"Smoked Out" Vital Source Party @ Cactus Club

Mon Nov 17 2008

I was planning on checking out the Borg Ward last night to see Young Widows rock the house, but we didn’t really get rolling in time (it was a very laaaazzzy Saturday). So we went with the sure thing: The Celebrated Workingman and Ifihadahifi at the Cactus Club. I didn’t want to admit to myself that it was a sure thing, though, because I’d thought that about two recent CD-release shows here that wound up being letdowns. I’d never seen Canyons Of Static (or canyonsofstatic; still trying to work out which they’re going with officially) before, but I knew they were touted as purveyors of Mogwai-esque post-rock, which completed a trio of bands with very little in common other than lots of guitar. I like guitar.

The Cactus Club has this way of not listing bands in the correct order on their website or in print, so I was thinking CWM would be opening, but Canyons came on first and cranked out the intense soundscapes in front of various postmodernish video images projected behind them. This style of music is in real danger of being completely overdone right now, so I was fully prepared to be underwhelmed by the same-ol’ song and dance, but these guys had something most Mogwai-apers don’t even comprehend: melody. And rather than just take a theme and build on it to earsplitting volume, these songs moved naturally through distinct movements, each musician getting ample time in the (figurative) spotlight. But Nathan Gaffney on the drums was an avalanche, totally in control of the shifting moods and textures of the music. Ross Severson had some great lead guitar parts—this wasn’t just tension and release, it was that and really good songs. The one unknown of the night (for me) proved a tough act to follow.

Unless, that is, you’re Ifihadahifi; this band could conceivably blow away anyone. At their CD release show (not a letdown by any means), they’d been much more business-like than usual, but it was a total bass-driven groove-fest by their standards. Tonight, they were at their wackiest, and noisiest; it’s amazing how many different monsters this band can be. As always, just blazing and bombastic, throwing so much heat off the stage you’d be sweating even if you could manage to just stand there, but your body has to move. Just off a short U.S. tour with white, wrench, conservatory., they seemed thrilled to be home and it sure is great to have them back. When these guys go into hybernation, Milwaukee is missing one of its greatest bands.

So following Hifi seemed like a cruel imposition, but the night was going so well I wasn’t even slightly worried. Mark Waldoch got things started a capella with the untitled introductory piece from Catherine Wheel’s Adam And Eve; I LOVE this guy! And he was in great voice tonight. If you haven’t seen him sing, you’re really ripping yourself off. He’s able to evoke all the drama of the impassioned life without ever coming across as pretentious, which is a rare gift. And these songs…you’ve seriously got stadium-sized emotional crescendos bursting out of tight indie rock. You’ve got “Hate & Apologies,” a vocal obstacle course woven into a frenetic start/stop workout. You’ve got “Island,” which could’ve been War-era U2 if they’d had a young Paul Simon writing their lyrics. And the set closer, “Opening Night,” packs all the anxiety and rush of the very notion of performance into a song that’s both anguished and triumphant at once. It absolutely brought the house down; there wasn’t a soul in the room not feeling it. This is why we go to see live music. I guess these bands had something else in common: they kick ass live. Cheers to Vital Source for making this happen. I don’t know how it could’ve been any better.

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