Thursday, February 12, 2009

Live. Solo. Acoustic. With A Pug.

So the story goes that Rhett Miller was walking down State Street in Madison last Saturday, and he happened to stop in at Ragstock, a sort of retro-wear clothing store. There he saw the clerk wearing horned-rimmed glasses and a T-shirt that said, "Science Nerd," and that served as a reminder for him to play his song, "Four-Eyed Girl," at his show at The Majestic later that night.

Or at least...that's how he told it before he played the song. I have a feeling he'd have played it anyway, but it was a good story. And I do believe that he was wandering on State Street during the day before his show. Because...well, State is a street that lends itself to wandering.

His version that night of "Four-Eyed Girl" was a little messy and out of rhythm, and at times more spoken than sung...and it was fantastic.

After missing a couple of chances to see Rhett Miller in Wisconsin in the past few years, I didn't pass on this one, and I was glad I didn't. He played solo and acoustic, and while I haven't been in attendance at a great many acoustic shows, I've never seen anyone put so much effort and energy into playing an acoustic guitar and standing alone on stage, entertaining a crowd of several hundred people.

The rather eccentric lead singer of the Old 97s did very well for himself, by himself, up on stage. He's got this...presence...I guess, that makes you uncertain whether that's just him, or if he's a bit aided by chemical substances. Either way, he delivered a solid hour and a half of energy, playing a handful of songs from his first solo effort, The Instigator, which is the only album of his I owned prior to the show.

He also played songs from The Believer, which I now own, and need to listen to a few more times before I can say if it measures up to his first disc, and from his upcoming solo rele
ase, plus a few songs from The Old 97s as well. I'd tell you more about The Old 97s, but I don't have a clue who they are or what they're about. All I know is Rhett Miller is their frontman, and they're still together and still making music.

Part of the mystery of Rhett Miller and his music is that it's a bit difficult to classify. It's rock 'n' roll, no doubt. But there's something else to it. It's probably no coincidence that he went into Ragstock, because he and his sound have a retro vibe to them. And he can go from a hundred miles a minute to a weepy ballad with equal success.

The Old 97s I think are actually described by some as alt. country. Quite a category.

If you've never heard of Rhett Miller, I would suggest that downloading "Four-Eyed Girl" on iTunes would be 99 cents very well spent. And then go see a show.

— • — • —

I almost wanted to write this as the lead to this blog post, but after waiting for a Rhett Miller show for several years, I knew I had to put the headliner at the top.

But the opening act on Saturday was a welcome surprise...also an acoustic performer, a guy named Joe Pug from Chicago. A decent guitarist and an impressive lyricist, he held my attention during his set and got me to spend a few bucks on his EP, Nation of Heat, before I left the theater.

He's also got a full-length CD coming out in a couple of months, and I'm eager to hear more of his songwriting talents. I see myself actively searching out another of his shows sometim
e this year, because while much of the crowd at The Majestic was spending its time talking over Joe Pug as they waited for Rhett Miller, I spent that time, um...listening. To the songs. And the lyrics. (novel concept at a concert, I know.)

One reviewer writes a great line when he says, "I won't insult your intelligence by telling you who Joe Pug sounds like..." And if you click over to the link above, you'll get it right away.

But...give him a listen. He's in his early 20s, and he had a modesty and sincerity about him that might indicate that, if he catches a break or two along the way, more people might soon know the name Joe Pug.

And spend their time listening when he's up on stage.

"Two of us in a double feature,
I'm a rock and roller she's a science teacher.
I send her looks, they don't reach her.
She does not know I'm in love with her."
—Rhett Miller

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Three Down. How Many More To Go?

I went to another show last weekend at The Rave in Milwaukee, and that place is quickly becoming one of my favorite venues...if not always for the acoustics, then for the mystery of the building and its contents.

I say mystery, because I'm finding out that I don't really know how many separate musical venues are located there. And I'm beginning to think
that maybe nobody does!

I've seen a couple shows in the Eagles Ballroom (upper level). Late last year I saw Sister Hazel in the Eagles Hall, or The Rave II (lower level). And on Friday I was in what I believe is called The Rave Hall. There's also The Rave Bar, The Rave Vibe Room, the RockStar Lounge...none of which I've seen. Yet. At least not knowingly.

I'm fully expecting to one day order tickets to a Crows show, and when I get there, be led up several flights of winding, twisting stairs, down a long dark hall and into a small room with a couple tables and a fridge, and Adam Duritz standing by the sink playing a solo acoustic show for eight people in The Rave Kitchen.

Or maybe not.

— • — • —

The concert on Friday night was Big Head Todd & The Monsters, a band about which I know very little. I own Strategem, and can fumble along with the lyrics of a few of their songs, most notably, "In The Morning." Aside from that, I can't say I'm their biggest fan. I went mainly because it was a Friday night, a few good buddies, a few over-priced beers, and live music. Hello?? I can't say no to that! Well...I can. But I rarely do.

And after seeing what I saw on Friday night, I suspect I'll be returning to another Big Head Todd show in the future.

There was very little banter or crowd interaction between songs. All Todd and his three Monsters did was play high-energy, high-quality rock 'n' roll music. For two..and a half...hours. Todd's one hell of a guitarist, and I don't know how to describe the drummer...if he had, like...opposable wrists, or something? (yes, I just made that up. no, it doesn't make any sense. I know this.)

His hands just seemed to float above his cymbals, and then he'd go into an arm-flailing drum fill a second later, toss one of his sticks up in the air, catch it and switch back to a cymbal float. Hard to describe, except that he was a lot of fun to watch, really into what he was doing, and made so much of it look effortless.

The night included a few cover songs...."Boom Boom" by John Lee Hooker; a good but not spectacular version of "Ring Of Fire," by Johnny Cash; and a blow-me-away-good rendition of Clapton's "Forever Man." Anyone who's geeked out about setlists can go and check out the rest of the night's lineup.

In a crowd of maybe 500 people—most of whom were very close to my age—it was a night of easy, relaxing, kinda bluesy, kinda rockin' live guitar music that did not disappoint, even for someone who was an almost fan going into the night.

One quick mention down here of something that did disappoint...and that was the opening act, Joan Jones. Had a hard time finding something to like during her short set, except for the saxophone player, who was as hot as she was talented.

Other than that, the songs were mostly filler until the crowd gathered for BHTM. One of her lyrics was, "Everybody wants to come to my party...wearing nothing at all." And I think that was supposed to be a ballad. 'Nuff said.

"Whoever fights monsters should
see to it that in the process he
doesn't become a monster."
—Friedrich Nietzsche

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The (Not So) Super Bowl

It’s been said that baseball is a game of inches...although I think that cliché has been borrowed for almost every other sport by now as well, from horseshoes to badminton.

But I found out Sunday that sports, and football in this particular example, can be a game of percentages, too.

As in...what are the percentages that the team that wins the coin toss in the Super Bowl defers to the other team, and kicks off instead of taking the ball first?

Or what are the percentages that a rumblin’, bumblin’ linebacker intercepts a pass at one goal line and stumbles through a traffic jam of pads and helmets and grasping hands, dancing along the sideline without stepping out of bounds and falling head first into the other end zone to score a touchdown seconds before the end of the first half?

These two specific plays had my undivided attention on Sunday, especially the latter, because it changed the score from 10-7 to 17-7, which may or may not have rendered a square with my name in it completely worthless.

And this wasn’t a you’ve-just-won-a-free-cheeseburger square, either. More like an all-your-hotels-in-Vegas-in-June-are-paid-for square.

Such is my luck during the Super Bowl. And football season in general, for that matter.

A couple of other musings as we head into the off-season:

• Hines Ward had a 38-yard reception early on that stood for much of the game as the longest pass play between him and Larry Fitzgerald, until Fitzgerald caught one over the middle in the fourth quarter and streaked past Pittsburgh’s defense for a 64-yard touchdown. Ouch.

• Rarely did you hear Troy Polamalu’s name called or see his long hair blowing in the breeze on camera, as he was virtually silent and barely sniffed the ball during the game. I thought he’d find his way into position to get at least one pick.

• Both running games were anemic, with the Steelers hovering around 60 yards, and Edgerrin James gaining all of Arizona’s yards on the ground. Thirty-three.

• Kurt Warner managed to pick apart the league’s best defense for 377 yards to become the all-time greatest passer in Super Bowl history. The former Arena Leaguer has the three best passing performances in Super three attempts. Like him or not, that’s a rather impressive feat.

• There were 23 points scored in the fourth quarter alone, which turned out to be a big boost for those of us who were watching the all-important 46.5 number.

• The Super Bowl was, in fact, so unpredictable that The Boss himself didn’t even play a note of “Born In The U.S.A.” on the grandest stage in all of sports. I would’ve bet against that. I didn’t...but I would have.

Probably the tastiest tidbit of the day was that I got to devour some of my buddy’s chili. Which has nothing to do with the Super Bowl or football or anything else in this blog entry, but it’s always worth a mention, because it’s the best chili on the planet.

OK, heads I write about something other than football in my next post, and tails I break down the Pro Bowl.

Don’t worry, if I win the toss, I’ll defer to you, anyway.

“We’re at the Super Bowl and the people
are thanking us for coming. Thanking us
for coming to the Super Bowl?
Are you kidding me?”
—Lorrie Fair