Whole lotta shakin' going on
The small size of The Basement makes for cramped show-going at times, but the crew was well-prepared for the crowd they knew was to arrive on Friday night (biggest we've ever seen at The Basement, by the way) for Denny and the Jets, Nikki Lane and especially The Alabama Shakes: Tables and chairs were removed inside and out, and the small cash bar in the front room was even open — The Spin loves it when that happens. An amusing sight was spotting Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard doing her hair and makeup in the parking lot prior to the show — we knew the place was small, but had never really thought about the total absence of a backstage before.
Denny and the Jets opened up the night, the first of several celebrations. Their celebratory event was an EP release, and they blazed through their set of Southern-y blues rock, eventually to be joined by one of Nashville's many nth degrees of musical separation on pedal steel, Luke Schneider, to close it out. Celebration No. 2 was the proper record release for Nikki Lane. Lane, with a sort of natural movie-star grace, was wearing a long, tight lace gown with medieval sleeves that caused one showgoer to quip that she looked like "a combination of Stevie Nicks and Princess Leia."
Lane has an easy, gentle Southern accent in both her speaking and singing voice, and her neotraditional country songs were expertly aided by impressive backing vocals from Carey Kotsionis — who even played one of her own tunes, "Magic Cowboy Boots." Lane's band featured loads of familiar local players, and our favorite sight was longtime standard-bearing steel player Paul Niehaus (who has performed with Calexico, Lambchop, Yo La Tengo, Iron and Wine and loads more) riffing alongside a nascent but totally natural guitarist like 20-year-old Sean "To the Wall" Thompson (now Turkeys, formerly PUJOL). Solid set with plenty of charm.
It seemed about half of the crowd was already reverent regarding the Shakes, and half checking them out for the first time based on, what we soon discovered, was not unearned buzz. The energy instantly changed in the room from a fairly standard stuffed-sardine rock show into a rollicking party, with shoeless frontwoman Howard leading the young band through soulful Southern rock 'n' roll numbers by the fistful. You hear a lot of bands talk about "energy" from the crowd feeding their performance, but this is one of the few times The Spin has ever sincerely seen it in spades. We heard from more than one attendee (including one who had been on stage that evening) that it was the best show they'd ever seen at The Basement. It was a hard sentiment to argue with, especially as we noticed we were actively dancing while trying to take notes.
Rumors had been floating around all day that Miley Cyrus was planning to come check out The Alabama Shakes. While no Hannah Montana sightings were officially made (darn), The Spin spotted a handful of high-up industry types — serious label reps and so forth — doing some recon and clearly enjoying the deep, rootsy grooves of Howard & Co. It's particularly amazing that a band like the Shakes — whose first outside-of-Alabama gig ever was at Nashville's The Groove on Record Store Day a mere six months ago — is now commanding this amount of reverence and attention. Fans shouting Howard's name and singing along with every lyric, folks of all ages dancing with zeal, and industry stiffs cramming themselves into sweaty corners just to witness what will clearly end up being one of those "I saw them at The Basement way before they were huge!" moments. And you know what? The Shakes deserve every bit of the hype.
Wilco (the show)
"I know I've heard his name," we overheard one concert-goer say to his inquiring show bro when asked if he knew anything about Wilco opener Nick Lowe. Well, we've heard his name too. Not to mention, like, all of his records. Suffice it to say, we were as much (if not more) excited to see Lowe play — as he, affable as always, put it —"rectal thermometer," warming up and assessing the crowd, as we were about Wilco. Fortunately for Lowe, judging by the warm welcome he received upon briskly striding to the stage, it was obvious most of the Wilco faithful — many of whom were returning customers from Night 1 of this double-header — shared our sentiments, or at least our knowledge of the Best of Basher.
Sunday night at The Ryman, Lowe looked cool as Cash (or perhaps Christ) decked out head-to-toe in black — like his former stepfather-in-law — and heavenly with the Mother Church's spotlight making his thick, white locks shine atop his head like a halo. Appearing by his lonesome, the famed 62-year-old songwriter delighted all — and enlightened some — with a 12-song, one-man, all-killer acoustic set that featured such favorites as "Heart" strummed as a fast country shuffle, the always-rousing country rocker "Raging Eyes," crowd-pleasers like "Cruel to Be Kind" and "When I Write the Book" and the ever witty "All Men Are Liars" before closing with the most famous song he ever wrote and Elvis Costello ever sang, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" That made for our second Ryman-based helping of the tune in a week's time. In The Spin's utopia, Lowe would've opened last Sunday's Costello spectacular, where, despite hearing 135 minutes of pure, Stiff-harkening awesome, we were not treated with a show-stopping rendition of "Alison." Nick the Knife made up for that by interjecting his own take on the tune (which he produced, of course) near set's end.
Off the bat, Wilco's ability to replicate the atmospheric wonder of their records in a live setting was displayed in full force with set opener "Less Than You Think." With eerie projections rolling across the Halloweeny stage decor — lanterns and bits of wraithlike cloth were hanging all around the stage — and drummer Glenn Kotche eliciting spooky rumblings from his massive gong, the noise gave way to the first couple of tunes from their brand-new The Whole Love. The Spin has seen four shows at The Ryman in the past month, and this one — with its popcorn-worthy light show — was easily the most visually striking. Given Wilco's immense arsenal of gear, however, the stage was still aglow with dials and switches each time the lights were brought all the way down.
By the time "Ashes of American Flags" and the ensuing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot portion of the set came around, the Wilco super-fans in attendance — collectively and endearingly known to The Spin as "sad grampas" — were uncharacteristically elated. Hipper-than-average dads and snuggled-up thirtysomething couples had their lives affirmed by the gentle strains of "One Sunday Morning," and lead guitarist par excellence Nels Cline's parts on Whole Love songs are probably the most tasteful of anything he's played since joining the band. (We don't really feel like it's necessary for Wilco to retrofit all their pre-Cline tunes with massive solos as they do, but it's OK. The songs themselves are still good.)
But despite Wilco's noodly bits and sleepy segues, The Spin is still made up of unabashed Wilco fans (read: formerly closeted sad grampas), and we will not deny the gracefully momentous skill with which our beloved Tweedy Bird and his flock perform. Especially Kotche — seriously, that guy does the work of about three men behind the kit, holding down grooves while simultaneously playing glorious melodies on a glockenspiel like some sort of octo-limbed folk-rocktopus. At one point, Duane Allman's gold Les Paul was brought out so Cline could solo for about 250 bars on "Impossible Germany," and Jeff Tweedy venerated the thing by comparing it to "Noah's hammer."
All along the way, we crossed our fingers for a bit of Summerteeth, which finally came when Wilco delivered their world-class sing-along number "Shot in the Arm." For their encore, Wilco asked a Telecaster-sporting Mr. Lowe to return to the stage, and together they played the Jim Ford-penned "36 Inches High" — featured, of course, on Lowe's seminal Jesus of Cool — as well as the absolute jam "I Love My Label." Tweedy lovingly joked that he wanted Lowe to join his band so they might tour as "Wiclowe." Shit, we'd pay good money for that. What's Dave Edmunds up to these days? Anyway, the rest of the encore featured crowd-pleasers like "California Stars," "The Late Greats" and Being There's "Red-Eyed and Blue" and "I Got You (at the End of the Century)." Why, it was enough to send us sad grampas on our way feeling 10 feet tall and 20 years younger, by golly.
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