Saturday night. Destination: Linneman's Riverwest Inn. Oh, we'd been there before, my local music scene aficionados and I - it's Milwaukee's worst kept secret - the premier performance venue for the best local talent in the area. Tonight was special, though. Tonight we were especially excited to see The Vega Star after a several month drought.
Sure, their 2008 masterwork album The Night, is still in heavy rotation at my house, but seeing The Vega Star live is an entirely different experience - and more so since we've heard rumors of new songs to be performed.
When we arrived, opener Geri X had already taken the stage. Fortunately, we only missed the first song or two. She's an intimate performer, and one that you tend to want to give your full attention to. Prior to this night, I was unfamiliar with her; I knew only that she and The Vega Star get particularly excited about performing together. In fact, it was Vega Star bassist Stephen DeLassus who appropriately filled me in: "You've never heard her before? You gotta check her out - she's the real deal!"
So, my friends and I got our drinks and made our way down the hallway that separates the stage area from the bar proper. This is an ideal set-up, in my opinion, as you can be fully engrossed in the music, or step down the hall and into the bar for conversation. This way, you aren't talking over the performers, but you can still hear them. Linneman further ensures this by keeping a TV mounted in the corner behind the bar, serving as a live monitor of the stage. We, however, were there to be fully submerged in the music, having talked about it plenty in the car on the way.
The starter, Geri X performs mostly solo. Just her and a guitar, strumming out melancholy pieces composed by a bitter heart and a submissive id. Her soul shows through while she plays. It's in the way she keeps her shoulders tight and high - like she's imagining a warm embrace that continues to evade or deny her. Her eyes are closed and her head sways as she sings. Each and every song a reinstated reverie of times gone by. She recalls them for us, wrapping them in her clipped vocalization. Folk songs wound in wire, but each barb is such a razor sharp allegory that you start to forgive the pain. It feels too good to make you sad, and while she might have apologized for all her songs being so downtrodden, it really wasn't necessary.
Immediately apparent was that both of these performers deal exclusively in melodies of either foreboding uncertainty, or cryptic revelation. While Geri X targets more on the troubled soul and the wayward mind, The Vega Star's songs are all haunted house and fearsome dilemma. In that regard, one compliments the other, and makes for a consistent playlist.
After Geri X, The Vega Star took the stage. They launched immediately into a new number, a harder edged tune than their previous works called "Chains". It was what we'd all hoped for, and the audience gave it the same respect they would of the band's recorded work. That's something about a local show in comparison to a national act. The new stuff feeds as much a hunger for the band's work as the old. You don't just come to hear the album, you come to see what else they have to offer. Or maybe it's just that way for The Vega Star. Frontman Justin Rolbiecki is an exacting lyricist, after all, and one that makes you yearn for what mark he'll hit next. He delivers those foreboding messages with precision. Every verse, every well laid chorus - it's all put with a conviction that can spare no expense for unnecessary prose. Considering the dark and cloudy hue of The Vega Star's musical aura, you can almost imagine Rolbiecki as your guide through the ruins and the headstones and the trees. He plunges forward into the fog, lamp in hand to light your way. You'd best stay close behind him, though - hang onto his shirt if you can. He'll warn you of what hides in the shadows and what moves across your path, and you're well advised to heed those words; for if you lose him there, you're lost forever.
When their set was finished, and we all shook the spell that had been cast, the crowd began to disperse to the bar. I hung a moment at our table in the corner, still taking it in, when a bearded man approached and sat down in front of me. "Are you Eric North?" He asked, and I responded in the affirmative. He extended his hand and introduced himself: "I'm Rob Hansen." This was of amazing significance to me on a personal level.
Hansen is none other than the frontman of a Milwaukee collective called The Maze. The ensemble has been on hiatus for a few months, and has in the interim seen some rotation in members. I had never found the opportunity to see them perform, so had tentatively planned on catching them at Mad Planet (a venue, likewise, I had never been to) the following evening. It was just under a year ago I got my hands on The Maze's debut album Awakens. A thoroughly engrossing album, something I stated in an earlier write-up would sit comfortably alongside anything on the 90's 4AD label roster. Hansen's voice, in fact - his stage presence even, come to think of it - reminds me of Dead Can Dance's Brendan Perry crossed with Warren Defever, of His Name Is Alive. To be sitting down here with this man was of equal or greater value than getting to chat with either of them.
Hansen explained that the over the course of the last few months, the group's dynamic had changed a little. "I got bored," he said, "and members of The Maze have been numerous. We have a new drummer now (Robert Lueck), and I've been motivated to rock a little harder, and be even more experimental."
Even as one who appreciates progressive musicianship, I became a little concerned. The Maze had always juxtaposed experimental folk so well, I wondered if this "new sound" he spoke of would spoil it. "Not at all. We have been gentle and dark just as well as we have been loud and angry. Right now it's time to be loud and angry again."
He shook my hand, and left me with: "You should come out to the show tomorrow, man. I think you'd be impressed with what we're doing. The drummer says it sounds like Ledbelly getting it on with Sonic Youth." Well, that I had so see - and I was sold. It was decided at that moment that no matter how much I indulged tonight, there was nothing that would keep me from that show tomorrow.
Sunday night. Destination: Mad Planet.
So like an addict, I'd recovered just enough from the copious consumption I'd engaged in the night before, to make my way out for another fix. Back to Riverwest, parking my car around the corner from the venue - which took on a speakeasy look on this stormy night. What I thought was Mad Planet's main entrance right off the corner, was found to be locked. The door was painted green with a yellow arrow pointing down the street. I shrugged, and headed in that direction to another door. This one was glass, and I could see a man sitting on a stool behind it. I pulled the handle. Locked. The man on the other side looked at me warily. He did come to the door, but stood in it to block my entrance. The rain was soaking into my soul at this point, and I was growing impatient for my fix. "Not open, man." The guy said, and I told him quickly I was there to see the show. With the door about to close he stopped it, moved aside and let me in. I don't know what that was about, but it was kinda cool in that speakeasy way I mentioned.
Mad Planet has a very old school alternative rock vibe that made me think of San Francisco circa 1992. I imagined that scene, and the clubs the bands that ruled the Earth played in then. Black painted stucco walls, tattooed with various abstract artwork. One of them, I recall, was a painting of a naked alien chick with a distended prego belly smoking a hookah. Odd and intriguing. Behind the bar were stickers, upon stickers, upon more stickers of band logos. The place has a "feel" to it. Like all the music ever played there has seeped into the architecture and lives in the walls and the furniture.
When I arrived, close to no one was there yet. A few people milled around in small groups, so I took this as opportunity to meet the current lineup of The Maze.
Robert introduced me to Lueck and to his long time bass player Jaben Funk. Funk, I'd heard on the band's album, but here is a perfect example of where seeing a band live can offer a different perspective than hearing them recorded: the sound of Funk's bass. Maybe it was Mad Planet's acoustics (the place is very conducive to good sound), maybe it was the sound guy - who knows - but the resonance on Jaben Funk's bass guitar was remarkable. It snarled and growled in every song, and bit and tore like a rabid dog during the band's heavier numbers (their cover of Lennon's "Working Class Hero", for example). With Funk being such a subdued player, staying far right stage and leaning against an amp the entire set, on certain tracks the bass lines would come snarling out of nowhere, completely catching you off guard and taking you down fast.
Once The Maze had taken the stage, and more people began to materialize, Hansen addressed the crowd: "How many of you have Republicans in your district up for recall?" He paused to allow for answers, looked around, but no one was brave enough to respond. Some heads nodded, some looked at each other in question. "Sign your fucking petitions." Hansen commanded, and then began "Black Shadows" - a song that if it doesn't appear on a follow-up Maze album, will be a severe disappointment. "Say Goodbye" was performed next, a solid tune from Awakens - but really done justice in its performance that evening. It had more kick to it than the album version, and it was the catalyst that put the show in motion that night.
One of the most interesting things about The Maze is that they have somehow managed to combine experimental sounds with conventional folk rock. Hansen makes creative use of things like a theremin, or even an older style tube amp with a microphone pushed against it, and an assortment of guitar effects pedals. The pedal thing got me, and I'm sure a good chunk of the audience, curious about their purpose. Prior to the band coming on, I had meandered over to the stage to check out the set-up (mostly the theremin - which for some reason, no matter who you are, you can't deny the curiosity a theremin offers). It was there I saw a number of pedals arranged together so closely that I immediately wondered how he planned to use them. If he tried to tap his foot on one, he'd surely inadvertently set off another - they were cobbled that near each other. It was the back burner question throughout the show... and when Hansen finally put them to use, it was spectacular.
Immediately after the last strummed chord of their final song ("Levi Weeks" - named after the defendant in the Manhattan Well Murder, a historical reference I can only assume is being used as a metaphor), Hansen drops to one knee on the floor below his mic stand, where the pedals were laid. He begins to tap them by hand, and likely in a particular order to create the desired effect. As he did, the lingering sound of that last chord through the amp began to mangle and distort - almost creating a physical presence in and of itself. It was a warm hum, a bending sheet of sound that soared through and amazed the entire room. This was carefully orchestrated - there was no shriek of feedback, nothing at all unpleasant about the sound this choreographing of pedals was making. It was genius, and it was awe inspiring.
Hansen let the sound hang for as long as it would, and when it finally faded out by its own accord, he smiled confidently at his audience and stepped down off the stage. The only disappointment was that there were not nearly enough witnesses to what happened in that room on Sunday night. The ones that were there knew what they came for - and they definitely got it. I'd gotten the fix I'd come for, for sure - but now I just wanted more!
On my drive home, I played the Maze's Awakens CD in the car. I found a renewed love for it - a lost love really, as I hadn't heard much from the band before that night.
A weekend like this makes you feel like you're privy to something a lot of people haven't figured out yet - or refuse to be aware of. Like you're in touch with something that should be clamored over by untold masses, but for some reason only exists as a counter culture. Still, there should be no doubt whatsoever that Milwaukee's music scene is a flood gate waiting to burst. There is talent in this city that can only hide from recognition for so long, and the artists behind it are working too hard - doing too many amazing things with music - to continue going unnoticed. Maybe Robert Hansen said it best: It's time to be loud and angry.