I went down to Iowa City to see this show last weekend. I had originally planned to try to catch Simon two nights in a row, this one and the preceding night at my “hometown” venue Spicoli’s with The Teddy Boys, The Beat Strings, and All Rattle and Dust (a star-studded Cedar Valley lineup if ever there was one), just because I like his songs that much. But I didn’t make it back into town from Des Moines early enough and I was tired anyway.
Just a few days before though, Samuel Locke-Ward had called me up and asked me, since I was coming into town anyway, if I might be into learning a trumpet part for a song he was going to play earlier that same night at Public Space One as part of a set of Phil Ochs covers. So I brought up a file-sharing app and found the album containing the song, “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land,” listened to it a few times, came down to Sam’s in the afternoon, met Simon and his drummer there, sounded out the horn parts by ear moments before the show, and off we went. The Teddy Boys and All Rattle And Dust were supposed to play this show too, but the T-Boys canceled supposedly because (their drummer) Graham unexpectedly left town; this also took AR&D off the bill because they were planning to share gear. Man, PS1 were not pleased. I think this is like the fourth time the T-Boys have canceled on them. Had I been a member of the Teddy Boys, I would have said we do the show without a drummer, and just low-key folkify it a bit to adjust. Not all musicians can improvise and adapt (read: throw shit together) the way Sam and folks who play with him regularly can though, and not all musicians’ material lends itself to sudden reinterpretation that way. Anyway, the abbreviated bill was now Sam playing after The Happy Chromosomes, a delightful youthful power-pop outfit out of the Cedar Rapids area.
Anyway, that show was good with Sam pulling together a small all-star cast of guests (besides myself) to join in on particular songs – Simon sang and played some, as did Ross Meyer and Pete Balistieri, who even did harmonica on a ferocious rendition of “Cops of the World” as he had once recorded on a version done years ago by Eugene Chadbourne. The Bassturd did “Chords of Fame” via cell-phone from his home. Another highlight was Sam’s hilarious solo rendition of “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” accompanied only by a cheezy Casio keyboard rhythm program, a la Wesley Willis.
But I mainly came here to write about the show that came after, at The Mill. There was a really good turnout for this, especially given that the university had just let out for Thanksgiving break. As Sam would later point out, this was what you call “a townie crowd.” It says a lot for the health of Iowa City’s live music scene that you can get this kind of turnout for an indie show when the students are away.
I had never heard of Coyote Blood before, but the first half of the set was one-man band material by a guy who I recognized from Crackity Sax. Picture a tall guy with a largish beard and a coonskin cap, seated behind an antique 1920s trap set (the kind with a huge kick and little bitty cymbals), with a banjo on his knee and a kazoo hanging from a string around his neck, bellerin’ a rootsy backwoods tune about how he ain’t got no Internet connection. The second half of the set he was joined by a lady with an accordion and vocal harmonies and they threw some brief polka jams into the mix. Here’s another example of what an interesting music scene Iowa City has. There’s this thing going on where a rootsy, folky, sometimes Americana thing, being crossbred with an original, experimental rocker sensibility, and The Mill is frequently the place to catch this intriguing phenomenon.
This was my first time seeing Twelve Canons live, after having met the band members and listened to some of their self-released recordings. Jim stuck to acoustic guitar, his long-necked banjo nowhere to be seen, but he plays it with a gentle grace that suggests possible classical training. His distinctive creaky vocal style was treated with a mountain of reverb. Alex was on Rhodes piano and a few synth touches, and he definitely knows his way around some keys, adding even further color to the already intricate chords. It was possibly the spookiest sounding set of music I have ever witnessed. I’ve never heard anything quite like it, but some of Jeff Moravec’s rhumbettica-influenced compositions back in the day came close (wonder what he’s been up to lately).
Last time I saw Ed Gray he stood on the Picador stage and played through an amp; this time he sat in a chair slumped over his acoustic guitar with the pickup direct-lined. Ed has a reputation as an unpredictable performer who, though ostensibly a dark, mellow folk songwriter, might play a squall of feedback for several minutes, or even get abusive with the audience, if the mood strikes him. This night he was in a good mood, despite a bout with car trouble earlier in the day, and lately his legendary outbursts are absent – I think what he does finds more of a receptive audience in Iowa City these days than in some years past. It was a confident, personable, but still compellingly intimate performance, largely composed of songs from The Late Gray Ed Great with a couple surprise cuts from Sore Eyes. It’s not often you see a non-headliner get demanded an encore, but as Ed was getting up to leave the stage, the crowd shouted for more. Ed responded with the song I had most hoped to hear that night, “Surviving You Never” from the Fresh Coat on the Powder Keg 7” EP. It was awesome, and he didn’t neglect to bring along merch for a change, so I was finally able to buy a copy of his lo-fi classic Sore Eyes.
Simon Joyner was awesome too, as expected. Whereas in Denton back in July he had played solo on acoustic guitar, he brought an electric Harmony and a drummer named Chris to this show. I only recognized a couple of the songs, since I’m more familiar with his earlier (1990s) material, as it’s the stuff I got the impression was “essential” and bought on CD first. The new tunes are no less fascinating however; that and a glance at the sheer quantity of different releases laid out on his merch table speaks to this guy’s caliber as a writer. He, too, got an encore of sorts: as he was about to leave the stage, Sam, running sound, called out for “Joy Division,” from the recently reissued The Cowardly Traveler Pays His Toll. During the song Sam gradually rode the guitar fader down and the drums up so that when the drums first came in on the final chorus they sounded every bit as massive as on the album. The song got enthusiastic cheers all around.
I was more intoxicated than expected, having neglected to eat dinner, and caught a ride back to Sam’s with Ed, who also lives there. That few minutes hanging out with Ed Gray was fun, we seem to get along well. Simon and Chris showed up later after closing time and we ended up staying up really late chatting, drinking beer, and watching the concert disc of Brian Wilson’s Smile. Sunday morning we went to the Mill for breakfast. Driving back to Waterloo afterwards I realized, holy shit, I just had breakfast with Simon Joyner, and yet the whole time he just seemed like a good old friend-of-a-friend. Every bit as amiable and courteous as you would hope him to be.
I’ve realized, I go to rock shows (and by extension, hang out with the musicians) in order to recharge my spirit. It’s been a stressful and frustrating few months in my world, and this experience was much called for.