2021 In Live Music

Tue Dec 21 2021

I started looking back at the shows I went to this year and each memory was sort of a punch to the gut. I realized I couldn’t do the usual list. It wasn’t a normal year, not that I’m expecting any sort of normalcy any time soon. It may be cliché to suggest that all those months of no shows made me appreciate them more this year; I think of it more in terms of the different ways they each affected me. The gamut of emotions, as they say. Still, it’s undeniable: I took live music for granted before. I didn’t listen to the right doomsayers. And in the wake of the unthinkable happening, it all remains very thinkable.

On top of the ever-looming possibility of having it all yanked out from under us again, each decision to go to a show this year was fraught with about 500% extra headassery: what are the numbers like? is it indoors or outdoors? how many people are gonna be there? do they require vaccination? do they actually bother to check? is there any chance I’ve been exposed lately? will I be getting together with anyone at risk? can I get a test next week? do I keep the mask on except when I’m actually taking a drink? taking into account everyone I love and everything I’m supposed to represent…should I be doing this?

After so many potential exposures and so many negative tests I’ll admit I’ve felt less uneasy lately. Famous last words, I know. Is it because I got all Moderna shots? Is it because I’ve had it but didn’t realize it? Am I just a paragon of caution and hygiene? Is it something to do with my blood type? Do I have an exceptional immune system? Is there some day going to be someone with nothing to lose or gain who will lay out the actual risk factors and explain the nature of the disease, after it’s already too late? Gosh I hope so.

At any rate, I had tickets to quite a few shows that, when the night arrived, I couldn’t make myself go. And even one night when I went, but it was so packed I walked right back out. And lots of nights when the only excuse was, it’s hard to leave the house right now. But this piece isn’t about what I didn’t do.

One thing I did do was talk more than usual at shows—which was still not much mind you. If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ve already experienced me wrestling with the idea; my natural inclination, for those uninitiated, is for everyone to absolutely shut the hell up while the band is playing and save your conversation for between bands or at least between songs. However, I’ve come to realize this year that my stubbornness in this regard isn’t exactly a matter of principle; it’s honestly due to my own mortification that a performer would be subjected to such blatant impoliteness, isn’t that funny? I’m a ball of cringe, and it’s probably not helping anybody for me to be that perturbed. I don’t even know if I’m in the majority when it comes to being bothered by other people yapping at concerts. It just seems like a waste of money when you could be sitting at any old bar annoying people for free. Then again, venues need all the revenue they can get right now, a factor which ultimately makes it hard to get too pissed off at anyone. Besides, I do understand, we haven’t seen each other in ages, and if a show is the way we can make it happen, our connection is actually the most important thing. This should only be a temporary excuse, but it won’t be. I find it hard to believe that we’ll ever return fully from this relative isolation. The majority of folks are too integrated now with their messaging and online personae; we can probably never go back to in-person socialization being the norm, so I can hardly discourage people from practicing it whenever possible. Maybe this is me saying I’m hanging up my shushing badge. I still encourage the rest of you to keep it up.

The early attempts at live music this year were tentative and weird and intense. Johanna Rose & friends’ set outside of Cactus Club in April that got the neighbors up in arms, ordering drinks outside and creeping through the candlelit, empty show area to use the bathroom, soaking in that good Cactus energy. A set of standup comedy by Chris Rosenau (IT WAS AWESOME) at [undisclosed location] and then a chill duo set by him and Chris Porterfield, where we knew we could trust everyone but still THIS IS FREAKY, thrust back into social interaction and failing miserably but the music was a balm. The SistaStrings farewell show at Best Place, broad daylight streaming through stained glass, music fit for a coronation, nothing was gonna stop this joy.

Then it was nothing but announcements and postponements for a couple of months while sports raged on. We could’ve had so much more; they kept telling us outdoors was safe, I was hoping for guerilla pop-ups in Kern Park or something. My only show of July was indoors, Makaya McCraven at Thalia Hall, ostensibly The Moment, yet sitting around in strategically-distanced chairs it didn’t quite feel like being welcomed home, even though the magic flow of improv was enough to reawaken us somewhat.

The only way to achieve the homecoming feeling was Phish. Deer Creek in August already feels like a different dimension than the one we’re in now. You can listen to that Friday night show for yourself; that one was for anybody with ears, and it was a massive revitalization experience after nearly two years away. I’ll be surprised if I ever see Phish play that well again, although I’ve thought that plenty of times before. When the tour was over and the dust cleared, song selection was about the only possible thing any fan could’ve complained about, a relatively minor concern in terms of Phish shows. Funny how with most bands that’s just about the only concern. The more important factor as previously alluded to was the gathering together en masse and reaching out spiritually, feeling the familiar group love and communal loss together and mourning and celebrating lives. It was incredibly important. I’m thinking now of all the people who still haven’t had that opportunity.

I do believe it was noble of Phish to push past all those quandaries I mentioned above to fulfill this need in our community. I’m a little more dubious when it comes to hosting a four-day indoor superspreader event in Vegas for Halloween, and still less comfortable about the upcoming New Year’s Eve festivities in New York (WHEN THEY COULD’VE DONE THIS SHIT IN ANY OF NUMBER OF OUTDOOR SPOTS COME ON), if they actually go forward. I don’t begrudge anyone the fulfillment of their need to get back into that sea of energy, though. At some point we’ll all have to leave these judgments of others behind and live and let live. Because that’s life on the rudderless good ship U.S.A.

You probably heard that Summerfest attendance was down about 50% this year; gee what a shocker. The silver lining was, well, pretty obvious for someone like me who’s paid to write about it: smaller crowds! Let’s all agree to pretend there’s a pandemic every year during Summerfest from now on. It seemed like every aspect of the festival was upgraded this year; my only complaint was that sometimes, one of two or three competing stages was UNNECESSARILY LOUD, which may be somewhat alleviated when there are more humans soaking up the sound. In any case, the massive sonic upgrades on several stages combined with the unusually mild weather, the ability to roam freely around the grounds and never have to fight mobs to catch glimpses of the performers made for a Summerfest experience I doubt will ever be equaled. It was also a triumphant year for local artists; Klassik and Caley Conway both had relatively new bands backing them up and their sets were two of the best non-Phish shows I saw all year, and the likes of Mrs. Fun, Vincent Van Great, KASE, and Trapper Schoepp all made the most of their moments.

I don’t want to assume that the plethora of local talent at Summerfest was primarily due to numerous artist cancellations, and I don’t want to think that Summerfest will use low attendance figures as an excuse not to book local acts next year, because as we all know, it’s the local scene that has taken the biggest hit whether it’s restaurants or music or whatever. To every person who chipped in time or money to help keep so many of our beloved local establishments afloat the past two years, you dash phoria dot com salutes you! We also salute the people making the music (and the food, etc.) and trying to figure out how to go forward in this ridiculous Groundhog-Day loop we’re currently caught in. The only thing I can say is that outdoor shows always felt righteous and relatively stress-free to me, and I know everybody has different ideas and thresholds; I’m only saying that I hope we take full advantage of whatever tolerable weather we can starting in the spring if we’re still trudging through this same confusing hellscape.

One thing about Summerfest, the gravitas of first-shows-back was evident in almost every Summerfest set I saw, nowhere heavier than for ZZ Top, who’d just lost their founding bass player a month prior. It wasn’t like they dwelled on it; I just never expected to get all choked up at a ZZ Top concert, thinking about death and stuff. (I also didn’t anticipate the potency of Billy Gibbons’ guitar playing at age 72.)

That was all part of the therapy, though. Like at X-Ray Arcade in October when Rev. Nørb paid tribute to Paul Setser; once again, I needed that. I needed to be in public feeling that loss, knowing that others around me were feeling it too. While I’m at it, I needed to see that Boris The Sprinkler still had it in ‘em to be a band and not just a quick-reunion-spasm band like when they played the Green Bay Distillery in the beforetimes. Not that it mattered to my happiness or whatever, it just helped my heart seeing Nørb up there in pink body paint and fluorescent green poofy boots, the return of the avenging antismurf. It helped seeing Holy Shit! destroy a stage again, and Indonesian Junk up there sleazing the night away. It helped seeing Sloppy Seconds there a month later, with friends from that far back in my life; it kinda goes beyond nostalgia when you’re out here and you survived all the idiotic decisions you ever made and you’re making new memories. It helps just having X-Ray Arcade there, doing all the things right, making it that much easier to get me to feel like it’s okay to be somewhere. (Sure I will go ahead and sing the praises of the Credentials/Ressurrectionists/Kendraplex show one more time while we’re still on X-Ray Arcade!)

I even made it back inside Cactus Club for a show, one of several I probably should’ve been at, the one I wouldn’t have missed for anything, my wife’s band, Group Of The Altos, their first show in six years. You never do know when it could all go away again, the band or live music entirely. No one who was there will forget the moment when Chris Porterfield (holy cow I got to see him play FOUR TIMES this year somehow, that alone makes this year better than 2020) maneuvered effortlessly into Tom Petty’s “Time To Move On” at the end of his set, a song that has meant a lot of different things to me over the years but nowadays I choose to let it bring me gratitude that the very last time Tom played Milwaukee, even though I couldn’t afford the ticket, I was there, and then three months later, he had moved on. I might have narrowly avoided a rest-of-my-lifelong regret that day.

I don’t know if anybody reading this was at Cactus Club that night in October; they were that good, right? The Altos had one new song; the rest of their set was all those fucking ridiculously amazing songs they wrote all those years ago. That would amount to your typical cheesy reunion show except none of those songs has aged a bit. There’s still nobody else around writing songs like ’em. I remember back in the day when their self-description was “a surly high school orchestra”; I actually never got that until this night. How every other band that plays music like this is so impeccably grim, and the Altos are up there for the shit of it. We put in the work, now let’s blow off the steam. Nobody left that room unfazed, right? That music was too potent. I feel the urge now to type something like ‘it’s amazing that with so little preparation the band could blah blah blah’; the truth is they’re always that good. It’s like they can’t help but be that good.

The previous paragraph will serve as the climax of the ‘2021 In Live Music’ blog post; you didn’t think I was going to gloss over Bob Dylan though did you? You might suspect that such a thing would be old hat; nevertheless, allow me to take one moment to dwell on the fact that The Newspaper hired me to review a Bob Dylan concert, I do dearly wish I could call my high school English teacher and tell her this. Let me further point out that I initially got the name of one of Bob’s guitarists COMPLETELY WRONG (news flash BOB DYLAN TENDS TO SORT OF MUMBLE), it being the first night of the tour and all, but my amazing editor had the foresight to ask me if I was sure about that and praise the internet, we fixed it. (Thank you for publishing earlier than us, Rolling Stone.) Thus, what was nearly the worst and most public blunder by far of my entire writing career became instead a mild embarrassment barely marring the memory of oddball Bob and his marvelous band. A miracle I must say.

The best performance I saw in 2021, though, was actually the first one. It was Willy Porter, at a place called Towering Pines in Waukesha. The first time I ever saw Willy play was at The Annex, the Marquette campus sports bar back when I was a freshman there. It was just me and a bunch of underage jocks in attendance; I can’t remember what had brought us there. I recall Willy playing “Jesus On The Grille”, and how he made up a song based purely on random words blurted out by drunk douchebags, and holy crap what a guitar player! It was around that same time I met a fellow freshman named Angie, and we became friends, and she ended up marrying my best friend Jim years later, and I became close with her family, and for a while I worked with her dad Dan doing sound and lights for bands, and if you could make a map of my life and draw lines between all the different connections and revelations, you’d see a lot of Willy Porter in there, and you’d see a hell of a lot of Dan Aukofer.

Dan’s time to move on was in 2020; one night we were laughing and waving via video-phone, the next thing I knew he was gone. And I couldn’t gather with any loved ones, hell there should’ve been a statewide day of mourning for this man. But we lost all that, we buried it, all of us in the world. Then in April, Willy Porter came out to the barn and played some songs as a benefit and tribute to Dan, powered as it had to be by stationary bikes out on the lawn, powered by the people. So I biked and cried while Willy played “Unconditional Love”, there with a bunch of my dearest humans. It wasn’t a concert, really. It wasn’t that moment, The Return Of Live Music. It was a big crack in the dam we’re all still chipping away at. Please let’s keep at it.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at you-phoria.com. He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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