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.