MSE Fest: Decibully, The Championship, The Celebrated Workingman

Thu Sep 04 2008

If you had a good amount of free time one weekend prior to the big bike brouhaha, you could’ve caught a very nice smattering of bands that are contributing to making the Milwaukee music scene swell with excitement these days. I’m not going to say “if you had the money;” for the entirety of MSE Fest, which featured 29 artists at seven venues over the course of four days, you only had to fork over twenty bucks. Sadly, I was only able to make time for three of these artists, one night only. It happened to be the featured show, though: three of Milwaukee’s most buzzed-about bands at a venue that will hopefully put The Rave out of business one day: Turner Hall Ballroom.
The first good sign was a free downtown parking spot—not quite a Costanza, but a find nonetheless. Turner Hall’s recent Onion and Shepherd ads present an indisputable argument for seeing shows here: “Great sound. Cold beer. Amazing music.” (They forget to mention, however, that the beer is also good and priced to sell.) Add to that the accommodating staff and unbeatable ticket prices. Why shop anywhere else? I had just missed Koufax, the opening set of the night and lone out-of-towner, but judging by the group’s new material, I regret that I didn’t get there on time. Afterwards, the CD release party began in earnest with The Celebrated Workingman, whose Herald the Dickens was available for the first time at this show. I’d only previously seen singer Mark Waldoch performing solo at Atomic Records on Record Store Day earlier this year; he didn’t need a mic then and it was really more of a prop than anything tonight. Luckily, he projected enough intensity to overcome the difficulties of the sound system. The band was occasionally almost too sloppy, only to the point where everything hinged or unhinged on Waldoch, whose presence can carry a room on its own. The lap steel of Chris Vos had struck me as superfluous at first, but it stole the jam in “Plans,” and by the end of the set, the overall effect was Nashville-meets-Sonic Youth that somehow fit snugly into the brew-town lo-fi of the band.
Musically, the group is far too joyous at times to be contained in the generic indie-rock bubble, and too earnest; there were definite shades of pre-utter-gloom Radiohead cast from the stage. As a live act, these guys drift through the vast space between complete scatterdom and a single-minded surge; the dynamic effect makes the occasional misstep forgettable. By “Hate & Apologies,” the band had really gelled, swerving through a rhythmic obstacle course while projecting physically palpable melody and spirit. Songs like “Island” and “Opening Night” really make you wonder what this band might sound like in pristine theater acoustics…or even an arena…but still, you doubt that the passion of this club performance could really be eclipsed. Epilogue: The new album is one of those that get better with each listen, as the songs slowly become icons in your brain. It’s easily one of the great local releases of the year.
Another of Milwaukee’s best albums of 2008 is Midnight Golden by The Championship, who put on a solid set following the band whose name would be a fitting Championship album title. Joe Crockett’s voice was muddled pretty badly out of the gates, the rest of the band coming off tinny in contrast to his deep baritone, lending a 70’s AM radio feel to the sound. It was almost appropriate enough not to be distracting. Soon, in time for “She’ll Be Mine,” the band and the sound man reached the same page, and the set picked up momentum from there. The subtle strains of “Midnight Gold” produced a haunting ambience as the room reverberated with white-boy blues, and we started to feel like patrons in a cavernous honky-tonk. It was easy to get absorbed into the mythos of Milwaukee as a country town.
“Up All Night” rode through a My Morning Jacket-style jam, not bombastic but never hitting hard enough to make the anticipation worthwhile. Still, I have to admit I’d been bowled over by Workingman, and that first impression may have unfairly diluted the impact of a band whose songs I already knew. The Championship’s set paled only in comparison to the superb sets that sandwiched it. “Gladstone” was a shining example of a band in its element, and the rest of the set swelled from that laid-back lament to raucous bar-band muscle The Hold Steady would be proud of, only without the smart-assitude. In short, urban, blue-collar heartache on a stick.
Somehow after living in the Brew City for the band’s entire seven-year existence, I’d never seen Decibully before. I think it’s just because of the name, which sort of makes sense now but had previously given me an erroneous schlocky gut feeling. Consequently, I can’t give you any song titles…I can’t even guarantee that I always knew when one song ended and another began. From the opening song, a progressive alt-folk/post-rock slow burner, I was hooked, and shocked that such a stunningly original and dynamic local band had escaped my notice for so long. Singer William Seidel generally stuck with unadorned guitar, and the juxtaposition of acoustic fury and the complex electric subversion of the rest of the group created an eerie yet often ecstatic overcurrent. The single-mindedness of this seven-member ensemble was impressive. Hugely popular bands often lose this synergy en route to a quantifiable definition; Decibully is free to roam, and its members are one indefinable herd even at their most chaotic.
Drummer Aaron Vold is the presence that propels this band through its kinetic sonic journey, equal parts finesse and raw power, dominant yet never flaunting. Songs develop from smoldering shoegaze into intensely melodic pop, or begin as pop and then evolve; the space between is as essential to Decibully as the destination. They’ll rarely grab you by the throat, but when their atmospheric rock erupts into cacophony, they maintain a modicum of control—somewhat of a liability for Seidel. He occasionally lets his voice rasp, but he could stand to let that blues gravel out way more. It can only help him distinguish his otherwise name-brand Americana vocals. More often than not, though, his character shines through, and he succeeds as the focal point of a whole much greater than its sum. Waldoch joined Decibully for its finale, a brilliant capper for this celebration of one pocket of Milwaukee’s diverse scene, just a bunch of friends makin’ noise on a stage, but obviously, a much cooler noise than most people’s friends could make. There’s nothing like leaving a show thinking, I can’t wait to see that band again.
Summerfest ’08 took a major step in increasing support for local artists (again, thanks in large part to WMSE) with the Cascio Interstate Groove Garage. We’ve got two kick-ass non-commercial radio stations opening people’s minds to the hometown sounds. It’s amazing how many great events were cobbled together at presumably short notice for this first-time happening; here’s hoping next year’s MSE Fest (promised to be re-titled) gets more publicity and even more participation. Meanwhile, stop thinking of local shows as cheap alternatives to big headliners. You can’t top the thrill of discovering something new and incredible in your own backyard.

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