Jaill/Strange Boys/Sugar Stems @ Cactus Club, 04.01.10

Thu Apr 15 2010

Nothing like getting out to see a couple of local buzz bands at the venerable Cactus Club. I do not miss the hole-in-the-wall ambiance of the unremodeled joint at all. This is Milwaukee, and we needed a bunch of good beers on tap in our premier rock club. Besides, even more reliably than before, you can walk in here on damn near any Friday or Saturday (in this case, Thursday) and expect to hear why the Brew City scene is blowing up these days. Tonight’s bonus: a kick-ass group out of Texas that I’d never even heard of.

The Sugar Stems are a slippery bunch. You'll catch a tune or two on WMSE, but the band has only released (to my knowledge) one 45 at this point. Their set tonight made me really crave a full album. Way more punk rock than I envisioned, though, so maybe it's really best to see 'em live (note: April 17th, 5 p.m., Exclusive Company on Farwell, as part of Record Store Day, along with a buttload of other great local bands). The studio tunes sounded sweeter but comparatively toothless. This set was classic pop-punk in the Screeching Weasel/Queers vein. Sure, Betsy Borst doesn't spit out her melodies with the venom of Ben Weasel; her singing and the tight harmonies of Drew Fredrichsen are where the "sugar" part comes from. Basically, they knocked our socks off for a half hour or so and that was it, but it was the most exhilarating half hour of the evening.

That's no stab at the other two acts, though. The Strange Boys came out professing to be bad singers, and I guess there's a case to be made, but I come from a deep-seated Germs background (i.e., the band that ceased to be in 1980 and still does not exist), and Ryan Sambol possesses a similarly willful, wounded rasp to that of Darby Crash, bordering on atonality. And I really dig it. The band plays occasionally twangy, frequently dramatic indie rock with very few frills. The sunken-eyed, semi-detached stage presence is par for the hipster course, but the band is extremely tight and the playing clearly comes from a place of deep conviction. Not knowing a single song, I was totally engrossed for the entire set.

There was only one characteristic tying the three acts on the bill together: they all rock. Local heroes Jaill, preparing to release their Sub Pop debut, came out in a celebratory mood: it was frontman Vinnie Kircher's birthday. Perhaps a few more shots were downed than usual, but it didn't seem to affect the performance. I keep reading that Jaill is "psychedelic", which is usually a red flag for me. As far as I can tell, they're just good-natured potheads playing straight-ahead rock and roll, which is exactly what the fragmented, image-conscious indie scene needs. In its ongoing effort to escape the pigeonhole by diversifying beyond control, Sub Pop has unwittingly signed a good old-fashioned grunge band. But not the sarcastic Melvins/Nirvana kind; the drawling, amiable Mudhoney kind.

The performance was still amped up but considerably more at ease than the last time I'd seen Jaill, pre-second "L", at Y-Not III last year. We local music nuts have been raving about the burgeoning rock surge for years now, and there's no point in resisting the gratification in seeing these artists getting some recognition. There's no stylistic umbrella for the Brew City Sound, but we couldn't ask for better ambassadors than Jaill: unpretentious and loud, plug 'em in and watch 'em rock. Their self-effacing attitude belies their potential as a commodity; I'm a little burnt out on making predictions, so I'll just say they deserve the wider audience that a famous record label could give them.

Walking out of the Cactus (in a t-shirt. On the first of April.), my buddy Taybor (in from Denver for the weekend) made the comment, "Milwaukee is as underrated as Chicago is overrated." See? It's not just us Milwaukee geeks.

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