Tier Two Music – Milwaukee Blues
By Tom Wilmeth
24 February 2014
After giving this evaluation of my weekend in spoken form to a couple of people, I thought that I may as well write it down. I am not even pretending this is a real review – I have been saying for quite a while that I am writing most of my stuff for myself – this may take that idea to a new level. We’ll see:
I saw two bands over the weekend that featured blues guitars. I’m glad I went to both shows – cabin fever is running high here in Beertown. I enjoyed both shows, but more than anything they made me appreciate the difference between good and great. These guys were both good; I saw nothing great either night.
Thursday I went to Milwaukee’s Shank Hall to hear Tommy Castro & The Painkillers. I had never heard of guitarist Castro before, but I guess he has been on the road for quite a while and he comes from the San Francisco area. He could play, but it was nothing very special. The newspaper article said that he used to have a large horn band but had stripped it down to a quartet in order to give the soloists more room. He certainly didn’t need much solo space, and I could have used some tight horn parts. The keyboard player James Pace had chops, and I sometimes preferred his solos to the leader’s. I am guessing the real reason for the stripped down quartet was simple economics of keeping a band on the road. And I am not critical of a move for that reason. Nobody was getting rich at Shank Hall last Thursday.
I thought the set was OK, and especially enjoyed the night’s second tune -- a semi-funky version of Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.” But when Castro took solos, he was too often into cheap stunts like repeating a lick FOR TWO ENTIRE CHORUSES. Feels so good when it stops, but play a real solo! He clearly knows what will get a reaction, but I found it close to pandering. At times he was good, but then it faded.
At mid-set Castro pushed his new CD a bit and then they did the title song, “The Devil You Know.” Only then did I recognize the band as one that the XM Bluesville station plays on their weekly “Rack of Blues” program. Good, but not good enough for me to get the CD. And after one set of standing by the wall holding my heavy ironman coat, I decided that I had seen what these guys could do.
At the break, leader Castro went immediately to the merchandise table to sell and sign CDs. He has recorded a lot of them, no doubt about it. He mentioned that he had been playing with his bassist Randy McDonald for over 25 years. They were road warriors and, up close, McDonald really looked weathered from touring. After he posed for photos with some girls, I approached him and said that I had heard the CD’s title track on the XM blues station. He seemed pleased, and told me that the band had done a whole live set for XM in their studios, but he was unsure when it would run. Maybe it had already aired. We both praised XM Radio and then I let him depart backstage; it was his break, after all.
I took off and fought a very windy night. I swung-by the Jazz Estate, but it was so packed that I did not stay long – maybe 45 minutes. I did find a seat there, however! Performing was the Aaron Gardner Quartet, young guys playing old tunes. Garnder was on tenor sax with Cody Steinmann on guitar. They had an acoustic bass and a drummer, but from my table I never caught sight of either. Both Gardner and Steinmann sounded good. When the bass soloed, however, the sound was completely lost in the sound of everybody in the place talking at full volume. I liked what I heard, though, and will try to get back to them. Glad that place is poppin’! Keeps threatening to close.
On a solo outing and driving, I was on my safe black coffee regimen. I headed for home and played some loud music and had a beer. As I cranked up a couple of guitar favorites, I considered how it is hard for any live act to compete with the people and performances in one’s music collection. But I still love a live show by a solid performer.
The next night (Friday, February 21) – Ellie had told me about a local guy who was starting to make some noise as a blues guitarist. He was returning to his home town of Cedarburg to play a show at the local Cultural Center – an easy bike ride from my house if the weather weren’t so nuts. I knew the type of show this would be: very white. (And boy, was it.) But OK. Let’s check him out.
This guitarist’s name is Alex Wilson. His quartet was guitar, electric bass, drums, and blues harp. That’s fine, but the harp player took as many if not more solos than the guitar! Based on featured tunes, I really felt that the band should have been named after the harmonica player.
In several ways, this band made the previous night’s group go up in my estimation:
If I had thought that Castro relied on too many performance tricks, this harp player was almost nothing but show. For the most part the music was OK (but not much more). Was surprised me most was the presentation, both on and off the stage: If this were meant to be a homecoming showcase gig, somebody should have told the group leader. After each tune, he conferred with the band about what to play next. Very odd. Seems like they might look into the benefits of a predetermined set list.
Also strange was the audio mix. The sound was channeled to hard separation. This meant that if you were sitting in one of the few seats located between the speaker columns you heard all of the instruments clearly. Seated anywhere but dead center in the hall, and you were either hearing a very unbalanced mix of way too much harp or an abundance of guitar. Unlucky me, I was seated on the harmonica side. I thought about moving to the other end if the room, but then I realized that the guitarist wasn’t playing anything that I really needed to hear more clearly. Just mix the sound to mono and turn it up.
This was a band that you realized, about three tunes in, that you would not need to stick around for a second set. Which I didn’t. I departed at the break for Grafton’s Bridge Inn, where the band The Itch was supposed to be playing, but they had cancelled – weather related. So I called it a night and a weekend and headed back home.
But hey – all is well! I got out and enjoyed some live music. And in spite of my carping, I DID enjoy the bands. The second tier experiences make you appreciate the really good nights all that much more. So with that . . .
Support live music and keep listening!
Grafton – former home of The Paramount Records label