Saturday, October 9, 2010

Willy Porter at the Pabst, experimenting again

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Willy Porter in concert. One of Milwaukee’s own, he’s a regular at street fairs, Summerfest, and the like. But if you’ve only heard him play at one of those loud venues with their inherent distractions you don’t know what you’ve been missing. (If you’ve never heard him, I recommend you bookmark his website and do it the next time he’s in town) Last night was at least the third time I’ve seen Willy at the Pabst and he has given memorable concerts every time.

The house was not packed – the balconies were not even open – and I don’t understand completely why not. Willy Porter has given some of the most electrifying performances I’ve seen anywhere. On his albums his music sounds like straight up contemporary rock with a unique personal guitar style that I find not only exciting but amazing. In concert, however, the songs are often just the armature for long improvisational set that have more of a jazz-fusion feel to them. That is why the Pabst is my favorite place to hear Willy.

However, Willy is not satisfied to bring audiences the same sound over and over. Few celebrity musicians can pull off the kind of experimentation with style and accompaniment that Willy does. Paul McCartney comes to mind as one who has tried with less than remarkable results. Linda Ronstadt has done it more successfully but with some cost to the constituency of her audience.

Maybe this is why Willy isn’t more of a celebrity. As a fan you have to be willing to let go of expectations. The audience last night seemed, like me, to be mostly loyal fans (although many of them seemed too young to have seen him when he was just getting started.) There was lively chatter from the floor. Willy has always received call outs amiably and often responds with humorous and self-deprecating repartee. “We love you Willy!” rang out clearly right at the beginning; to which he responded softly and convincingly “I love you back!” But there were none of the usual requests for songs this time. I expect this was due to his unusual collaboration with Carp Diem, a string quartet.

As I said, you have to let go expectations. A traditional string quartet is not an intuitive partner for Willy’s percussive and energetic guitar playing and I did think the violins, when played lyrically, tended to slow the tempo more than I would have like on a couple songs. However, overall this worked. Carp Diem proved with a few songs of their own that they were more than a traditional string quartet, burning through some bluegrass and a wonderful piece that had a Hungarian feel to it.

When the match up worked best the strings were being plucked and strummed as percussively as Willy picked his guitar. The audience loved it.

Hey, and if you don’t yet know how to rob a bank, go to and check it out.

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