Field Report at Turner Hall
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Strangely enough, Field Report, Milwaukee’s most visible musical export of the past year, hadn’t played a headlining hometown show since the release of its self-titled debut in September of last year. Happily, that changed last night at a Valentine’s Day show at Turner Hall Ballroom. After stints opening for Counting Crows and Aimee Mann, the band went on its own cross-country tour in November, and if anything, the Brew City benefitted from the wait, as last night’s performance showcased a tight, intuitive ensemble focused on the emotive, charismatic presence and voice of frontman Christopher Porterfield.
Local experimental folkie and show-opener Todd Umhoefer generally plays solo as Old Earth, but for this show, after playing a handful of short tunes solo, most of Field Report joined him onstage for a revelatory full-band set. Porterfield and others contributed to Old Earth’s 2012 release A Low Place At The Old Place, as well as a new album to be released in the spring, but Umhoefer’s rambling yet determined method of stringing together fragments of songs isn’t exactly tailored for a full band. Nevertheless, the musicians were obviously keyed in on his shifting guitar textures and loops, and the resulting music was a quasi-jazzy backdrop to Old Earth’s visceral, atmospheric folk.
The packed house was unusually attentive as the headliner opened with the lush “Route 18.” As with any good live band, many of Field Report’s songs have evolved significantly since the album’s release, making for some unexpected highlights. The band’s biggest hit, “Incommunicado,” had already been transformed from a raw Conrad Plymouth demo to a powerful, mournful pop song, but last night’s version was stripped down, plodding, and even darker, thanks largely to the finesse of drummer Damian Strigens. “The Year Of The Get You Alone” lost some of its twang, and Porterfield drew out the final verse and then ended the song on a cliffhanger, omitting the last chorus altogether, a potent effect for anyone familiar with the song. The big sing-a-long “Fergus Falls” reverted somewhat to its older form, a welcome sucker punch from a band whose restraint is one of its greatest strengths.
Those hoping for special concessions to the hometown crowd were rewarded, though not in a pandering sense. There was the public premier of the moving new video for “I Am Not Waiting Anymore,” as Porterfield invited the cast and crew of the production onstage to watch and get a well-earned round of applause. There was also a new song that Porterfield claimed was either about finding God or being abducted by aliens, and it was easily one of the highlights of the set. “We want to be ambassadors for Milwaukee,” Porterfield said during the fake encore (featuring an impressive cover of Neil Young’s “Borrowed Tune”). It might’ve been a pledge of allegiance or a plea for acceptance. Either way, Field Report isn’t just the city’s most viable commodity: Milwaukee could scarcely hope for a better representative for its burgeoning folk-rock scene, or for its songwriters and musicians in general.