2015: Live Music

Tue Dec 29 2015

As I’ve ranted on twitter, 2015 was a fairly shitty year in terms of live music in Milwaukee. The Pabst group’s renaissance appeared to be over, as those venues welcomed lots of youtube sensations and actors and 88nine bands and not many artists I was very interested in seeing. What’s that? You say I’ve aged out of the venues’ target audience? Well shit. There were exceptions of course, and 2016 is already looking like it will destroy 2015 in this regard. We need slow years from time to time. And maybe the big events from this year will ultimately shine brighter in my memory for years to come. It certainly seems like they ought to. Here are the ones (excluding Altos and associated acts, since I’m married to an Alto and friends with the whole gang) that I most love reliving in my mind.

13. TV On The Radio: Pabst Theater, March 24

At some point in the past decade, I got caught in a confused cycle of conflicting reactions to the weird career arc of TVOTR, culminating in what I felt was a weak headlining performance at Pitchfork in 2011, the release of the underwhelming Nine Points Of Light in 2011, and keyboardist Gerard Smith's untimely death nine days later. Obviously I couldn't rip on them after that so I resorted to apathy. I didn't even bother with Seeds when it came out, even though I really liked "Happy Idiot" when I first heard it. Then when I heard the title track on a mixtape I went oh shit, I guess I need to start paying attention again. It's a great album after all, but it didn't prepare me for the ferocity and imagination that went into their live show. It was like a completely different band than the one who played Pitchfork. In a way, I reckon it was exactly that. My opportunities to dance hard were few and far between this year. I was drenched and exhausted after this one.

12. Weird Al: Summerfest, July 4

This has to be on here because it fulfilled a childhood dream, and Mr. Yankovic and his band pulled everything off with flying colors—even though some of what they pulled off pushed the limits of my tolerance for not-funny humor and self-unawareness. Mandatory Fun is indeed Al's best album in ages—possibly since Bad Hair Day in '96—but it's still painful at times. I mean come on, you could scarcely dumb down "Word Crimes" any further! Where were the attacks on people who say "for all intensive purposes" and don't know what it means to beg a question?? But even though I'll probably never get to see "One More Minute" live, he did play most of the essential oldies, some of them in hilarious unplugged/lounge style, and he did at least reference "Chicken Pot Pie" in one of the many video/costume-change interludes. I could nitpick all day but I had so much fun at this show that it would be silly to dwell on the shortcomings. The world's most famous accordionist will always hold a special place in my spleen. Was it the performance that I've always dreamed of? Well, not really. But it's good enough for now. (Please tell me someone out there gets that reference. Anyone. Renew my faith in humanity.)

11. Brokeback: Acme Records, November 14

When you go to a show by yourself and you’re standing around feeling awkward in between bands, wouldn’t it be great if you could dig through crates of records to pass the time? Eureka!!! Except the cool part was I was so busy having interesting conversations with people at this show that I didn’t get to do as much digging as I would’ve liked. In fact, the conversation was almost as memorable as the music, which is saying something. The show began with the always-captivating Jeff Mitchell and his uniquely intense, poetic folk, then brought 75 Dollar Bill to the stage. This guitar-and-random-implements duo proved utterly mesmerizing, a bluesy drone act in which guitarist Che Chen sounded at times more like a young Jimmy Page than any guitarist I can ever remember seeing live, the combination of that rich, anguished tone and rambling lead/rhythm hybrid playing. Brokeback came out and announced that they’d be performing a bunch of new, unrecorded material, and there was much rejoicing. It was very much in the vein of the surfy side of Zorn, like Secret Chiefs’ UR material without the Middle-eastern influences but with the same determined, serpentine patterns of development, tension and release. Marvelous. I need to see more shows in this room. Hell, I need to just acquire a lot more money so I can spend a lot more time in Acme Records, period.

10. Prematurely Air-Conditioned Arts Collective: Woodland Pattern Book Center, March 19

Smack-dab in the middle of one of several John Zorn binges this year, I discovered this thing was happening a few blocks from my house. Naturally, game master Nick Weckman would move away from the city a few months later, but at least I got to catch one installment. The occasional emergence of awesome music from this semi-chaotic execution of oblique instructions and improv is a testament to the raw talent of every one of the dozen or so musicians who performed at this event, and it's merely one element within the overall picture of suspense and hilarity that unfolds when neither the ensemble nor the audience has any idea what might happen next. It’s SUCH a bummer that this series hasn’t carried on, but maybe some day. I blame myself for never learning to play a musical instrument properly.

9. Primus: Eagles Ballroom, August 6

I think Les Claypool is angling for Phish status in the sense that true fans won't care what songs Primus plays as long as the improv is deep. The problem is, Primus jams are never going to be anywhere near as deep as Phish jams. They rarely break free from motifs specifically recognizable by song, and for the most part they're formulaic from show to show on any given tour when they do. As such, the setlist for this show was lame as shit, featuring zero of the half-dozen or so rarities they bothered to occasionally dole out on this tour. Aaaaaaand it really didn't matter, because, relative to pretty much every other Primus show I've seen, the improv was way deep. I mean, plop me unawares in the middle of that "Groundhog's Day" jam and I would have no clue what song it was. Epic. Plus, the songs were all fucking Primus songs (albeit all but two written prior to the turn of the millennium), which is almost enough by itself to have a good time. Look, you can't tell me that after thirty years playing music Primus is finally going to become this wide-open jamming machine. Mix up those setlists, Les, ya stingy bastard! I'd like to see you play "The Pressman" some day! Oh, and QUIT PLAYING THE RAVE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD! Anyway this show was rad.

8. Scrimshaw: Cactus Club, November 20

Inevitably at some point (unless I die pretty soon) I'll no longer be able to say 'Scrimshaw gets better every time I see 'em', but so far it's the case. They're currently going through the difficult transition from a handful of people getting a kick out of their goofy music into a growing number of people seeing them and realizing they're a serious force. Wait, no, not SERIOUS. Well, you get the idea. There's a rare feeling you get when it dawns on you that something you thought was your own weird niche starts to reach more people. If they're not careful, they're going to make me suspect that someone out there in the brew city might actually be paying attention to me when I urge them to go see live music. If Scrimshaw ever was just a joke band, it's definitely not any more. Oh, and Wood Chickens! Holy crap were they good. If you thought psychobilly was dead, you should rethink that and go see Wood Chickens. Plus they did a cover of The Queers’ “Didn’t Puke” at about three times normal speed, so that’s enough to win me over right there.

7. Dapp Theory: Jazz Estate, March 27

I never would've known about this except I follow drummer Kenny Grohowski on twitter because he is sometimes a member of Secret Chiefs 3, and he tweeted a picture of his drumkit set up at "The Jazz Estate", and I was like 'not the Jazz Estate...?!' and he was like 'yeah!' and I was like 'I'm there!' or something. See? Social media can save lives. I'm a cretin when it comes to jazz, something I hope to remedy if I ever get old, so I hadn't even heard of pianist/bandleader Andy Milne, but holy shit. Kenny of course was amazing, as was the whole band, but the frequent spoken-word interjections by poet John Moon were what sent the performance to another level. His words were a flurry of spiritual and philosophical ideas that played directly into my To Pimp A Butterfly obsession and the general conflicted condition of our country this year and for the foreseeable future. It was way beyond what I was expecting, not just in musical terms, but in them for sure.

6. Feck: Milwaukee Psych Fest, May 14

I thought this year's fest was a little weak compared to the previous year, maybe only because I didn't make as many revelatory discoveries of new bands, and a lot of my favorite local acts from years past were either missing or defunct. The exception to both those complaints was Feck. I went in with the low expectations a person ought to have when confronted with a reunion show by a band whose heyday was in the 80s, plus nobody I knew besides people who stood to benefit from promoting Feck had ever mentioned anything about Feck to me before. I walked away from this show doubting that the 80s version of the band could possibly have been better than that, and lamenting the fact that everyone I know is a clueless music-hating nincompoop. JUST PLAYIN MILWAUKEE YOU KNOW I LOVE YOU. Feck was so mind-blowing that I went and saw them again four nights later at the Uptowner and got my mind blown again. Truly unique and dynamic noise, this band makes. Hope I get to see 'em make it again.

5. Lex Allen/New Age Narcissism: Brady Street Fest, July 25

It's tough to pick the definitive breakout moment for NAN this year. Summerfest has two sure contenders, as both Lex Allen and WesterX led the crew for world-class sets and probably got the most exposure they’d seen yet. This slightly smaller party was my favorite of the bunch, though. It had Siren doing "Queen Medusa", it had Lorde Fredd33 doing "Bango", and it had Lex, the crowd wrapped around his finger the entire time. You-Phoria does not customarily give out “band of the year” prizes, but clearly, that prize would go to NAN if there were one. The musical landscape in Milwaukee seemed to change dramatically this year, with a lot of stalwart acts phasing out (okay, that probably happens every year, but still) while the hip-hop scene continued to rocket skyward, and NAN seems to have taken elements from everything that’s happened already plus a fresh energy all its own to become this psychospiritual mutant funk party where anyone can take the reins and run with it. NAN seems to have gelled as a cohesive unit, but the exciting part is it’s bound to draw in more creative forces as it gains strength, like Unicron gobbling up planets. Not that Lex even needs NAN to be fabulous, but they’re an unstoppable force together.

4. Sufjan Stevens: Riverside Theater, April 23

His performance was probably the highlight of Eaux Claires as well, but he couldn't create the same kind of heavy atmosphere on a wide-open field as he could in the theater, nor put on the full show. This was by far the most powerful concert I saw in Milwaukee this year—musically, for sure, but it was actually Sufjan’s storytelling interlude after the deluge of new songs that sticks out in my memory the most. This guy is so not like me; I can’t relate to his background at any point in his life, yet this was like a My Dinner With Andre moment, and I kept wishing I could interject. Sufjan ruled the first half of this year, really, and after over a decade of being a fan but wondering if his live show could be that good, especially touring on an album as contemplative and stripped-down as Carrie & Lowell, all my doubts were obliterated, and my heart hurt to think of the opportunities to see him that I'd passed up. Emotional, I could've predicted. Intense, I sort of hoped, based on things I'd heard and read. But mindblowing? Sufjan Stevens? The folkie guy?

3. U2: United Center, June 25 & 28

As much as I get down on this U2 iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE (barf) Tour, it’s still U2. My quibbles are scarcely even valid, and amongst my friends who are U2 fans, I’m the only one doing any bitching at all. The critic in me couldn’t help mocking Bono’s little melodrama at the end of “Bullet The Blue Sky” every night, though, because it was cloying and cheesy. And the whole autobiographical conceit of the first set did strike me as the ultimate narcissistic indulgence, even though the songs spoke to me personally and provided some much-needed emotional catharsis for me. Our planet could use some of the old Bono worldly empathy; instead we got Bono’s nightly self-therapy session. There was a lot of potential healing and communal joy for us as a U2 fan collective, but it felt more escapist than it needed to. And if I’m escaping, I’d at least appreciate some more setlist variation, damn it all! “All I Want Is You” from the fourth night, though. And “Bad” from the second night. Descriptions of why these were big moments would only serve to deplete their potency. Nothing wrecks me like U2. I can’t frikkin wait for the next leg of the tour.

2. Eaux Claires: July 17-18

COP-OUT ALERT. It's not feasible to choose one or two sets from this festival. For the first time since Rothbury, the music and spirit of the festival were both at such a high level that the whole weekend holds up as a single amazing show. When do I ever get to see Milwaukee's own measure up alongside The National and Sufjan Stevens and Low and, um, Melt-Banana (!!!) at a big two-day fest? Pretty much never, until this. I'm trying not to dread the 2016 edition, because inaugural years are almost always the best, but considering how few complaints were heard concerning year one…how bad could the second one be? Can they squeeze in even more of my favorite Milwaukee acts? Obviously Sharon Van Etten needs to be there next year and collaborate with The National. Maybe have a triumphant Volcano Choir reunion to close out the fest in lieu of Bon Iver? Hey, a guy can dream. Other than these minor tweaks, I’d hardly change a thing.

1. Phish: Magnaball, August 21-23

I still get flushed with happiness when I think about this festival. I've spent most of my adult life listening to tapes, drooling over setlists, traipsing around the country and ultimately, usually, feeling left out. I never knew what I was missing until the late 90s, when full-on Phish nerddom set in, and I started having these crushing moments of realizing how easily I could've been there for this or that. Over time you get to the point where the Big Moments you're missing are all a part of the big picture, the big love, the justification of your obsession, and the fact that they happened and they're still occasionally happening fills you with joy. But it's still not like being there. Now, there are little legendary moments in most Phish shows. I haven’t been to that many, compared to a lot of fans, so I can still conjure up a specific feeling from each individual one, and I really don’t think that would be possible with any other band I’ve seen if I saw them as many times as I’ve seen Phish. Even on nights when Phish was off, they made it worth the trip for a memory or two. Magnaball was just buckets and buckets of reasons, from logistics to music to atmosphere to company kept. But mostly music. Career-highlight music. Music that’s going to probably make the next few years of Phish shows seem suckier than they actually are. Music that made me question if I ever wanted to see Phish again because I find it hard to believe they’ll be that good again. It’s just dumb history pointing me to such a fear, but I also think Sting said it best when he said, “History will teach us nothing.” We see it over and over again in the world, we don’t learn shit from anything, we forget everything we’ve ever learned, but the upside is how easy it is to surprise ourselves. So I guess I’ll keep going to see Phish if they keep playing. You just never know what might happen next.
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