There’s too much music in the world. It would be so convenient to only like a certain kind of it. That’s not how it worked out for me, though. I like all the kinds. For years I’ve tried to keep up with all the kinds but the process has yielded too many favorites, and they don’t break up or die with enough frequency to allow space for many new ones. What was I thinking, taking this life path as a music writer/radio DJ? New favorites are constantly trying to cram their way into my brain. There’s no more ROOM in there but they keep coming. New local bands popping up every day. Bandcamp. Festivals. And occasionally, recommendations from friends.
I’d never heard of Daniel Romano when a buddy messaged me out of the blue to tell me I should go see him when he came to Milwaukee. A normal person at this point would’ve then done a google search, watched some videos or listened to some of Romano’s albums to determine if he’s their THING. For myself, having no particular thing but in fact way too many things, this method is almost useless in determining whether or not I’ll enjoy a show. But my buddy who messaged me is a fellow Phishhead—and not one of these new-fangled Phishheads who think every drop of drool out of Trey’s mouth is ambrosia. And if there’s one thing you can say about experienced and discerning Phishheads, it’s that they know good live music, and not just one kind. If I were trying to convince someone to go see Phish, after all, I would NOT suggest they listen to a Phish album.
So I went in cold. I walked up to Cactus Club and another friend was outside smoking a cig. “Do you know this band?” I asked him. “My favorite band to see live,” he said. I could go on about how expectations only rose over the next half hour as I ran into more experienced, discerning live music nuts inside the venue; how was this place filling up on a Wednesday night for this band I’d never heard of? Look at all these records at the merch table!
The opening act was Lunde, out of Kenosha, and they played a half hour of solid power pop that reminded me a little bit of The Stunning only with more vocal harmonies and fiery guitar solos, ending the set with a full-on “Free Bird” jam. Then around 9:30, Romano and his Outfit came onstage to little fanfare and immediately ripped in.
I couldn’t tell you what songs they played, even though after the show I heard a handful of titles as some other friends excitedly discussed what had just gone down. The first 15 minutes or so of the show consisted of a medley of songs that on paper might not have made much sense slamming into one another, but the band never missed a beat, ultimately ending the medley with the end of the song they’d started it with. The way the Outfit plays, it’s almost impossible for a noob like myself to discern where one song ends and another begins anyway. Romano took a brief pause to acknowledge Cactus as his favorite place to play, mentioning that he rarely takes a pause to talk at all. Vocalist/percussionist Carson McHone then picked up a guitar and they played a couple of her own songs for somewhat of a breather; what a voice! Then it was back onto the roller coaster. Songs recorded as folk or country songs retooled into rock and roll, tempos and rhythms of other songs completely upended and inverted, as I later learned. None of this was requisite knowledge for enjoying this barnburner of a show, but as a musical treasure-hunter there are few things more enticing to me than an artist who can bowl me over on first impression and then again immediately afterwards upon learning how much more impressive the show was than I could’ve even known. The rabbithole of lore and mystery yawns in front of me now and with it comes excitement and dread. I can’t help but fall into it.
During the ‘encore break’ drummer Ian Romano also remarked about the band’s love of Milwaukee and they took a minute to enthuse about our local pizza. We were way past any need for pandering; this was one of the more rabid crowds I’ve been amongst at Cactus in a while and Romano & co. are no strangers to our town. I can’t wait ‘til they come back; I’ll be doing my homework in order to prepare. A few cursory album spins isn’t going to do it, though. I’m going to have to get to know the catalog intimately if I want to appreciate the different twists and turns the Outfit takes the songs through. I already know the songs are good; I just hope the studio versions come close to the visceral thrills I experienced last night.