I like the title of this event. I’m sick to death of the term “Americana”. “Alt-country” is almost as bad. Folk rock gets to the heart of what Wilco nation has been searching for, and Wisconsin and Illinois are at the forefront of at least this particular offshoot of the movement. But this three-act lineup didn’t quite do justice to the lofty ambition of its name.
I’m going to approach my assessment of Big Leaf Linden under the assumption that the group of kinsmen (all surnamed Linden) is just starting out. Aside from frontman Kirk, these guys still look a little green up there on the stage, not much presence at all. Kirk played an acoustic guitar, but you wouldn’t have known it if you weren’t watching, and a little acoustic-sounding instrumentation might put a bit more of a unique stamp on the group’s sound. Rusty’s electric mandolin really just cluttered the guitar mélange, where the crispness of the acoustic instrument would stand out better. Natey was hit or miss; his lead guitar work showed a promising melodic touch at times, but he occasionally got lost pretty far outside the key of the song. Overall, with Kirk’s Tom-Petty-esque vocals in the lead, the group seems to still be finding its sound. There is promise, but I didn’t get any real sense of cohesion or direction from the band.
Death Ships came out with considerably higher energy and a full-on guitar assault. The group has Wilco ties, having previously toured as Jay Bennett’s backing band (albeit with a very different lineup), and the connection doesn’t necessarily work in Death Ships’ favor; frontman Dan Maloney sings in an unmistakably Jeff Tweedy-esque tenor, which could prove to be an inescapable comparison given the band’s home base of Chicago.
Musically, I struggled to make the “folk” connection, but there was no dearth of rock. Maloney is the group’s obvious dominant force, and he radiates a belief in the music that gives the performance some extra heft. The rhythm section is solid, and lead guitarist Jamie Cassedy adds a unique flavor to the somewhat typical rock format. He generally cranks a very trebly, angular tone that slices through Maloney’s grungy rhythm, distinctive without being flashy. He didn’t play many solos, but he made his mark on every song.
The biggest hurdle for the group at this point is the songs themselves; the tight ensemble playing makes them bigger than they actually are. The highlight of the set was David Bowie’s “Five Years”; Death Ships harnessed the apocalyptic imagery in a dynamic display of firepower. The only other song that stood out was the set closer, which featured some interesting twists and turns and an explosive ending, expertly navigated by the band. To get to another level, though, they’ll have to develop either a more improvisational style to showcase the diverse instrumentation better, or a bunch of standout original tunes; pure rock power will only get you so far.
Will Phalen put this whole thing together, and his set did strike me as the kind of free-for-all, informal jam session that comes from being the sort of respected MC of the night. Not that it wasn’t tight; after all, Decibully’s Aaron Vold, one of the best drummers in the city, is part of the band. But it was the sort of laid back stroll that wasn’t going to hold my attention. I confess: I was tired, and it would’ve taken some real heroics to really get me excited about sticking around. So, this Stereo Addicts set didn’t exactly get a fair shake from me; take that as you will.
It did, however, serve to highlight the fact that this “event” was a bit of a misnomer. The first band was performing its first Milwaukee show, the second band was only marginally tied to anything resembling folk, and the headliner, though a local luminary, may not have the performance chops to put a lot of asses in the seats. Meanwhile, this city is chock full of extremely talented folk rock bands (Decibully, John The Savage, The Vega Star, and The Championship come instantly to mind) with new records out this year. These artists and many others are staging the real revival. Next time, just call it a Will Phalen show.