Maybe the BoDeans aren't so sad, after all.
Their new CD, entitled "Mr. Sad Clown," contains some downbeat lyrics (it's hard to be upbeat when singing "Headed for the End of the World"), but founding members Kurt Neumann and Sam Llanas appeared rested, relaxed, reflective and at times downright happy during their homecoming show/CD release party before an appreciative audience Friday night at The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.
As advertised, the show had an intimate, "Storytellers" feel. Neumann told the crowd early that it was the band's goal to present the songs in a different way, close to the way they were written.
Though it wasn't a "pump-a-fist-and-slosh-your-beer" type of evening, the band did manage to pull patrons out of their comfortable seats for some impromptu dancing in parts of the show, which clocked in at just under 2 hours and could end up as part of a live CD in the future.
The acoustics in the hall that serves as home base for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra were extraordinary. The show was mixed at a level that allowed customers to hear nuances in the band's trademark harmonies, but also permitted conversation with your nearest neighbor.
After a brief opening set by Milwaukee music fixture Paul Cebar, Llanas and Neumann hit the stage at 8:48 p.m. and launched into a spare, plaintive readying of "She's a Runaway," a hit from the 1986 debut "Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams." Llanas, who was in excellent voice from the start, palmed a percussive beat on his acoustic guitar while Neumann added atmospheric fills on his electric.
The second song, "It's Only Love," showcased the vocal dynamic that still thrills fans, who cheered Llanas for nailing a high note near the end. As the three-piece backing band filed onto the stage, Llanas poured extra emotion into "Going Home," which he dedicated to a recently-deceased aunt.
Mixing stories and songs with stripped-down arrangements allowed room for experimentation in tempo (the ballad "Far, Far Away From My Heart" was played a click or two quicker) and key ("Angels"), but sing-a-longs like "Idaho" and "Paradise," still drew big responses, along with the seldom performed waltz, "Beaujolais," which Neumann described as a song the group couldn't perform at a venue like Summerfest.
Though the raw, somewhat nervous energy that marked the band's earliest shows has evolved into a more mature and measured professionalism, many in the crowd, which seemed to skew heavily toward the upper range of the 25-54 demographic, flashed back to shows in the early 1980s when the band performed as a duo amid pool tables and the last remnants of a Friday fish fry.
The Elvis (and others) cover of "Trying to Get to You," recalled those days, but so did "Still The Night," a collaborative effort that Neumann labeled the band's "first sing-a-long."
Although competition from a holiday weekend may have cut into the attendance -- the 2,200-seat hall seemed about two-thirds full -- the folks who did attend seemed to soak in the relaxed-but-rocking approach.
Cebar set the tone for the evening with a handful of songs including tracks from his acoustic CD, "One Little Light On," his first solo project and one that was recorded in the BoDeans rehearsal space. Taking the stage at 8 p.m., Cebar won the crowd over soul-tinged readings of songs like "Can't Blame a Lover," and the Willy Porter co-written "Didn't Bring it Up to Bring You Down."
Cebar was an appropriate opener for the show. As Llanas noted later in the evening, he was among the first local musicians to nurture the BoDeans and give them an opening slot for his band at the time, R&B Cadets.
Cebar closed his set with the perfectly timed, "Summer Starts Right Now." On a pleasant night, it certainly felt that way.
Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at OnMilwaukee.com. Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.