For one thing, even though they're extremely young--all in their early 20s--they are some of the most gifted musicians in town. I was recently talking with Ben, the band's drummer (and a guitarist by trade), who gushed about the band's actual guitarist, "I keep my eye out, looking to see if some young new prodigy will show up in town and be a better guitarist, but so far, I haven't found one."
It's no mere hyperbole: The kid plays so quickly, proficiently and accurately that you'd swear he was merely hammering his notes, but no. He's actually playing those runs, moving his fingers so quickly that it's tough to even figure out what the hell he's doing some of the time.
And the bassist/keyboardist and drummer have no problem keeping up with him, either. The songs are complicated--lots of starts and stops and time-signature changes and such--but somehow manage to never try your patience with their difficulty. They're extremely engaging and pleasant to listen to.
I caught the band last week playing a set of instrumentals that accompanied a photography slide show at a local cafe, which meant no Mr. Free, just the Satellite Freakout. I should mention here that I've still never actually seen the band perform with Mr. Free, the singer with a penchant for exhibitionism and disturbing antics that everyone seems to want to talk about. (The last time the band played at Club Congress, he laid an egg. Enter your own disturbing mental version of that here.)
In a way, I'm glad my induction into the band's music was Mr. Free-free, and here's why: Often, and perhaps usually, when a band has a frontperson that's so in-your-face, it means the band really isn't very skilled. (Ben said that audience members have mentioned to him after a gig that they really couldn't hear what the band was doing, because they couldn't get past that flamboyant frontman. Which, of course, makes Ben a bit frustrated: "Are you even paying attention?") But that clearly isn't the case here, and when I do finally see the full band, I think I'll appreciate them even more, having seen that they don't need the crazy singer; the songs stand just fine on their own, and anything Mr. Free adds will just be gravy (possibly literally so).
Regulars on Fourth Avenue might have seen the band perform one of their "bus shows," which is exactly as it sounds: The group bought a big-ass school bus a while back and have been putting on shows in it, usually on Fourth Avenue, for the first 40 people who show up. Last year, they embarked on their first tour, an endeavor that made them realize that maybe a school bus wasn't the most cost-efficient mode of transport for a gig-hungry band. Ben reported that it cost them $1,500 in gas to make it to Portland, Ore., and back. So, a couple of weeks ago, the group spent a considerable pile of cash they had saved to have their bus converted to use cooking oil instead of gas whenever possible. Next week, they'll test out the newly converted beast's mettle as they head back out on the road for a six-week tour of these United States.
But before they do, they'll hop off the bus for a tour kickoff show, which doubles as a 21st birthday celebration for our pal Ben. It all goes down at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., on Friday, June 15. Doors open at 9 p.m., and the bill will also include the Lemon Drop Gang, Al Foul, Gary Bear and Victoria Galinsky. In keeping with the band's name, attending this event won't cost you a penny (aside from what you'll pay with your soul). Questions? Ring 'em up at 622-8848.
Which makes the career of Michelle Shocked all the more remarkable. In the mid-'80s, Shocked was volunteering at a folk festival, performing her folk songs by a campfire. British producer Pete Lawrence was so impressed, he recorded those songs on the only thing he had handy--a Sony Walkman. That cassette eventually became The Texas Campfire Tapes, Shocked's first album, released in 1986 on Cooking Vinyl, and it led to her signing with Mercury Records. Her second album, Short Sharp Shocked (1988), was a more confident and edgy affair, rooted in folk traditions but with punk attitude, à la Billy Bragg. But with her third album, Shocked shocked her fans (and her record company) by turning in Captain Swing (1989, Mercury), an homage to swing and big-band music that was surprisingly irony-free and awfully enjoyable. (It should probably also be noted that the album presaged the swing revival that would take place a decade later.)
Since then, Shocked has been booted off Mercury and started her own label, Mighty Sound, for which she records and releases whatever music she feels like. In 2005, she released three albums on one day: Don't Ask, Don't Tell, a folk-pop album; Got No Strings, a bluegrassy take on songs from Disney movies; and Mexican Standoff, a rather odd take on Latin music and songs inspired by it.
This week, Shocked will perform a special solo acoustic show at the intimate Solar Culture Gallery, in advance of her upcoming album ToHeavenURide, which will be released in August. The disc is a recording of a performance from the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, from 2003, a gospel-heavy affair that consisted of standards, a few more recent covers (The Band's "The Weight," for example) and four original tunes. Expect to hear cuts from that album as well as, well, whatever the hell she feels like playing. We gave up trying to pin her down long ago.
Michelle Shocked performs an all-ages show at 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 16. Solar Culture Gallery is located at 31 E. Toole Ave. Admission is $20. For more information, call 884-0874.
Last week, in an item that ran on the Deacon-worshipping Web site Pitchfork, and was originally posted on his MySpace page, Deacon explained that the keyboard, a model MT-800, finally went kaput on him, likely due to a string of rather spirited performances in which it was utilized.
"This sucks," he wrote, "because I need it badly for most of my songs." Hopefully, someone out there has helped the brother out, 'cause it would be a shame to be treated to a less-than-ideal show from a guy for whom expectations are rather high. After all, the dude from Baltimore, who deftly merges grating electronic noise with catchy bubblegum pop, has been touted in most circles as a great white wonder, and Tucson wants the full-on Deacon experience, dammit! So, scour that storage shed, and if you've got a Casiotone MT-800 that's collecting dust, you hold the power to make both a musician from Baltimore and a packed club of Tucsonans anticipating his performance rather happy.
Dan Deacon performs at Plush, 340 E. Sixth St., on Friday, June 15. Opening at 9:45 p.m. is Video Hippos, followed by Music Video. Cover is a mere $6. For further details, call 798-1298.
One of the most fun punk bands currently in existence, the Riverboat Gamblers headline a show at Vaudeville Cabaret on Tuesday, June 19, that will also feature The Arrivals, Swing Ding Amigos and the FANSS. 622-3535.
Shearwater is a collaboration between Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff (Okkervil River) which last year issued its fourth album, Palo Santo (Misra). Last month, Matador Records reissued the album in an expanded, two-disc edition. Why, you ask? Because it's one of the most critically lauded albums from 2006, and chances are pretty darn good you've never heard it. The New York Times called it "one of the year's best rock albums"; PopMatters said it was "one of the finest records to be released in recent memory"; and NPR named it the year's best album. Find out for yourself what all the hubbub is about when Shearwater performs at Plush on Monday, June 18, along with openers Minus Story and Redlands. 798-1298.
Former Concrete Blonde frontwoman Johnette Napolitano takes the stage at Club Congress, along with opener Little Black Cloud, on Saturday, June 16. 622-8848. On Wednesday, June 20, there are two fine shows to choose from: Everything-ethnic-under-the-sun dance outfit Toubab Krewe is at Plush (798-1298), while country critics' darlings Reckless Kelly are at the Rialto Theatre. 740-1000.
Be sure to check out our club listings for more, more, more.