Americana Panorama

I've been fighting a nasty bout of flu/bronchitis/whatever all summer. And I've been fighting a general dose of busyness that's kept me from seeing/shooting/writing music for the past couple of years. But I did just buy a new camera, I've been better about taking my asthma medication, and so I dragged myself out to Chill On The Hill last night, and I'm glad I did.

The Cow Ponies
The kid and I arrived while the first act, Bruce Dean, was playing an acoustic, folky set that made me feel like I was at a coffeehouse rather than a outdoor concert. That's not necessarily a bad thing: I saw the always wonderful Robyn Hitchcock at a coffeehouse just a couple of weeks ago. (Then again, as far as I'm concerned, Robyn Hitchcock could read the phone book at a sewer treatment plant and I'd be enthralled.) This act had the unfortunate task of playing what should be an intimate set in front of a thousand or so people. So, since I was expecting upbeat Americana (that seemed to be tonight's "theme") I wasn't ready or in the mood for Mr. Dean's offering. He has a nice voice, his band is good, but I can't say much more because generally this isn't my thing anyway, and certainly wasn't what I was up for tonight.

Next up were the Cow Ponies. Just when you think that Tom Tiedjens (who will be forever known as "X-Cleavers bassist Tom Tiedjens" despite his being in a dozen really good bands since The X-Cleavers called it quits) was going away, he's turned up in yet another good act, the Cow Ponies. He's been veering from his new wave/punk roots towards Americana in small steps anyway, and I'll spare you the old thing about how old punks learn to play their instruments and become rockabilly pickers in their old age. He's paired with John Graham on guitar, with Robin Graham on vocals (and really sweet leopard skin heels) and Andy Stilin (another guy in about thirty bands, three of them current) on drums, and they rounded up  a good lap steel guitar man named Keith Bolog to frost this alt-country cake they've baked up. Robin has that sweet-but-don't-piss-her-off voice that works with country in general, and the whole thing actually leans more toward the "Western" side of "Country and Western."

Devil Met Contention
So this is how long I've been out of it: buzz band Devil Met Contention was up next, (frankly, they were last year's buzz band). And I knew nothing of them, so I was able to evaluate them based on their own merits, not be disappointed that they did or did not live up to their hype. They take the stage in shiny blue suits (not exactly sharkskin, but still, they wouldn't be out of place as the house band in a scene from Goodfellas). Their opening number started out gentle, but it drew me in with a scorching guitar lick toward the end, courtesy of guitarist David Schuyler, who carefully attacked his guitar all night, but was comfortable enough to jam and dance around when the songs called for it.  Badass looking sunglasses-after-dark drummer, who knew when to go hard and when not to -- in fact, most of the night he used drum rods, as opposed to standard sticks all night. He was locked in tight with an equally thoughtful bass player.

What gives this band the jolt that puts them on my "must see again" list is the strong songwriting. They're billed as "southern gothic" and "alt country" and "americana" and yes, they're all these things. Press name drops Johnny Cash a lot, and I get that feel a lot, but Ehson Rad's voice, phrasing, and song structure actually brings to mind a young Bruce Springsteen, but with a smoother voice and less forced bravado. No, the songs aren't about cruising around NewJersey, but he's in that same storytelling boat as the Boss: connecting what's going on with the world with the personal. I get the feeling that he'd be at home drinking a few beers with Springsteen and Cash, discussing the events of the day, and agreeing that sometime they should all work together (but never get around to it). Still, they're midwestern boys:  Schuyler's ringing Telecaster and Rad's acoustic guitar made sure that was clear.

This all makes them sound like some depressing, overly important band, but no, they were engaging and not every song was dark and full of minor chords. They were loose and comfortable on stage, and you could tell they were even having fun. But they do have a really varied approach to dynamics and are musically versatile, and kept a Chill on the Hill audience interested (no small feat). I've whined previously that Chill doesn't always take a lot of chances with their booking, and this would've been a chancy pick two years ago, before their buzz hit. But they were a perfect way to wind down on a breezy summer night, and reinforced that I really have to get out more and see the latest crop of Milwaukee bands.

Spotted in the crowd: Tim "Otis" Taylor, there for friendly moral support for the Cow Ponies -- that's a guitar I'm going to need to hear soon. Sitting near the soundboard was the dynamic duo of Dan "Myles" Mullen and his latest partner in musical crime, Elvis Thao, a singer discovered by their mutual dearly departed friend Mark Shurilla.  Near the stage: Six Wives of Richard drummer Veechka Starr, whose set last month I shamefully missed. Worse yet, she told me they don't have any gigs coming up any time soon. Same with Two and a Half Stars' Trevor Hyde, who I'm told played a terrific set last Thursday at Frank's Power Plant. They don't have anything booked in the near future either. C'mon SE Wisconsin club owners! Get on this.


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