Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Of Truckers and Zombies (Summerfest ’08)

with 4 comments

It might come as a surprise to some of the non-locals reading this blog, but Milwaukee is home to the “world’s largest music festival.” There are many reasons why this fact hasn’t lodged itself in the general music fandom consciousness (the festival’s non-affiliation with any particular type of easily promotable genre, a distinct lack of national press, a dedicated fairground in a city that could easily be described as the anti-Austin for all the national attention paid to its musical comings-and-goings). But chief among these reasons is that the lineup is so perpetually hit-or-miss that even local music geeks can barely muster much enthusiasm for it. No, this is a music festival for the everyman and everywoman; a music festival in which the music is often a mere backdrop to eating and drinking; a music festival at which Kansas, Jackyl (it’s 2008, for crying out loud!!!), and The Guy Who Used to Sing for Train can get booked multiple years in a row.

It’s a frustrating phenomenon to the local music fan or musician, since it’s hard to mount a complaint about the lack of attention paid to music in this town with this eleven-day behemoth breathing down our necks.
“Of course, Milwaukee loves its music! I saw Candlebox at one of the side-stages last year, and they packed the place. I saw Creedence Clearwater Revisited, and the crowd stretched back all the way to the middle of the grounds. Biggest music festival in the world blah blah blah…” To say nothing of the local talent that occupies the majority of the stages until the main acts go on at 10 p.m. or so. If it’s not blues rock or covers, it won’t cut it at most of the stages, except maybe for the metal/hard rock and “modern rock” stages, which tend to book regional (and pretty LCD, as well – we heard a band that sounded like the Goo-Goo Dolls insert some hugely unneeded radio-ready melodrama into Death Cab for Cutie’s “Your Heart is an Empty Room”), but not local.

This year, the festival squeezed most of the city’s best local bands into slots at a tiny, unobtrusive stage near the entrance to the Marcus Amphitheater (which hosts the big ticket events, like Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty, or, yes, the Jonas Brothers, which require park admission and an additional cost, unless you want to sit in the grass seats where sound reaches you about a second after vision). I can’t say we were able to see any of these, since we had a get-in/get-out agenda both times we attended this year, but I’d very much like to know what the crowd bound for the green and stinky pastures of Rascal Flatts at the amphitheater thought of the killer Testa Rosa, Juniper Tar, Celebrated Workingman bill that was playing the tiny local stage as they passed. (Forget it. I already know what they were thinking: “neeeehver heard of ’em.”)

That said, any eleven-day music festival is bound to yield some goodies. I’ve seen some amazing shows at Summerfest (Wilco numerous times, Andrew Bird, Spoon, Fishbone, Elvis Costello and Allan Toussaint to name a few), and I, like everyone, enjoy eating fried items, so it’s impossible to write the whole thing off. This year, only two really grabbed me (which is pretty lame, actually – usually, I end up seeing at least three or four big acts and regret missing two or three on top of those).

Drive-By Truckers, 7/3/08

This is the fourth time we’ve seen DBT and only the first since they parted ways with singer/songwriter/guitarist/next-big-thing-in-a-just-universe Jason Isbell. Since Isbell left, they’ve released Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, a spotty album that still manages to be more than worthwhile if only for the fact that 19 tracks gives them a lot of wiggle room for a bum song here and there, promoted part-time member John Neff to full-time so he could take on Isbell’s guitar duties and play some lap steel, and persuaded bassist Shonna Tucker to step up to the mic and sing some songs she wrote.

This may seem like a lot of changes for one band, but if anything, it comes across like a step back. There’s more of a focus on the country-rock that defined their sound on the first couple releases and, not surprisingly, less of the anthemic rock that came out in the Isbell era (which wasn’t limited to Isbell, himself – Patterson Hood’s “Feb 14,” “Something’s Gonna Give,” and “Wednesday” all mined that territory, as well). But even this is too reductive – Hood and Mike Cooley all contribute rockers and ballads, goofs like Cooley’s “Lisa’s Birthday” bumping heads with raging guitar rave-ups like Hood’s “The Man I Shot.”

So the show? Pretty good. Isbell’s presence is missed, but not to the point of full-on disappointment. Still, he provided a moody, introspective counterpoint to Hood’s good-hearted benevolence and Cooley’s devil-may-care cool (although not quite as cool as his fans in Cooleyville* may like to think – at this show, he admitted to a fear of heights that he just barely faced down on Summerfest’s sky-glider**). Tucker is an amiable presence, but generally just there to thump the bass (seriously – it looks like she hits that thing harder than some funk players), and Neff is nearly as much of a background figure as the keyboardist they have on this tour who’s covering the parts that legend Spooner Oldham played on the album. But the songs are still great, the setlist hit a lot of the high points of the new album, and, if Decoration Day and the Dirty South weren’t as well-represented as I’d want them to be (and, honestly, I could listen to huge chunks of either played live over and over), at least we got a fiery “Sink Hole” and a smooth “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac.”

At the end of the set, Hood (who gives the best song introductions by anyone not named “Bruce”) chucked his guitar pick into the audience, and my lovely wife was lucky enough to catch it – she plans on making it into a necklace.

The Zombies, 7/5/08

Yup, those Zombies. “Time of the Season,” “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” etc. But, most important to 20 and 30-something music lover types like myself, creators of Odessey and Oracle, one of those great, initially unappreciated masterpiece albums that we love to bring up to show that we’ve done a little digging beyond the obvious 60s cultural touchstones (as in “The Doors??? You should listen to Forever Changes, you hopeless, classic rock radio-listening plebe!”).

Much of this mostly newfangled hype for Odessey and Oracle is entirely earned, though. It’s a remarkably consistent pop album with the tricky chord changes and experimentation of a Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper, but with the sweetness cut with a slice of ominous menace provided by Colin Blunstone’s detached vocals. It’s given an additional cohesiveness by Rod Argent’s mellotron, which was apparently only used because the soon-to-disband group was on a budget and couldn’t afford real strings. Odessey and Oracle was released posthumously, and the band never got a chance to tour to support its greatest achievement. Blunstone released a bunch of solo albums (the first few of which did well in Europe and are fairly well-regarded – I just got the first two, but haven’t listened yet), Rod Argent formed Argent, the band responsible for the inexplicably horrible “Hold Your Head Up,” and bassist Chris White, the other principal songwriter for the band, contributed to both Blunstone’s and Argent’s projects (including aforementioned sonic abomination – a drastic departure from the Zombies sound that seems even more peculiar given the involvement of not one, but both of the main Zombies songwriters!).

Flash-forward to 2001 – Blunstone and Argent get back together to tour in a climate that’s begun to warm to Odessey and Oracle in a way that, based on what I saw at the Summerfest show, the band members don’t even fully comprehend (which is a little strange considering they knew enough to stage a one-off 40th Anniversary Odessey and Oracle show earlier this year with all living members of the original lineup). They release a new album as Blunstone and Argent. In every review I’ve read, I can detect the critic’s inner struggle in having to slam an album by a pair of guys he was really rooting for.

And that brings us to The Zombies, Summerfest ’08 style. First off, the crowd was a curious mix of young and/or aging hipster types (guilty on one or the other count, I suppose) with Odessey and Oracle fixations, boomers with fond memories of the band from the first time around, and the usual Summerfest crowd, who probably know the three big Zombies singles and that’s about it. It was a particularly bright day, and Raina and I had already suffered the burn-y consequences of one largely sunblock-less afternoon. My pale companion co-opted my sweatshirt in an effort to ward off the rays and affected an LL Cool J-like pose (“Don’t call it a comeback?” she gravely intoned before the Zombies began – recreation pictured at left).

Her paleness paled in comparison, however, to the most pallid of all, the quite pale Colin Palesto… er… Blunstone, who casually made his way to the front of the stage under the kind of tousled, obviously dyed hair that only British rock stars of a certain generation can pull off. I’m not exaggerating the paleness – the man was downright combustible looking.

It was distracting only until he began singing, because for all the criticism I might have of the current Zombies live thing, the guy can seriously belt. Blunstone’s almost 60, and he might even sing better now than he did in his youth. It’s great that Argent’s participating, and he’s certainly the musical backbone of the touring unit, but Blunstone’s the main attraction here. And they’re really likeable and seemingly modest guys, too (although “this was a big hit in Europe” may have been the most repeated phrase of the afternoon), which makes them hard to slam.

But slam I must.

First, let me preface by saying that the early stuff was almost uniformly fantastic except when the session guitarist they have on board decided to take some oddly 80s-style liberties with his allotted solo time. “Tell Her No,” “I’ve Been Abused,” and “She’s Not There” were everything you’d want them to be (sans guitar solo), and “Indication” ran to epic lengths with a proggy, jammy coda that Argent emphasized was exactly how they played it live in the old days.

Odessey and Oracle was, sadly, confined to a five-song mini-set, including “Care of Cell 44,” “Time of the Season,” and “This Will Be Our Year” (the first dance at our wedding!), but it was so good that it almost justified the rest of the set.

The rest? Well, some of Blunstone’s solo stuff was pretty good, but the new Blunstone/Argent songs are the worst type of clunky blues-rock, and, worst of all, we were treated to “Hold Your Head Up” (met with much approval by the curious, three-song-familiarized Summerfest gang), and, as a curious set closer, “God Gave Rock’n’Roll to You.” A KISS song, you ask? Nope. Argent wrote it, KISS covered it. Both versions are terrible. So was this. The LCD crowd loved it, though, so I may be in the minority in my thinking here.

* “Cooleyville” is an area/event/group/entity located stage-left, directly in front of Mike Cooley. It’s a common term on DBT message boards, and it usually seems to be where the most belligerent, drunk guys hang out. Raina and I started referring to this bunch in the third-person singular: “Cooleyville is angry.” “Cooleyville wants you to get it a beer. Wait, make that 126 beers.” “Cooleyville got here at 7:30 in the morning to stake out some choice bleacher seats, but discovered that the park doesn’t open until noon. This was no problem, since It has boltcutters.”

** Like Cooley, I’m also afraid of heights, but “stare down the dragon,” as he put it, every year, because love knows no bounds, and I’ve married into sky-glider-dom.


Written by Dave

July 7, 2008 at 9:39 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Here I was, thinking I was alone in my Unabomber fetish. Knowing that there are others out there is so comforting!


    July 8, 2008 at 10:06 am

  2. Nice write up, Blunstone is pretty pasty and fey but it was a great time! Thanks


    July 10, 2008 at 8:01 pm

  3. The Zombies were excellent at Summerfest. The audience loved them. I would go see them again.


    July 22, 2008 at 12:54 pm

  4. Hey, Misfit from CHUD here. Just read this entry, great write-ups on both bands. I’m going to the DBT/Hold Steady show next month, the first time I’ll have seen a full-on rock show without Isbell. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to order a copy of Odessey and Oracle, which is missing from my music collection…


    September 21, 2008 at 8:28 pm

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