On the Beat: Iowa City Song Project

w. Sam Knutson | Motley Cow
Nov. 3 | 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.

I try to collect as much Iowa City music as I possibly can. When I can’t buy a record at a show, I scour Bandcamp pages for the ones I don’t have yet. I spend hours creating and editing mixes of my favorite songs for my friends and family—people who aren’t familiar with the Iowa City music scene, but should be. Everyone should be. That’s my attitude, and apparently the Englert Theatre feels the same way. Instead of dragging songs into an iTunes playlist, the Englert commissioned 31 artists to write songs for a compilation album about Iowa City. The appropriately named Iowa City Song Project features an eclectic track listing of original music by some of the most respected Iowa-rooted talent, including William Elliott Whitmore, Greg Brown, Pieta Brown, The Poison Control Center, Wet Hair, Brooks Strause and many more.

This project is far too grand to be packed into just one album release event, which is why the Englert decided to make a weekend out of it; they will hold three events over the course of two days. On Friday, Nov. 2, the Englert will host the first release show featuring Pieta Brown & the Sawdust Collective, Caroline Smith & the Goodnight Sleeps, Brooks Strause & the Gory Details, Christopher the Conquered and Chasing Shade. Anyone who likes brunch will get up the following morning and head to The Motley Cow for a bite to eat while enjoying an intimate show by The Feralings and Sam Knutson/Milk & Eggs. The final record release show will take place at The Mill on Nov. 3, where We Shave, Emperors Club, Skye Carrasco, Lwa and Tallgrass will perform. Over the course of the past few decades, Iowa City has proven itself to be a nurturing environment for music makers of all genres. Even artists passing through tend to recognize this community as something unique. On that note, let’s move on to some of this issue’s out of towners.

There are so many bands out there that will try to tell you that they cannot be categorized. This is almost always false, so I was a little wary when I read a review of Balmorhea’s latest album, Stranger that called the band “genre-defying.” Yeah right, I thought, challenge accepted. As it turns out, these guys are actually very unique. Named after a tiny town in West Texas, Balmorhea is an ambitious project that has grown to be one of the most interesting bands making instrumental music right now. On a surface level, you might call it post-rock. The Austin-based group’s sound moves between subtle minimalism and grand orchestral composition, but often using instrumentation that you wouldn’t expect out of a post-rock band. For instance, the first track, “Days” from the new record features a steel drum. The band appropriately cites Max Richter, Arvo Pärt and John Cage as major influences. Balmorhea takes the stage at Gabe’s on Oct. 18.

If you live in Iowa City, you might not need me to tell you about Paleo. In the spring of 2006 the sometimes-Iowa City resident, David Strackany embarked on a year-long journey across America. He performed over 200 shows in that time under his moniker, Paleo. As if that wasn’t enough of an undertaking, he wrote and recorded 365 songs, one for every day he was on the road, and posted them to his website. It became referred to as “The Song Diary” project and generated all kinds of media buzz and effectively put Paleo on the map. Paleo will play at Gabe’s on Oct. 21. His voice is weathered and passionate and his relentless love of his art is apparent in his delivery. In a world where the “singer/songwriter with a guitar” has been beaten into the ground, Paleo is one of the few who can still really pull it off.

Mountain goats
Blue Moose Tap House | Oct. 26
9 p.m. | $18/20

Another name that immediately comes to mind when thinking about exceptional singer/songwriters is the Mountain Goats, and it just so happens that they’re stopping in Iowa City this month too, at the Blue Moose on Oct. 26. Front man John Darnielle is the creative force behind the band, and has released consistently exceptional records for over a decade. His lyrics/knack for storytelling have almost always been the backbone of the project. The songs often tell tales about love, life and religion, and Darnielle delivers with an honest urgency. There is a spell that is cast over anyone attending a Mountain Goats show. The passion and electricity of the live performance is so darn captivating and it’s hard to look away.

Halloween is rapidly approaching and Halloween weekend will be upon us in no time at all. If you don’t have a costume or a plan yet, I have suggestions for both. Public Space One’s new project, PSZ (Wesley Center) will be hosting a haunted house/rock show on Oct. 27. The “Haunted Hall” will be constructed by local special effects guru, Corbin Booth, and there will be an extravagant stage built specifically for this show. The musical lineup includes HOTT, Conetrauma, Lipstick Homicide (who recently opened a show for Green Day! What?!), Other Band and The Blendours. HOTT will also be hosting a “zombie wall of death.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I do know that fake swords and shields will be involved. So if you’re stuck on costume ideas, consider the zombie. The show is all ages and will benefit PS1 and United Action for Youth.

Wisconsin trio, The Daredevil Christopher Wright seems to like it here in Iowa. Last month they played the Maximum Ames festival and they will stop in Iowa City for the third time this year on Nov. 1. Brothers/band mates, Jon and Jason Sunde are both classically trained vocalists and that training is apparent in their artful folk-rock songs. There are few bands currently making music that have such an intricate ear for arrangement as The Daredevil Christopher Wright does. On stage you will see guitars, a drum kit, a xylophone, keyboards/synths and innumerous percussive tools. They are constantly moving around and trading out instruments, some only to be touched for two measures in one song. Like many of the other artists covered in this issue, main songwriter Jon Sunde turns to storytelling for lyrical content, and the final product is unlike anything else happening in indie music right now.

Freddie Gibbs
Gabe’s | Nov. 3 | 8 p.m.

A while back there was an issue of Spin magazine that discussed “The Changing Face of Hip Hop.” It discusses an emerging brand of the genre—one that includes skinny jeans and hip haircuts. Among some of the artists mentioned were Big K.R.I.T. and Curren$y, both of whom have worked closely with rapper Freddie Gibbs, who will perform at Gabe’s on Nov. 3. Gibbs works within a space that effectively embraces both the fresh elements of the evolving hip hop scene and classic gangster rap. It’s a fine line to walk, but the Gary, Indiana native is recognized as one of the  most proficient hip-hop artists out there today. His latest album, Baby Face Killa was released in September to widespread critical acclaim.

Steve Crowley is a red blooded Wisconsinite marooned in the fetid morass of Iowa City that had to make due with the yokels and, over the course of five years, came to quite like it here.