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Battling Tops

BATTLE OF THE BANDS (Preliminary Round #4) featuring FLASH IN A PAN, SOUL PHLEGM, DEF-KITTIE BLINDOGG, SAPWOODS: 9/25/2014 @ Iowa City Yacht Club (Iowa City, IA)

The Yacht Club held their final preliminary round of a “Battle of the Bands” contest.

Flash in a Pan: They’re a quartet with bluegrass instrumentation (fiddle, banjo, upright bass and acoustic guitar), but they typically don’t play in a traditional bluegrass style. In addition to some original tunes, they managed to cover The Strokes, Modest Mouse, Wu-Tang Clan and the Russian folk song “Korobeiniki“.

Overall I found the group entertaining. They had good group musicianship and used some intelligent arrangements, but they did occasionally struggle with little details, such as how to end a song together.

Soul Phlegm: I’d categorize them in the blues/jam genres, although one song had an R&B-type groove going for it. The music reminded me a bit of Blues Traveler (the singer also plays some harmonica).

Soul Phlegm won their preliminary round and will play in the finals on October 25th, so I’ll hold off from stating any opinions on the group at this time (don’t want to sway you, next month’s potential judges, one way or the other!). I will say this, however: The lyrics in one song sounded like, “Payin’ to the grave / Rubbin’ them rubbin’ them cinemas”. I’m pretty sure these weren’t the actual words but, if they are, then I have no idea what they mean. The group mentioned they’re planning to release an EP at the end of the year.

Def-Kittie BlinDogg: A rock quartet (two guitars, bass and drums). I enjoyed this group overall. They mostly played original rock songs (and a ballad called “Unclogging Sinks”), and the group seemed to be having a good time doing their thing. The guitarists’ vocals blend well together. The bassist switched styles well, from traditional rock to happy bass lines to a good groove to accompany the best rap performance of the night (courtesy of the lead guitarist).

Sapwoods: Although the group took the stage at 12:30 AM, a crowd did stick around to hear them. Both guitars could be heard in the mix, which is always a good thing. The group recently parted ways with their drummer, which noticeably changed the sound and style of some tunes (“Perdition” was a little on the fast side, but “Serve You Right” was played in a mature style that matched the studio recording). The highlight of the set (and, in my opinion, the entire night), though, was “Vanish Like the Night”. Even though the band didn’t win the first round of the contest, I think singer Justin Swafford would’ve won a contest for “best hat”.

So there you have it! As I wrote earlier, the final Battle of the Bands show takes place on Saturday, October 25th (again at the Yacht Club with a $5 cover, 19+). In addition to Soul Phlegm, you can catch performances by Velcro Moxie, Flannel Season, B-Star and Surrounded by Giants.



SAPWOODS: 7/31/2014 @ S.T. Morrison Park (Coralville, IA)

On Thursdays during the summer months, you can find a farmers’ market and free live music at S.T. Morrison Park in Coralville.  The City of Coralville’s Parks and Recreation Department organizes a diverse summer music series (more info here).

Last Thursday’s featured band was — you guessed it — The Sapwoods!  Here’s a summary:

1. It was another beautiful summer night.  You should’ve been here…

2. The Sapwoods can play outdoor festivals.  They performed from 6:30-8 PM, with few stops in between songs.  There was no shortage of original material — only one cover song was featured in the set.  They kept the crowd interested throughout, even with the Sun out the whole time AND no alcohol sales (to my knowledge).

3. What was the cover song?  The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling“.  Although the performance was a little unpolished, I believe it marked the first time the group featured keyboardist Miranda Peyton as the lead vocalist (she also played guitar for the song).  Peyton has a nice voice and the lineup switch adds even more variety and future possibilities for the band.

And what was the overall reaction from concert-goers?  People had positive things to say about Justin Swafford’s singing and songwriting, as well as some criticism for the mix that kept David Suchan’s lead guitar (and, eventually, Peyton’s keyboard) too low.  I also interviewed the two toughest-looking dudes in the park (one was sporting a Mohawk) to get their take on the group and they, too, enjoyed the sounds.

So there you have it.  If any towns in Iowa are looking for a change of pace from the traditional rock or country cover band to play at your stage, bandshell, food-based festival, etc., The Sapwoods should be a consideration.

Chorus Looper Bow

FURIA w/ Black Bull Nova, “Hand-Me-Down Silicone”: 7/24/2014 @ The Mill (Iowa City, IA)

I hadn’t been to The Mill in a while, and it was nice to find myself back there again. The show was billed as having two bands, but a third band also performed (more on that later).

The first group to play was Black Bull Nova. Some of the early songs in the set used chorus effects in the guitar and bass, giving them an ’80s vibe. The singer also uses a little vibrato in his vocals, so these things combined made me think of The Smiths at first. Some of the songs towards the end featured B-minor chords, for some reason, and had more of a Latin rhythm. One of the songs was basically a slower version of “Lay Lady Lay”. The group is capable of good songwriting and creating nice soundscapes, but only about half of the songs really caught my attention (I thought the first half of the set was stronger than the second). Overall, I’d say they’re a decent band and I’d be excited to hear more of their stuff in the future.

The Mill had a big crowd on Thursday, and I suspect it had a lot to do with a trio that played second (they jokingly used the name “Hand-Me-Down Silicone” for their set). I don’t know if this was a new band, or just some past IC residents back in town and performing for old time’s sake. Their set started with just an electric cellist using a looper pedal. A second member (a guitarist) came to the stage for the next looping experiment, but the rhythm seemed to be off (this isn’t the first time I’ve heard things go awry with looper pedal performances). Then they added a third member and the rest of the set turned more folkie. There were a few mistakes here and there (again, I think this is either a new group or some people who were back in town and didn’t get a lot of time to rehearse, so some issues were to be expected), but there were some enjoyable moments.

The headliner was Furia, a band from Northfield, MN (40 miles South of the Twin Cities). I found this group to be really enjoyable. Most songs featured an acoustic guitar, a mandolin (bowed or picked) and a Hammond organ…believe it or not, it works! The mandolin player would sometimes switch to another acoustic guitar or a banjo. In addition to the creative instrumentation, the arrangements were well thought out and kept your attention. The singer / guitarist has a pleasant alto voice that also benefits the group. I stayed for seven songs of theirs before heading out (it was getting late), but I really would’ve liked to have stayed for their whole set. I highly recommend checking out Furia if they come back this way.


SLEEPWALKERS w/ Twins, Good Habits, Younger7/10/2014 @ Yacht Club (Iowa City, IA)

The show was originally advertised by the venue as starting at 10 PM and having just two bands perform (Sleepwalkers as headliner, Twins as opener), but the bill somehow doubled to include the bands Younger and Good Habits (while staying at the low cover of $5…way to go, Yacht Club!).  I was running a little late, as I took the Dubuque St exit, only to find the road was underwater with no alternate routes from there to get downtown, so I had to double back on the interstate to find another way there).  I believe Twins (from Waterloo, not from Germany) began their set right as I took the stairs down to the Yacht Club basement (about 10:20 PM), so I missed the entire performance by Younger.

After hearing Twins perform live, I’d say their sound is more reminiscent of Rockpile (Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe) than Thin Lizzy or Badfinger, but I wasn’t too far off.  Twins plays some enjoyable throwback ’70s power pop and they had the crowd dancing.  They’re a straightforward guitar-based band that I’d definitely be interested in hearing again.  The set was short (eight songs total) and a few people asked for an encore…I didn’t disagree with that sentiment.

Sleepwalkers (from Milwaukee) played third.  These guys play guitar rock, but I couldn’t pinpoint what their sound was reminiscent of (I’d still guess late-period Replacements).  I found their songwriting to be a little too formulaic: There was an over-reliance on the tonic, subdominant and dominants for verses and choruses to songs, as well as the falling subdominant suspension (4-3) to the supertonic (2), but they did at least intersperse with some other chords to disguise the basic formulas underneath.  Overall, they’re a good-sounding, well-rehearsed indie bar band (they also had some good banter between songs), but I don’t think any of their tunes will stick in your head the next day.  There just wasn’t a lot of variety in the set.

I hadn’t heard of Good Habits (Iowa City) before.  The trio seems to be a garage-punk hybrid.  The first few songs didn’t win me over, but they did eventually crank out some older-style punk tunes that got my attention.  Their fourth song was a bouncy type of punk music and the catchiest thing of the night (of what I heard).  One of the songs towards the end of the set had a chorus with the same chords as “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”, which I thought was fitting.  I heard elements of Black Flag, Mudhoney and Cloud Nothings.  The drummer played some good fills.  Hopefully the guitarist’s amp issues aren’t serious.  One bit of advice: The bassist may want to stay on the mic when doing backing vocals instead of gradually drifting away before the end of each line.

IC Noise goes to a pop-punk show

LIPSTICK HOMICIDE, w/ Shocktroopers: 5/12/2014 @ Gabe’s (Iowa City, IA)

Last night I listened to two similar-sounding bands for a free show on the bottom floor of Gabe’s: Local pop-punk trio Lipstick Homicide was the headliner, with a band called Shocktroopers (from Wyoming) opening the show.  A third band was listed on the flyer (The Dead God’s Concussion), but they didn’t show up for whatever reason.

Twenty years ago, the Green Day album Dookie became a hit.  I think the first song I heard from it was “Longview”, which had a really catchy bass line and lyrics that spoke to bored teenagers.  Eventually I got a chance to check out the whole album, but I found it to be extremely repetitive and formulaic.  I can’t remember if I even made it through the whole thing.  A couple years later, there was a tear in the space-time continuum that caused some people to like both throwback ska and swing music for a limited time, but that’s another story…

Anyway, why talk about Green Day now?  Judging from last night’s show, it seemed both bands were influenced by West Coast pop-punk music.  Both bands’ guitarists played all power chords when they weren’t playing occasional solos.  Bassists for both groups mostly stayed on the roots of the chords.  And both bands used the famous I-V-VI-IV chord progression that got so much mileage back in the ’90s (featured on Green Day’s “When I Come Around”, Bush’s “Glycerine” and Blink 182’s “Dammit”) and even in the ’80s (Misfits’ “I Want Your Skull” predates them all).  Last night’s bands both played their own versions of the “I-V-VI-IV” song last night.

The singer for Shocktroopers had a higher-pitched yelp to his voice that I thought was okay.  There were a couple moments when the rhythm broke down, but they were mostly solid throughout.

Lipstick Homicide features two ladies (guitar, bass) and a guy (drums).  The power went out on their second and third songs, which made me think of the last time this happened at a show I attended (L7 @ Hairy Mary’s in Des Moines back in 2000).  A lot of their songs relied on variations of the tonic, dominant and subdominant chords.  My favorite song of their set was one right before they played a cover song (not sure what it was).  The bassist was a little more adventurous on this particular song, too.  Other than that, I found the set to be pretty repetitive.

Pop-punk is not a musical style I really enjoy all that much, but I definitely wanted to check out Lipstick Homicide as others have been talking about this group lately…and there was no cover charge!  Also: The sound system for the bottom floor of Gabe’s is decent.

P.S. (Pain & Suffering): While doing research for this article, I rediscovered Vitamin C’s 2000 song “Graduation (Friends Forever)”, which does not use the I-V-VI-IV chord structure as I had incorrectly remembered (I hadn’t heard the song in a very long time), but actually rips off Pachelbel’s famous Canon in D.  I believe the sole purpose of it’s release was for the recording industry to take money from gullible upcoming high school graduates of that time period, and I submit this as a strong candidate for “worst pop song of all time”.

Iowa City Music Scene Showcase – Day One

IOWA CITY MUSIC SCENE SHOWCASE (A LOT OF BANDS): 5/9/2014 @ Yacht Club & Gabe’s (Iowa City, IA)

Last Friday I decided to check out the first night (of two — I couldn’t make it for the second night) of an “Iowa City Music Scene Showcase” taking place at both Gabe’s and the Yacht Club.  My initial plan was to spend more time at the latter, since I haven’t yet written about any shows there.  I really like the atmosphere at the Yacht Club, as the performance area is in a dark but decent-sized basement with an appropriately-sized PA system (not overbearing).  Many times I prefer the smaller venues and basement shows to the bigger venues.  The Yacht Club also has a Galaga arcade machine (and some pinball machine) in the back.

The $7 cover allowed access at both venues, and I did get to see a lot of bands (although I didn’t stay out for the very last performances of the night), but the only group that really got my attention was an all-girl trio called Maiden Mars.  They have a throwback ’90s girl-band thing going for them.  The vocals and upbeat tempos are kinda Sleater-Kinney, but the guitar relies heavily on power chords (and occasional solos) that makes me think of other all-girl bands from the 90s.  Maiden Mars doesn’t sound like a “riot grrl” band (Babes in Toyland, L7, Bikini Kill, 7 Year Bitch, etc.).  They’re not as experimental as Helium.  Maybe they’re more like Frogpond (although I haven’t heard them in a very long time)?

Although the group has a cool thing going, I worry for them as they progress and setlists inevitably get longer because things may get too repetitive for the audience.  Friday’s performance clocked in at 25 minutes, which seemed just right.  I also should’ve paid more attention to see if the bassist’s technique needed a little adjustment (were some of the notes early on being played a bit short / muted?).  Overall, I’d recommend going to a Maiden Mars performance if you get a chance.

And now, the (eventual) complaint section: I did end up going back and forth between the Yacht Club and Gabe’s.  One of the groups I heard a bit of was The Feralings, who had the instrumentation of a bluegrass band (mandolin, banjo, acoustic guitar and upright bass), but the first part of their set seemed to indicate they play originals in a folk-country style, rather than playing traditional bluegrass (nothing wrong with that).  Also: This was the first time I had not been overpowered by the upstairs PA system at Gabe’s (kudos to the lady running sound there, and also for being a lady running sound for a venue in the first place — a very uncommon feat!).

Anyway, this bluegrass instrumentation-outfitted band took at least a half-hour to sound-check.  The instruments were individually miked and musicians’ sound monitors needed adjustment.  The guitarist (who seems to do the most picking of the bunch) took the longest amount of time, going as far as asking for EQ adjustments on the sounds coming through his monitor.  I completely understand the importance for musicians to hear what they need in their monitors in order to play together and sing in tune with each other, but previous bluegrass groups I’ve seen usually get a single microphone (for all instruments AND vocals) to huddle around, with great results for both the band and the audience.  Maybe the sound person should’ve required the one-mic setup (if she had the right type of mic to use and the building’s acoutiscs would cooperate), or maybe the band needs to be more open to getting closer to each other and playing acoustically instead of spreading out across a whole stage with more electronic dependence.  The Feralings were decent once they started playing, but the initial setup just seemed a bit much from my perspective.

IC Music Scene Showcase

The venues Yacht Club and Gabe’s are hosting an “Iowa City Music Scene Showcase” both tonight and tomorrow night ($7 per night for access to both venues, I believe).  I plan to catch some of tonight’s performances and share my experiences later.

I’ll probably spend more time over at the Yacht Club (since I haven’t featured that venue yet on the blog), but I may skip over to Gabe’s between sets.  I doubt I’ll stay out for the entire night (the schedule indicates the event goes until 2 AM).

Taking the week off / Cloud Nothings tonight!

There didn’t seem to be a whole lot of rock shows going on this week, but there is one taking place tonight that I’d highly recommend: Cloud Nothings (with Protomartyr and John June Year — the latter is a band based out of Clinton, IA) at Gabe’s (19+, $12-$15, show starts at 8:30 PM).

I’ll unfortunately be out of town tonight, but I do enjoy Cloud Nothings’ music.  Their previous album, “Attack on Memory”, had sounds and energy reminiscent of Nirvana’s “In Utero” (probably as a result of Steve Albini producing both of them), and I like the tracks I’ve heard off their new release, “Here and Nowhere Else”.  Should be a good one tonight.

KRUI at 30

KRUI’s 30th Anniversary Kickoff Concert

ZETA JUNE w/ Crystal City, Mitch Meyer, Jack Baker: 4/24/2014 @ Blue Moose Tap House (Iowa City, IA)

KRUI (89.7 FM) is the University of Iowa’s college radio station (click here to get an idea of the music they air).  I usually enjoy the station, so maybe my expectations going to a show associated with it were set unfairly high.  Before I get to the performances, I want to mention the sound at Blue Moose Tap House was excellent throughout the night.

First up was Jack Baker with an acoustic guitar, playing mostly in blues and funk styles.  His best performance was a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”.  A few songs relied heavily on the tonic-subdominant-dominant (different variations) blues chord structures.  Another song (about “Jolene”, I think…not the Dolly Parton tune) was based on finding a few chords that all sounded good with a shared “D” note (sorta like the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Name” or Dave Matthews’ “Crash”).  The Strokes cover with the different rhythm didn’t work for me, either.  I’m kinda curious about what the lyrics of his first song were…they sounded interesting.

Up next was Mitch Meyer with an electric guitar and, in my opinion, he was the highlight of the show.  Even so, I thought his overall set was hit-and-miss.  The second song he played was a pretty love ballad that was the best song I heard all night.  He followed this with a song he had just written the day before.  As you can imagine, it wasn’t quite polished, but it was also good (and the sound guy helped by adding some reverb to his voice…good call).

Both Mitch and Jack occasionally added accent beats to their respective sets by tapping the bodies of their guitars with their hands.  The effect worked well on Jack’s acoustic songs, but the style might not be as well suited for electric guitars, as the electrical pickups really made this loud on Mitch’s first song.

Another thing I’ve noticed at a few shows now are when solo performers play songs from other or past bands they’ve been in, and they get to a section of the song where they normally play a solo, presumably while the band’s other guitarist would cover the rhythm part.  This happened on Mitch’s last song, and I always think these things stick out as a strange thing when they happen.  If you’re going to solo, consider playing one or two of the important note(s) of each chord on the downbeat (or wherever the changes lie).  Or just skip the solo.

Okay, enough of my unsolicited advice: Mitch, I enjoyed your music!

The third group to perform was Crystal City, a band consisting of three men (guitar / lead vocals, bass, drums) and a woman (trumpet / tambourine / backing vocals).  The first song was a catchy pop tune, but I became less enthusiastic about their set the longer they played once I noticed the majority of their songs centered around the tonic to the subdominant (or vice versa).  Another song was basically the main riff and beat to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” except the last two chords were played on a lower interval (II to V instead of iii to vi).

Despite the repetition found in the majority of their set, I found their second to last song (a ballad) enjoyable as it had a lot more variety to it.  I didn’t catch the name of it, but I believe they said it had been recorded as a solo acoustic performance.  Next month, Crystal City will be playing at Gabe’s as part of a local band showcase, and they’ll later be releasing a new album.

The last band to play was Zeta June, and I believe they would fall under both the “jam band” and “white funk” labels.  I’m not really into this type of music, but I did stay for about four songs.  The first, third and fourth songs didn’t do much for me (the fourth sounded like a slowed-down version of Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” with a straightened out beat).  I have to admit they had a good groove going on their second song of the night, though.  And they took things to a higher level with some funk synthesizer work by one of the guitarists.  If these guys were willing to do it, I could see them moving in a more synth-based direction and successfully creating good electro-funk/pop music that all lots of hipsters are into to these days.  I just don’t think the band members’ hearts would be into it, though.

The event was a little lower turnout than I had expected: I think there were maybe 30-35 people in attendance at its peak.  A lot of factors could’ve contributed to this (rainy weather, it was a mid-week show, 7 PM is an early starting time, it was all-ages, etc.).  I also wonder if KRUI had a lot of input into what entertainment was booked tonight.  At any rate, I’m sure they’ll continue producing high quality radio broadcasts.  Keep on rockin’, KRUI.

No show review (yet), so here’s a preview

Last night I intended to check out a show at Gabe’s featuring Iowa City’s “Dana T.“, along with Des Moines acts Gloom Balloon and Christopher the Conquered.  Unfortunately, the show time listed online was incorrect, and I decided not to attend because I would’ve needed to stay out pretty late to catch it all.

The show was meant to be an “after party” for another show taking place earlier at the First United Methodist Church featuring John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats (with Iowa City – Fort Collins, CO, duet The Lonelyhearts opening).  Back in the ’90s, it was controversial in my home town’s only (Methodist) church when the pastor occasionally played something outside of the hymnal on an acoustic six-string for services.  Glad to see they’re more tolerant twenty years later!

So, looking ahead on the calendar: The University of Iowa’s college radio station, KRUI, is celebrating their 30th year of broadcasting over the airwaves.  The event takes place at the Blue Moose Tap House and features Zeta June, Crystal City, Mitch Meyer and Jack Baker.  Show starts at 7 PM, admission is $5.  If all goes well, I should eventually have a review to share.

KRUI is one of those rare college stations where the students still seem to be free to air what they want to air (within FCC regulations) during their time slots.  When the DJs are away, you get “The Lab”, which (from what I heard last summer when I’d occasionally drop in via TuneIn) gives you a very unique mix of music and pop culture: Do you like ’60s French pop, audio snippets from episodes of the original Star Trek TV series and the “very, very intense” music of Mark Gormley?  If so, you won’t be disappointed.