Great to Be Here in… What Town?

Blitzen Trapper and Drive-By Truckers play well, but have trouble connecting to Milwaukee.

By - Mar 28th, 2014 01:19 pm
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Being a touring musician is hard. Very hard. You’re required to travel hundreds of miles and perform your craft with 100 percent precision, and bring enough passion and energy to convince a crowd of strangers you’re having fun and that they should be having a ball. You’re asked to repeat this process over and over again, in a different city every day, relying on equipment that changes at every stop. And, of course, you have to do this all on nights and weekends, for weeks or even months straight.

So let’s just say I have some sympathy for Blitzen Trapper, the Portland-based band made famous by its 2008 album Furr, ranked #13 on Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Albums of 2008. They’ve had a couple albums since then (most recently, VII in 2013, which has a supporting tour by the band which came here in October) which had mixed commercial success. Still, the band by now is a more-than-ten-year veteran of alt country, yet here they were playing second fiddle, the under card on a Midwestern romp with fellow Southern rock-inspired alt country group Drive-By Truckers.

Motivation killer? Surely. Am I hypothesizing a lot based on what I saw on-stage at Wednesday’s Blitzen Trapper/Drive-By Truckers double headliner at the Turner Hall Ballroom? Definitely. The other shows on this short shared tour were billed as Drive-By Truckers with special guests Blitzen Trapper, and the marketing change for the Milwaukee stop changed little. Blitzen Trapper are an extremely talented bunch with a great studio discography spanning seven albums and fourteen years, but they absolutely mailed it in at Turner Hall. The crowd knew it, and Blitzen Trapper, it seemed, could not have cared less.

This was clearly a Drive-By Truckers show, and there wasn’t even an attempt by the Portlanders to prove otherwise. The only songs to even register a reaction? “Thirsty Man” off of VII and frequently played on 88.9 Radio Milwaukee, and their pinnacle album’s title track “Furr.” Yes, we got to hear lead guitarist Erik Menteer’s soothing slide guitar and the beautifully executed vocal harmonies led by lead singer Eric Earley, but the performance lacked any stage presence or showmanship.

Live music is a performance art.  Energy and passion matter. Even if they’re faked through good acting, it makes all of the difference between a mediocre and great show.

Mike Cooley of Drive-By Truckers. Photo by Garrick Janenne.

Mike Cooley of Drive-By Truckers. Photo by Garrick Janenne.

Thankfully, Drive-By Truckers did not make the same mistake. The quintet from Athens, Georgia came out strong with “3 Dimes Down” from their 2006 album Brighter than Creation’s Dark and triggered an instant sea change in the vibe of the crowd. This tour is in support of their tenth studio album English Oceans, released at the beginning of this March and peaking at #16 on the Billboard 200. English Oceans has been lauded for its lyrical depth and blending of classic rock and county, and the show delivered on those qualities. The band played a long, unscripted 18 song set and 4 song encore calling on much of their 16 year history. Despite not having a formal set list, Drive-By’s show featured an engaging mix of old and new, ballads and anthems, and plenty of energy to keep things interesting well past the hour mark.

Unfortunately, around that same hour mark, and probably a consequence of not having a plan, every song that followed ended with a breakdown. Was the show actually building towards a climactic end? No, it was more about confusion as different band members attempted to sneak in their pick for next song. All of the false endings were a bit like musical bubble gum: something that tasted so good was losing the sweetness and beginning to make your jaw hurt. It was around this time that lead singer Patterson Hood remarked that it was “good to be back in your town,” apparently unable to remember which town that was. Yes, touring is hard, but any of the stagehands could have probably told Hood he was in Milwaukee.

The faithful in attendance, though, seemed unfazed. They lapped up the entire set with plenty of hootin’, hollerin’ and whistlin’ to go along with it. From a pure music standpoint I enjoyed both acts, but the beauty of a live show is that its more than just the music. The basic musical framework of this show was solid, but it felt hollow. The devil, as always, is in the details.

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