Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Celebratory History in a Cigar Box

cigar box guitars by V'ron
cigar box guitars, a photo by V'ron on Flickr.
Some years back, when I was out of work, Lori Jablonowki (then performing as Roni Allwaise with Guido's Racecar) gave me a buzz and hired me to shoot her band. It was a time when I really needed the extra money (duh, I was out of work!) not to mention the boost to my confidence. Plus, let's face it, Guido's Racecar, besides being a wonderful band musically was also a visually captivating group of people; the photos pretty much shot themselves.

After I'd done post-production I went over to see Lori and her then-boyfriend then-bassplayer (and now husband) Johnny Washday to deliver a DVD with the raw and processed photofiles and to, well, collect my pay. No problem, but they also threw in a bonus: one of Washday's Cigar Box guitars. I about cried. They're beautiful instruments in and of themselves and perhaps he remembered my lusting after them when he first displayed them at a show some four years ago. My kids tried them out (yes, Stella did too) and the next thing you know, a few months later, I had one in my hands. It's proudly displayed in my living room, and I still love telling the story to anybody who asks.

And this one has a lot of stories I can't even begin to know behind it. See, I'm sure you could say this about any guitarist-turned-luthier: they're crafted with love and passion, and meant to be played. There's plenty of stories and articles out there about about Washday's process -- how he came upon making them in the first place ("I read in guitar magazines how poor players had to make their first guitars," he told's Bobby Tanzilo) but one of the things I found most endearing was that he really does endeavor to use found objects and recycled items in them.

On the day he presented me with mine, he pointed out that this guitar's neck was made with wood from his family's dining room table. He'd said aloud what I was realizing at that very moment: "Think of all the family discussions and meals and celebrations that took place on this." There's history in every one of these guitars; I'm just privileged to know the very specific history behind just one of these materials. I can only guess what kind of celebrations happened as the box of cigars that made my guitar's box were punctuated with a nice, fine smoke. What kinds of discussions or arguments, or business deals, or declarations of "It's a girl!" were joyfully shouted as the box was opened? What rites of passage took place around the Jablonowski family table? (How many times was young Johnny's orange juice spilled on it?) What stories are behind every one of these guitars? And what stories are those of us lucky enough to own one going to create with them?

I won't be able to make the Friday opening of his show (at Gallery 911, at 9th and National), but I'll pop in Saturday just to look around and take in the history. I'm going to have to miss a lot of other things Friday night due to other plans -- most notably Aluminum Knot Eye, The Hullmen and Floor Model at Kochanski's. I love Kochanski's anyway. Even when hardcore punks are playing there, it's this wonderful atmosphere that comes with the history of being a polka/concertina bar -- and every band that plays there inherits this celebratory vibe. It's probably the same level of karmic history that's inside Washday's guitars: how many polkas have been danced there? How much wonderful music has been absorbed by that tin ceiling (and truth be told, echoed back with a treble-y harshness!).

Speaking of celebrating, my birthday's Saturday night, so I'm taking recommendations as to which band to spend it with.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Taking even the trash for granted

VMR_0024 by V'ron
dancing with the trash, a photo by V'ron on Flickr.
Yup, it's mid-November which means it's been a full two months since I've blogged. Waaaaaay too much stuff going down in my life to consider taking time out to write a well-reasoned blog post. It's not like I've hit a lot of music since the Bay View Bash anyway...

You could even call my time away from this blog a true sabbatical, since the point of a sabbatical is to chill, not do what you regularly do, and massively study something and produce something out of all that study, and that's exactly what I did. See, part of what took my time was studying for (and passing! Yay Me! #winning) the PMP exam. It's a 4 hour test that I had to study for like I was in College or something. I even took a final day off before the exam, grabbed my laptop and study guides, and headed to Sven's to study in a coffee shop like a real college student. It worked. Took the test and now I've got my life back.

I've also dealt with the two birthdays of my kids and shopping for high schools for the older one. This is a totally new concept for me. I'll brag here -- she's been accepted to the number one school in the city (uh, make that the STATE) and acceptance/denial letters for Number Two (which is a great school as well) go out in December. She's also accepted at a really good straight up city school. So, Stella will have choices now between high schools, and she will ask kids who go to her various choice why they go there, and they will give her answers such as "I like the arts program" or "There's great football here" or "They have this wonderful engineering track" or something of that ilk. Whereas, if somebody asked me "Why did you go to Rich Central?" I will answer very simply, "Because I lived South of 184th Street." The End. We didn't have to apply to get in, and RC was an excellent high school that served the needs of a wide variety of students, from college-bound kids to those who would hit the jobforce upon graduation, from artists and musicians to cheerleaders and jocks. So this brings me to a rant about why we even have to worry about this at all: really, why do we have to worry about getting our kids into a good high school. Shouldn't all high schools be good high schools? Shouldn't every kid have a chance to get into a high school that's going to meet their needs, be they academic or whatever? I didn't have the opportunity to go to Rich Central because I had good test scores or because I "showed potential." I got to go to Rich Central because my family were taxpayers! That was it! We just took it for granted. This whole worrying about if I'm going to get in was not something I was going to have to deal with until college. So maybe this is just getting me used to this idea.

Still, there was election this week, and the candidate who believes that we should invest in education won. I declared my politics in this blog a long time ago, and I spent this past Tuesday night watching CNN (with the kids) like it was (thanks for the analogy, Lisa) the Super Bowl and my team won and won big. And I have to say, my favorite moment was Megyn Kelly's "Is this just math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better?" question to Karl Rove. The look on her face, right before she got up and walked down the hall to talk to the number-crunchers to get the actual facts of the situation was a look of this sudden epiphany, as if to say to herself, "Wait, wait, wait.... I took a class about this in college once.... we had to do things like get the facts and then we had to tell people the facts no matter how much we liked or disliked the facts.... oh, what was the name of that class.... there was a whole department at my school of professors who taught this stuff like it was something that required discipline and practice... oh, right, it was JOURNALISM! That was a fun class! And I'm gonna do it right now! I'm gonna go get those facts!" I kinda felt sorry for her at that point. She looked like, at least for that moment, she really wanted to be taken seriously as a journalist, and to do that she was gonna have to piss off some people and tell people who had taken this election for granted their bad new. Girlfriend, you didn't just report on a school bus full of children being firebombed. That's bad news. That's something you put your pen down, dip your head in respect, and sadly report the horrifying facts. No, Megyn, your boss' guy lost the election, that's just news. Look straight into the camera and report the breaking story.

My kids both had birthdays and their inching toward adulthood is kicking me in the ass. I kind of took their childhood for granted.

Musically, I'm embarassed to say I didn't see much. I shamefully missed the Steve MacKay show at the Jazz Gallery and reports say it was as transcendant as the last time he hit town. Missed Kneel to Neil the other night at Linneman's but heard it was good. How could it not be? You're doing Neil Young all night, you can't really go wrong.

I did make it to Trash Fest, as i had missed it last year and I didn't want that trend to continue. The regulars all gave me the warm fuzzies: The Nervous Virgins were dependably trashy to open, and Rob McCuen closed the night with Cheap Dick (a Cheap Trick "tribute" band) but played a lot of Cheap Trick's more obscure stuff without hitting even so much as a chorus of "I Want You to Want Me." Really, Rob, the rest of the Greatest Hits were trying to ensure Mark Shurilla's legacy across town in a Buddy Holly tribute show, and here you were, violating the Rule of Shurilla: PLAY THE HITS! YA GOTTA PLAY THE HITS! Mark GE and his band of XPosed4Heads reprised their Lest We Forget shows and well, they're practically re-formed. Dr Chow branded themselves as Zombie Apocalpse Now, dressed in camo and singing Zombies hits. Paul Setser and Lemonie Fresh covered ELO trashily, and Peder Hedman reunited the mighty Detroit Jewel for a wonderful set.

I basically take all the above bands/acts/pieces of trash for granted, so it may seem like they weren't their usual stellar selves (and indeed they were) -- but it was more of a matter of I just *assume* they're going to be wonderful. Because of this, the highlights of the night for me were the return of Nevenka Crnjovich (someday I'll learn to spell, and maybe even pronounce, her surname correctly) who wailed her blues with the same intense concentration I remember from that time 20 years ago I saw Blue Room in the back of Quarters. Also returning to the fold after too long an absence -- Tony from the Moths, back with a man in black tribute band called Cash Removed Nightly. A bunch of kids (literally) called Cala Raquette turned in a great set of straight up, earnest rock too early in the night for the size of an audience they deserved, and Lemonie Fresh also spent a set as Melatomica that worked wonderfully. The "Oh, this isn't just a trash fest act, they actually are a REAL band!" award goes to November Criminals, whose set confounded me until I finally realized what they were earnestly doing: Hip-Hop POLKA. And it works -- they grab hold of the "hey, we're all together, let's PARTY" essence of "Roll Out The Barrel" and twist it up into an all-out Hip-House bash, complete with samples, rapping, cordless mics, and accordion. They're definitely on my must-see-this-again list. Here's photographic evidence of the entire night.

A couple of weeks later, I finally made it to the Bay View Pumpking Pavillion (after years of saying, I really have to get out there) and the band that night was the Dick Satan Trio, whose surf ("We're not a surf band, we're an instrumental lounge act," Mr. Satan himself insists, whatever...) stylings fit the fun of the season. Really creepyass makeup completed the picture. Another band I'm starting to take for granted.

So here we are, a week away from Thanksgiving, and here I am taking way too much for granted. I think the cure for that might be to go out and see some more bands.....

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Bottom Line at the Bash

Beer. Spill. Excellent. by V'ron
Beer. Spill. Excellent., a photo by V'ron on Flickr.
I'm really sad about the fact that I didn't make it to Global Union. I had a bazillion errands to do on Saturday, and I didn't get over to the Bay View area until 5 ish, which meant I missed pretty much everybody at Global Union. You would hope, however, that the organizers of the Bash as well as Global Union would ring each other up and say, "Hey, especially since Global Union is only running one day, why don't we try to NOT have our festivals on the SAME DARN DAY EVERY YEAR?!?!" Ya think? So, it was the Bay View Bash for our family. We missed two sets of the Mike Benign Compulsion, which I've been  told were good, but I do have to ask, hmmmmm, how do they score two full sets? Was there a shortage of original bands this year?

We arrived to see the first year out for the whole idea of trying to approach a Near Zero Waste festival. Not bad for the first year out, not bad. Vendors were provided with access to compostable, recyclable containers with which to serve good food, and there were plenty of trash receptacles that were clearly labeled for glass, plastic, compostable, or (boo, hiss) landfill for anything else. As I dumped my trash in, I saw the inevitable other crap that people who didn't bother (or care) about the trash seperation had thrown in. That was predictable, so for this first time out, bottom line, let's give 'em a 2 or 3 Sigma for this particular run. I'll be happy to hear the final evaluation on this effort.

As for music:
I'm going to have to go see buzz band Group of the Altos on a night when I actually paid to see them, to force me to stick around for a full set and get the big picture because I suspect they're the kind of band that needs you to get the big picture. While I'm not a huge fan of Arcade Fire (which despite all efforts to distance themselves from, that's who they reminded me of. See also: The Polyphonic Spree), that's the vibe I got from them when I approached the Rush-Mor stage.
I really, really, really wanted to like Group of the Altos. I really did. No, really. I normally enjoy a good, full sound, a bit of pretentiousness thrown in (If I didn't like a smattering of pretentiousness, I should just throw away all my prog albums NOW), experimenting with different time signatures and arrangements, and a nice dollop of drama. But it seemed a bit, oh, not pretentious, but ...... precious. Yes, I've used that word before -- when I saw Jaems and the Vedic Eden at Frank's Power Plant last winter. But I felt exactly the same way as I did that wintry night: oh, how I wanted to like, no, love, this band: the horns, the melancholy arrangements, the hipster forced-earnestness! But there was too much distracting me from falling in love. At least all Jaems Murphy (from the aforementioned Vedic Eden) has to do is lose the makeup and goat horns and drop the Leonard Cohen cover. These guys are going to need to develop some stage presence: for a band that's been together as long as they have, toured as much as they have, and been the focus of as much buzz as they have, they still look extremely uncomfortable onstage and between songs they look downright confused. And for pete's sake, guys, when you have that many people onstage it's more crucial than ever that you tune your instruments -- at least to each other! And if you're going to be precious, at least take a tip from ol' Jaems and develop some charisma (Jaems has plenty to spare.). But I have to give them another chance. Maybe this was just an off day for them. Maybe the sound mix wasn't right (and I'm not one to ever blame anything on the sound man). Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for them. Because, bottom line, if there's one thing I've learned about bands like this is I have to be in the right mood for them. I think I want to see them again, on a double bill with Jaems or somebody like that, at say, Frank's Power Plant, where I can be surrounded in this giant band and take a bath in layers of sound, or at Club Garibaldi, one of the few stages in town that could hold them.

See, I was with Sammy (Stella and her friend are at that age where they don't have to -- and don't want to -- hang with me an entire festival) and Sammy enjoys some punk and metal and just plain ol rock, and that's where the true buzz band of the day -- Black Actress -- roared in and saved us. These guys reeled me (and the boy!) in and I couldn't leave until they were done. OK, so they already had a leg up with me because they're working a couple of my favorite subgenres of rock, and I desperately needed their tasty beverage of a set to wash the previous band down. But it wasn't just the energetic lead singer who cavorted and literally bent over backwards to entertain us, it wasn't just the guitarist who whipped off stinging leads as easily as he could light a cigarette, it wasn't just the locked in rhythm section who kept them tight and in line. It was their name. It was the fact that they spotted photogs and subsequently struck poses, both mocking and working with us. It was the genuine fun and joy they had, simply ROCKING THE FUCK OUT. They didn't mind at all that a moshing 2-year-old in the audience threatened to steal the show -- heck, they brought said kid up on stage and rocked right with him, prompting (spotted in the crowd) WMSE's Buzz to mutter, "I wish I was that kid right now." Heck, Buzz, we all did. They went on stage, definatly spilling their beer and their water on themselves (some actually made it to their mouths), and did.not.let.up. There was hardly any stage banter between songs because there was barely any between-song-time! As much as Sammy wanted to get back to the perennial Dead Man's Carnival stage (who, after all, did tricks with FIRE, for cryin' out loud), I made him wait the 45 seconds to write my name on Black Acrtress' mailing list. Those guys wanted to rock and and they did it on their own terms, as opposed to the cover bands on the other end of the festival (you had a GnR band which I heard was out of tune a lot, and a Kiss tribute band which I heard was competent). But as much as I enjoy a good tribute band now and again, I'll always take original rock, because the kickass factor is always higher when coming from one's own soul. And that's the bottom line on this band: Black Actress Kicks Ass.

Well, of course we spent a lot of time at Dead Man's Carnival's stage. They've become a perennial feature of the Bay View Bash, as comfortable and welcome as Snopek at Locust Street. And as usual, they did not disappoint. This year's freak show included Titano, a strongman who can nail icepicks into his nose, and hammer a nail through a frying pan with his bare hands (oh, and then fold up that pan afterwards). Not to be outdone, Gypsy Geoff comes up on stage and juggles with machetes and firesticks, and then gets the audience to hold a makeshift tightrope while he walks across it. Sir Pinkerton is your master of ceremonies, and like a good oldschool (and I mean oldschool) MC, holds the family-friendly vaudeville together. They have full-blown shows throughout the year where I'm sure I wouldn't necessarily take the kids, but they really faithfully recreate what they call the great American Show tradition, with singing, a bit of mime, and a more-than-capable house band that is clearly having as much fun with this as we the audience are. That's the bottom line right there: every song, every act, every day is a carnival for them and that's why I love them.

Drunk Drivers, a band from Eau Claire, wrapped up the Rush Mor stage. I expected, with a name like that, for them to be in more of the Black Acress vein, but they were fun. Bottom line: they bill themselves as a party band and that they were -- the farfisa sounding organ saw to that. But at this point in the evening, the family was all fested out, and bottom line, the kids wanted to get home in time for Svengoolie.

Friday, September 14, 2012

I need to get out more

What is up with me? Am I just not getting out? Or am I finally admitting that, between sneezes I'm coming down with something? This can't be my excuse for not writing; naw, let's just chalk that up to work, kids, back to school, and just not getting out.

First off, there's the last couple of Chill On the Hills, the place I can drag the kids and watch bands and know they're having a good time running around. I had a good time at the second to last one, too. It was the annual (I forogot the actual term Chill organizers used, but everybody else called it) Chick Night. Headliners were the now-taken-for-granted Barrettes, who are still really really good. They retain a healthy dose of pissed off (but not quite riotgrrl, that would be old and tired) feminism with just plain good rawk. They've brought in a full-blown bass player but retained the melodica, so they have this interesting bent on some of their songs, but not necessarily having it there for the sake of it (which sometimes the presence of the cellist implied.) Don't get me wrong, I loved the cellist, but the bass player gives the Barrettes that final push over the top that makes them a rock band. And who could resist dancing along with Joey's take on Prince's Kiss, complete with her own wonderful shrieking falsetto?

The opener that night was a true grrlpunk outfit from Madison called Venus In Furs, who blew me away with strong voices backed by a kickass rhythm section. I was a bit wary given the name: was this going to be some VU wannabe outfit? Not to worry, I think they just grabbed the name because it sounded cool, and didn't realize the reference wouldn't be lost on their target market. I don't know how often they'll make the trip across I-94, but I'll try to catch them when they do. The kids even enjoyed them.

So a couple of weeks later, and I'm at the Circle A to catch the latest entry in the Pat O'Neill calvadade of bands (I miss The Grand Disaster) this one called Lack of Reason and I like them. Andy Stilin (of Resist Her Transistor.... where are they?!?!) on the drums, and Marky Lee (no, I'm going to stop spelling it Mark E. Lee, because nobody pronounces it that way anyway) is on the bass. As such, they pick up a few old Chop Top Toronados songs, throw in some psychedelia, and thrash about in time. Quite filling for the Circle A on a Friday night that I just decided, out of the clear blue sky, to venture out in, despite the fact that I had car repairs hanging over my head and thus a fairly empty walled. Afterwards, I learned they were playing a week later at Center Street Daze and I gasped, "You mean I could've seen you for FREE?" and we all laughed. Kind of. Center Street Daze, as I've said before, has pretty much taken Locust Street's place as the alt-artist festival for the East Side. Locust Street is huge and steeped in tradition, and Center Street is building their own.

Peder's new Rub
Originally uploaded by V'ron.

And yet, I didn't even make it for the annual Art Cart race at Center Street a week later. There's football for Sammy, and grocery shopping to be done and errands to complete, and I didn't even get there in time to see much more of Lack of Reason's last couple of songs anyway. And I'm really sorry I missed the wonderful Hullmen at the Quarters stage. And I've begun to take Floor Model (who I also missed) for granted. But the fact was, I spent pretty much all my time at the Center Street festival at the Impala stage, where the next band I encountered was a new Peder Hedman outfit called Bicentennial Rub. Hedman told me beforehand that this wasn't a band where he concentrated a lot on lyrical content, and he was right. He'd found some wonderful young turk who wailed away on vocals like a hardcore thrashing punk and the very very loud band that Hedman led kept right up with him. Very obnoxiously loud, but tight and thrashy, and by that I mean heavy thrashy. Stopped and started beats, good (if not dissonant) melodic structure and despite the punk appearance and attitude, sounding very well rehearsed. Fun stuff. Spotted in the crowd coming out of the woodwork: Plasticlanders/VootWarningsites/LestWeForgetters John Frankovic (and fam), Victor Demechi (and fam, and will I everget his name spelled right?) Tommy Tiedjens, Dan Mullen, Lars Kvan, Julie Brandenburg, and a pile of other aging punkers I usually only see at places like Center and Locust street when one of the "family" is playing.

Before catching the next act, Sammy and I wandered down the street where the dunk tank was happening and he insisted on trying, several time, to sink the terry robed victim in teh dunk tank. It had to have been the fifth try for Sammy, but he finally sunk the sonafabitch, who, for this fifth try, was wearing a Paul Ryan mask. We both snicked about it.

The next act at the Impala stage turned out to be my favorite find in a while, Hearts of Stone. I was told they'd be a metal band. First couple of songs kind of let me down to the point where I decided this was as good a time as any to start waiting in line for a flush toilet. In fact the general consensus was that they started out weak, but then all of a sudden we all looked at each other and voila, they were kicking ass and taking names. I don't want to say they were emo, because that would imply a sort of Death Cab for Bon Iver lameness, but the emo came through via punchy melodies, a lead singer who would sometimes use an old pa/CB mike to filter his voice through, and a long haired drummer who would not quit. By the end of the set they'd won me, and a very enthusiastic crowd over.

the ol' crappy mic trick
Originally uploaded by V'ron.

Dr Chow up next. Dr Chow was Dr Chow. The fan base is there, Frank never disappoints as lead singer, the songs are all solid psychedlic garage blues, and it's almost a monthly (if not biweekly) party amongst us aging punkabilly hipsters. True to tradition, the rain rolled in toward the end of the set, but at least it was only a gentle sprinkle allowing the band to finish the set, pack up the electronics and put them safely out of the water's reach before any damage could be done.

I really need to get out more. The Danglers' John Sparrow tweeted me that next week he'll be playing with Steve Mackay at the Jazz Gallery and that it's a not-to-be-missed event. Agreed. Last time I saw Mackay blow through town it was downright magical, and the Danglers were up to the task of actually following him. I suspect they traded business cards and said "We'll have to play together sometime...." and, well, that "sometime" is next week. I'll have to figure out how to get out for this on a school night.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Go looking for beauty

Iron Jawed Angels by V'ron
Iron Jawed Angels, a photo by V'ron on Flickr.
I haven't written a lot lately. It's been a long, hot, busy summer. This past week started off with great sadness; the Sikh Temple is not too far from my house and the horror that some people in this world face daily has now moved to my quiet little part of the world. My favorite bike route goes past the temple, and just to clear my head, I had to go for a ride. I ended up doing the Hank Aaron Trail, and on my way out, I rode past this lovely little lot-sized neighborhood garden, where clearly an "art for kids" thing was set up, and the results of that were a bunch of wool tiger eyes scattered across a makeshift display rack made of sticks held together with coarse twine. It was just the smattering of beauty I needed. When I got home, I felt so refreshed that I ended up posting the pic as my status on FB, saying, "In ugly times, go looking for beauty."

So, I've finally been getting out to see music. This summer has been so dang hot, I haven't been nearly as active as I'd like to be, both physically or musically. Only recently have I dragged my overheated ass out the door to go see a band, but when I did, I was always glad. Lots of time it was at Chill on the Hill. So, here's a quick roundup:

Seems like it was ages ago when the Squeezettes played wonderful --- I don't want to say polka, because it's that and more -- music. Let's call it a wedding band, in the joyful sense of the word. Of course they have accordions, but they play music that you can dance to, to sway to, to party to. That's what they really are all about -- a lovely band that starts out polka, but just ends up fun. Sarah Kozar's clear, expressive voice just sounds like she's constantly happy and wants you to be too, without getting al lsyrupy about it. Everytime I see them I feel like I'm at one of those wonderful Polish weddings where toddler kids dance with middle aged folk, and 80 year old couples dance everybody under the table ( and drink them there, too) -- old ladies who usually have fallen but can't get up but suddenly can move their feet quickly to that step step jump that the Poles have turned into an art form.

I'd waited all summer to see the Dick Satan Trio wow the crowd at Chill. They're trying to shed a "surf band" label, but, uh, guys, you're a surf band, and in my book, that means you rule. There's nothing wrong with that label. Surf bands are not always about surf -- they incorporate elements of jazz, arabian, native, flamenco, gawd, you could pretty much do anything as a surf tune and it will sound dangerously great. Even the hokiest of songs can be turned into a swingin tome in a good surf band's hands. After they were done, the current kings of Milwaukee Surf, The Exogtics, played a wonderful set that pretty much explained why they've been invited to play surf festivals on the west coast.

I'm Not A Nerd
Originally uploaded by V'ron
Between Chills, Brian and I actually got ourselves out of the house to try to hit the Brady Street festival to see, among other bands, buzz band Herman Astro. We were already bummed we'd missed Luvahl (playing around noonish) and Mucca Pazza (who played around 630ish). And for the first time in the 20 some odd years we've been together, we did not find a parking place despite the fact that we drove around the East Side for at least 45 minutes. Well, it was 45 minutes when we started to actually note the time. So, we did not see buzz band Herman Astro. Heard they were good. Instead, we said, the hell with it, and drove over the bridge and grabbed a bite to eat at the Palimino, catching up with our friend Liesl and eating excellent vegan food. (Well, Brian had a good old school chicken sandwich, free of hate.)

So a couple of days later at Chill, another buzz band, I'm Not A Pilot. They are artsy chaps who, like other bands I generally like, I would rather see in a dark, mysterious club. The emocore proggieness of it doesn't lend itself to an outdoor festival-y atmosphere, but there was still something about the soundtrack-to-a-coming-of-age-movie-set-on-an-ivy-league-campus feel about them that I liked. Nevertheless, by the second set (and the sun setting helped), they reeled me in with some cool arrangements between their strings (an electric cello), keyboards, bass and very sublime drums. Intgeresting (if not predictable) choice of covers, from Arcade Fire to Radiohead to the Pixies, but they put their own stamp on each of the songs and made it work while I smiled in recognition.

Rare Franecki Sighting
Originally uploaded by V'ron.
The following weekend, I also dragged my butt out to not only see Brian play with Dr Chow at the "Festival of Tim" at O'Keefe's House of Hamburg, but a lineup of two of my favorite bands. If you read this blog at all, you kow I'm a fan of Floor Model so there's nothing else more to say. Same with Dr Chow -- and I felt that way about them even before Brian started playing with them. Now Fly is back, so with Ron Turner and Brian, there's the triple guitar threat to go see. And of course, there's my favorite new garage combo, the Northside Creeps. Because of the rain, the whole "Festival of Tim" was pushed back at least an hour, and that was a good thing for the Creeps, because Bass Player Ted Jorin had hopped off a plane at the airport across the street, frantically dashing over to the bar, asking Brian where they're at in the festivities, and for a split second believed Brian's BS when he told him "Oh, you're on right now." No, they had time to chill and they rocked, as usual with tension filled garagey songs. Not bad, considering they had to follow a very rare appearance from The Vocokesh, Rick Franecki's "other" band. I don't think a lot of people in the audience realized just how rare and how hard it is to get Franecki, the Brian Wilson of Waukesha County, out of the basement. When you put him in front of just a drummer and a rock solid bass player, his guitar playing is really showcased, and they blew away the crowd. As I write this, my kid is asking me how to spell "heaviest." Coincidence? I think not.

Then Sunday happened, and I needed some beauty in my life. Chill to the rescue. It was "Kids and Family Night" this past Tuesday, and so the bands were comprised of, well, kids. Nothing makes me happier than watching kids make music. The first, Iron Jawed Angels. were fronted by Killian and Sylvia Peterson, the plucky daughters of my friend Melanie Beres, founder and executive director of the Milwaukee Rock Theater. You can see the resemblance (besides the fact that Killian is a dead ringer for Melanie) in the way she carries her self on stage: she's very theatrical and chooses songs to do that emphasize this. The thing that gave away her age? Write some songs of your own, Killian! I'm sure you have it in you, and since they'll come from YOUR heart, you'll capture your audience's. She has the voice, she had the stage moxie, now let's hear her story.

Originally uploaded by V'ron.
Next up, the Bottom Line, a pack of well-trained jazz funk kids who covered the Herbie Hancock and other recent jazz/funk standards with aplomb. Two of them are also plucked from the Aquanauts, the rockers that blew everybody away at last year's Kids' Night. THis year, they stuck with instrumental jazz, and were flat out amazing as each of them took their 12 bar (and sometimes longer) solos. The thing that gave away their age? Maybe they needed a little more flash, especially if you're playing funk. That pretty much took their mark on the stage and stayed there. But that will come with experience. They have the rock solid chops and the general fundamentals there. I wouldn't be at all surprised if, at a minimum, they ended up being the house band at Bucks games or something like that. And more.

Finally, Orpheus, who was introduced as a reggae act by an organizer who needs to be told what the difference between reggae and ska is, because Orpheus is definitely a ska band. And they turned out to be my favorite of the night, because except for the fact that they just look young, that was it in terms of giving away their age. First, these are kids who get ska -- a subgenre that predates them by at least 20 years. They're loose, and crazy and fun. Their leader plays a ukelele or mandolin, for chrissakes. their trumpet player skanks across the stage ("Kids!" the leader shouted, "Our trumpet player is going to teach you to skank! You just wave your arems and your legs and look like you're crazy!") they have crazy stage banter down, they are all dripping with the charisma of the class clown who never gets in trouble because he's charmed the teacher, too. The only thing keeping them from packing the bars is their age and some drinking/curfew laws. All three bands made me happy and hopeful for the world -- if we have kids who can make this variety of music, there's still hope, because something when you go looking for beauty, you have to be prepared to hear it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Summer starts in full circle

The Extra Crispy Brass Band by V'ron
The Extra Crispy Brass Band
a photo by V'ron on Flickr.
Lots of music since I last posted here. Chill on the Hill started off the summer last Tuesday with DeLaBuena, a great Latin band that, no matter where they play, evoke some steamy, sweaty joint in Havana in the pre-Castro days, except with even more percussion. I''ve raved about them before - they've really gotten me to go beyond appreciating salsa to outright loving it. Maybe because they've just so intense. Anyway, it was before the big heat wave came in, so I didn't really call it summer until the weekend.

That weekend started off with, as us cheeseheads know, a blistering hot Friday and I'm proud to say we never hit the air conditioner's "on" switch. Not even after an hour and a half midday at Beulah Brinton, watching Sammy practice with his team (they settled on "Angry Birds" as their name) in the sun. Not even after a two hour bike ride, one hour of which was spent going uphill and against the wind. Not even after attending the high school graduation party for Madison-bound Francis Klein, a kid I've known since visiting him and his mom in the hospital hours after he was born. Not even after the Locust Street festiva where, contrary to my usual behavior, I did not get a chance to see a lot of new bands. It was stinkin' hot out and after all that, I went ahead and declared it summer.

And like the changing of the seasons, there are things you can count on like clockwork, case in point: Sigmund Snopek at the Klinger's East stage, moving from songs about pizza and baseball to I Am The Walrus. It's comforting to see him there, every year, being clever on the keyboards. That whole stage is pretty much a baseline for confirming that all is well and good with the world. Next band up was the Extra Crispy Brass Band, a pile of Riverwesterners culled from a variety of groups I've seen around (including the nu-Caberet of Eat the Mystery, a Morphine/Mark Sandman tribute band, and others) that gave that part of Locust Street a joyful, Nawlins flair. They were the kind of band you'd want to march down the street at your funeral. The were followed by perennail Locust Street bluesman Matt Hendricks, who wailed it out as usual, accompanied by these two girls who spent the festival roaming around and dancing with hula hoops. Brother Louie wrapped up the stage's day, and we could hear him in the distance as we headed to the Circle A, wondering, "What the hell song was that" more than a few times before we recognized Peter Gabriel, Creedence Clearwater, the Ramones, and anything else Brother Louie's kitchen sinkful of set lists coughs up.

Magnetic Minds
Originally uploaded by V'ron.
This sounds like we planted ourselves in front of Klinger's all afternoon, which we did not. (BTW, they've got their chicken wing recipe back on track. They were perfect with a crunchy, flavorful crust and cooked perfectly, not too greasy, not at all dry, a huge improvement from last year's misstep.). We floated over to the Riverwest Public House's stage, to catch the buzz band of the day, Magnetic Minds, a two piece (bass and drums) that brought to mind Helmet, what with the syncopated, tight rhythms never letting up on intensity. They held me for about fifteen minutes where I was mesmerized, and then I moved on because it just didn't let up. That's the kind of thing I like in an indoor club at night; it seemed out of place at a warmed over hippie festival. Nevertheless, they were damn good and lived up to their buzz. We also popped into Linnemans to see a young pop band call Faux Fir, who seem to be part of a wave of young bands i'm seeing that have clearly listened to a lot of the Replacements and other 80s pop punk bands with an intelligently wasted bent. It was also a good afternoon for cover bands: as we walked west I told Sammy: " We're going to go see one of the best drummers in town cover one of the greatest drummers ever," (and he replied, "Buddy Rich?"). The nice thing about Substitute is that they dig deep into the Who's catalog, and they know it all so well that they can respond to a song request that wasn't on the set list (in this case, "Bargain") without skipping a beat. Across the street from them Lovanova put in a great, instrumental proggy set of (and I know this is a contradiction in terms) hard-driving loungy rock.

Originally uploaded by V'ron.
It's getting to be a family tradition, though, to wander off Locust Street toward the end of the day to catch a Floor Model set, and this year was no exception. Last year and this year, the place to see them has been the Circle A, and welcomed a fresh new band of 15 year old punks to play a quick and impressive round of songs between Floor Model's set. Lots of things came full circle in the Beer Patio on Chambers street. Apparently the kids of CAW (letters stand for something rude) used to hang out at the old Riverwest Floor Model house party that off-street party was in the backyard of drummer Dave Somerscales' old place. I *do* remember that my kids weren't the only younguns there, and now, here are these teenagers, with haircolors that don't occur in nature, a lead singer who seems to be double jointed in every joint rocking out the Circle A. Good, tight, loud and obnoxious speedpunk. I get the warm fuzzies just remembering this. Offstage, nice guys too -- and there's a lot to be said for having that much class already. Sammy, not one to miss an opportunity, again asked Somescales if he could have some time on the kit, and this proud mama spent that between set time snapping pictures of her budding Buddy Rich, while people who don't know me asked me incredulously, "Is that your kid?" OK, he's not ready to sit in with a band yet, but he did impress a few folks with his enthusiasm and beginner's chops.

Floor Model, like Snopek, was comfortably excellent, as I've come to depend on them, especially after an election week like us 'Sconnies had. As I'd tweeted, I needed some snotty left-wing punk and, well, thank God for Floor Model. Every time, they're like this salve I can put on my political wounds -- not all their songs are directly political, but they explore the cultural reasons we're in the jam we're in and hearing them and their fans reminds me I'm not alone.

The Carpetbaggers
Originally uploaded by V'ron.
So after I caught up on sleep from a full weekend, we jumped on our bikes and hit Chill on the Hill last night. It was apparently Country night, but the nice thing about the COTH bookers (besides the fact that they keep it varied, and try to keep a hyper-local Bay View connection) is that when they book the Country, they don't book godawful nu-country crap. I missed the God's Outlaw boys, but plunked down my bike and blanket in time for a lovely, almost toned-down-to-folk set from a trio called the Carpetbaggers. Enjoyed them immensely -- had a good mix of covering the standards (of course they covered Johnny Cash) and some originals. (Or maybe they were covers -- I'm not as well-versed in the country songbook as, say, Lars Kvam or Jonny Z.) They were followed by Honkytonkitis, another local outfit that added a violin and electric guitar, and seemed a bit more polished. However, they hooked me in with unlikely country covers. Yeah, of course they did the Rolling Stones "Dead Flowers", but later in the set they took on "19th Nervous Breakdown" and as Sammy, Stella and I rode into the setting sun, it was another case of "What the hell song was that" when it hit me: Ace of Spades! A country band is covering Lemmy! Full circle, people, this is full circle.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Jorin Fest,'12

I'm squishing your head by V'ron
I'm squishing your head, a photo by V'ron on Flickr.
So I guess the XPosed4Heads had a minor hit back in the 80s, back when I was still living in Champaign, IL, called "Nice Guy." Missed 'em at Lest We Forget, and this is what I missed: Neu Wave. The 4Heads are/were a bunch of guys who, like me, probably woke up that Sunday morning in October 1978 asking themselves, "WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT LAST NIGHT!" when they saw Devo on SNL. I remember going to school and going to band class the next Monday morning. Everybody was talking about it, but mostly like it was some sort of musical blasphemy: How dare they do that to a Rolling Stones classic!. I whispered to a sympathetic trumpet player who sat near me, almost apologetically, "I kind of liked them" to the hushed reply, "My big sister has their album!" In fact, almost everybody in my generation who I still talk to remembers that SNL episode and has their the first time I saw Devo on SNL in '78 story, like it was our Kennedy Assassination or something. I think the reason it stuck with us as teenagers was that it was the first time we'd encountered (and we didn't have this post-wave term for it at the time) deconstruction of pop music. And for many of us it woke us up: this was the moment when we realized there was more to the evolution of music besides the spirialing out-of-control bomabaticness of late Zeppelin or proggy ELP.

I bring this up because walking into the Down and Over (the South Side's answer to the Up And Under, finally opening after the usual neighborhood drama over potential noise) I was instantly transported back to the Band Room at Rich Central High School, finding that one other person who got it and having my entire musical world turned around while the members of XPosed4Heads started in with a willfully retarded drum/bass beat, purposefully mechanical/electronic-sounding keyboards and lead vocal snarling at us in a snotty but pridefully geeky voice: "I am a nice guy!" New Wave! This was it! This was the sound that turned my whole musical head around. It didn't matter that this wasn't the band for me at the time (that was indeed Devo, and when I got to college there were plenty of local equivalents in Champaign-Urbana stretching out their chops). This was the sound. It screamed early New Wave (before New Wave got boring and predictable by, say, 85). That's why I guess "Nice Guy" was a minor, WMSE (I can't imagine any other station in Milwaukee would even touch it) hit. Heard touches of Gang of Four in there, and these definitely are guys who probably remember the first time somebody played The Residents for them, too.

They were the second band of a night I'm calling "JorinFest" (in the same tone you hear the VO for those Red Lobster "LobsterFest" commercials). Bob Jorin was the representative for the 4Heads (when I have more time, I'll relate a story he told me later about his pet bird Stanley that confirmed that everything I just wrote above is spot on) and the opening band is my favorite new band these days, The Northside Creeps. with Ted and Tim Jorin (I get all those brothers mixed up, there's a Tyler and a Tom in that family there and if they don't watch out, they're going to get compared the Duggars with the J names) on bass/guitar, and Kip Satan from the Dick Satan Trio (that's not really a trio) on drums. They're just a really good, tense, energetic, dangerous garage band. The songs are all hookier than hell, they're tight, and Tim's Buddy Holly glasses give them that nerdy-Weezer vibe that suggests some all-knowing detachment to balance it all out (and provide me with all sorts of opportunities for parenthetical details.)

Dick Satan ended the night, and as usual, they were dangerous surf, as the name implies. They get slicker each time I see them: they're playing around with messed up melodic modes, modulations, but that's making them sound prog, and they're not. They're solid instrumental surf and they have that element of danger that sometimes goes missing from a lot of surf bands. There's still a few spots they have to polish up, but they're aiming high, and when you do that, you're going to trip a bit. That's the nature of dangerous surf anyway, so I'll take it anyway rather than overly-polished perfection. Overall, a good way to come down from Lest We Forget, and remember that while there is much to celebrate about the historic music scene here, there's much to cheer about the present, too.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

No Moment of Silence

too many names by V'ron
too many names, a photo by V'ron on Flickr.

OK, so now I need to talk about the big show last Saturday night. While it was triggered by the remembrance of absent friends, this seemed more of a homecoming, a reunion, what have you. I felt like I was at a cool high school reunion, at a high school I didn't go to. Most of the bands at Lest We Forget were just finishing up their run when I bounced into town in the late 80s -- although a handful of them were still playing gigs into the early 90s and releasing music. But still, this was a crowd that went before my time.

The remarkable thing about it all, from this outsider's vantage point, though, was how fresh it all sounded. Not a bit of it screamed "80s!" at me. The variety and diversity of these scene reinforced my longstanding view that for whatever reason, Milwaukee has always been, and continues to be, criminally overlooked when it comes to a vibrant arts/music scene. Up on that stage (and I arrived too late to catch Liv Mueller, the Blackholes and the Xposed4Heads, but I'm familiar with all of them anyway and they are all outstanding) I saw everything ranging from Americana, to good New Wave (as opposed to a lot of dreck that cluttered up the airwaves) to straight up punk, to heavy metal, to shoegazing, to experiemntal, to glam. As insular as this scene may or may not have been (lots of bands shared personnel), somehow it wasn't a stew of fifteen bands that all sounded the same, more or less.

Maybe that's why Milwaukee is overlooked. There isn't a definitive "Milwaukee Sound" that one can easily shoehorn into a genre one either likes or doesn't. When you say "Milwaukee" to somebody, there isn't a specific band or sound that jumps in your head the way, "the Memphis Sound" or "Seattle Grunge" or "Minneapolis punk/new wave" does. We don't all sound like the Violent Femmes, people. In fact, nobody sounds like the Violent Femmes except for the Violent Femmes, and nobody sounds like The XCleavers except for the XCleavers and nobody sounds like Die Kreuzen except for Die Kreuzen... and, you get the idea. Even the bands themselves couldn't be easily categorized. Take Die Kreuzen for example. Every album was different. You got the feeling that these were musicians who really loved everything, and incorporated elements of that "everything" into their music. Obviously, so did a lot of bands on the bill Saturday night. So that's why I'm not going to go through a blow-by-blow recap of every band that played, like I normally do in this space. It would be like critiquing the house band at a wedding (which, admittedly, I have been known to do). Let's face it, there was so much love and friendship in that room that Dan Kubinski could have opened up the dictionary and read from it for 40 minutes and that would have brought down the house.

But really, folks, from this (relatively) recent transplant's point of view, Milwaukee, you had (still have) a wonderful, diverse, brilliant music scene here. Nothing I heard Saturday sounded dated, all of the bands were tight and well-rehearsed, and played it as well as any full-time band working the circuit today. If I didn't already know that the majority of the bands reunited and played just this one show (and actually, from what I'm hearing, this was a lovely spark that re-lit the fire for a lot -- we'll be seeing more sets from a lot of these guys), I would have never guessed. Maybe you might have heard a sour note, or a missed beat or two, but I don't know these songs well enough to have been able to pick it out, and the level of professionalism was such that I don't think anybody did. So here's my set of photos.

And that's another point that needed to be made: I'm not the only one who noticed how smoothly things went. That's a tribute to the professionalism (read: grown-up-ness!) of all involved. Sets started on time and nobody went over. Nobody whined about whose amp or whose drum kit was being used. Musicians were set, plugged in, tuned up and ready to go and stayed out of each others' way during changeover. Only a couple of biffs in terms of sound, which were deftly handled by the seasoned pros behind the boards, and those on stage didn't so much as flinch. They just hit another mic until theirs was patched in and played through a mix that was amazing, given the high ceilings and hard walls that the Turner Hall ballroom would normally render shrieking. Lighting was beautifully done and appropriate to each band, and the video montages were funny, thrilling, and bittersweet.

The rock and roll lifestyle does take its toll, though. I'm reconnecting with a lot of other folks from other facets of my life, and while we've buried a few people here and there, for that seemingly obvious reason, it's not like the giant list of people we all somberly looked at on that huge video screen here in the musical underbelly of Milwaukee. Damn, that list was long. And damn, that list included a lot of talent. And really, a significant portion of those people did NOT shake this mortal coil by slowly killing themselves with liquor or drugs: some of the more recent passings were people who generally took good care of themselves and loved life and lived it with gusto. So while the dancing liver bopped around the stage and audience, and while the named scrolled, all I could do was be glad that these people lived and shared their vision with us and inspired us to keep making music and keep living life because you never know when you're number's going to come up anyway. As Doctori Sadisco proclaimed Saturday in his poem that really summed things up: "No moment of silence! NO MOMENT OF SILENCE!"

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Making noise before the big reunion

A week before the Lest We Forget show reminded many of us that if you're going to pick up the rock and see all the old bands crawl out, one night isn't going to contain it all. There's going to be a lot of oldskool MKE rock going on before and after this Saturday, and last Saturday was just the beginning.

Well, are you really going to take me reviewing an F/i show seriously? Especially because I know all the backstage details of them getting this together? It's always weird going to see these guys. They're one of those bands that a handful of people in Milwaukee will go see, but if they go anywhere else (like, uh, Europe) the fans come out of the woodwork as though Dave Brock and Nik Turner were getting back together in Hawkwind with Lemmy thrown in for good measure. And a night with F/i that was also a night with Boy Dirt Car (one of those once-in-a-decade occurrences) would have ensured a packed house anywhere else but Milwaukee.

And it didn't help that it seemed Saturday night was a feast of good bands that crawled out of the woodwork for a rare show. Down on the southside, the Xposed 4 Heads and the Dummy Club were at O'Keefe's House of Hamburg warming up for the Lest We Forget show this Saturday. Word was they were also excellent, despite their equally low-attended house. Both houses shared a similar group of tenants, most of whom would have gone to Quarters or the Circle A to see the Riverwest Aces that night as well. Pretty much everybody in the bands themselves would have been at one of these shows had they not been playing themselves that night. Brian lamented: "And we're up against Marilyn Manson at the Rave!" Right, hon. Your whole crowd is going to blow this off for Manson. OK, yeah, right.

Nevertheless, the show at Shank Hall rocked, in a noisy way. Eric Lunde started off the night. Both he and the following band, Boy Dirt Car, are known more for their noise, and actually, it seemed more like a poetry slam between the two of them, accompanied by musical and noise instruments. I'm not the biggest fan of industrial/noise, but I'm good for a 30-40 minute set, especially from the two aforementioned nationally-known makers of it. Boy Dirt Car works for me because there's still a lot of musicality to it: like the soundtrack to some futuristic, nihilistic dystopian cult movie with an unreliable narrator. Plus, frankly, they're visually striking in that same nihilistic way, and they're downright tribal in their rhythms.

That contrasts directly with the superheavyweight melodies of F/i, who are verbally silent 99% of the time. And last Saturday was no exception. The only human voice coming out of the F/i stage was that of newest member Cary Grace, who wailed some kind of chant about half way through the set while the band shifted back and forth from 4/4 time to a demented, trancelike waltz. Too bad it was obvious to your intrepred reporter here that nobody on the F/i stage could hear each other for crap. And that's a problem when you're fundamentally an instrumental trance/krautrock/jam/spacerock band. All those elements play off each other, which is why, while it was a good set, and they were appreciated by the room, I'm still waiting for this all-star lineup to click. When I hear them rehearse (they've jammed in our basement a couple of years back) they have all the pieces they need.

And it's an all-star lineup. Rick Franecki, the Brian Wilson of the bunch, is there. Rockhaus proprietor Rusty Olson is on the bass. Utility infielder Jay Tiller has been the designated hitter on the drums for a few years now, and Saturday used a set that seemed to glow underneath his sticks. Brian's on the other guitar, and Grant Richter makes noises with electronics. The aforementioned Cary Grace, looking like Stevie Nicks dyed her hair black and jumped on a bus going to some Lord of the Rings convention that crashed into Rammstein's U-Haul, glued it all together and it was clear that if nobody else could hear each other, she somehow could and kept a nice improv going above whatever chords the rest of the band could see each other changing to.

So afterwards we stood outside the door, enjoying the fresh air (while others smoked) and who should come strolling up but Jeff Hamilton and Dave Benton with backstage tour passes still stuck to their shirts for -- you guessed it -- Marilyn Manson, so I had to give Brian the pleasure of an I-told-you-so! He'd told me so tongue-in-cheek, and Hamilton and Benton walked up precisely when the F/i set was over and everybody was out catching a cig. Well, lest we forget, this is Milwaukee, and that is the exact kind of thing that happens to Milwaukee bands. See you at Turner Hall Saturday....

Monday, May 14, 2012

Rave on, Mark

Rave on, Mark by V'ron
Rave on, Mark, a photo by V'ron on Flickr.
I'm not going to reference any stupid "the day the music died" crap on the passing of a Buddy Holly tribute artist today, because if there is one thing that did NOT die in that godawful plane crash all those years ago, it was NOT the music.

First, please excuse that fact that I still have to wrap my head around the fact that Mark Shurilla is dead. I knew I was going to need to write about it, but as anybody else who knew him (closer or more distant than me), the "where to begin" question was equally difficult. Just because I had to get something off my chest, I posted the above picture to my facebook wall earlier today, and told the following snippet of a story:
[This photo was taken at] the Sheboygan Civic Center, and its one of his annual treks up there to play the "Winter Dance Party" -- a tribute to Buddy Holly and the other bands on that ill-fated tour that ended in tradgedy. In this photo, he's singing to a woman who was celebrating her 103rd birthday that night. The look on her face was one of pure joy as she danced to music Mark recreated for her. She was in her late 50s when that music was recorded, and watching her joy was one of the most beautiful things I ever saw.

And actually, that's when I realized what it was about Shurilla that we're all really going to miss. If you looked into the audience at any Shurilla show (and that might be anything from the punk polka of the Blackholes, the pure punk of the Electric Assholes, the Irish mayhem of McTavish, to the loving tribute of the Buddy Holly Review) there were smiles. Nods of recognition. Laughs. The audience was as varied and as universal as the range of music he put out. And always the feeling that the guy up there, with the Buddy Holly glasses but with a deeper voice) was the same way you were about the music: he knew it. He loved it. He could speak with authority about it. And he made it his life. And those of us who love the music loved him for it.

He started a few music-centered publications, and when they were old enough, sold them off to walk on their own. He started more than a few bands, and he gave even more than a few people their start in the industry, if not as a musician participating in it, then as a writer documenting it. Countless music professionals in this town owe him big time for the start, the push, the promotion he gave them. Many of them learned a lot about the business side of the business from him. And somehow (even though it pissed us off sometimes) he managed to keep the fiscal side of things viable, so that he could continue on with that dream that so many have: making rock and roll his full-time job.

But you could say this about a lot of people in Milwaukee. What was it about Shurilla that made him such an iconoclast? Was it those glasses? Was it the nicknames he slammed upon his associates that stuck? You heard a Shurilla-name and you then called the person (or that thing) that for the rest of eternity -- in his voice.. Say it with me: Marlavous! Pagelshinski! Mr Cotter! Animal! Davis! Bobasaurus! Are you loving it? Gotta have the figures! Quarters - it's the Palace, it's a Gold Mine!

Was it his unpredictability? Back on stage, you never knew what would happen. Frankly, neither did his band. They'd have rehearsed the songs, but they always had to be on their toes for those songs where he'd go off into some story or rant or such, with no deference to political correctness or even taste. Remember, this is a man who wrote "Blitzkrieg Over Kenosha" and performed it with a band called The Electric Assholes. After a while, you didn't hear any more gasps of "I can't believe he's doing this" because we'd come to expect it. We looked forward to it. And because of this, you had to admire anybody who played with him -- you had to be a true pro in order to keep up. As such, he rewarded his players not necessarily with huge paychecks, but constant ones.

It seemed he was always on stage. You'd be at a party, and somebody would hand him a guitar, and like magic, he'd start playing some song that all could join into and sing along, because he knew his way around everybody from Buddy Holly to the Velvet Underground to Bruce Springsteen to the Pogues to Jonathan Richman to Neil Young to the Beatles to, well, everybody. As "cheap" as he could be accused of being, he was also incredibly generous: when somebody's gear got ripped off, or somebody needed money for medical issues, he was at the ready, not only to play a benefit, but often would organize and promote that benefit. And that man could organize and promote a show like nobody's business.

This is admittedly a rambling obituary, but Shurilla was a ramblin' man. There's that side of him that was obsessed with fossils and antiquity. There's the side of him that always ordered Girl Scout cookies from my daughter. There's the part of him that sweetly made up a song for my son on the spot at Christmastime. Unlike Larry Kennedy, I don't have one definitive story about him. I have dozens. I could write a whole blog of just Shurilla stories. (Type "Shurilla" in that little "search this blog" box in the upper left-hand-corner here -- you'll see there's a whole blogs worth of Shurilla stories right here.) And I'd never come close to scratching the surface of the Mark Shurilla story. Mine isn't the only obituary of him that will be written this week, because we all have pieces of his story to tell. And that's why he's one of those guys who, in a sense will live forever. That's what makes him such an iconoclast.

I'll end here with one of a hundred Shurilla stories I could tell: the time I had to borrow his amp because mind had crapped out an hour before I had to play a show. I needed to check it out and make sure I could get the right tone from it, so I plugged my guitar into it, and switched it on. Before I knew it, not only was I playing through it, but I had assumed a Shurilla-like stance: legs straight but spread apart wider than my shoulders, chin cocked forward, eyes bugging out, shit-eating grin, strumming my ax on a forceful downstroke. I wasn't even trying to imitate him or parody him or even tribute him -- it just happened and I didn't realize it until Pagelshinski pointed it out. Just playing through his amp imparted his Shurilla-ness upon me. And it was one of the most rock and roll moments I ever felt, downstairs in that dingy practice space. At the show that night, I told the audience at the Circle A that story, just as The Big Dog himself walked in. Everybody laughed: at me and with him, and I'm pretty damn sure it was because everybody knew that if they plugged into his amp, or picked up his guitar, the exact same thing would have happened.

Because there isn't a music person (player, writer, photog or fan) in this town who hasn't been somehow touched or influenced by Mark Shurilla, and if they say otherwise they're either lying or clueless. Mark Shurilla's music didn't die today and for that matter, neither did he. Rest in peace, Dog. Like Buddy Holly, you'll continue to live through the music and stories you left.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Easter Sunday Post, 2012: Not what we usually expect

Proud Owner by V'ron
Proud Owner, a photo by V'ron on Flickr.
As I have for at least the past 20 years, I hopped on my bike and did my annual Easter Sunday Bike Ride and despite the wind, it was one of the most beautiful days I did this in years.  I didn't have as much to really ponder, except that I am finally letting go of being suspicious of why we've gotten this kind of weather lately. I just have to learn to enjoy it, despite the fact that I know that it just isn't right.

We messed up and assumed the kids were too old for Easter Bunny-ness and didn't get a pile of chocolate for them, but when they brought out the empty baskets last night we realized this was a mess-up. So, while I was on a Easter Sunday bike ride with weather I'm not usually expecting, the kids didn't expect my lame-ass excuse for a lack of chocolate:

OK, so here's what happened, kids. I'm on my bike ride, and in fact, as a sort of Easter bit of magic, I ran into the Easter Bunny right at this spot where I always take this picture. I asked her, "Well, how's it going," and I'll tell you, she looked beat. "Yeah, I don't mean to be picky," I told her, but "um, ya missed our house this morning." Well, kids, she's had a heckuva year, and I told her it was cool, if she could make it by tomorrow then we'd be fine with that. She agreed, but offered me this: "Here, if you just want to take the kids out to breakfast at a place you don't get to so much, take this voucher." 
So I offered the kids the choice to have a fabu brunch at, say, Beans and Barley, and they accepted. Sammy had his favorite whole wheat pancakes, Stella had her favorite cinnamon buns, Brian enjoyed just chilling out at home, and I had an outstanding omelet with lox, cream cheese, and asparagus. It's not what we expected, but it was good nonetheless.

Among the things I rode past was that one house on Lake Drive in Cudahy, with the guy who has all his collected do-dads out front. And on the side. And in the back. Big ol shark over the garage -- I asked him if it was new and he said, no, it's been there for about 2 years. Never noticed it before. Actually, I never noticed HIM out there before. Didn't ask his name or anything, just was glad to see him out. Maybe I was just dumbstruck that I actually saw him out there because I didn't expect that.

So this year's Easter Sunday for me, is about appreciating unexpected goodness. That Rolling Stones song about how you can't always get what you want, but getting what you need is going through my head, but it's really more about appreciating goodness even if it comes in unexpected forms. The kids are fine without some godawful overflow of chocolate.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

They Make Fun of You Because They Love You

Paul "Fagen" by V'ron
Paul "Fagen", a photo by V'ron on Flickr.
OK, let's get one thing about Spoof Fest out of the way right now. I'm onto you guys and I've been onto you guys for some time now. You not-so-secretly admire -- even love -- the bands you're spoofing. I can't even call it Spoof Fest anymore. It's Loving Tribute With a Sense of Humor fest. I caught the very end of "Lita Ford" (and heard that I'd missed a memorable "Ozzy" joining "Lita" on stage for "Close My Eyes Forever"). I also learned that I missed Julie Brandenburg as "Cher" in "Sonny and Cher" (Julie, you needed to promote this more...).

So I paid my cover, not being sure what to expect from Paul Kneevers and Jeff Hamilton and friends as "Steely Dan." No, I knew exactly what to expect: Precision. I don't think they would have bothered if they couldn't do it 100% on, and from the moment they took the stage in sunglasses, hats, leather vests, and jumping directly into "Reeling In the Years" (and true to the object of their spoof, nailed it) I knew it was worth the night's $10 cover. Right down to the tones on the guitar solos, right down to the synthesizer bends on "Do It Again", right down to the Fagen-esque flourish of the hands, right down to the Becker-style disaffectedness, right down to kicking the singer out of the band for not being perfect and bringing in "Michael McDonald" for the remainder of the set, they maintained a jazzbo smugness because they had it and they knew it. As much as Fagen/Becker were legendary for a level of polish and perfection that ranked up there with another guy would would be spoofed later in the night, Kneevers/Hamilton are no slouches in the Department of Anal Retentiveness either (they've both recorded my bands-- so I can personally attest to this in the studio), and so, as they spoofed the Dans, they were very clearly laughing at themselves as well.

Up next: "38 Special." Don't know any of the guys in this band (or maybe I do and they were that well disguised) and I realized that I unfortunately knew a lot more .38 Special songs that I cared to admit. All of em were clad in those Southern Rock regalia pieces: Stetsons, hillbilly hair, oversized boots, Jack Daniels T-Shirts, and quart bottles of booze that each of them swigged between every song: "Hold On Loosely" (oh, is THAT what they're saying?) and "Caught Up In You" and "Second Chance" and oh, dear, I actually know this stuff from road trips up north where all we can get is KROCK-style stations. FM-friendly stuff to put on inbetween the Zeppelin and the Aerosmith, or when you've had enough of Molly Hatchet or Skynyrd. I get the feeling that these guys, whoever they were, could have taken on Skynyrd (but not the Allmans) and pulled it off, but that might have been treading on too sacred ground.

Originally uploaded by V'ron.
Treading on sacred ground was not an issue for Chris Tishler and his guys, who earlier this year, (in Chief) got to open for Thin Lizzy at Potowatomi. It was sacred ground, especially to these guys, but they weren't treading, they were stomping on it. They nailed it as well: Tishler with Phil Lynott's hair, skinny tie, perfectly white shirt, opening the show with Jailbreak complete with sirens, flashing "Thin Lizzy" sign in the background. These boys were totally back in town, while a 8"x6'x1" plank piled high with confectioner's sugar blow was brought out mid-set with four straws that landed not only on the stage, but in the front row, which meant I and my hair and my purse and my camera were covered in the white stuff as well. The linked picture doesn't do it justice: I had to lather rinse repeat at least four times to get all the sugar out of my hair when I got home, feeling like I was in that one scene in Annie Hall on Rock and Roll level steroids. I missed a song while I attempted to brush the stuff off at least my camera, but was back in time for the set-ending onslaught of british metal. The spoof was in the band's use of drugs. Musically, there was no spoofing whatsoever -- they nailed it as tightly as Kneevers/Hamilton nailed Steely Dan. If they chose to, they could do this again, and make some good coin off it as well. Won't be the first time a Spoof Fest band evolved into a full-time gig, especially for these guys.

Clear the stage (well, as best as you can,given that there's a half inch of sugar all over the front) because they had to make room for a horn section, a full band,backup singer chicks, and a "Danny Ray" to hold the purple cape for "James Brown," starring probably the only guy in town who could have even approached this: Freddy Lee and his band and friends. No bruised women around, he did all the major hits: I Feel Good (and yes, he hit the high notes), Sex Machine, and of course, Please Please Please. Horn section could have danced around a bit more, but the hardest working man in Milwaukee was backed up by full suits, and a tightly knit machine of a band that forced pure sweat out of both singer and audience. I think the only thing that kept the set as short as it was could have been bar time. I didn't make it out the second night, but this won't be my last Spoof Fest for sure.

Meantime, a public service announcement. Normally, I have mixed feelings about bands/artists trying to finance themselves via Kickstarter. Build up your fanbase, and make a CD already. But the issue here is that Mike Frederickson has already done just that and for some odd reason I have to attribute to the stupidity of the music industry and ignorance of the masses, he just isn't rich and famous. So he could just use a little kickstart to make his next CD, "Make It Stop." Here's the link to his Kickstarter Page. That's my PSA for today.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Road Tripping with a Dragon

I'm just coming down from a wonderful invigorating weekend in Champaign, where I took my little dragon buddy Sammy to a TaeKwonDo tournament on the campus of my alma mater. Champaign-Urbana will always have a special place in my heart; it's where the political fire in my belly got lit and the musical fire (that was lit when I was six watching my big brother's garage band) was stoked to a flaming burn that still rages to this day, and it's where I spent four years trying to figure out what kind of writer I was going to be (a question I still haven't answered...) It helps that I had terrific hosts, Cynthia and Ernie, who understand about remembering and celebrating your past but also live in the present. They have a pair of kids too and Sammy got along swimmingly with them.

We started the weekend arriving at the local martial arts dojo just in time for Sammy to do a workshop with Chief Master Minton, apparently a legend in the TKD world and the legend is justified. Minton is a 73-year-old rockstar of a guy -- eyes popping out of his head, quick with both the moves and the sense of humor. There wasn't a person in the house (kids, adults and spectators) who wasn't enchanted with him. Sammy was in the front row and didn't need to be told to keep his "eyes on the instructor." Who could take their eyes off this guy? Amazing fun stuff, and I love a good workshop whether it's physical or mental. It helped tucker out a rather nervous Sammy so he could rest up for the next morning's tourney.

Let me say this now: I'm so proud of Sammy! He was kind of nervous about his first major tournament, especially since it was built up by the previous night's four hour drive. As soon as we checked in, he headed to the side gym and practiced his forms. He ended up in a group where he was the lowest ranking belt (he is a Camo, the rest of the kids were green and purple) and I think he was the only kid in his group for whom this was a first tourney. He did well on his forms, but for sparring he was paired in the first round with a purple belt who had been to some 15 other tournaments and was thus much more used to the pressure. Nevertheless, Sammy came out swinging and landed the first blow -- a two point kick to his opponent's head. The kid was taken by surprise, and Sammy never let up. They spar until five points, and Sammy was leading this kid 4-2, and then the other kid made his comeback. Sammy was clearly disappointed, but after a couple of minutes he looked around to see what he was up against and he genuinely believed me when I told him, "You have nothing to feel bad about. You went the distance with a kid who's two belts above you and has lots more competitive experience and you had him scared." I think that's what I'm most proud of -- that he still felt good about the experience and learned something. We told his instructor what happened (he was judging another ring) and his instructor was also smiling and very proud of him.

We did dinner at The Esquire Lounge, a place that in my day was an great after downtown-hours watering hole and the site of many an engaging political argument. It's now three times its former size, has a full-service kitchen, and not a bad place to bring in the kids for, as Cynthia and Ernie's kids term, "Fries and Peanuts." It's one of those joints you toss your peanut shells on the floor; and the fries are indeed excellent. Problem was, it wasn't until we parked downtown that it occurred to us, "Oh, it's St Pat's day. It's Amateur Night. Great." Still, I had an excellent bar cheeseburger, Sammy enjoyed an excellent bar pizza, and we both got a kick out of dumping our peanut shells on the floor whilst Wisconsin dumped Vanderbilt to the ground as well. The whole weekend, centered around the TKD tourney, was relaxing in that I had nothing, I mean, nothing else to do except wander around the campus of my alma mater, and sit inside and outside Cynthia/Ernie's wonderful house enjoying this weirdly wonderful summer weather, drinking coffee, wine, listening to birds chirp and kids play and catch up with good friends.

Weird thing is that, as Cynthia pointed out, we weren't all that tight when we were undergrads, (we barely knew each other!) but over the years via our mutual blogs (and I also have to credit FB) we've become quite tight: we both have discovered a lot of friendships in our lives are like this. (Heck, some of my best friends are iVillage women I've never met in person, but have known since Stella was a baby and I was looking for diaper rash advice...). Over Ernie's homemade Sunday morning biscuits I wandered around their garden taking pictures of the outdoor bric-a-brac they purposefully littered all over.

With Discovery World membership in hand, one our way through Chicago we popped into the Field Museum because Sammy is one of those kids who adores dinosaurs, so it was in and out. The whole dinosaur exhibit is part of an "evolving world" thing, that starts out with primordial ooze and take us through five mass extinctions through to the modern day. We both pulled a bronx cheer as we walked into the Soldier Field parking lot just south of the museum and headed home. I'm still recovering from a oxymoron of a weekend -- busy yet relaxing. And there's a lot to be said for just going on a road trip with just one of your kids, a mom and my boy kind of weekend where we could jam out in the car, eat boy food, and just run around. I'm wonderfully spent.