Category Archives: shovels

Good Things

2016.3 / 2016.5

I moved to Milwaukee in late 1983, and after a few months finding my feet in an urban environment, started getting into the local music scene, which was amazing at the time.  And in 1986, in the last gasp of what was called the Clamshell at Summerfest, clamshell.jpg there was an epochal local bill:  R&B Cadets, the Bodeans, and the Violent Femmes.  On a night after the previous days rain, so it was muddy as fuck. (coincidentally, as I write this, it is raining)  And really, the night was as awesome as fuck.  Every one of those bands was at the height of their young, spit-filled hormonal young power.  It was what was considered the Main Stage at Summerfest at the time, and it was a display of the great music that was percolating in the city at the time, and it was amazing and we had a stellar, muddy, drunken time. My!  Didn’t we just!

At this point, I want to step back a bit.In 1985 or so, my roommate took me to a dive near the River to see “Da BoDeans” in a small sweaty room with like 20 other people.  They did not yet have a bass player, but the feral, vital songs and the interplay between Kurt and Sammy’s vocals was already amazing, even in that environment. The amazing chemistry was there.  The amazing songwriting was there.  It was raw (LOL. Like I find that as a problem) but man, it was hot and sweaty and so rock and roll that it hurt.  I have been a fan ever since, and we have seen the BoDeans in so many different places, and different incarnations; I saw them as a duo playing as He&He in an East Side Bar.  We’ve seen them at the Marcus Amphitheater, as massive rock stars.  The Bodeans are always a good show…

And then, they had what seems to be an irreconcilable separation between Sammy and Kurt, the primary members of the BoDeans.

So on Friday, the 3rd day of Summerfest, we saw Sammy Llanas playing in a sweet spot between Brian Fallon (of the Gaslight Anthem) and Trapper Schoepp.

I will confess up front that since the first days of the band, I preferred Sammy’s vocals – the raw, unprocessed and emotional aspects of it.In fact, when the first album came out, there was much discussion about how much we disliked that his voice was mixed down…funny, in retrospect.

Another personal note.  A few years ago, we went to the Zoo for A La Carte, and the BoDeans were supposed to play.  But Sammy had dropped the bomb on Kurt like three days before, so he did the best he could with the band he could drum up….

So, it was mordantly amusing and more than a bit weird that we saw both primary members of the BoDeans were playing at Summerfest this year, on different days.  And it deserves a Delicious or Disgusting  dammit sorry, 3Bulls leaking through to reality-  but a review that compares them.

Sammy had a small, stripped down and pretty great band.  His voice was great.he worked hard.  He played a couple of his solo songs, but mainly focused on the songs he did with the Bodeans band. but man, was he good.  His voice was a bit lower than in the day, but it served the songs well.  And although I did not miss Kurt on “Naked” (more on that later) I felt the biggest lack of another vocals was during “Still The Night”

Kurt retained the name, and the Bodeans show was much bigger,  on a bigger stage, with bigger lights, a bigger band, better sound, and much more production.  But then, I always though Kurt wanted to be Bruce Springsteen…

The sound for the ‘official’ Bodeans show was great, and the band sound was really awesome.  It was very big. They had Kenny Aronoff on drums, which was a secret weapon.  I kind of hated the fact that Kurt played guitar with his fingernails, rather than a pick; I have done that and  I HATE IT.  But his guitar, which I suspect is custom, is gorgeous .  So balance.

In all, both shows featured some really great songs. I figure that it mainly organized itself by whoever wrote whichever song.

And here is what I saw and heard: there was one band that had stellar musicianship and sounded like a star cruiser making liftoff; and there was one that had the songs.

And that the songs, when presented, are much better served by a simpler presentation, with a more straightforward approach.

Man.

I have been a part of the BoDeans life for so long, and they have been a part of my life for since forever.  Let me tell you; when they released their first live album “Joe Dirt Car”, it was named after one of my good friends.

OK, so let’s get down to it.  Kurt’s band was amazing and really well rehearsed and good with what they did.  On the few songs they did that usually had Sammy vocals, they ….well, let’s not say they sucked,, because they didn’t.  But they certainly were…lacking.

Sammy’s set, was, IMHZO, much better, and he was able to deal with the lack of Kurt’s vocals.  I need to say right here that Sammy can pull off ‘Naked’ on his own and Kurt can’t.  But the one I thought was lacking was “Still The Night”.

This, of course, comes down to a personal choice.  With the difference ideas we have about music and our different histories regards to the BoDeans, Wife Sublime and I still both agree that Sammy’s show was better.

If Summerfest ever books them both on different stages at the same time, I will opt for Sammy, no hesitation.

It is truly a real life demonstration of the adage “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” and regardless of how talented the two are in their own rights, the work they did together was elevated into another realm.

Don’t get me wrong; I really enjoyed both shows.  Nothing to complain about.

But knowing, and having experienced, the history of the Bodeans, I knew at a very basic level that the magic and collaborative spark they had was something special, and it is kind of tragic that they ended in a way that is very difficult to reconcile.  It’s sad for us fans, and it’s sad for them; they were once good friends and great partners.

I will leave you with a song (clearly influenced by their time spent opening for U2) in a local venue and yes, we were there, and yes, this is available as a live release:

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Hard to Go Quietly

OK.  I am going to try and power through a few posts, play a little ketchup blogging…fair warning; quality will suffer.  Am only a zombizzle, after all, and one with tired feet.  If you want a refund, contact mikey.

2016.10

The last Saturday.  As I always say, this is a festive, albeit slightly desperate night.  The End of the Fest is in sight, and time runs out.  Tell you what, though; last year, I understood the real meaning of ‘Time Running Out’ and this is nothing.  Nothing….

Here’s another throwback/reminiscence.  Way back, when I moved to Milwaukee and was not even a zombie, I luxuriated, I reveled, I positively debased myself in the local music scene.  There was so much good stuff happening; the Femmes, da BoDeans, R&B Cadets, Those X-Cleavers, so many more I’ve forgotten.  We would go out to see bands every weekend, it seemed.  The City, especially the East Side, was positively throbbing with music.

phew.  I am a bit over-beered tonight.  Not in the sense of being over-served; but since that is the beverage most available at Summerfest, I have had way more beer than I am used to this week.  Time for a bit of the bourbon, to cut the foam.  Excuse me….

In that heady, fervent time, a bunch of kids from Indiana saw the Scene, and decided to move their entire band to Milwaukee to be part of it.  That band was the Squares, and two of the members were Brian and Scott Wooldridge.  They wrote great, earnest, if maybe a bit raw alternative pop-rock hits in the vein of Elvis Costello and the Kinks, and I became a big fan.  Here’s one of their songs from that time:

As kids are wont to do, we all broke up, made new combinations, and moved in and out of different gigs, different relationships.  The Squares broke up and spent time in other bands.  Brian and Scott played out as The Wooldridge Brothers, but eventually Scott moved to Minneapolis, and they both got jobs and moved their lives into other phases.

One of the bands I saw around was an arty alt band called Arms And Legs And Feet, mainly because a friend of mine did stage and sound for them.  That band eventually morphed into Blue in the Face an alt-pop band with a three piece horn section and Joe Vent, one of those Squares.  As I said up above, people move on and the leader of that band, Mike Benign (although his actual name is Mike Stefaniak) eventually broke up the band to have a life and start a family.  But a couple of years ago, with the advances in self-recording, he put together a new venture called the Mike Benign Compulsion, and they played early at 6 PM.  They mine a similar vein that his prior bands did, and you might do far worse for yourself than obtaining some of his tunes…

Mike’s band was good, and good old Joe Vent was on guitar, yet again.  And best?  He brought out Scott Wooldridge and Julie Straczewski-Wooldridge to sing on an excellent song written by Joe Vent and Brian Wooldridge called “I’m Troubled”.  Yes, it is a somewhat incestuous music scene…

Since moving to MPLS, Scott has done a little bit of work with his brother, releasing Days Went Around and gigging infrequently.  But he started writing songs again, and last year they did a Kickstarter to fund Scott’s solo album and a new Wooldridge Brothers album (did I contribute?  What do you think?).  Scott’s excellent solo album was released las year, and he did a fair number of shows in and around Minneapolis and the Midwest as the Scott Wooldridge trio.
perhaps most alarmingly excellent is that the Wooldridges were invited to play at the star-studded Big Star Third tribute show at First Avenue.  As part of that show, they were tapped to play and sing on the Big-Star-adjacent song “I Am The Cosmos” and if you can’t be arsed to go read my Big Damn blogpost about the show, here’s the viddy again:

It was a bit surprising to see the Wooldridge Brothers score an 8 PM slot-opening for Ben Folds, no less.  They had a big band, with another guitarist and a keyboard player and were they good?  You tell me.  They friggin opened with Star Of Desire, a regional hit.  And there was a substantial crowd there to see them.

They played a couple of songs off the soon-to-be-released new album, and a couple of Scott’s solo songs.  Also some well chosen covers; the Kink’s Picturebook and the Band’s The Shape I’m In (although regardless of my demand that they add it to their set, no “I Am The Cosmos”.  They left after a nice 80 minute set.  I went and talked to an Imaginary Digital Friend who has seen more local and punk bands than I have…

After much intervening life, the Wooldridges and many other people from that time are still kicking, and using their hard-won experiences to keep doing what they love.  And I love that they are doing that.  It gives me hope; it renews my determination when it had been flagging the past few weeks.  Time is running out, yes; as it runs out for all of us.  For some it runs out sooner; for me it was a near thing.  But not yet, not yet; and, as ever, I am still looking to music to renew my spark and make me smile.

For a little time, at lest.  And really, what more can you ask?

Thank you, Scott and Brian Wooldridge and the other musicians on stage tonight.   You did your job well and I thank you….

 


So Good It Hurts

Pardon merci, je suis le grande zombie; I’m just not human tonight

OK, if you’re new to these parts, I would suggest you go read this.

The next question, of course, is did the latest Mekons show live up to, or exceed, the rambunctious character of that one?  Oh my yes, it did indeed.

And right here, I am going to avoid drawing out the suspense:  I did, indeed, have a few beers.  The first, in fact, since The Event.

When I was in the hospital, and after they had managed to make sure I could breathe again, I found myself thinking of the future.  The near term future, to be sure; after I had managed to get some sleep, I thought that attending Summerfest was probably off the radar.  But there was a gig on the 14th…

she had been misplaced by the government 
our old friends are under attack 
they crossed over the border 
(but) i have been to heaven and back 

In fact, the Mekons show was kind of uppermost in my mind.  When I was cleared for most activities, I saw a few days of Summerfest (and a few days of work) as the perfect trial run/shakedown period for my new cyborg heart and shiny new lifestyle.  But even more, when things seemed to be kind of bleak, it was a goal, something to reach for and a reason to make the efforts necessary with all the changes to be made.

The Mekons are spread out over three continents and several countries-Chicago, New York, LA, England, London, Siberia…So a tour is something that doesn’t happen lightly.  Or frequently; if you read that earlier post like I told you, the last time they hit these parts was 2011.  Also the last time they released new music.  But I wasn’t particularly surprised when the announcement included the juicy tidbit that they would culminate the tour with a live recording of new material, recorded in a club with 75 fans participating.  “Why should a record take longer to record than to listen to?” asks Jon Langford.  Even more curious, that one of the stops was Mineral Point, a small historic former mining town on the west edge of Wisconsin.  

Since I was not going to be able to pull off the logistics of making the New York recording show (christened “MekonCeption”) we got the tickets for the MP show.  15 bucks each, hilarious…

I had booked a room prior to the Event, figuring I would be misbehaving and not in any shape for the 2.4 hour drive back.  We met some friends, and I disappointed my cardiologist by having a cheeseburger.  Damn, it was good, too…

i’ve been to heaven and back
right in front of my eyes
things have a habit of happening to me
it’s no suprise

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At this point, I could talk about the show and the songs they played and the setlist and so on, but no one ever gives a shit about that stuff, so let’s take a different approach.

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In the recent movie Revenge Of The Mekons, Joe Angio delves into the question of why the Mekons keep on doing it, in the face of industry indifference (even hostility) and a small and unchanging fan base (which very nearly decreased by one! and they can’t afford to lose any…) no matter how fervent.  I don’t think he answered it.

But the recent show, and this tour, I think provides a glimpse into the whys.  With the barriers to recording and touring, it would be easy for the band to just go on extended or permanent hiatus, and focus on their other activities (all of them have many creative outlets).  The band has often said that part of their motivation is that they are friends, and really like getting together and playing music, seeing their fans.

But further, they want to make their time together special, to make whatever they do interesting to themselves – and that becomes interesting to their fans (who also tend toward the stubborn and iconoclastic). It’s why they have played punk, folk, alternative rock, electro, noise, alt-country; done books, graphic art, a multi media art installation, poetry readings, and the world’s best cross-dressing lesbian pirate musical.

It’s also why they played a small, restored burlesque theater in the middle of Fuck-All, Wisconsin.  And it’s why they will later play in a small club in New York for 75 people to record a new album of new material and the audience will participate as a “feral choir”.

The show featured two sets of material, and it covered everything back to 1984.  They played two sets, and the band was having a splendid time; including two filthy traditional songs sung/chanted by Lu Edmonds.  Sally led the obliging crowd in the yoga-like choreography for Now We Have The Bomb and Deputy Mekon Janet Bean (of Freakwater and Eleventh Dream Day) left the merch table to join in on a couple of songs.

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some of the people they stayed behind
now they’re all in prison or dead
i’m looking up at the mountain
i have been to heaven and back 

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They played everything I could have wanted.  Short of playing everything, that is.  Memphis, Egypt, oh yes.  Orpheus, o MY yes.  Even a song for the Bastard, which I can’t recall them ever playing before:

At the end of that video, you see how much fun they have on stage, and they were having as much fun or more last Tuesday.

ooo animal radar 
like a thread around the world 
loving and laughing my head’s going ’round 
i am a curious boy…

In one post about music, I talked about having tears in my eyes and that if I ever stopped being able to feel that, go ahead and bury me because I will be dead.  Well, that may not be so funny anymore, but in the end, I think a deeper connection revealed itself this week.

The Mekons keep making music because they are friends and colleagues and they can still find ways to connect and ways to create together.  It’s still exciting and vital for them, so the lack of traditional success never really enters into their calculations. They love to howl and sing, and although they continue to change and find entertaining new ways of doing so.

They keep on, because they still find a reason to do so.  Giving up is not an option…

Three weeks ago, it was enough to look forward to a Mekons show, and that was a good enough reason to tell my treasonous heart that giving up is not an option.  In a discussion with a friend, he mentioned that his cardiac event scared him; but I don’t recall being scared, even when I was wondering if I would breathe again.  I recall being resigned, then relieved.  But I knew that if there was a way, I would be in Mineral Point, watching some great friends have a wonderful time, and having a wonderful time with them.

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And now, a few days later; giving up is still not an option.  Not as long as there is music and friends and family; not as long as the Mekons are still around.

some people write little verses
others go on looking for cracks
uh handcuffed to history
i have been to heaven and back

I am STILL not dead yet…

Fly On The Wall

Third day of the Fest, second day of attendance.  We went down to catch a little bit of Will Phalen, who was pretty damn good.

Zelmo showed, and we got some food;  I found a nice asian sampler plate that seemed to work fine for the glucose balance.  Probably more salt than I should have had…

Zelmo had to leave before he turned into a pumpkin, and we discussed catching Pat McCurdy.  However, I was still getting a handle on all kinds of new habits and boundaries; my back was sore (turned out to be a med side effect), so we decided to take it easy and call it a night.

I am going to combine the Saturday attend with this post; because I don’t go.  Had to miss some good stuff…the Invaders, King Solomon, Maritime, Flaming Lips…but a nephew had made the appalling decision to schedule his wedding during Summerfest.

So we went to that, instead.  I found it interesting that Summerfest was not particularly tempting to have a drink – helps that much of the beer is middling grade at best- but that the full bar at the reception was a much stiffer challenge.  But it all turned out OK!

….and Sunday could be another Summerfest day.


High Feather

Just got back from my seventh day at Summerfest, and it is now over for another year.  One day due to ICU, one due to an ill-considered wedding date, and two for general fatigue.

I have many posts to yet be made, but they will have to wait a bit until I can get some Klark Kent duties out of the way, not to mention silly crap like Cardiac Rehab class.

One thing worth mentioning; a sign of the unseasonably cool weather is that I managed to not get my traditional Fest-Burn. Today and tonight, however, were fucking gorgeous.

Time for go to bed for me too, kid…

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Hallowed Ground

The year I moved to Milwaukee, I saw a young upstart punk bank on campus.  They played a bracing crossbreed of punk and folk and crazed jazz, and they included two local journalists playing typewriters in the background, as the “Typewriters of Dilemma” (their normal music augments were known as the Horns of Dilemma – in fact, they still are).

One of those Horns, Peter Balistrieri, is notable because his sax playing aggravates my good friend Mike; not because Peter played very noisy and abrasively, but because when you saw him play in a different format, he was REALLY GOOD.  It offended Mike, I guess, that Balistrieri liked to play as if he never played the instrument before.  But I digress.)

I had heard the Violent Femmes’ first album from a room mate before I moved to Milwaukee and taped it.  But at that show, they were debuting songs from their second album, songs like Country Death Song, Black Girls, and the title track from this post.

I went out and bought the new album as soon as it was available and I admit it was the last time I bought their music on vinyl…  Since then, we’ve seen them in many venues over time.  We saw them headline an all-Milwaukee show at the old Summerfest Main Stage Clamshell with Da BoDeans and the R&B Cadets.  At Shank Hall, a 300 person club.  At the Zoo for A La Carte. Playing for 20,000 fans at the Marcus Amphitheater.  They have been a long time mainstay in our musical love life.

MOAR Digression.  If you haven’t been aware, in the absence of viable income sources, musicians have been forced to allow soulless corporate savages to co-opt the cool factor and anti-establishment cred of musicians to push product.  Possible the most subversive was whichever joker managed to get Carnival Cruise Lines to pay Iggy Pop for a song about being a junkie, which was either STUPENDOUSLY well played or a complete ignorance of song lyrics.  Given what I know and hear from people singing along with songs, I suspect the latter.  IN ANY CASE, Gordon Gano let Wendy’s use “Blister In The Sun” to sell chili.  Which is, you know, pretty WTF in it’s own right, and I suspect at least half a joke.  But Brian Ritchie, being an abrasive jerk (and you KNOW I feel a kinship with him). objected to this unilateral action (although he apparently cashed the check) and the band broke up forever – or until they needed some money.

Yes, until they needed the money.  So a few years back, they did a “reunion” tour of three gigs, I think?  Milwaukee, Coachella and maybe one more.  Can’t be arsed to look it up, so in the spirit of Jonah Goldberg, maybe one of you can do my research.  We saw that show, and the incredible Avett Brothers were one of the opening acts, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Because while the Femmes were perfectly serviceable, they insisted on doing their first album ONLY their first album, all the way through- and that was it.  For their single encore song, they played one of the songs they already played.  Kind of insulting for a 20,000 person local crowd.

When this year’s  show was announced, I very nearly passed.  Wife Sublime asked, I said well we didn’t really care for the four person BNL when we saw them, and I was disgruntled about the Femmes the last time; and while I love Colin Hay I didn’t feel like dealing with the crowd and parking for the first 30 minutes of a show.

But I reconsidered.  Mainly because WS loves the Femmes so much.  And boy, am I glad I did….

First things first.  Colin Hay is a treasure.  He mostly plays solo these days, and even those early songs are better for it.  His voice is still great, and he is mordantly amusing and self-deprecating on stage and boy, his new songs are much better than the ones you know.  While he didn’t play my second-favorite song of his, he was still perfectly great.

OK, most zombies polled think the Femmes should have headlined.  But Ed Robertson from BNL was so clearly a fanboy from his introductions, that it was hard to hold a grudge.

Of course, the Femmes opened with hard core stuff, Blister In The Sun and Kiss Off.  But then they played two NEW FUCKING SONGS, and by the time they followed up with American Music, Old Mother Reagan, and Freak Magnet, I was convinced and won over (kind of would have loved to hear them dedicate Old Mother Reagan to Turdwaffle).  Also, would have LOVED to see them do “No Killing”, their protest song to Milwaukee Police Chief Harold Breier whose police force was killing black people long before it was fashionable:

A HUGE part of that convincement, though, was due to their new drummer Brian Viglione.  He was so dynamic, and he drove the other two Femmes (not to mention the Horns) to great heights of energy and delight; to the point that I said “I hope the older guys don’t kill themselves trying to keep up!” We were on the drummer’s side, and if you go see this tour, that is the side to be on….

Barenaked Ladies were extremely good.  We caught a brief part of their show after they kicked the coke addict out of the band, and we found it to be weak; not surprising, they had to figure out not only how to record new music but also figure out how to deal with a 20% reduction in their stage show.  But this night, they were totally on it; also maybe aided by an incoming fog bank, and a downpour that flooded the front two rows.  Many jokes about Dave Grohl were made.  They brought out Colin Hay (Ed:  I cannot tell you how awesome it is to have Colin Hay sing your song!) and the sax player from the Horns of Dilemma.

And like that show so many many years ago, I could not wait to get the latest Violent Femmes album, so I bought it at the merch table and YES it is vinyl; 180 gram colored disc and possibly the heaviest album I have ever had in my hands. And I do need to wonder where they got a cover photo from my relatives:

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I was very disappointed back when the Femmes broke apart like a poorly constructed Ikea bookshelf; but it happens.  REM, MST3K, on and on; the only one of my heroes that have not done so is the Mekons, and believe me you will hear about it after the show at the Mineral Point Opera House a month from now.

But the thing is that while angst and anger expressed through guitars and destruction may be a youngster’s game (an assertion that I feel is open to debate); there are many more expressions to be made by older artists as well.  The weight of experience can be just as compelling.  The new Femmes album includes a lovely and kind of sad song called Fast Horses….

Even if the Femmes do not build on what they’ve done this year, it still shows that even total dickwads can still work together to make lovely things happen.  We all have to keep on doing what we do, and sometimes it takes a bit of humility and a bit of compromise a maybe a bit of waiting for payback.  All of that notwithstanding, that doesn’t mean you can’t still make the current thing you’re doing the best, most wildly abandoned balls-out effort you can.

It should be noted here, that the venue we saw this show, the BMO Harris stage (and when the downpour was happening and leaks were pooling on the stage, I made INCREDIBLY disparaging remarks about bankers dictating budget reductions to architects) which is on the Summerfest Grounds.  And this land was at one time home to a Nike Missile battery.  I guess someone at the Pentagon figured that we had to defend the breweries against Russian incursion BEARVERINES!  Or perhaps the Pentagon needed to spend some money on something that was useless.  Yeah that seems more likely. Remember that huge waste of money when the bridges you are driving over are crumbling, Republicans…

Anyway, when the useless and expensive and technologically incompetent missile interceptors were removed and shitcanned, there was a large amount of really nice land along a big, really nice lake that suddenly was unclaimed.  After an aborted attempt by the Traffic Engineering Idiots to follow Chicago’s lead in separating the entire city from the huge natural benefit they have, Milwaukee’s Socialist mayors made it a public trust, and it turned into one of the biggest public access to natural waterways in the entire world.  Part of which, naturally, is now the Summerfest Grounds.

So on Saturday night, we loved a band from Milwaukee, playing a song that includes the lyrics that I first heard so many many years ago:

Everyone’s trying to decide
Where to go when there’s no place to hide
I follow the bombs as they’re coming down
This must have been hallowed ground

There is an old saying about beating swords into plowshares.  In Milwaukee, we have beaten missiles into guitars.  Hallowed Ground, indeed.


I’ll Take The Rain

We didn’t go down on Saturday, the best thing was Midwest Death Rattle. Otherwise the day was filled with your Reo Chuckwagons, your Dennis Robotos, your Michael McDonalds and fuck that noise, I say.

So here’s a summer song.