Crooked Fingers at Cactus Club
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Eric Bachmann fans must feel spoiled this year. First, his old band—some obscure ’90s indie-rock outfit from Chapel Hill called Archers Of Loaf—thrilled audiences by playing its first shows since 1998, with more on the way in 2012 when Merge Records reissues the 1995 classic, Vee Vee. Bachmann then followed up with the brilliant Breaks In The Armor, the first album in three years by his solo act, Crooked Fingers, an identity he’s now performed under for a longer time period than the Archers’ original run. Crooked Fingers’ last Milwaukee appearance was a low-key but brilliant show at Club Garibaldi in 2010, and judging from the packed and enthusiastic house at the Cactus Club Saturday night, Bachmann’s Neil Diamond-soaked Americana left a lasting impression.
The show kicked off with Armor’s opening track, “Typhoon,” immediately showcasing the rhythmically intricate melody lines that so often mark Crooked Fingers’ best compositions. It’s hard to imagine a musician not having a great time with deceptively involved folk songs like these, and judging from the rhythm section’s twinkling eyes during the down-beat accents that closed “Your Apocalypse,” this edition of Crooked Fingers is having a great time. The rotating lineup has varied from five-piece multi-stringed ensembles to Bachmann and a sequencer; Crooked Fingers 2011 is a four-piece featuring Athens singer-songwriter and Vic Chesnutt-niece Liz Durrett, whose backing vocals are a highlight of both Breaks In The Armor and the live show. Durrett was featured prominently during a bonus mid-set number where she and Bachmann performed with only his guitar, their voices, and no PA, echoing a show several years ago at the Globe (remember that place?) that opened with the band standing out on the floor playing Prince’s “When You Were Mine” completely unplugged. (Note: We tried to identify the unplugged song from Saturday and failed; name it in the comments if you’re cooler than us.)
While the set was liberally flavored with hot nuggets from the new disc (including the driving “Bad Blood” and an absolutely searing, explosive, set-closing “Went To The City”), plenty of old favorites poked their heads out, including “Angelina,” “You Can Never Leave,” and set staples “Crowned In Chrome” and “New Drink For The Old Drunk” from the 2000 debut.
The moody feel of Crooked Fingers’ material was often counterbalanced by the aforementioned joviality on stage. When one of the Cactus Club’s more inebriated audience members began a round of Milwaukee’s favorite new pastime, “Yell As Much Nonsense At The Performer As Possible,” the band responded in kind. During the encore—a heart-stopping solo rendition of Archers track “Chumming The Ocean” that was followed by the band’s new friend yelling, “Your songwriting is as good as Randy Newman’s!”—Bachmann immediately explained, “This happens every night—we pay someone to yell nice things at us from the audience.”
Saturday night’s opening acts perfectly complemented the headliner. Muzzle Of Bees favorite Strand Of Oaks played a hypnotizing set of minimalist, sequence-backed folk highlighted by “Daniel’s Blues,” the band’s exploration of Dan Aykroyd’s mindset after the death of John Belushi. (“Most bands write songs about love and relationships; I wrote songs about wanting to hunt down John Belushi’s drug dealer.”) Also of note was a winning two-song guest appearance by the harmonizing duo of Juniper Tar’s Aaron and Ryan Schleicher. Milwaukee’s Testa Rosa recently bolstered its beautifully sweet indie-pop with the addition of Dixie Jacobs on vocals and accordion; the capacity crowd represented early to respond loudly and favorably to the now dual-vocal stylings of Jacobs and Betty Blexrud-Strigens on “Cavalier Mystere,” and an encore performance of The Pretenders’ “Don’t Get Me Wrong.” A veteran local act just upped their game, y’all.