Good, Better, Best: Three Shows in Milwaukee
Good: Oct. 21: Joanna Newsom at the Pabst Theater.
Despite warnings of friends about Joanna Newsom (ranging from “I can’t stand her voice, but then again I’m not from Middle Earth” to “she’s all the bad bits of Tori Amos and Kate Bush combined into one annoying singer-harpist”), I was very excited to see her.
And to make everything clear, everything was set to be perfect. The 28-piece string orchestra Newsom played with did not sound mechanically precise, but played pretty well. The audience was very respectful of the performers. The Pabst, as usual, sounded gorgeous. It’s just that … well, here’s the story in text messaging instead:
Me: “I have no patience for Joanna Newsom! It is mid-set and I wanna go home.”
Dwellephant: “She is a hack and a flake.”
Me: “I wouldn’t say that…she is pretty good with a harp…but I am so bored.”
Me: “Also I think there are more people from Chicago than the Pabst usually houses; the hipster factor is up by 2000 percent. They look like Milwaukee hipsters only their emo hair is glossier and looks salon-styled, their jeans cost $300 and they smell pretty good.”
Dwellephant: “Steve Vai is talented at guitar, but I still think he’s crap.”
Me: “Do you think it’s bad form to just leave when I’m supposed to be reviewing the show?”
Dwellephant: “I think that is part of the experience you write about.”
I had no intention of actually going home in the middle of the concert, but after the first set, where Newsom played all of her last album “Ys” with the orchestra (all five songs, in order, in an hour!), she emerged once again with just her band: a barefoot drummer armed with only mallets, a floor tom and a bass drum; and a Renaissance man on string instruments (he played mandolin, guitar, banjo, even, I think).
The second half promised to be a better, less pretentious set. But right after “Bridges and Balloons” and “The Book of Right-On” from her last album, “The Milk-Eyed Mender,” I got an anxiety attack.
No joke: It was her voice. Screechy-soft, to me it grated like nails on a blackboard even more without the orchestra to mask it. It evoked the same feelings I get during my claustrophobic attacks; it made me feel uneasy, trapped and desperate. So I left, and took lots of deep breaths outside.
Better: Oct. 16: Pinback at the Pabst Theater.
I like Pinback, but I also got bored at their show. Maybe it’s the kind of music you listen to in your room and doesn’t translate to a live venue well? Maybe it’s that Rob Crow reminds me of Frank Black; maybe it’s bassist Armistead Burwell Smith IV’s fancy name. But for some reason I couldn’t really get into it until two guys jumped up onstage during “Penelope” and started dancing. “We’ll allow it this once,” said Crow. Aww.
I even met Crow carrying his toddler at the Pabst lobby afterwards, so this ranks as the better show because I didn’t have to rush out.
Best: Oct. 5: Slaraffenland, Collections of Colonies of Bees and Canyons of Static at the Cactus Club.
I missed the first half of CoCoBees’ set because I had to pick up a friend from the airport. I’ve forgiven her since, but from now on I swear never to miss a CoCoBees show. It was so great I rushed to the merch table to buy their CD. Their latest, “Birds,” is great. I don’t know why they always get tagged as an experimental band…art rock, maybe, but there’s lots of sweet sounding melodies in there. Heart!
Slaraffenland, from Copenhagen, was awesome too. They kind of remind me of Broken Social Scene in that they use a lot of wind instruments at their shows; the difference? Slaraffenland is actually better at multi-tasking. They all play wind instruments, even the ones who originally didn’t, such as the drummer.
The aesthetic is there too: Friends of You designed their CD “Private Cinema.” Slaraffenland performed wearing guitars and shirts decorated with eyes and a twee backdrop. Once in a while someone would pick up a toy flute.
I like surprises, and I like shows where the bands excite you with thier skill, their mastery of thier songs, and the way they exude their personalities through music. CoCoBees and Slaraffenland was one of those rare nights where the whole night was like a perfectly formed mix tape.