I paid my five bucks to Mike Skorcz of John The Savage to get into this show—I considered that a good sign. I’d seen his band and Elusive Parallelograms recently at Activities Fest in Riverwest, and they were the highlights of the weekend. You gotta cherish the small stage and 40-50-person crowds while you can; next thing you know, they’ll be playing at The Rave and all you’ll hear is mush and mumbling. The Cactus Club delivers the goods, but don’t forget your earplugs! You could really end up regretting it.
1956 is a band that’s been steadily building momentum around town in spite of its cryptic name. They stormed on with a wicked bass-heavy post-grunge dirge. When Jay Reimer started singing, I was taken aback by the pre-fame Kurt Cobain essence. The effect dissipated before long, but there were some honest-to-God Nirvana moments throughout this set, nothing at all to be ashamed of. By the third tune, I no longer wondered if bassist Troy Butero was high in the mix by chance--he was on a mission, and there was some fantastic interplay between him and Reimer’s guitar. Butero stood out as the driving force of the set, often much more the melodic propulsion than the guitar or vocals. The combination of groove and mathematics was honestly reminiscent of Phish in its interplay, though obviously not at all in effect. It was a set that made me feel like I’ve really been missing out on shit that’s going on in this town. Where have I been?
There was an undoubted shift in tone when Certain Stars came to the stage, something that couldn’t reach my brain in a correspondence with the band’s name. Is there something tongue-in-cheek about that name that I’m not getting? They were a virtual “Blitzkrieg Bop” out of the gates, but gave a Mudhoney-meets-Nebula impression in the long run, the fruition of the Hullabalooza generation’s jet lag (“Are you being sarcastic, dude?” “I don’t even know any more.”). They busted out some great vocal harmonies on a cover tune that I had never heard before, but that was the absolute highlight of the set. Afterwards, they regressed into what could be interpreted as a cheeseheaded attempt at The Hold Steady (hmmm, “Certain Songs”…?) for the rest of their set. On one hand, it was a poor booking to put Certain Stars between a couple of comparatively dour acts, but on the other, these guys need to find something unique to build on. As is, I felt I’d heard almost all those riffs somewhere before.
There were lots of parents in the crowd as the headliners came on to celebrate the release of their debut album, And Everything Changes. Things started off reliably raucous and intense, but a broken bass string and some other equipment problems began to mar the set early on. The band regrouped for a powerful performance of “Closure;” it sounded like ten guitars reaching a perfect moment of togetherness and then destroying each other. But the set remained uneven from this point on. It being late in the evening, some of the musicians may have had a touch too much to drink; bassist Clayton Hamburg in particular seemed a bit wasted. His rhythm was way off at times, robbing some tunes of their momentum entirely. After an aborted attempt at The Velvet Underground’s “Here She Comes Now,” it was clear that the band was pretty much reduced to just fucking around. “Intelligent Design” should have been a great set-closer, but the band seemed to want to get it over with, just leaning on pedals and strumming. The actual finale, another VU cover (“Sister Ray”) wasn’t bad, but it didn’t save the set, as singer John Hense sheepishly acknowledged in the end. I’m sure my impression also suffered in light of the band’s great set at Linneman’s a few weeks prior. This is one of Milwaukee’s most exciting bands--just a little sloppy tonight.