Rock Roundup

TV on the Radio Still Won’t Compromise

Indie rock group, playing at the Pabst, has won popularity without sacrificing its artistry.

By - Mar 23rd, 2015 12:39 pm
TV on the Radio. Photo from facebook.

TV on the Radio. Photo from facebook.

Top Show: TV on the Radio at Pabst Theater, Tuesday, March 24

Two of this week’s best Milwaukee shows are also two of its most anticipated: TV on the Radio’s Tuesday gig and the Decemberists’ Wednesday gig (at the larger Riverside Theater) are both sold out.

It is not fair to cite this small sample of bands as an indication of the excellent health of indie rock in 2015, but it is fair to note how each of them has gotten more popular without either feeling the sting of a major backlash or, and this is much more important, sacrificing artistic intelligence for broader appeal.

TV on the Radio is the bolder of the pair, willing to engage the polyglot influences of its native New York City and to combine the dissonance of many indie subgenres, such as No Wave, with the usually smoother surfaces of R&B.

On Seeds, released last November, the group copes admirably without the presence, and with the loss, of bassist Gerard Smith, who died in 2011 after a struggle with lung cancer. Furthermore, it shears away many of its ornaments and indulgences to concentrate on melodic, rhythmic and experimental essentials.

Yet Seeds never sounds too stark: for TV on the Radio, clarity does not axiomatically mean minimalism. Within the friendly confines and classical acoustics of the Pabst, this music should be as immersive as it is on headphones.


Friday, March 27: Benjamin Booker at Turner Hall Ballroom

Like Alabama Shakes, with whom he shares a label and a record producer, Benjamin Booker has little interest in playing any newfangled version of what they (“they” represented in this writer’s imagination as a few tastemakers in Peoria, Illinois) call rock ‘n’ roll nowadays. He likes the stuff with palpable, healthy roots in folk, country and especially blues.

Lots of other guys around his age (25) agree with him, and so does former White Stripes frontman Jack White, whose Third Man Records recorded and released a vinyl-only Booker live disc displaying the concert chops that his self-titled debut studio album, from last year, could not. Booker also likes the stuff with the intensity of volume and attack that make a man (or a woman) sweat.


Friday, March 27: Dylan Gardner at the Coffee House, Burlington

When I looked up one website interview with singer-songwriter Dylan Gardner, the website threw up an age block but, because I truthfully claimed to be 13 or older, I was allowed access. If that’s the dividing line, Gardner looks a year too young to see the article about himself. He’s actually 18.

Skilled at multiple instruments and supposedly having written 100 songs for what eventually became his 2014 debut LP, Adventures in Real Time, Gardner is fortunately as sweet as he is precocious. And his pop-rock ear is sharply tuned, so if he doesn’t let a faint hint of Jason Mraz’s ain’t-I-cute style develop into a full-blown affectation, he’ll still be worth hearing by the time he can drink legally.


Friday, March 27: Slim Jim Phantom’s Rockabilly Circus at Northern Lights Theater, Potawatomi Hotel & Casino

Remembered as “one of them two guys who were in that band with Brian Setzer 30 years ago,” Slim Jim Phantom is not the most exalted leader for this group of rockers. Nevertheless, as one of three Stray Cats, a.k.a. “that band,”  his rockabilly-revival credentials are as close to impeccable as can be for a guy who didn’t play in the 1950s.

Two of his co-stars, Deke Dickerson and Kim Lenz, are similarly second- or third-generation rockabilly rollers. Two others, Sonny Burgess (with his band the Legendary Pacers) and Wanda Jackson, were contemporaries of Elvis Presley in his feistiest era and are, like their best songs, aging pretty well.

Here’s an oldie that made Nick Tosches suggest Jackson sang as if she could “fry eggs on her mons pubis”:


Saturday, March 28: Earl Sweatshirt at Rave

Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, onstage known as Earl Sweatshirt, is intriguingly unusual: after he dropped his first mixtape, 2010’s Earl, his mother sent him to a Samoan school for at-risk kids (he was still under 18); he called his first official solo album, released in 2013, Doris; and he’s a useful member of the Odd Future rap collective, which swings the baton for West Coast underground attitude.

Despite a style that feels very conversational and much more mature than one might expect from a 21-year-old, Earl did act like a kid on Twitter (not an unusual place to do so) while, very recently, issuing his Doris follow-up, I Don’t Like S***, I Don’t Go Outside. A handful of hyper Tweets do not, however, negate his forte with the flow.

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