Hurricane Bells/Deep Dark Woods/Mark Waldoch: Cactus Club, 5.15.10

Mon May 17 2010 & present...” said the Cactus Club website.  Way to represent: I’d say the crowd maxed out at maybe fifteen people, pretty sad for a Saturday night.  Maybe these two website "presenters" are the equivalent of celebrity executive producers?  I didn’t even mind paying ten bucks to get in, I felt so bad for the bands.

Confession: I was there mainly to see Mark Waldoch, one of our city’s under-sung heroes.  He mostly tried out new material on us tonight, which boded well for a forthcoming Celebrated Workingman album.  When this guy’s on, he’s unstoppable, and as much as I love his band, it was really great to get the full-on belting with just a guitar backing him up.  He was in fantastic voice, making for a great set, despite a brief pause to look up the second verse to “Rainbow Connection” on his iPhone.  (I’ve already forgotten it again.)

Deep Dark Woods was a genuine treat.  The quintet from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (it’s really fun to say, try it) was missing its keyboardist tonight, but you’d never have guessed it from this set.  Somebody get The Championship on a tour with this band!  Super-gelled Americana, equal parts country and rock, with a direct line of inspiration from The Band, but not in a derivative sense at all.  Bassist Chris Mason’s harmonies with frontman Ryan Boldt were perfect, sometimes to the point of haunting, and guitarist Burke Barlow is a master at playing lead without feeling he has to solo.  His licks were melodic without fail and economical, never a note wasted by anybody in the band, really.  You might say it was a bit lacking in dynamic, but it is seriously tough to get a well-honed sound like this to sustain interest live and these guys totally pulled it off.

Another confession: the bass player from Brooklyn’s Hurricane Bells walked out in a Cardinals t-shirt, and we Brewer fans are suffering through a pathetic slump, so right there, I was turned off.  Maybe the guy’s from St. Louis or something; fine, I know I shouldn’t hold it against him at a rock and roll show.  But are you trying to win fans here in Milwaukee, or be some sort of instigator?  So I couldn’t help noticing that the guy spent the whole set playing utterly simplistic lines to the point where he might as well not even bother.  Not usually something I’d even point out, but there you go.  Maybe it comes with the territory when a solo artist hastily assembles a band to capitalize on New Moon soundtrack cachet.

I can’t blame the band for being smug, either, what with the sparse crowd, but from the attitudes of singer/guitarist/only actual member Steve Schiltz and singer/twiddler Ashen Keilyn, it was pretty clear that the band wasn’t taking this show too seriously.  Maybe in a different setting, her holding her mic underneath his as he sang into it and other equally-contrived mic-sharing games would come off as endearingly cute, but I found them phony and annoying.  Musically, they weren’t bad, but there was only one song (third of the set, I think) that stood out.  And it was really good, with a sort of complex but completely disarming melody.  Unfortunately, it just made the rest of the songs seem tossed off in the long run, probably more due to the lack of commitment to performing than the songs themselves, but real artists put everything they’ve got into it even if there’s only a half dozen people in the crowd.  And if this was all Hurricane Bells have got…well, I think there’s another one of those vampire movies coming out soon.

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