged perfection that Klingers usually delivers. On the other hand, that joint at the corner of Weil and Locust that had everything (pizza, falafel, philly steak, and, yes, wings) had wings but get this. They wrapped them in foil and let them sit. By the time I bought them, the foil had caused them to get steamed, so that the outside skin and breading was no longer crispy/distinct. It was just this pile of really spicy mush with wings somehow inside. Next time we'll stick with that wonderful african restaurant that always hits Riverwest festivals. They've never disappointed.

To add insult to injury, we made the mistake of going to the Tracks stage first, where Stella heard that bass line. That godawful bass line. You know, the one that wafts in your ears during festival season: "Don't Stop Believing." There's a terrible cover band at the Tracks stage and they've just wrapped up that annoying Spin Doctors Two Princes thing before attempting the Journey. Unless your singer can wail like Steve Perry, don't trythis at home, or in public, folks. And this isn't even Journey's toughest vocal. God I hate this song, but when you hear it done poorly, you really appreciate what a set of lungs Steve Perry has. Hurry, kids, get thee to Linneman's!

At Linneman's outdoor stage, we're saved by Castle Thunder, a not-built-for-festivals kind of proggy group that inspired me to sit down and check them out. Very sincerely intense band that sounded like a cross between mid-career Radiohead and early Genesis. They had epic (both in length as well as musical theme) songs that Stella and I agreed would sound good as the soundtrack for some Twilight sequel. I liked them, despite the fact that this was one of those bands that would have worked better in the confines of a club, with dim (read: mysterious) lighting and a late-night ambience. Good variety, too, in terms of their dynamics, song structure and overall vibe. I was pulled in by what started out as a tribal beat, and stuck around for what morphed into a very heady lullaby.

Snopek. A Locust Street fixture, across the street from this guy who spray pained fantasy pictures of outer space and Roger Dean album covers-- with a technique that made watching his art be made half the performance. Snopek's just so consistent in his love for things Milwaukee, baseball, beer, brats, that his spot outside Klinger's should just be named Sigmund Snopek Way. Onward.



Ahab's Ghost drummer
Originally uploaded by V'ron.

We stumbled upon my favorite finds of the day at the Lakefront Brewery stage in mid-afternoon. This stage usually gets the experimental, up and coming stuff anyway. You're either going to like what you see there or not. And I liked it. First we came upon Ahab's Ghost, three very tight, very heavy noisemakers. Kind of metal, punk attitude, but waaaay to heavy (and technically competent) to be pure punk. Wonderfully intense, and yet engaging. Sometimes they referred to themselves and their name and referenced seafaring themes, but when they played you got the feeling you were on a ship about to wreck under it's own enormous weight. Sammy enjoyed them immensely-- their drummer was a delight to watch and the three of them were tight.




Crappy Dracula
Originally uploaded by V'ron.
They were followed by a lot of the local tastemakers' pick for the afternoon, a group of snotty, funny no-wavers called Crappy Dracula. Very no-wave -- dissonant chords and messed up time signatures that highlight their dry, dry oh-so-dry sense of humor. One of their songs almost got tuneful, and I could catch bits of their lyrics enough to know that I wanted to hear more, but perhaps on a piece of vinyl, or in an environment where I could really listen to what they were saying, because I'm good for some dissonant no-wave for about 30 minutes and then I need a tune. They had that appearance of regular Joes who happened to start a band, but couldn't wipe that damn smirk off their face for even a minute. Between them and Ahab's Ghose, I found my new discoveries for the day.




This Year's (Floor) Model
Originally uploaded by V'ron.
So off to see a band that reinvorgorates me every time: Floor Model. They have never played Locust Street, and I doubt they ever will. However, they always play off-Locust on the day of the fest, and this year was no exception. They played the patio at the Circle A, and the family settled into a nice corner to watch a nice family punk band spew out their snottyness. Dave was kind enough to let my boy, the beginning drummer,
thrash away between sets and pretend he was Keith Moon
while guitarist Jeff Callesen cranked up the Dead Kennedys as house music. Later in the set they got that guy who plays trumpet with them sometimes to, well, play the trumpet, but I really have nothing more to say about Floor Model. Everybody knows I'm a fan; it was just a matter of ending my day with the familiar, as Locust Street itself is a celebration of what was a wonderfully familiar part of my life.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

I'm not in this audience


The Ethan Keller Band
Originally uploaded by V'ron
Tuesday night I told a friend that I hate the Dave Matthews Band.

OK, I don't hate the Dave Matthews band. I just don't like them. No, it's not even that. I just don't have an opinion one way or another about them. I'd rather hate a band/artist, like I hate Katy Perry. At least Katy Perry elicits a reaction from me, it's just not a positive one. The Dave Matthews band is boring to me. They put me to sleep. Their music is like wallpaper to me. It's not even that they're mellow. I like a lot of mellow stuff. But Dave Matthews is right up there with Hootie and the Blowfish and all those "adult contemporary" bands. I think that's what really bores me. "Adult Contemporary." It's like, once you're an "adult" you should strip away any kind of sweat, passion, danger, or beauty from your music. Just be "clever" sometimes, keep the tempo straight, show off your chops now and then (but don't, under any circumstances, startle or catch somebody off guard with your talent). The majority of "Adult Contemporary" artists are, quite frankly, excellent musicians. They're just a crashing bore to me. They are safe. And anybody who reads this blog with any regularity knows that to me, "safe" is the kiss of death.

So, as I trudged out to the first Chill on the Hill at Humboldt Park, I found myself contemplating the Ethan Keller Group, a very safe pick to open the popular public free series. Keller himself is a likable chap, and his band of mellow craftspeople seemed to fit the bill on a temperature-recordssetting hot summer night. We settled down as they did the most risky thing this family-friendly crowd could expect-- removed their shirts to deal with the heat and show us their relatively toned bodies. They lost me after two similar-sounding songs. (Later in the night, my kid even commented, "Do ALL their songs sound justs like this? Yes, they do," she answered herself.). I couldn't put my finger on why they lost me so early, despite some smoking guitar work, until somebody mentioned the Dave Matthews Band.

"I hate the Dave Matthews Band," I replied. And that really cemented it for me, why this talented, competent, pop-sensible, award-winning local answer to the DMB was losing me. They are "adult contemporary." They are "safe." They are in rotation at 88.9, reminding me that while I really like Radio Milwaukee and I'm overjoyed that there are two, count 'em, TWO independent, alternative, listener-supported radio stations in town that are thriving, it's WMSE, 91.7 who gets my money when I can afford to call in a pledge, simply because of that "safety" factor.

All this aside, the Ethan Keller band has an audience. They're mixing a few genres together (folky hip hop, if you will) and they're doing it competently and successfully. I'm actually kind of liking some of the rap/hip-hop bits he does, but he does it so mellow that it almost sounds like he's bored with it. But it works. It works in the summer festival atmosphere with the heat, and the ability to have a conversation with your friends with a glass of wine and a blanket, while the kids run around oblivious to it all. I would expect to hear Ethan Keller on national radio as well, and I'm positive he'll be a headlining act at the Miller or Briggs stage at summerfest in less than a couple of years. Yes, there's a huge audience for this kind of stuff. I'm just not in it.