The doctor ordered a cornucopia of music

Wow, it's like everybody is trying to cram in their last few indoor shows before the summer outdoor music season starts and I had difficulty deciding what to go see this past weekend. Friday night, the Unheard Of had a record release bash at the Circle A and by all accounts, it was a glorious psychedelic be-in with lights, guitars, and sonic thunder. Some Kind of Nightmare, a wonderful punk outfit I discovered last fall, headlined a great night of punk at Sabbatic.  Saturday night, Desmond Bone had his birthday party at The A. Voot Warnings was busy being a genius at The Uptowner. Oh, and Psych Fest was going on all weekend, and also, by all accounts, it was as mind-blowing as all the pre-fest promos had promised. The Tritonics were at the A on Sunday, competing with a Sunday Duel at Kochanski's between the Hungry Williams and the Westerlies.

I was coming down with something Friday night (annoying low grade fever coupled with mild bronchitis and nasty sneezing), and after getting sunburned watching my kid play soccer on Saturday afternoon, I decided I needed to stay on the South side, and catch a trio of acts that don't play out so often (though it's strongly hinted that will change!), so my pick among giants turned out to be a cornocopia of established Milwaukee Americana/Alt-Country with Liv Mueller/Alex Ballard and Sugarfoot/The Carolinas at Garibaldi. It was just what the doctor ordered.

Liv was about two or three songs into her set when I arrived. Her sound is true to her last release -- it's a riveting one-woman show that she mixes herself, accompanying herself on backing vocals and a second guitar by means of some digital (or analog, I was so transfixed I didn't get a shot of her current pedalboard like I usually do) tape loops. Her country-soul-blues is downright psychedelic. Every time I see her, her guitar work gets geometrically better: don't overlook Liv Mueller as a creatively compelling guitarist just because you're so focused on her top notch songwriting and brilliant vocal delivery. Some people might compare her to Mazzy Star or some sadcore nightingale like Emma Swift, but she's not as opiate as Hope Sandoval and she's not as profoundly sad like Swift. Between songs, she cuts the gorgeous tension with a self-effacing sense of humor and rapport with the audience, so you're not left completely frozen in your seat from the dreadful beauty. From her originals (if you thought Once A Day was stunning on her recording, you need to see her perform it live) to her interpretations of classics such as "In the Pines" (you'll forget all about "Nirvana Unplugged" when you hear it), to her riff-checking the Yardbirds on her last song,  it's clear that Liv Mueller is a criminally overlooked Milwaukee treasure and I'm hoping the reason the room was only half full was all the other excellent stuff going on that night.

Speaking of acts that should be seen live, Alex Ballard and Sugarfoot was up next. Their latest two songs, "Lathe of Heaven" and "Built My World" have been posted all over FB in an earnest promotional blast, but while I'm liking the songs at their core, the recording doesn't capture the spark and energy that Ballard and his band bring to a stage. While the majority of the band have been together for the past five or so years (and Ballard himself has been fronting something called "Sugarfoot" for at least 20 years), they've added an additional guitarist in the form of Dan Johnston that gives these songs an extra punch. Still, it seems like this very lineup has been friends and playing together for dozens of gigs and years: they have that wabi-sabi duality of sounding both professionally tight and comfortably loose at the same time. Ballard is clearly the ringleader, as he sidles up to his bandmates throughout the show as though he were the Boss jamming with the rest of the E Street Band. He jumps around, he struts, he swings his guitar on its thankfully-strong strap -- the recordings belie the fact that the man is a spaz. And I mean that in a good way: there's a punk energy infusing these normally laid back songs that kicks them into an enjoyable performance. The result left a smile on my face as I fought the urge to make an ass of myself by playing air guitar along with them. They've promised more new recordings in the next few months (a whole album, maybe?) which I hope means more live performances instead of once every semester. Because that's the best way to experience Alex Ballard and Sugarfoot: in a southside tavern with a few beers in you, and if I had more energy and there were more people there, I'd have been spazzing out as well.

The Carolinas, also another "we'll play out when we get around to it" band, closed out the night with an expected set of alt-country rave ups. They have much in common with Sugarfoot: it's been a long time since I've seen them, they can't seem to be contained on recording tape, they're loose-but-tight as well, and they're comprised of Milwaukee music vets who have played full houses more than sparsely populated rooms like Garibaldi's was Saturday night. The Carolinas are a bit more aggressive and less jangly than Sugarfoot, but definitely a good choice to fill out this bill consistently. It might have been too consistent: both these second bands are farming a similar musical field, and I was alt-country-ed out by the end of the set. Plus, that nasty ass sneezing was starting to kick in again, so I need to check them out when I'm fresh. Hopefully, that will be sometime in 2018.


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