Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Alma is back -- and so am I

Ugh. I should call *this* blog "This time for sure, Rocky!" (which is what  I call my other blog, simply because this will be the umpteenth time I've  tried to fire it up again and begin with "well, it's been a long time since I've written...." )but I probably need to accept that enough in my life has changed such that this isn't going to be exclusively about my going out and rating pre-buzz bands and seeing basketball games and such. So having said that, I'm just going to write blog entries (people, it's 2015 -- a blog post isn't a whole "blog" -- it's simply a post, so quit calling it a "blog") and do what the original terminology of a "blog"was suppoed to be: a web-based log of a persons life/activities/etc. So this will be a long blog post, and I promise that later ones won't necessarily be, but I have a lot to get out of my head over a couple of days.


So just this weekend, I braved the cold and took a trip to Champaign, IL, ostensibly to take Sammy to a Tae Kwon Do tournament in Bloomington, but really to just get in a visit with Cynthia and Ernie and their family -- friends of mine that I actually got closer to many years after I knew them IRL during our undergrad years at the University of Illinois.  Yes, I do love watching my buddy do his TKD, and I'm perfectly willing to drive him a few hours to compete, but I can't say I would have jumped so easily into the car on a sub-zero day for four hours through Chicago traffic without the added bonus of arriving at the warm home of friends.

And I almost always do a drive-by of campus, simply because I will forever associate good feelings with that part of the world: where I met people I know and love to this day, where I finally found--  and started to feel good about--myself, and where, as I tell my kids and  anybody else who cares to understand what I mean by this, where I learned to read. Really read.  Europeans often refer to where they went to postsecondary school not as "I went to Oxford" but as "I read physics at Cambridge" or "I read poetry at the Sorbonne" -- well, I read English Literature at UIUC. Sammy wanted to climb on the Alma Mater statue like he did the first time we came here, and I was happy to oblige. Alma has returned -- she was out for the past year or so  for repairs, and now she's back and ready for another fifty years worth of oxidation.


And yeah, I know it's been 30 years, and I should expect change. But it's kind of depressing that Green Street -- the main drag of Campustown, is more loaded with chain stores than locally-based joints. Even the Illini Union -- which used to  play host to a basic cafeteria  (on Fridays, they featured a clam chowder that -- legend had it -- the cook would chase everybody out of the kitchen while she prepared it so that nobody would be privy to her secret recipe) is just a food court of corporate rented stalls of Jamba Juice, Einstein Bagels, and others. I'm sure there's some clam chowder once in awhile, but not the stuff we lined  up for.  Fellow alumni -- the Co-Ed Theater is gone. So is Mabel's. So is that gnarly little drugstore where we used to be able to cash checks when the Union was closed. Garcia's Pizza in a Pan and Papa Del's have lost their prime campus real estate across from the quad (both are a fair schlep from campus). The Deluxe Lunch and Billiards -- once heralded as a top spot in the midwest to shoot pool, and the Friday fish fry has never been equaled -- is long gone, replaced by some damn sports bar. And to add insult to injury, one of the few places that has survived is Kam's -- that fetid frat boy dive where roofies were probably developed, and of which ObiWan probably once observed, "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."  But I'm not bitching about losing my memories. I'm more bitching about losing -- and this is happening on campuses and towns and etc across the country --  any kind of local (literal) flavor. When I eat out out of town -- I want to get something I can't get anywhere else and that you make better than anybody else. I want to listen to music on a radio station that I'm not hearing in other cities. I expect change -- but I was hoping to see more uniqueness. At least I can still drive a hundred miles north and get an Aurelio's pizza.

But on the bright side, besides just being wonderful people who are always loaded with good conversation, Cynthia and Ernie are consummate hosts. Cynthia is one of those cooks who can open the cabinets and say, "Hmmm, I've got some corn, and Ernie's bringing home a smoked chicken, and here's some lettuce and olives and some dressing for a salad and there's some noodles I can toss with some sesame oil, peppers and soy" and voila! Martha Stewart-worthy meal! I might be mixing up the meals; the next night featured oven-fried thighs with some curry infested crust ("but I didn't have as much curry powder on hand as I thought so I just made do....") and other stuff. Plus a couple of other delightful guests who seemed to be as comfortable with me as I was with them. As in, instantly.

But there's a time when I need to go down for something other than a TKD tournament -- and that's for one of their House Concerts. There's a wonderful little scene of people littered across the country who host House Concerts -- musicians who don't necessarily draw hundreds of people, but can fill a moderately-sized living room and fit in perfectly with a preceding potluck and subsequent housefull of  guests who just love music and conversation.The artists are usually the kind who would play places like the Circle A or maybe Frank's Power Plant -- except because of the neighborhood nature -- maybe not the louder hardcore bands that the Circle A sometimes gets. It's usually the singer-songwriter types, the ones that are excellent (musical) storytellers, but I wouldn't say they're all folksingers.
It was looking at all the posters for the shows they had in the media room that made me remember that I *did* see some excellent obscure music in the past several months, which I'll run down now:
Jeff Kerr reading his stories
Jeff Kerr & The Hard Ballad Medicine Show (featuring Jason Wietlispach and Joshua Lesniak) opened for Aluminum Knot Eye the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I knew nothing about Kerr, who describes himself as a "Man O' Letters" -- but learned he writes poetry and prose from deep in the heart of Appalachia. His delivery has an almost storefront baptist church feel to it -- he clutches his small-press book of words as though it were his bible, but there's nothing Godly in those stories of alcohol, being dirt fucking poor, but feeling, feeling like salvation is just around the corner, just out of his grasp. He's like a June-less Johnny Cash. His backing band is a bass player with six bazillion floorpedals with which he squeezes equal parts horror and beauty out of electronic notes that shouldn't work with this setup, but do. His drummer keeps time, but not in a traditional  drummer's sense: rather, this guy speeds  up and slows down in rhythm to the story, using any number of things to produce a sound besides sticks,& drumheads. To say the whole thing was riveting and intense was an understatement. I needed the relief of Aluminum Knot Eye afterwards to bring me back to Milwaukee after this unexpected darkness of South Carolina. Although, AKE was kind of in a Gang of Four mood that night-- dissonant (duh, this is AKE after all), hard hitting, and ultimately satisfying. I left the Circle A with plenty to be thankful about.
The Grovelers at Kochanski's: Finally, finally, finally got out to see this band, and I'm glad I did. Lemonie Fressh is the bass  player here, and she's been in a pile of good bands,but sometimes it takes a while to find the right band for the right player, and this is it. Her melodic but psychedelic  style and sensibilities are exactly the right fit for this band, and this is the right band for her: this really neat combination of garage trash and Americana (I don't want to call it country, but maybe it is), played by people who have also heard of Devo and the Residents. They're set for a triple bill with Couch Flambeau and Go Go Slow (another  band that's on my "why haven't I seen them yet?" list) later this month. I can't wait. 
Nolstaghia
So, I went to Riot Fest last September with Stella, and that probably would have warranted its own entry, but frankly, you don't need to hear from me how transcendant Tom Verlaine and Television were, how nice it was to finally see Patti Smith in the flesh, how fun it was to be rolled over by Wayne Coyne's big plastic bubble during the Flaming Lips, how fun it was to hear Cheap Trick, and how great the pile of hardcore bands were. (and how joyous it was to see a happy Stella not only see the Descendants, but to meet the guitarist and get an autograph on her hand!) No, you want to hear from me about the guys who got shoved at 11 am on the side stages were. So, when they come through town, go support the following: Kurt Vile: who was this combination of twangy, southern, psychdelic stoner rock. Nolstaghia: this duo of women who are picking up Kate Bush's baton with an upright electric cello and the drama such a comparaison demands. And finally,  the Grizzled Mighty who woke my ass up on a Sunday morning. You're going to compare them instantly to the White Stripes because they have a mindblowing guitarist (who probably listened to a lot more of the MC5 than Jack White did) and a female drummer. 

The Grizzled Mighty
Except, comparing Lupe Flores to Meg White is like comparing M'Shelle Ndegeocello to Kim Deal. Seriously -- when people talk about "female bass players, oh Kim Deal!" I want to scream, "NO! There are women who can actually play the damn bass!"Same thing here. "Oh, women drummers! Meg White!" I want to shake my head. No, there are women who can seriously play the fucking drums and Lupe Flores plays the living shit out of them. Barefoot. She and her partner in crime, Ryan Granger came barreling into Chicagoland despite car troubles and forgetting their merch (else I would have  bought it all up) and getting maybe two hours of sleep and they took it out on their instruments with heavyness that overwhelmed the tiny stage they were relegated to. I'll be back, that's for sure. And not just to see bands. Alma is back and so am I!