Rock Roundup

Rocking Out at Alverno College?

The ever-productive Jon Mueller and his Death Blues ensemble celebrates life -- anywhere -- with a vengeance.

By - Jan 27th, 2015 03:00 pm
Left photo by Siri Hanson. Right photo by Kat Schleicher.

Left photo by Siri Hanson. Right photo by Kat Schleicher.

Top Show: Jon Mueller and Death Blues: Ensemble, Alverno College Pitman Theatre. Saturday, January 31

Death is the one main event we all will experience. Each of us gets a different amount of time before we face it, but none of us will avoid it. Jon Mueller’s Death Blues project has focused less on that universal reality than on contemplating and celebrating life while maintaining a deep awareness that it must end.

The output of Death Blues, which Mueller began poring over in 2011, has taken many forms: essays, photographs, videos, and so on. However, because Mueller is, from eyes and mind to heart and hands and feet, a drummer and percussionist and thus a man fascinated by the contributions rhythm makes to sound, music has been the core of his undertaking.

Like the bands he’s helped bring into being—including Pele, Collections of Colonies of Bees, and Volcano Choir—Death Blues relies heavily on his choice of collaborators. For Ensemble, the project finale issued in September 2014 and presented live this Saturday, his key collaborator is William Ryan Fritch, an Oakland-based composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist.

They share disdain for classifications and disinterest in pretentiousness. For all the philosophical considerations implicit in this project, the music has always remained accessible, with, among other things, hints of tumbleweed Americana, moans that would not be out of place on a better Alice in Chains record, and the grandeur of pop iconoclasts like Scott Walker and Lee Hazlewood.

As music, Ensemble is equal to its Death Blues predecessors, like Non-fiction, and to other musical-mortal ruminations, such as Lou Reed’s 1992 album Magic and Loss. As the last pillar of an art structure, it fortifies an enlightened, noisy response to the one-note silence that happens when life ceases.


Wednesday, January 28: Bahamas at Shank Hall

Both the name “Bahamas” and the music made under that name are deceptively lulling, even languorous. Yet beneath tempos reminiscent of sleepy sunny afternoons and instrumentation reminiscent of genteel Sunday hootenannies, Bahamas is quite crafty. That’s because Bahamas is also Toronto-based musician Afie Juvanen.

He has picked up a few tricks playing with the likes of Howie Beck and Feist. He began Bahamas by recording 2009’s Rural Strat in a rural cabin, the sort of location enshrouded in creative legend (cf. Bon Iver). His third Bahamas album, 2014’s Bahamas Is Afie, continues his development as the singer-songwriter equivalent of Tom Petty in a hammock.


Friday, January 31: Tapebenders at Cactus Club

Say these two words out loud: Elusive Parallelograms. They do not roll off the tongue. They twist the tongue into a spiral staircase and then fall headfirst down it. That wasn’t the sole reason the Milwaukee combo became Tapebenders—lineup changes also mattered—but it was a start.

Last August, the semi-new pop-rock band issued Chasing Ghosts, 13 El-P songs re-recorded (or “reimagined,” to use the artsier term) to reflect, simultaneously, the alterations to and the continuity of the overall effort. Currently at work on a new album, Tapebenders ought to have fresh material.

For those interested in other local artistes, this video was directed by Mark Borchardt of American Movie fame and shot at the venue where Friday’s show is taking place:


Friday, January 31: Logic at the Rave

For those who insist (narrowly, in my view) that hip-hop credibility comes from hardscrabble background, Maryland rapper Logic, who claims his real name is Sir Robert Bryson Hall II, also claims substance-addicted parents, drug-dealing brothers and a truncated education from which he emerged without a high school diploma.

For those who believe (correctly, in my view) that hip-hop credibility comes from the material, Logic last year dropped Under Pressure, a major-label debut LP that—in rhymes, beats, production, variety, and chutzpah—surpassed the promise of his mixtapes. And if he can deliver comparable skills and energy onstage, he won’t have much else to prove.


Sunday, February 1: Cold War Kids at Pabst Theater

Is the difference between indie rock and mainstream rock just a matter of sales? As the current marketplace stands, the answer would appear to be yes. Cold War Kids aren’t substantially different from Coldplay, or Bleachers, or the happier side of Ben Folds Five. They might be just one smash single away from stepping across a blurry line.

With their fifth album, last year’s Hold My Home, the Kids come closer to that hit than at any other time since 2005 and the California quintet’s first album, Robbers & Cowards. The melodies are strong, the songs are punchy, and the appeal is broad and charging without giving off the stink of desperation. Cold War Kids would be a credit to the mainstream.

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