Last night I went to Chicago to get a little advance taste of Friday's Justin Currie and Angie Mattson show at Shank Hall. On the second night of a two-week U.S. tour, Currie played two sets at the intimate Schuba's and Michigan's Mattson opened both of them.
Currie's band Del Amitri always appeared to have its biggest American audience in the Windy City, so it was little surprise that both shows were crowded as the Scottish singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist focused on his first solo disc, last year's critically acclaimed "What Is Love For" (Ryko). Even less surprising is that whenever he performed one of the tunes he wrote for the band, the die-hards all sang along.
In a dapper suit with a polka dot tie and trademark sideburns Currie and his Boston-bred and L.A.-based collaborator Peter Adams used stripped-down instrumentation -- usually just keyboard and guitar or accordion and guitar -- to alternately render familiar Del Amitri tunes with new and varied brush strokes (like the cabaret-style reading of 1997 rocker "Not Where It's At") and to recreate the stark beauty of the often dark tunes from the new record. And, then, there's THAT voice.
After nearly a decade away from Chicago and with his first new release in six years, Currie appeared confident and comfortable, and as searingly witty and affably chatty onstage as ever. Despite sticking to the set list (which was identical for both sets) at the 7 p.m. show, Currie took requests toward the end of the night and even took valiant -- and crowd-pleasing -- stabs at songs he admitted up front he'd have trouble remembering.
It can't be easy for an established musician to take a new project on the road to smaller venues -- something that might feel like a step backward to a veteran -- but Currie's got a devoted fan base and appears to have the attitude required to make it work.
In Adams, he's also found an eager and talented partner. Adams told me he harassed Currie into hiring him because he's long been a fan and indeed, he wore a satisfied grin -- looking like there was nowhere else he'd rather be -- through most of the two sets (the second one ran perhaps 90 minutes but the first set was a little shorter due to time constrictions created by having a second show). Adams' playing was strong and never intrusive and his harmony singing unfailingly spot-on.
Mattson, meanwhile, performed entirely solo with an acoustic guitar and a sampling pedal during the first set that -- when the sound system cooperated -- allowed her to create layered tracks on the spot. That created an ethereal bed for her emotive voice.
But Mattson wisely realized she doesn't need electronics and left the pedal off for the second set, which was stronger for it. Her strummed acoustic was all Mattson needed to wring every last bit of emotional material like "Friends and Weapons" from her 2005 EP and the tunes from her latest full-length "Given to Sudden Panic and Noisy Retreat" (Radio Nine Records).
Currie and Mattson perform at 8 p.m. at Shank Hall in Milwaukee on Friday. Stay tuned for Drew Olson's interview with Currie tomorrow and my chat with Mattson on Friday.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.