an evening of fine musical entertainment

I was at Shank Hall earlier this evening for the “official” debut of the Mike Benign Compulsion, as well as ex- Trip Shakespeare vocalists Matt Wilson and John Munson and their new band The Twilight Hours. After the show, Mike asked me if I thought the show was “blog-worthy”; I replied to the effect that I’d been neglecting this blog so much I had no idea what was “blog-worthy.”

But what the hell – here’s a blog entry, and ipso facto, the show was blog-worthy! Yes!

Local hero Benign stepped away from the vehicle in the late ’90s, frustrated with the lack of fame and fortune that failed to come his way as he crammed a thirty-piece band onto stages the size of the head of a pin and (unrelatedly) ended up having children instead. A while back, motivated by vengeance and a belief that someone might mistake him for Steve Buscemi in subdued lighting, he fired up the songwriting engine again and came up with a new act, featuring long-time Milwaukee musicians Joe Vent on guitar and backing vocals and Brian Wooldridge on bass. (Full disclosure: by means of what the Twilight Hours’ Matt Wilson referred to as a “cult of nuptial troth,” Brian is almost related to me, in that his brother is married to one of my sisters. Despite this, he still wears a little tiny triangular beard on his chin.) Benign’s songwriting is just as sharp and witty as ever, inspiring me at several points to wish I’d brought along my 19th-century Luddite pen and paper to steal lyrical ideas. Musically, he’s working the same vein he’s mined for years, your sort of post-Costello/Jam power-pop with a soul infusion, more confident and less reliant on quirk than his eighties band Arms & Legs & Feet, but starker and more direct than his early nineties band Blue in the Face (the aforementioned Large Band). They’re releasing something they quaintly referred to as an “album” in April, and I’m looking forward to how that sound translates to the recorded medium.

I’ll admit: if I’d gone to this show myself (I attended with the aforementioned sister and a friend of hers), I might well have gone home after the Benign Compulsion played, because all I knew about the Twilight Hours was that it featured two former members of Trip Shakespeare, a band that (on record at least) never quite made it for me. They seemed prone to being a bit too clever: lyrics that were sort of annoyingly cute at times, and singing that veered uncomfortably close to the overwrought Broadway-ready stylings of Dennis DeYoung. That assessment is overly harsh – but their worst material deserved it. Their best material, though, was quite good – and Matt Wilson does have a fabulous tenor voice: light yet powerful when it needs to be, supple, and (except when going nuts on the showtunes vibrato) emotionally effective as well. Second vocalist Munson was, then, less impressive: more powerful, yes, but also more prone to oversinging, with an even wider vibrato than Wilson’s. The good news is, both singers have reined in their excesses for the most part, and the songwriting and playing is better and tending less toward unamusing silliness than TS at its worst. At the show, Munson began a bit off (he was also having some problems with his monitor), but his voice grew more focused as the show continued, while Wilson was a marvel throughout, only tiring near the very end when a few of the higher notes were a bit flat. The band also featured a lead guitarist who, despite being invisible when turned sideways he was so thin, played with a nice biting tone, with just enough whammy bar edge to make his parts stand out when they needed to. I was convinced: their CD is on my want list.

I should also mention that Wilson and Munson’s stage patter was hilarious: they had me and the rest of the crowd on the floor with an extended and recurring bit about Wilson’s guitars as his girlfriends (sounds clichéd, didn’t matter). And I also had not heard of astronaut porn until this evening. So there you go.

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