Iowa City has been pretty quiet over the past few weeks. That tends to be the case when a big chunk of the population migrates to Chicagoland (or wherever), and another chunk goes into hibernation. We all must accept the fact that less people in town means fewer shows. That is not to say that we
have been completely devoid of satisfactory live music (remember when The Mill turned 50?), but this is the time when Iowa City really starts moving again. The snowbirds have retraced their migratory path and it’s time for the rest of us to wake up.
As we soldier on into 2013 we can expect a fresh batch of touring bands to hit this town, and also enjoy the presence of a thriving local scene. There are plenty of established acts (Wet Hair, Brooks Strause, Samuel Locke Ward, Emperors Club, Alex Body, the list goes on and on) that are relentlessly playing shows and putting out new music, but there is a lot of fresh blood making
noise too. Maybe it’s just because I have been attending a whole mess of basement shows with packed lineups lately, but I’ve heard a lot of new projects that appear to have a lot of promise. Joe Heuermann’s (of Goldendust) new spastic, Moog-centered solo project, Grave Posture, is one that comes to mind. Another is the ambient drones of Haunter. Not necessarily new, but new to Iowa City, K. Arthur Miller’s Haunter is reminiscent of the destructive organ soundscapes of Tim Hecker, but with a guitar.
Of course, there are a hundred more talented musicians that are constantly molding and challenging the landscape of Iowa City music. I guess my point is that whenever I feel like I “get” the “Iowa City music scene” right down to its most obscure, there is always something that knocks me off my feet again—whether it’s at a gnarly punk house, the stage of the Englert or anywhere in between.
There is still snow on the ground outside. The flowers aren’t blooming yet, but somewhere, probably not too far from where you’resitting, someone is working on the next big thing that we’re all going to be talking about. At the time of this printing, the groundhog has not made any decisions about his lifestyle choice over the next few weeks, but if old Punxsutawney Phil crawls back into his hole,
I urge you not to follow his lead.
I mentioned migration before, which seems kind of fitting for this issue’s column as half of the touring bands coming into town have “bird” in their title. Fluttering in first from Ann Arbor is accomplished folk rock quintet, The Ragbirds.Front woman and proficient multi-instrumentalist Erin Zindle leads the group, writing their original music and winning the hearts of audiences with her infectious vocals. Her good looks probably don’t hurt either, but settle down, fellas. She’s married to the drummer. The Ragbirds’ influences reach far beyond the realm of American folk. Zindle has been a Celtic fiddle fanatic since her childhood and her passion for traveling and listening to sounds from all over the world have found their way into the Ragbirds’ distinct sound. Their songs often include a heavy percussion section and it is no secret that they have taken attentive notes while listening to Paul Simon records. The Ragbirds are regular favorites at all the jammy festivals like Rothbury Music Festival, 10,000 Lakes, Summer Camp, etc., and have shared the stage with Rusted Root, Railroad Earth, John Butler Trio and many more. The band’s increased touring schedule over the past few years was likely an inspiration for their fourth and latest album, Travelin’ Machine, which came out last year and focuses on life on the road. The Ragbirds will perform at The Mill on Jan. 24.
Brother/sister duo, Wild Belle seems to be generating a whole lot of buzz right now, both on the internet and in their home city of Chicago. They recently signed on to Columbia records and put out three songs from their upcoming album in November, each of which have music videos with hundreds of thousands of hits. Their songs all have this psychedelic reggae vibe with driving beats, spaced out atmospheric noises and brilliant saxophone hooks. The Wild Belle crew doesn’t seem to have any interest in heavy public self-promotion at this point. Both their Youtube uploads and abstract Tumblr posts looks like they were all run through a giant Instagram filter, and the only information they provide is that their debut album, Isles, is due out in March. I think the strategy is to revel in the mystery until making a splash with the record release. And I do think it will make quite a splash. Wild Belle plays at Gabe’s on Jan. 25, and this might be an opportunity to see a band in a small club “before they got big.” On tour with Wild Belle is Portland band, Ramona Falls. Founded by Brent Knopf after splitting from his other band, Menomena, Ramona Falls has released two critically acclaimed studio albums and features a rotating cast of touring and studio musicians.
For Iowa City music venues, it’s the season of birthdays. The Mill celebrated its 50th year last month and now it’s time to bring out another birthday cake for the Yacht Club. The bar/venue is turning 10 this month, and they’ve put together an entire day of live music and drink specials. To celebrate their first decade in business, it’s only fitting that the event is “10-themed.” Performing will be 10 bands for a cover price of 10 bucks. The bar will be offering 10 cent beers until 10:00 p.m. Beginning very early in the afternoon, some of the Yacht Clubs biggest local draws will take the stage, including Dead Larry, Zeta June, Item 9 & the Mad Hatters, Mumfords, American Honey, Bad Intentions, Velcro Moxie, Home-Grown, John June Year and Unnamed Acoustic. In addition to the marathon of music and beer, the venue will be releasing a live CD of regional regulars recorded at the club. The CDs are free and will be given to everyone in attendance. It all goes down at the Yacht Club on Jan. 26.
Our next species of feathered friends, Brown Bird, visit us from Rhode Island. The project consists of multi-tasking multi-instrumentalists David Lamb and MorganEve Swain. These two have had quite a year, spending most of their time on the road supporting bands like Trampled By Turtles, Horse Feathers and Yonder Mountain String Band. Between the two of them, Lamb and Swain share about a half a dozen instruments on stage (guitar, banjo, fiddle, cello, upright bass, percussion instruments, etc.). They are essentially an American roots band with unexpected influences. Between their traditional bluesy flourishes, you might hear elements of metal, psych rock and Middle Eastern music. Much of Brown Bird’s charm however, lies in their passion for literature. The songs on their latest album, Fits of Reason are largely inspired by the writings of Thomas Paine, Omar Khayyam, Christopher Hitchens and Plato, and deal with heavy issues about humanity. The album is sonically coherent, but the next might have a completely different sound. The duo prefers to leave their options open in order continuously shape their aesthetic as their knowledge and skill sets grow. On the road with Brown Bird is fellow Rhode Island act, Joe Fletcher. Fletcher and his band, “the Wrong Reasons” have been playing since 2005 and have established themselves as big players in the Rhode Island scene. This little taste of Providence happens on Jan. 29 at The Mill.
Former Iowa Citian, Paul Cary returns to town for a show at Gabe’s with his band, “the Small Scaries.” Cary was first known for his role as front man in the band, The Horrors (In The Red Records). After picking up and moving to Chicago in 2005, he started this project. He teamed up withdrummer/engineer
Johnathan Crawford, who has worked with the likes of William Elliott Whitmore, Head of Femur and Grey Ghost, and began writing duce their first record. The endeavor took two years to complete and was recorded at a number of different locations/studios. The final product, Ghost of Man, was finally released on vinyl by Portland label, Stank House Records in 2009, and is available for free online. Their lo-fi garage-rock sound was met with positive critical reception and Cary recently released a split 7” with San Francisco psych rockers Thee Oh Sees. Paul Cary & the Small Scaries will be joined by fellow Chicago rockers, Tight Phantomz, whose front man, Mike Lust owns and operates Phantom Manor Recording studio in Humboldt Park. Also on the bill are local bands, Sweet Chariot and We Shave.
So far we’ve covered the Ragbirds and Brown Bird, but now we have to deal with a whole flock of black birds. The project is called eighth blackbird (deliberately stylized in lower case), and the Los Angeles Times called them, “a new breed of super-musicians.” Don’t let the number in their name fool you; this is a six piece ensemble consisting of flutes, clarinets, violin, viola, cello, piano and percussion. Since their formation in 1996, eighth blackbird have come to hold Ensemblein-Residence positions at the University of Richmond, The University of Chicago and, as of last year, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. They identify themselves as a group of musicians that “combines the finesse of a string quartet, the energy of a rock band and the audacity of a storefront theater company.” They often commission new works from composers like Steve Reich, George Perle and Frederic Rzewski. Recently they worked with The National’s Bryce Dessner on a piece of his inspired by early American folk music. Critical reception to their work has been overwhelmingly positive, and they have received two Grammy Awards. eighth blackbird takes the Englert Theatre stage on Feb. 6. This concert is being presented by Hancher, and ticketing information is available on their website.
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.