As I mentioned yesterday, tonight is St. Vincent a.k.a. Annie Clark at Slowdown Jr. with Philadelphia indie band (in an Arcade Fire/Decemberists vein) Pattern Is Movement, both for just $10. It’s also my birthday, so come down and buy me a Rolling Rock. Show starts at 9.
This week’s column is a rehash of last weekend’s live reviews, so for you regular readers it’s (essentially) a rerun, and I include it below for record-keeping’s sake. The next three columns over the next three weeks all center around interviews, so quit complaining!
Column 224: It Happened Last Weekend
From the front lines…
It was my first live rock-show experience at The Sydney. I’d been warned that despite lowering the stage to near floor level from Mick’s ridiculously high perch that the room still sounded like a noisy ball of shit. Ah, but the crowd was mostly tough guys that embrace such dissonance. It was the first time in a long time that someone pulled a “Nice earplugs” barb at me. I just smiled and adjusted my foam nubs — I knew I’d get the last laugh.
I like the laidback feel of The Sydney. The room just has a good, friendly drinking vibe that it didn’t have before. The folks running the place are super nice; everyone seems to be in a good mood — what a concept! (Everyone seems to be in a good mood at O’Leaver’s every night, too, but that’s because they’re lost in a NyQuil-like daze after mainlining Rumple Mintz since 4 in the afternoon).
If you saw a show at Mick’s, you very likely were sitting down. If not, you were trapped in the crawlspace by the front door, likely in someone’s way but still able to see the band on the crazy-high stage. At The Sydney, tables play a secondary role. There’s plenty of space near the pseudo-stage, which is so low to the ground that it encourages people to get off their asses and stand right next to the band like any respectable punk and soak in the full force of the amps.
Kansas City’s The Life and Times (the opener) was a classic guitar/bass/drums trio, and from their opening song reminded me of ’90s-era Chicago band Chavez — from their mathy compositions to the slurring, rising vocal lines that ironically countered the machine-gun-firecracker drums and counter-melody bass.
Was it loud? Oh yeah. I saw a few frowning fans up front doing the classic fingers-in-the-ears pose. I found the comedian who mocked my earplugs hiding in the back. Silly rabbit — everyone knows that there’s nowhere to hide from the noise in Mick’s/Sydney, no escape but the exit.
Having been to Ireland and having heard authentic tourist folk at its finest, I can say that The Turfmen are the best traditional Irish folk band we have, and as good as anything I heard “over there.”
The five-piece features a couple accordions, a bass, an acoustic guitar and Douglas County public defender Tom Riley as the helm. Riley’s life is begging to be adapted into an hour-long drama series on NBC — a short but clearly tough lawyer who defends the innocent during the day and is a fun-loving Irish musician by night whose buoyant fighting ballads have that undercurrent of despair that marks all things from the Green Isle. The acoustic guitarist is his son, Brendan (for the TV show, let’s make him a cop); the bass player is Omaha World-Herald reporter (and insider) Paul Hammel. The spiritual guiding light is the band’s founder, Peter Brennan, straight from County Louth — on the TV show, he’d provide wizened advice as only someone from the motherland could. Voiceover for the promo commercial: “From the mean streets of Omaha to the darkened stage, together this band of Irishmen not only play music, they protect and serve. The Turfmen — Based On A True Story.”
Anyway, by 11 the older folks in The Dubliner had been run off, replaced by an army of baseball-cap wearing frat guys and gaggles of prom-dressed girls out hosting giddy bachelorette parties. By 11:30, the place was a mob scene — the front room a solid block of humanity. Why hasn’t The Waiting Room or even Slowdown tried booking The Turfmen?
Which brings us to Sunday night…
The last time I saw Willy Mason was at Sokol Underground four years ago. He was a shaggy kid sneaking beers before his Omaha debut, having just signed to Conor Oberst’s just-created Team Love Records label. Despite his age and stature, his deep, broad voice sounded like it should come from someone 10 years older. Now four years later, Mason has grown into that voice. No longer the long-haired kid, he showed up on the The Waiting Room stage with a crew cut and a smile that’s logged a lot of miles.
Mason’s songs have grown up, too. These days his style is closer to traditional folk than what was on his first record. He’s a modern-day Woody Guthrie that holds himself on stage like a musical version of Sean Penn — loose but serious and funny at the same time, singing songs about ex-girlfriends and his constant journey to somewhere/anywhere but home.
As his set came to an end, he announced that it was his last song. Some girls in the audience yelled a request for his most well-known tune — “Oxygen.” Mason smiled and seemed happily surprised. “Oxygen? I guess it is getting kind of stuffy in here,” he joked. “I think I know that one.” Who knows if he intended to play it during the encore. He probably did, though I like to think that he didn’t, that he felt like he’d moved on from the late-teen anthem to individuality (a Tilly and the Wall’s forte), with its references to Ritalin and a world that “just keeps on spinning.” Sung as an adult, the song takes on a different, sentimental hue, like staring at a Polaroid taken years ago. No matter what he does from now on or how much better his songs become, Mason will never escape “Oxygen,” thanks to the role it played in so many young indie fans’ lives. How many songwriters wish they had one of those in their back pocket?
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