A Winter Hodgepodge of Wisconsin Goodness

So Brian says to me, "Hey, there's a act I'd really like to see Saturday night... it's this guy they play on WMSE at night when I get home and its at this bar in St Francis I've never heard of and he's kind of a 90s alternative rock guy but honestly he sounds more like Frank Black/Black Francis type stuff with the Catholics...."

Hon, you had me at "sounds more like Frank Black." Pixies fan that I am, I honestly prefer Black Francis' solo stuff. So Brian made the ultra-rare trip to go see a band he's never heard of at a bar he's never been to, and I of course tagged along.

What a treat Brett Newski turned out to be. He calls himself a dork, (and his music "Dork rock") and it seems less an insult thrust upon him either by asshole frat boys jealous of his considerable subtle charisma, and more like a label he decided to wear and own before some jerk could hurt him with it. That premonition extends to his brand slogan "Don't Listen To Brett Newski" but it's like he got that all out of the way so he could concentrate on what he does best: perform great songs in intimate settings. The Redbar in St Francis was such a setting: it appears to work best for quirky or lower key acts (Pat McCurdy plays this room a lot; I've seen the Whiskeybelles on their list, too). Good beer selection, and the kitchen was closed, but there's an upstairs where you can see the show, albeit from an odd angle.  It also seemed like a neighborhood bar,  felt like everybody in this place already knew everybody else except us, or at least knew every song in Newski's catalogue, but that added to the intimacy that makes everything work.  There wasn't even a cover charge per se, instead somebody at the door asked for a "donation --we're suggesting $10 each" and for a minute there I thought it was a fundraiser and I asked for what? "The musicians." Oh. That's a cover charge. Guys, it's OK to ask people to pay you to entertain them. We handed her a twenty and found a place to perch. Probably safer that way, so you don't lose people who hate to pay cover: the DIY world is all about hustling/promoting yourself any way you can.

The plan for the evening was that Newski passed around a clipboard where people could write their requests down, and he'd plow through them, and that's exactly what happened. So this validated and underscored one of Newski's best skills: this guy comes off sincerely extemporaneous
and simultaneously polished. He invited people to compete in a "stupid T shirt contest" and he brought up his dad (a fun and interesting chap himself, according to Brian who shot the breeze with him a bit) and friends for an air guitar competition. Requests for Stone Temple Pilots (yes, he pulled off "Interstate Love Song" with only a hair of irony) and The Gufs were dispatched seemingly easily but it's his own heartfelt songs that inspired me to hand him more money for his CDs and get on his mailing list. Yes, they had that off-kilter Americana road tale feel that Brian and I love about Frank Black, with similar melody lines and chord changes, and they're strong enough that even with just his guitar and a drummer accompanying him, it's got the backbone of a full band. His winsome demeanor brings to mind Jonathan Richman, except he doesn't come off nearly as naive. Rather, he's been around (he's on the road more than he's ever "home" in Milwaukee) both physically and emotionally, and lived (also physically and emotionally) to tell the tale. Despite having opened for the Violent Femmes and the Pixies, it's clear he prefers these small, intimate spaces (he does a lot of shows on the house concert circuit) and they're best suited to him as well.

And he's soooooooo Milwaukee. He embraces his roots no matter how "dorky" they may be: On "Ride," one of his catchiest and best songs, he leads into it with a chorus of "On Wisconsin" and finishes it with the same level of trepidation and anticipation that befits both a college fight anthem and a heartfelt song about taking an emotional risk (which, when you're a Badger fan, is apt.). We left the place feeling the same warm and fuzzies I get after a Richman show, except multiplied because, well, we love that cheesehead juxtaposition of guilelessness and knowing irony. We'll be back.

A week later, still glowing with the satisfaction of going to see somebody I'd never heard of before, I combed the listings to do it again and ended up at Company Brewing to see a pair of bands on the other side of the musical spectrum: locals Undercover Organism and from Chicago, Lunar Ticks. Both are bands that fit a description that was once attributed to my band: "crams every influence they can think of into each song at once." This was evident on Lunar Ticks' opening tune. About two minutes in, I was ready to classify them as garden variety alternative power pop played by all-American baseball apple pie kids.  But then a transporter materialized in left field and beamed us to a planet inhabited by a two headed guitar player and the two heads are Duane Allman and Robert Fripp.  From there they had me transfixed. Part of me wanted to call them jazz punk, but that's usually made by kids who started out as three chord punk rockers who eventually learned how to play their instruments. No, these guys started this band already more than competent on their instruments: I'd mentioned to one of them afterwards that I bet they played in jazz band in high school. "Yeah, college too," he answered.

And it showed. They had snappy melodies and a punk disposition, that really came through on an ode to Brian's hometown. (They even spelled it punky: Wahwahtosa!). But then they'd get back on a spaceship and head back to Alpha Centuri on songs with titles like "Ultraviolet Phlegm" that made me want to listen to some old Black Sabbath and Neil Young at the same time. They're young enough that they probably don't even realize some of their influences, but in the meantime, you could probably make a pretty strong Venn Diagram of their influences with Brett Newski's. Great songwriting, top notch (bordering on virtuoso at times) playing, snotty punk attitude, yeah, I'll be back, but in the meantime, I picked up "Unknown Gnomes/Neon Hearse" and it's been in rotation along with Newski's "Life Upside Down" and "American Folk Armageddon" in my car CD player since.

Undercover Organism had a similar "ehh.. je ne sais pas" going on. I'm saying this in French because they started out like some euro trance house band, complete with these two women circling lighted up hula hoops on the dance floor. I've been getting into downtempo and synthy pop lounge lately (thinking of Gramatik) so I stuck around. Then, to my surprise and delight,  they got Mothership-level funky.  The thing was, I get the feeling they're still trying to decide if they're a party band, or a techno fusion jam band (which would still work at the right kind of party). Because, at one point they devolved into a wedding band as they started to cover Earth Wind and Fire's "Let's Groove" (they just didn't have the vocal pipes to carry off what is kind of a lame party song to begin with) and just when I was about to leave, it was like they asked Lunar Ticks if they could bum a ride in their spaceship and cranked up the space acid. I stayed put and even forgot they started the cover until about five minutes later when they landed back on earth with the chorus. Hey guys, if you're going to cover 70s party funk, try Kool and the Gang -- seems a little more suited to your fun and trippy aesthetic. (For that matter, George Clinton's retiring this year. Go for Parliament/Funkadelic: you've got the chops.)

After that,  they went back to their funky space trance house where I was more than happy to have a drink and take them all in. They would sweep from funk to ambient (sometimes in the same song), and while the hula hoop women started to get tired, they could still hold my attention with elegant little guitar and drum runs that never got overwhelmed by the electronics -- which often happens in these kinds of bands.  I'd like to see them again, on a bill with some space rock jam bands, which would give them the opportunity to show off more of their downtempo tunes, which are engaging in a different sort of party -- more like a really cool lounge.  These past two weeks' of hodgepodge were a good start to the new year, though and encouraged me to go in blind to more bands.


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