A week ago today I had my deadline for the annual Year in Review article for The Reader (which will be posted here at Lazy-i on Wednesday). One major focus of the piece is my list of favorite shows of ’09. Because of that deadline, some of the best shows of the year are missing from the list — the Conor Oberst show from last Tuesday, the Mousetrap show last Wednesday, the Mal Madrigal show Saturday and last night’s Good Life show at Slowdown. No doubt tonight’s Bear Country show also would have made the list, as well as the three sold out Faint shows that begin tonight and run through Wednesday. These last two weeks of ’09 are the best two weeks’ of shows of the year.
Anyway, Mal Madrigal on Saturday night. The blizzard of ’09 V.2 couldn’t stop this one. Streets were slick but passable. On my way down to The Slowdown I watched as people in rear-wheel drive cars drove backwards down streets after giving up. I nearly was smashed a few times by big-shouldered SUVs that weren’t going to share the road with anyone. I saw dark and lifeless cars abandoned in snow banks.
But I made it. And so did a few hundred more people. I had thought the Slowdown folks had made a mistake on their website and forgot to post that the show was on the small stage, but I was wrong. The show was indeed on the big stage, and good thing that it was as it would have sold out the small room.
Steve Bartolomei, Mal Madrigal’s frontman and songwriter, is nothing if not consistent. His uptempo numbers always have had a waltz-time lilt combined with south-of-the-border guitars and melodies. On some songs, it’s almost Flamenco, but not really. Alt-Flamenco? It’s too Americana for that. It’s really just acoustic folk music with a hint of Spanish gypsy, enough to recognize the influence. While Bartolomei is strumming, sideman Mike Saklar blends in his own Andalusian tones. It’s this ethic flair that pumped life into some of the evening’s best numbers (and best songs on the new LP). The highlight was the stomping “Kill Floor Rebellion,” which had the blood-red sunset color of a Robert Rodriguez mariachi western filmed in a meat-packing town in western Nebraska – a song that’s both angry and desperate. (See photo).
But more central to Bartolomei’s music are the sad-guy waltzes — slump-shouldered sorry-for-yourself acoustic dirges designed to make your chest throb in lost loneliness. Bartolomei always has had a good voice, but it’s never sounded stronger and more assured than last Saturday night. I’d tell you that he’s found his voice, but he always knew where it was. Joining him on stage were Saklar, Dan McCarthy (bass), Chris Esterbrooks (keyboards) and Pat Oakes (drums). All perform on the new album, From the Fingers of Trees, along with Ben Brodin and Nate Walcott. What makes the vinyl package a big step forward for Mal Madrigal is the variety of its 10 tracks, ending with bluesy rock-jam “Hush.” I bought a copy of the record at the show and was at first taken aback by the price — $20. But for your money you get a hand silk-screened album jacket, the vinyl and a full-processed CD of the music, along with a couple inserts. The jacket is artwork suitable for framing. And each is hand numbered from a series of 400. You can buy your copy at Etsy, here.
So yes, that show would have made my end-of-year “favorites” list. So would have last night’s Good Life show at The Slowdown. I’d been watching the One Percent site all week, wondering if the gig would sell out. Sure enough, it did at around 9 p.m. Inside, it was one of the largest crowds I’ve seen at a Slowdown show — packed shoulder to shoulder.
I got there just in time to catch about half a set from one of the openers — I’m not sure who it was, but I know it wasn’t Old Canes or Outlaw Con Bandana, which leaves either Fourth of July (though there were no women on stage) or Chris Seseney and his band (I don’t know what Chris looks like). Whoever it was, they played a blazing set of tight, garage-y rock that got the crowd warmed up for the headliners.
It was one of the best Good Life shows I’ve seen. Tim Kasher looked genuinely happy to be back on stage with his mates, playing some of the best songs he’s ever written, including selections from all the records, but pulling heavily from Album of the Year and Help Wanted Nights. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard these songs on stage, and they felt familiar as slipping on an old coat.
About three songs into the set, Kasher introduced a fifth member of the band joining Roger Lewis (drums), Ryan Fox (guitar, keys) and Steph Drootin (bass). The new member made a timid entrance, spending most of the song with just her nose peaking out from behind the stage-right curtain. I thought I might be seeing things until Kasher said she could come out on stage, and there she was, to the whooping of the crowd, Kasher’s dog — a brown-and-white mutt with a red bandana tied around her neck. The crowd loved her so much that Kasher said, “Get her off the stage, she’s hogging all the attention.” Instead, she wandered around throughout the set, finally lying at his feet during one of the evening’s more quiet numbers. Needless to say, it was a relaxed evening. At one point, Kasher began playing “Album of the Year” — a crowd favorite (and one of mine) — and screwed up a line, started over, screwed it up again, then gave up and said, “I’m just not into the song right now. We’ll play it later.” And he did, during the encore, which also included a big, throbbing cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” that featured Outlaw’s Pearl Loveioy Boyd on backing vocals, Drootin nailing the song’s iconic bass break and Fox doing his best Lindsey Buckingham axe grinding. (See photo)
The encore ended with Kasher doing what sounded like an improvised version of a song alone on keyboards before being joined by the rest of the band for the big closer, pushing the show past 1 a.m. Epic. My only quibble was with the sound. From my vantage point on the tier along stage left, Drootin’s bass overpowered everything for the entire set. It sounded like a dub version of The Good Life. I’m surprised that whoever was running the main board didn’t make some adjustments, but maybe that dominating bass was what the band was going for. It wasn’t the only sound problems. Kasher commented that, for some reason, his guitar sounded “all distorted,” and back-stage sound guy Dan Brennan ran out and fiddled with an amp right behind Kasher. And then, during the encore version of “Album of the Year,” some dopey young couple came running up the stairs and tried to run out the emergence exit, setting off an alarm (right next to me). Brennan again came to the rescue, but it clearly fucked up the pace of the song, though Kasher and Co. recovered nicely.
So, I’ve been to four shows in the past week and have two more in the next two days to close out the year. Tonight’s show is the Bear Country 10-inch release show at Slowdown Jr. (You read about their new album right here in lazy-i already, right?). Opening is McCarthy Trenching and Sean Pratt. $7, 9 p.m.
Also tonight, The Faint begins its three-day sold out stay at The Waiting Room. Opening for them tonight are Somasphere and Honey & Darling. 9 p.m.
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