Turner Hall, Milwaukee
[On occasion, our far-flung correspondents attend and review shows. Here's another installment.]
The web site Daytrotter has become popular with music fans for creating a unique format that has since been imitated, but never duplicated, in various forms. Based out of barnlike studio in Rock Island, Illinois, a town on the banks of the Mississippi River, Daytrotter's recording studio has been host to many popular and upcoming independent bands.
Now, for the third consecutive year, Daytrotter has put together a mini-caravan of acts to perform in the Midwest in what it dubs as its "Barnstormer 3." TNOP recently caught the second of five shows at Turner Hall, joined by our UK correspondent, Miles Gallagher.
Free Energy, a openly proud rawk 'n roll quintet from Philadelphia (but hatched in Minneapolis) took the stage as we entered Turner Hall, an old German gymnastics building converted by some imaginative music entrepreneurs. Miles wrote an Ascending column in these pages last month on the band, emphasizing their promise on the live stage. He confided to me his disappointment in their freshman CD Stuck On Nothing - despite production by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem - concluding that Free Energy's studio recording had "been slow by half a beat." After a listen to the record, I knew what he meant; and apparently the public did, too, as the release fell flat with listeners, despite an appearance on Letterman and a media push from the likes of Paste and Rolling Stone.
With a retro look that could have landed them the band lead in Almost Famous, Free Energy powered through their set with plenty of fun and hooks to spare. Echoes of T. Rex, Thin Lizzy and The Stones perked up the crowd. Lead singer Paul Sprangers delivered time and again, adapting a Joey Ramone stance and leaving the stage antics to his more than able guitarist, Scott Wells.
"We're breaking out this time," Sprangers sings on the tune that bears the band's name. And with the freedom to hone their craft on an intimate stage, power pop confections like "Bang Pop" have both Miles and I bobbing our heads in unison. Although they pay homage to the above mentioned bands - and a few more - Free Energy fills a void that seems to have been missing in rock lately.
Missouri singer-songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff comes next, and immediately seems out of place. Fiddling endlessly with mic checks and then not even introducing himself or his band, the crowd first deflates during a couple of (albeit lovely) three-part harmony numbers without musical accompaniment. The band is certainly proficient but frankly rather lifeless as it continues its set of Americana. Then "Laughing" and "You Should Have Seen The Other Guy" provide shots in the arm and their finale (a straight cop of a Bon Iver harmony) draws the biggest reaction from the crowd. Rateliff will be opening for The Tallest Man On Earth in the coming weeks; TNOP is confident that his act will translate better on that bill.
If this had been coined an old-fashioned "Battle of the Bands," San Diego's Delta Spirit would have skipped away with the crown on this particular evening. "Bushwick Blues" is a great opener. Drummer Brandon Young serves notice right off the bat that he means business behind the skins, bashing the snare with such intensity that he breaks a stick (which would occur more than once in this truncated set). His partner in rhythm, bassist Jon Jameson, also kills throughout. Guitarists Matt Vasquez and Sean Walker play off each other nicely. Although this act obviously has roots in Americana as well, Delta Spirit has got soul. During "Ransom Man," Miles yells in my ear what a great bottom sound the group has. Vasquez is comfortable at the mic, singing with eased emotion whether Delta Spirit is playing a ballad or boogie woogie. The group's second album, History From Below (Rounder) drops 8 June. TNOP can't wait.
Rounding out the night was Ra Ra Riot, probably the most recognizable name on the bill. The Syracuse band has a cool factor that flows from the fact that their sound isn't immediately derivative of any genre in particular. In a refreshing (and admittedly ironic) twist, cellist Alexandra Lawn and violinist Rebecca Zeller "take the place" of seemingly ubiquitous synthesizers. While vocalist Wes Miles noodles with a keyboard every once in awhile, his noteworthy range makes the listener stand up and notice, particularly on songs like "Dying Is Fine" and "Ghost Under Rocks." Bassist Mathieu Santos drives the beat of Ra Ra Riot; again, in a rock juxtaposition, Milo Bonacci's guitar is usually complimentary rather than up front. Along with the steady drumming of Gabriel Duquette, it all adds up to a fresh cocktail of rhythm that leans on Celtic and African influences.