Saturday, February 1, 2020

Pipes's Picks: Best of 2019 (Better Late Than Never :) )

2019 saw the decade of the 2010's conclude with a number of standout releases that, while incredibly diverse, share a similar quality of evoking a greater sense of simplicity and connectivity, which are two qualities many folks are yearning for these days.  While I'm a little late to the party in terms of the "end-of-the-year" list, this belated version has allowed some of the music from the past year to sink in a bit more.   So, as the old adage goes, better late than never... and with that, I give you my belated version of Pipes's Picks for 2019:

You can check out all of these artists and standout tracks on my 2019 Pipes's Picks Playlist on Spotify.

The tag team of Phoebe Bridges and Connor Oberst delivered a stellar record that features both prolific songwriters in top form, creating an effortless, intimate sound that stands apart from their solo work.  What makes this collaboration especially special is the fact that Bridges, at age 25, is very much in the same boat Oberst was in earlier in his career when he was invited to collaborate with notable, older songsmiths (Monsters of Folk comes to mind).  The beautiful harmonies between the two songwriters and vulnerable lyric-driven songs resonate on a variety of levels and provide the listener something new each time.

Standout tracks: "Dylan Thomas," "Didn't Know What I Was In For," "Sleepwalking"

Produced by Dave Simonett of Trampled by Turtles, Die Happy finds the Eau Claire Americana act at their best with a record that takes listeners on an emotional journey, fuelled with introspective, honest songwriting by Soren Staff.  The vocal harmonies stand out on this record as Die Happy delivers an infectiously catchy record from start to finish.  Also to note, the band's live show is top-notch and the new tracks translate fantastically on stage.

Standout tracks: "Hand of God (parts 2 and 3)," "Evangelina," "5'6'' Monument"

Ghosts of the Forest is a project Trey Anastasio created as a tribute to his longtime friend, Chris Cottrell who passed away from cancer. This is a record that hits particularly close to home for me, as my wife continues her battle with lung cancer. The principal Phish songwriter and guitarist's project is incredibly personal and multi-layered.  Many of the tracks from the record were performed by Phish on their recent summer tour, but Ghosts of the Forest is a unique project different in sonic quality from anything Anastasio has done with Phish or Trey Anastasio Band.  There are records that come around and just help you put one foot in front of the other at different points in your life, and for the latter half of 2019, this was that record for me.

Standout tracks: "Ghosts of the Forest," "About to Run," "Ruby Waves"

2019 was a tremendous year for the indie rock quartet from Brooklyn.  Releasing two stand-out records, U.F.O.F. and Two Hands, the band received tons of well-deserved critical acclaim.  Adrianne Lenker's ethereal vocals drive Big Thief's sound, but it is the unique, clever, and catchy instrumentation of the quartet that really helps the songs take shape. 

Standout tracks: "U.F.O.F.," "Forgotten Eyes," "Cattails"

The Austin-based duo of singer/guitarist Eric Burton and guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada have become quite the buzz-band as the calendar flipped from 2019 into 2020.  The band has sold out shows across the country and deservedly so.  Their album blends the best of soul, funk, and indie rock, and is guided by exceptional guitar-work and Burton's fantastic vocal range.

Standout tracks: "Colors," "Black Moon Rising," "Fire"

Hiss Golden Messenger's M.C. Taylor has become one of the most prolific songwriters in recent years, delivering a string of five top-quality albums over the past four years.  Backed with multi-instrumentalist Phil Cook supporting him, Taylor and company are a band that embodies soulful Americana. Terms of Surrender is heartfelt and reflective through and through and engages listeners from start to finish.

Stand out tracks: "I Need A Teacher," "Old Enough to Wonder Why," "Terms of Surrender"

Eraserland is a hopeful record that finds Timothy Showalter at the top of his game. Backed by My Morning Jacket, Showalter is noticeably more comfortable in his own skin as an artist, and the result is a superb record that blends Showalter's robustly introspective vocals with a genuine jammy rock sound.

Stand out tracks: "Weird Ways," "Ruby," "Forever Chords"

Gunn has emerged as one of the best guitarists on the scene in recent years, blending together bluesy, Americana, and psychedelic stylings. With soundscapes that tell a story in and of themselves, The Unseen Inbetween finds Gunn at perhaps his most accessible.  The companion release, The Acoustic Unseen is also worth checking out and further showcases Gunn's prowess on the axe.

Stand out tracks: "Vagabond," "New Moon," "New Familiar"

The veteran psychedelic, folk, punk, alt-country rocker delivers perhaps his most ambitious record to date with Tip of the Sphere. The longer-form compositions stand out and blend singer-songwriter sensibility and lyrical depth with some serious deep jams.

Stand out tracks: "I Followed The River South to What," "Rounder," "Sleeping Volcanoes"

Moctar is a Tuareg songwriter and musician based in Agadez, Niger who dropped one of the trippiest and most unique guitar-based records of the year. IIana (The Creator) showcases Moctar's unique style of play and jams hard to create vast, lush soundscapes.  Moctar is an artist who cannot be defined by genre labels and pushes his unique sound in so many different directions on this album.

Stand out tracks: "Kamane Tarhanin," "Anna," "Tarhatazed:"

The enigmatic Canadian country crooner's debut LP,  Pony combines traditional country musings with a modern touch to create a freshly unique and interesting sound.  Peck has an unbelievably rich voice that carries his music.  While we don't know tons about the masked performer, it's safe to say that we look forward to forthcoming music from him in years to come.

Stand out tracks: "Dead of Night," "Turn to Hate," "Queen of the Rodeo"

It's hard to believe that Vampire Weekend has been around for the past fifteen years. I still recall seeing them at Turner Hall Ballroom in Milwaukee shortly after their first record was released!  Vampire Weekend has evolved into one of the top indie rock bands of the 2010's. The group continues to progress and hone their unique sound with each release.  Father of the Bride is contagiously infectious with pop songs that will noodle into your brain and stay there for a long time.  

Stand out tracks: "Harmony Hall," "This Life," "Sunflower"

Justin Vernon and company's fourth proper LP, i,i was dubbed the "autumn" record by the group. As with his previous releases, Vernon continues to experiment, explore and expand his sound as a performer.  i,i creates a nice sonic balance, integrating more of Vernon's folk sensibilities with his deeper electronic arrangements to create a solid record from start to finish.

Stand out tracks: "Hey, Ma," "Faith," "Naeem"

Local Love:

Midwestern bluegrass juggernaut Chicken Wire Empire came into their own in 2019 as a top-notch contemporary jam-grass outfit, delighting fans at a plethora of local, regional and national festivals as well as touring Europe.  Releasing What Moves Mountains on New Year's Day was a fun and unique move for the quintet, and helped set the stage for a tremendous year.

Standout tracks: "Wildflowers," "Summer and Me," "Maker"

The sincerity and earnestness of Joseph Huber's songwriting continues to evolve with his most current release, Moondog.  Huber's soulful lyrics shine on this record that spans over 70 minutes and showcases some of the singer-songwriter's best storytelling to date.  Huber's songs allow his listeners to transport themselves into the narratives of his songs on this simultaneously intimate and sprawling release.

Standout tracks: "Northwoods Waltz," "Moondog," "Pale Lonesome Rider"

Monday, September 2, 2019

Them Coulee Boys - Turner Hall Ballroom, 8/30/19

At the end of their powerfully riveting set on Friday Night, Soren Staff, the singer-songwriter/guitarist of Them Coulee Boys, came to the front of the Turner Hall stage without a mic.  With misty eyes, sweaty brow, and a huge grin on his face, he thanked everyone for being in attendance stating, “You have no idea how much this means to us,” praising the large, fun-loving audience at Turner who hung on Staff’s every word.  Them Coulee Boys, the five-piece America outfit hailing from Eau Claire, Wisconsin are honest and sincere musicians, whose passion and emotion is evident through their music and performance.  

Them Coulee Boys are at an all-time high these days.  Their new album Die Happy is exceptional and bound to make many “Best of the Year” lists (including mine).  The eleven-song record masterfully covers a myriad of emotions through the soulful, relatable writing and subtle nuance in Staff’s lyrics, paired with the rich tapestry of the band’s sound. The songs from Die Happy, when performed live provided an even greater sense of joy for the listeners as the audience saw a band truly grateful to be sharing their art with others.  Staff commented at one point in the show that he was so proud to share the new songs with others, and this was evident throughout the band’s near ninety-minute set.  

Soren Staff’s brother, Jens Staff was a pleasure to watch as he alternated from a standard mandolin to a custom-made electric mandolin which looked like a miniature Statacaster as Jens jammed on it.  Bassist Neil Krause held down the rhythm section along with the band’s drummer and also added harmonies and back-up vocals. Beau Janke was on fire with electric and acoustic banjo and also traded off with Jens on keyboards, all while providing harmonies and back-up vocals as well. 

The band’s set, as expected, relied heavily on highlights from Die Happy.  Some stand-out tracks included “Midnight Manifestos,” a song that has a sultry swagger in its rhythm as Staff tells tales of after-hours adventures. “Evangelina,” was another set highlight. While the band has played this song regularly at live shows, the harmonies amongst the band members were notable and got the crowd bopping.  Speaking of crowd participation, the hand rubbing and clapping on “Find Your Muse,” was another great participatory moment and set highlight. However, the biggest takeaway moment from Die Happy was a song that Staff prefaced by saying how glad he and the band were able to share it live.  “Hand of God, Parts 2 and 3” is a masterpiece of a tune, that is musically and lyrically is equal parts contagious and reflective.  

Not to forget their earlier work, Them Coulee Boys mixed in a fair amount of crowd favorites into their set including, “16th Street,” “10 Feet Tall,” and an encore performance of “I Won’t Be Defined” all off their stellar 2016 Dancing in the Dim Light LP.

MKE Rocks had the opportunity to chat with Them Coulee Boys’ lead vocalist and guitarist, Soren Staff in preparation of the band’s album release show at Turner Hall.

MKE Rocks: What was it like creating Die Happy?
Staff: It was a longer process than usual.  We wanted to make this record towards the end of 2017.  In the past, we recorded everything ourselves… it was like record it and get it out.
This time, we knew we wanted to work with Dave Simonett (of Trampled by Turtles) so it kept getting pushed back.  We finally got into the studio in February 2018. Then we made the record and wanted to get some label support behind it to do it the right way.  Here we are, late in the summer of 2019, and are now just getting it out.

Making Die Happy was a meticulous process.  From the start, it was different than other records of ours, as in the past the writing was spread out.  For this one, I was writing the songs all at the same time. It’s a concept record of sorts. There are songs that reference each other both musically and lyrically.  When I figured this out, I wanted to make sure that we were very intentional about each line and the way we put the album together. The extra time really helped give this record some life and gave us time to rework and revise the songs to a new level.

I’m glad we waited this long as it seems like now is the right time to put out something like this.  Giving us the extra time gave us the space to make and release the record the way we wanted to do it.

MKE Rocks: How was it like working with David Simonett?

Staff: Simply put, Dave’s great.  He’s a guy who has been a hero of mine.  I loved them (Trampled by Turtles) for such a long time and waited in line to see their shows.  They are one of the bands that got me into this genre of music. Dave is very kind, thoughtful, and intentional and that really showed through with us in his role as producer.  Some people can be hands-on and others hands-off as a producer. Dave was a good mix of both in the producer role. He gave us the confidence to believe in ourselves at times. There were times he told me, “Soren, these songs are great.”  To hear that from someone I’ve looked up to for such a long time meant a lot. He encouraged us to be ourselves.

MKE Rocks: What are you most proud about the album?

Staff: I think what I’m most proud of is that this is the hardest I’ve worked to put myself out there lyrically.  I don’t necessarily have the strongest music composing skills, but I am very proud of where I went lyrically.  I went to spaces and thought processes that I have never gone to before. I am really proud of the band for making my songs sound way better than they should. These guys help transform the songs into what they become and have made us a band that I’m incredibly proud of.  

MKE Rocks: Spirituality seems to be a recurring theme in many of your songs, especially those on Die Happy.  Could you please share a bit about the role spirituality has played in your music?

Staff: I grew up in the church, and part of this band is me and my brother (Jens) and Beau meeting up at a bible camp.  Religion and spirituality to me is always this relationship that sometimes goes really well and other times really bad.  I think that’s normal and healthy. It’s part of my life, so I write about it. When I write I focus on things that are important to me or things I think a lot about, and spirituality is one of them.  

It also is such a crutch sometimes lyrically.  A lot of those religious metaphors, people get ‘em.  It can be an easy metaphor and I don’t mind using them because they mean something to me.  

MKE Rocks: What are inspirations for writing songs?

Staff: A lot of this record came from personal experience for me.  This record is a journey. I was going through a lot of things when I was writing this record.  I went through a break-up and my mom got sick. It brought up a lot of depression and anxiety for me.  This writing session was in parts me coming to grips with all of this. I went through the low points and had gotten to a place of acceptance.  These songs are super personal as they reference certain moments for me.  

There were moments in songs, like “Hand of God” for instance, where I wanted to look outward.  There were all these characters that represented a part of me, but for me, the song came together by getting all of these characters out. I think a lot about empathy and the people around me.  I’ve written too many songs about myself and wanted to go for a different perspective. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is good and healthy in normal life as well as songwriting.

MKE Rocks: The Midwest Americana scene seems like it’s at an all-time high in terms of talent with bands like yours, Joseph Huber, Buffalo Gospel, Dead Horses, Trampled by Turtles and Chicken Wire Empire, just to name a few.  Can you please share your thoughts on the scene?

Staff: We have a unique perspective because when we came in, we co-opted this genre.  I heard the Avett Brothers and thought, “this is amazing,” so I wanted to do something like this.  When we hopped into things, we didn’t know the history of the scene. We hadn’t heard some of the bands that paved the way in this genre.  With that, everyone is this scene is so very supportive. We are the guys who didn’t know who some of these artists were, and we were openly welcomed in.  This Midwest Americana scene is very focused on very intentional, genuine people who want to make music together and support one another. It’s hard to meet people in this genre and not like them.  I gravitate towards hardworking genuine people and we’ve found so much of them in this genre. There is a boom right now, and that means there will be younger bands jumping in. And that’s what keeps the scene fresh and awesome.  As a young band, having more established bands invite you to do shows is such a great thing, and these guys have no hesitation helping each other out.  

MKE Rocks: Any plans future for touring with this record?
Staff: We have an album release tour in September.  We had a release show in Eau Claire on Friday, then Turner Hall this week, and starting next week we’re going on a big run.  We’re doing twenty-five days on the road… doing a few shows in Wisconsin, going to the UP (Upper Peninsula of Michigan), then going to Nashville for AmericanaFest, then through the Carolinas and East Coast.  We’re bouncing all over the place… it’s something like twenty-two or twenty-three shows in twenty-five days. It’s gonna be fun for sure! We’ll see how the voice stands up. We’re at a moment right now where we want to chase it and we want to see where it goes.  Suffice to say, we’re excited and want to play these songs for people.

MKE Rocks:  In closing today, I just have to ask, where does the name, “Them Coulee Boys” come from?
Staff: The name comes from the driftless region of Wisconsin and Minnesota.  Coulee is a French word that the fur traders made after hearing the native word for “valley.”  Coulee technically now is a valley with a stream or river in it. I grew up in that kind of region near LaCrosse.  When we were working at bible camp, me, Beau and Jens were working together, and our friend would make a joke when we were horsing around, “Them Coulee Boys are at it again.”  That’s where our name comes from. It’s not the most ideal name as folks will ask, “what’s a Coulee?” but we’ve grown to love it because it is just us.

Thanks to Gigshotz by Stephen Bloch for all of the photos in this post.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Trout Steak Revival- The Back Room at Colectivo, 8/15/19

Masterfully sweeping harmonies, on-point picking, and a true sense of joy showcasing their craft made the two-set performance by Colorado's Trout Steak Revival one heck of a bluegrass hootenanny last Thursday at the Back Room at Colectivo.  Trout Steak Revival is a quintet comprised of five stellar musicians with unique backgrounds that come together on stage as an air-tight bluegrass ensemble.  As is the case with many bluegrass acts, there is not one "lead" player, but rather a magical interchange between the band members.  Given the instrumentation of songs and frequent use of harmonies, the focus on the collective union of sound was very much center stage with Trout Steak Revival. The idea that the band is one voice with many sounds really came through in their performance featuring Bevin Foley on fiddle, Steve Foltz on mandolin and guitar, Casey Houlihan on upright bass, Will Koster on dobro and guitar, and Travis McNamara on banjo.  While billed as "Colorado bluegrass," Foltz and Houlihan have Wisconsin roots, with Foltz originally hailing from Rhinelander and Houlihan from Kenosha.

Over the two set show, Trout Steak Revival touched on tunes from all of their releases.  Some highlights included "Colorado River," and "Brighter Every Day" from 2015's Brighter Every Day record.  These two catchy numbers had the crowd tapping their feet and singing along.  "Last Chance" from 2017's Spirit to the Sea was also a feel-good jam that really showcased the harmonies between band members.  A well-placed cover with a bluegrass band can be a real set highlight.  This was the case with Trout Steak Revival taking on the classic Jimmy Cliff tune, "The Harder They Come," which was popularized in bluegrass circles by the Jerry Garcia Band.  This song, lead by the rich vocals of Foltz had practically the whole audience singing along.

With well-articulated jams and soaring vocals, Trout Steak Revival is an act that will continue to impress audiences and progress as musicians.  They're a can't miss bluegrass band for sure!

**All photos are courtesy of Gigshotz by Stephen Bloch.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Joseph Huber & Driveway Thriftdwellers- Anodyne Coffee- Walker's Point, Milwaukee, 8/1/19

Anodyne Coffee in Walker's Point served as a perfect backdrop for Joseph Huber's album release show for his latest record, Moondog.  There is a definite down-home feeling at Anodyne with the barn-like woodwork and wonderfully wafting coffee aromas that makes one feel like they are comfy and cozy. Like Anodyne, Huber's music has a truly intimate and approachable feel... it's music that touches the soul on so many different levels.  Huber's humble nature makes him easily endearing to his listeners, and as a performer he's a blast to watch as he plays guitar, harmonica and sings, all while tapping a tambourine on one foot and kicking his suitcase with the other.  Huber performed as a quartet on Thursday with long-time collaborator, Eston Bennett on upright bass and vocals, Kenny Leiser on fiddle and vocals, and former .357 String Band collaborator, Billy Cook on mandolin and lap steel.  The result was a performance that easily was one of the best I've seen, and a true testament to both the joy and intimacy of Joseph Huber's music.  

On Moondog, Huber tells fifteen stories taking his listeners on experiences through life and travel as only a master song-smith can.  Some songs make your toes tap, like the rowdy opening fiddle and mandolin licks on "Moondog," which kicked off the evening, and "Found Penny," another kick-up the heels kinda jam.  Others like "Rivers of Smoke," and "Hardwired" tug more so at the heartstrings.  The new material came across wonderfully live.  Highlights included the epically sweeping "Northwoods Waltz," which makes references to Huber's time spent in northern Wisconsin from Wausau to old Title Town, and "After You," a warm and caring love song which is a standout number on Moondog.  

The biggest takeaway from the show was not the songs themselves, but the songs in the context of the pure joy that emanated from the stage throughout the evening.  Huber playing with the quartet provided new layers of sound to old classic tunes such as "Hanging Road," and the set-closing "Hello, Milwaukee."  Cook's versatility on stage was also neat to see live. Huber is a master songwriter and one of the more consistently fun and energetic acts to see live.  His performance at Anodyne showcased his songwriting at its finest and had the crowd dancing, toe-tapping, reflecting and wanting more even after the lengthy and energetic set concluded.

Opening for Huber were the Driveway Thriftdwellers, a Milwaukee-based country-rock act.  Driveway Thriftdwellers were a perfect accompaniment to Huber, as their songs are also very much narrative in nature, with great harmonies from lead singer Jon Knudson and his bandmates
.  Many numbers came off of their self-titled release from last year.  "King of Milwaukee," was a set highlight and a contagiously infectious country track.  This was my first time seeing the Driveway Thriftdwellers, but certainly won't be my last.  They were stellar live and if they aren't on your radar, they should be.

Prior to the Anodyne show, MKE Rocks had a chance to connect with Joseph Huber to talk about his new record and recent west coast tour.  Enjoy the interview with Huber below:

MKE Rocks: Moondog is by far your most prolific record to date with 15 songs and spanning nearly 74 minutes, tackling a wide variety of themes.  What was it like to record Moondog?  How was it similar or different than recording your last record, the 2016's outstanding The Suffering Stage?

Huber: I think some might call it prolific due to the length or number of songs. And I guess, regardless of what someone means, I won't be upset with someone using that word. I don't think it's ever been used in a negative sense. But, I still think it's all up to the listener if it truly strikes the right chord. It was initially meant to be 10 songs; more succinct; a more light-hearted turn away from the gravity of The Suffering Stage, but a certain unplanned gravity slowly crept in as it took longer and longer to finish the album and soon it simply had a mind of its own. After a while I had difficulty feeling a sense of agency in being able to control it; hear it; conceive of its wholeness and the only thing that became clear is that it was going to be the embodiment of a time-period that is perhaps as tumultuous and emotionally-exhausting as the record itself. At that point, I knew that if I didn't release all the songs I'd been working on, I would never look back and return to them again. Somehow expelling them seems more healthy.

MKE Rocks: You are an artist whose inspiration comes from so many points.  However, throughout your work, themes of nature and your home state of Wisconsin are prevalent.  How have your surroundings in Milwaukee and experiences growing up in New London and touring throughout the state impacted your songwriting?

Huber:  The more you travel, the more you see how music is seemingly the expression of the natural world and geography that surrounds you; you see that people are an expression of a landscape. Culturally...sure, but also the nature of the climate; the plant-life; the topography. The wood that a guitar is made from; the bow-hair of a fiddle; the skin of a banjo: all at one time were all natural manifestations of the specific environment.  I always joke about the time I went on a vacation in Hawaii and how my songwriting seemed so silly there. And it's true. It really does seem silly there!  I had moments of extreme doubt thinking about how strange, unnecessary and misguided my songs seemed purely because of my natural surroundings. Then I came back to Wisconsin and the expressions seemed natural again. But it's not something that should cause doubt. It should actually make you appreciate that you are an individual expression of time and place. You then learn to appreciate other types of music now that you can see how they too are natural expressions of other times and places that are unique. So, in a sense, I do see my music as 'Wisconsin' music regardless of how much we travel or are influenced by other musicians and writers from all over the world which are now at our fingertips. Not in a limiting sense, just in a humble understanding that all things are "of a time" and "of a place." 

I think the dichotomy of the places I've grown up, New London/Milwaukee, would perhaps be a fitting poetic device to understand the strange contradictions and absurd divisions of my own mind (not to simplify the nature of each place too much, but let's face it...the differences are real). I'm a solitary human by nature/who still loves living in the city; who is asocial in temperament/and yet loves the bustle surrounding him; whose songs revel in the expressions of the natural, untouched world/yet would never have learned to express myself without the influence of my education and immersion into the cultural variety of the city. But, perhaps that's what people have unconsciously felt and enjoyed in my music: an approachable esotericism, or cultivated simpleness (not simplicity...straight up simpleness).

MKE Rocks: What are you most proud of regarding Moondog?

Huber: I think its a lyrically strong album most of all. I truly think this is an album that one could sit down and simply read the lyrics without the music and have an experience that is worth-while in terms of either emotional catharsis or appreciation of clever word-play. I would hope that would be somewhat true of all my songs and albums, and I've tried to continue that line of thinking with Moondog and I believe, even if all else fails, I had succeeded in that sense.

MKE Rocks: You just are wrapping up a big tour to kick off Moondog's release, taking you throughout the west coast.  How has this tour been received?  Any highlights to share?  Any new numbers that you are finding particularly fun to play on the road?

Huber: The tour was an absolute blast--more than I could've hoped for or imagined. Every ounce of laughter on this tour was needed and there was plenty of it to go around. And for that, I will forever be thankful. At every single show, there was someone who had been waiting too damn long to have us travel west. Some folks traveled four to five to six hours to see us. It was proof that I was at least doing something right somewhere...even at a small level. All of the new songs have been fun to play...even the ones that aren't necessarily "fun" songs as far as their theme. I've enjoyed playing "Hardwired" and "Rivers of Smoke" with Billy on the lap-steel, and also "Where You Said You Would Be" on the few occasions where we could bring it waaaayy down low and where it made sense to play.

MKE Rocks: This tour you are joined by your longtime collaborator, Eston Bennett on bass, and have also included a mandolinist as part of the live trio as well, which adds a whole new dimension to the sound. Moving forward, are you planning to continue touring with a mandolin player or are you going to bring the fiddle back or perhaps add both?  

Huber: My ideal band would probably always included both mandolin and fiddle as most of my album's main hooks and licks are a combined effort of both. I've been playing with a number of talented folks, Kenny Leiser on fiddle, Pat Otto on mandolin, and Billy Cook on mandolin and lap steel and electric guitar. I love playing with all different folks and plan to probably play around with the live show with various folks for a while to come. We shall see where it lands yet. I can't quite say, I guess. I'm open.

**Special thanks to Jim Dier of Jim Dier Photography for the great pics of Joseph Huber and Driveway Thriftdwellers that appear in this post.  

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Legendary Shack Shakers, Bleed & Beaumont James and the Wild Claims, The Cooperage, 7/24/19

I've got a lot of respect for local promoters who help bring interesting music to our fair city.  Such was the case last week when Extension Cord presented a triple bill of great music at the Cooperage featuring Legendary Shack Shakers, Bleed, and Beaumont James and the Wild Claims.

photo courtesy of Gigshotz by Stephen Bloch
Extension Cord has brought some seriously awesome bands to town including the Mallet Brothers, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, and on a pleasant summer's eve, the Legendary Shack Shakers out of Murray, Kentucky.  While active for more than two decades, I only recently stumbled upon the Legendary Shack Shakers and their unique take on the ever-evolving Americana sound.  Rooted in a myriad of southern musical styles and fronted by the uber-charismatic JD Wilkes, the Legendary Shack Shakers were by far one of the more interesting and lively acts I've seen in some time.  Blending together rock, blues, rockabilly, and a tinge of punk, the Shack Shakers delivered a ruckus performance that was dialed up to eleven.  The highlight of the evening was watching Wilkes cut loose on the harmonica with unabashed sound and fury, especially during their standout number, "Blood on the Bluegrass," from 2003's Cockadoodledon't LP.  The quirky Wilkes lead a group of top tier musicians in a set that transported the listeners into the roots music of the south with great storytelling to boot.
photo courtesy of Gigshotz by Stephen Bloch
Opening for the Legendary Shack Shakers was Bleed, another band that has been around for quite some time, but I haven't had the pleasure to see perform live.  Bleed hails from Milwaukee and has been melting faces and ringing eardrums since the late 90's.  Bob Merkt, the singer, and guitarist for Bleed was a great performer as a frontman for the band.  He helped guide the band to an almost non-stop barrage of tunes which had a very bluesy-grunge feel.  Bleed's drummer was particularly entertaining to watch as he played standing up with reckless abandon and really glued the sound together.
photo courtesy of Gigshotz by Stephen Bloch
Finally, on the bill was Beaumont James and the Wild Claims who were playing their farewell show, as James is moving to Colorado.  James is a local alternative country singer-songwriter and his group's opening set was simply outstanding (on par with the other acts of the evening).  James's voice is distinctive and helps adds a real sense of depth to his group's sound.  Most of their set came from James's 2018 debut record and featured some good improvisational fiddle jams as well.  I'm bummed that I didn't hear of James earlier, but pleased to have caught his set opening for the Legendary Shack Shakers.

photo courtesy of Gigshotz by Stephen Bloch
As an overall takeaway, I have to tip my hat to Mark and the crew at Extension Cord for putting together a great bill of music on a Wednesday night.  Good shows are always those that stretch the listener to think about music in meaningful and different ways.  The combination of the alt-country Beaumont James, the grunge-punk of Bleed and the psycho-billy southern storm of the Legendary Shack Shakers lead to a heck of a night of good tunes!

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Fort Frances- Festa Italiana, US Celluar Stage 7/21/19

It's been a minute since we've seen Fort Frances perform. Ailo, the group's last LP released in 2016 took the Chicago quartet around the country and beyond. Since that tour wrapped up, life has gotten busy with band members getting married and having kids, all while working on a dynamic follow-up record to Ailo which is set for release this fall. 

Fort Frances took a brief tour of America's Dairyland with a run of shows here in Wisconsin this weekend, taking them to Neenah, Door County, Green Bay, and finally here in Milwaukee for an evening set at Festa Italiana, one of Milwaukee's many summer celebrations held on the Summerfest grounds. The group even created drink Koozies for the occasion! 

Playing an ethnically-themed festival is not an easy task for a band that focuses on original singer-songwriter driven material. David McMillin and the crew brought their A-game however, and engaged the crowd with a retrospective mix of originals spanning the band's nearly decade-long career along with a smattering of well-placed covers inserted as well.  Highlights included classic numbers like "Ghosts of California," and "Losing You," from 2011's Atlas LP, alongside a well-done rendition of "These Are the Mountains Moving," (a song McMillin penned while riding on a train from Chicago to Colorado), and "Best of Luck" from Ailo. Two brand new tunes released as singles from Fort Frances's forthcoming record drew some of the best reactions from the crowd. "A Thousand Years From Now," is one of McMillin's best songs in terms of themes and lyrics, and was very well-received.  "Double-Take," a song that deals with the modern parlance of our times, is another new number that garnered a great reaction from the crowd and featured tremendous energy from the group. 

While Fort Frances is known for original numbers, they sprinkled in enough covers to draw listeners unfamiliar with the band to their stage to enjoy their gelato and check out their performance.  McMilllin did a soulful rendition of Bill Wither's "Lovely Day." Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" prompted some impromptu dancing from fest goers, and for longtime Fort Frances fans from around the globe, they nailed "Summertime" by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, a song they're well-known for covering and that prompted lots of dancing and fun in the crowd.

One thing that is well-noticed with Fort Frances is how the band has improved their chops over the past several years. McMillin alternates from guitar to keyboard and his soulful vocals soared over the large festival stage. Jason Ryan, the multi-instrumentalist of the band, was equally impressive on guitar and keyboard. Aaron Kiser, the band's drummer, has really developed a unique style of his own with heavily nuanced drumming licks. Kiser also has started a new band, "Steal My Phace" which focuses on reinterpreting material from the catalog of the Grateful Dead and Phish. Kiser provided lots of backing vocal harmonies throughout the evening as well and is widely entertaining as a performer.  While founding bass player, Jeff Piper was not with Fort Frances for this show (as his wife and he welcomed their beautiful son to the world this past week), Dennis Furr did a great job filling in on bass and back-up vocals as well.

Fort Frances is a superb live act, one that has the power to engage fans of all ages. We can't wait to see them perform new material when they return to the Dairy State this fall in support of their new release. They are a super-fun, and must see act for sure!

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Phish- Alpine Valley Music Theater, 7/13/19 and 7/14/19

photo by Rene Huemer, 2019 Phish from the road
As I sat down to write this blog post I realized something astonishing... I've been listening to Phish and attending their concerts for over half of my life.  It all started twenty-five years ago, when I saw my first Phish show back on 6/17/94 at the Eagles Ballroom in Milwaukee.  When you think about a band that has been around that long and remains relevant enough to play a three-night stand at Alpine Valley, a venue that holds 35,000 fans each night, that's a pretty astounding feat.  And in all of those years, and the decade that preceded my first show in 1994, the band has never, ever, repeated a setlist, guaranteeing that every concert is a truly special and unique experience for their fans.  

photo by Rene Huemer, 2019 Phish
Phish is nothing if not one of the most unique and enduring touring acts out there.  Their songs can range in length from two minutes to over thirty minutes, as fans experienced this weekend at Alpine Valley. They have perhaps the most robust musical catalog in the business, consisting of thirteen studio records, plus a vast repertoire of tunes that are unreleased on record but are often performed live.  There are literally hundreds of songs that fall into this category. In addition, Phish loves covering songs by other artists, so there are boon of those songs that they can choose from as well.  Phish's setlists can vary from classic numbers to brand new songs, as the band is constantly evolving and writing new music.  In this 2019 Summer Tour, Phish incorporated twenty new songs into their catalog and played 200 different numbers (courtesy of  I cannot think of any other active band, jam band or otherwise, that would be able to pull off such a feat.  Perhaps never having a "hit" has helped Phish in this respect as the performances are known to be unique, one-of-a-kind affairs.  If you go into a Phish concert with the expectation of, "I must hear this song, that song, or the other song," you will most likely walk away disappointed.  If you enter the show with a sense of open-ended wonder for what the band is going to do, you're more likely to be pleasantly surprised.

photo by Rene Huemer, 2019 Phish
The Phish community itself is a unique group of individuals who take their fandom seriously, rise to new heights of nerdy, and are beloved for it.  Like heavy-duty Major League Baseball fans, Phish fans are eager to share their memories of their favorite songs, past shows, and general good times, just as baseball fans will recount special moments of games from the past and former stars.  The nostalgia factor that drives fans to baseball also does so with Phish to a certain extent.  There is also a lot of statistical nerdery going on.  Thanks to the interwebs and sites like "Jambase" and "" one can figure out the average "vintage" of a given Phish show as well as how often certain numbers are played.  There is also a lot of strategizing and discussion that goes on regarding what the band will play on any given night.  This conversation can be between you and your buddy who you go to the show with, or a complete stranger who ends up as your parking lot or show neighbor.  People at Phish shows LOVE talking about Phish, and will eagerly engage in trying to predict the setlist for the given night.

Despite having a fan base that, for the most part resides in the over thirty demographic these days, Phish's popularity seems as high as ever. Granted, if you didn't care for Phish twenty-five years ago in the Eagles Ballroom opening with "Runaway Jim," hearing the famous song about the old dog who takes off on an adventure jammed out for well over ten minutes Saturday night at Alpine isn't going to necessarily win you over nowadays.  Phish's technical playing has improved by leaps and bounds, but the flavor of their show remains quirky, spontaneous, zany and free-flowing.  And in many ways, that's the magic of Phish, isn't it?  For longtime fans, it's a chance to hear the band re-imagine songs that we grew up with... songs that were scribbled on "dream setlists" in math classes... songs that were cranked on boom boxes and car cassette stereos on Maxell XLII grey cassette tapes with the treble down to avoid the inevitable "hiss"... songs that we connected to and that take us back to a different and simpler time.   

photo by Rene Huemer, 2019 Phish
Phish also continues to grow as a band, releasing new material.  Last Halloween, Phish took on the musical costume of Kasvot Vaxt, a made-up Scandinavian band and performed a set of brand new original songs under that alias. Who even thinks something like that up?  Phish, that's who.  In classic Phish fashion, many of those tunes have quickly become crowd favorites, including "Say It To Me S.A.N.T.O.S." which tells this listener, "This is what space smells like," repeatedly.  It made for a rocking encore on Saturday night with 35,000 fans strong at Alpine Valley, belting out the refrain together. Saturday's first set relied heavily on the nostalgia  with the band playing lots of older tracks including, "AC/DC Bag," to open the show, along with "Ya Mar," and "Character Zero".  In classic Phish fashion, these tracks were complimented by newer material like 'Blaze On,' from 2016's Big Boat record, which received the best jam of the first set, and "The Final Hurrah" from 2018's Kasvot Vaxt performance. Second set kicked off with "Haley's Comet," and also featured a great jam sequence that took fans on a flowing journey through "A Song I Heard the Ocean Sing," from 2004's Undermind LP, into "Runaway Jim," which got a nice jam treatment. "Ghost," from 1998's Story of a Ghost was another set highlight and had a great spacey mid-section jam.

While the venue and band were, of course, the same, the Sunday Phish show had a totally different vibe and energy to it, as the band went into the very deep crevasses of its catalog for a show packed with a plethora of bust outs.  The first set opened with a rare version of "The Landlady," off of 1992's A Picture of Nectar record, which is rarely played.  Following was perhaps the biggest bust out of the tour, "Olivia's Pool," which hasn't been played since 1997 and has a fun-loving rock 'n roll vibe.  First set also featured a '"Meatstick," which went into a killer version of "Vultures," and then into another uber rare track, "Spock's Brain."  If that wasn't enough, set two of Sunday's show opened with two songs that I had never heard before live but showcase Phish's ability to make new classics. "Mercury" and "Ruby Waves," flowed perfectly together,  the latter of which provided an epic thirty-eight-minute jam that has the "" community gushing. "You Enjoy Myself -> Catapult -> Contact -> You Enjoy Myself," closed the show with another great piece of music.  All totaled, the second set on Sunday lasted a whopping 118 minutes and was the longest set of tunes I've ever seen them do.  Was it epic?  Oh yes, it was!  I'd rank Sunday 7/14/19 as one of the best Phish concerts I've ever seen in fact.  #Nevermissasundayshow

So to Trey, Mike, Page, and Fishman... keep doing you.  You bring a lot of smiles and joy to a lot of people and bring people together.  I hope that you continue to do so, as your phans will keep coming back...even those who have been fans for twenty-five plus years and are still going strong.

Saturday, July 13, 2019 live recording thanks to Jam.Buzz

Sunday, July 14, 2018 live recording thanks to Jam.Buzz