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Willie's Off-Brand Web Journal: April 25-June 13, 2009

Saturday, April 25, 2009:

My many dedicated fans--LaimerHeads, they call themselves--will remember my longstanding vow never to return to Wisconsin after a miserable family vacation in 1996 (which consisted of a week in Green Bay during which my dad and my brother T-Bone spent every day at Packers training camp while my mom and I wandered various identical malls, went to see Kingpin, and watched the Olympics in the hotel room while praying for Bela Karolyi to spirit us away to a more interesting life) and a road trip to see Radiohead in 2003 in which my soul and Jess's soul were devoured by penniless Milwaukee hippies. Well, T-Bone and his girlfriend LeAnne moved to Madison, and since I love them both lots and it's not a horribly long drive from Ann Arbor--and my favorite non-Yo La Tengo band, The Handsome Family, happened to be playing there--I went against my every instinct last Friday and drove out there.

An hour outside of Ann Arbor, I noticed that my hood wasn't quite shut from when I'd added coolant earlier, so I pulled over to slam it. Getting back into the car proved a problem, as I'd locked the keys inside. AAA was helpfully prompt.

Then I got lost in Illinois, because the Mapquest directions to [NAME OF HIGHWAY REDACTED BECAUSE T-BONE WANTS TO KEEP HIS SHORTCUT A SECRET] were hopelessly confusing. I wound up on the wrong interstate and spent much of the evening making my way from Milwaukee to Madison, grinding my teeth and shouting, "Dammit, Wisconsin!" from beneath the neck of my shirt, which I had by that point pulled over my nose as a result of the fact that I was evidently driving through the state's Manure Belt.

I noshed on a bagel when I got to LeAnne and T-Bone's fabulous new condo, re-introduced myself to their laid-back cat Petey, and met their new kitten Mika, whose goal in life is to clumsily torment Petey. (T-Bone writes: "Today Petey was hanging out in the living room minding his own business and Mika decided to jump off one of the dining room chairs, hurdle the box next to the chair, and land juuuuust on the other side of Petey. It scared the crap out of Petey so he took off running, then Mika tried to change directions to chase after him, but of course she can't dig in to our hardwood floors, so she slammed into the couch instead.") After I got the grand tour and LeAnne and I bored my brother by talking about Harry Potter for awhile, T-Bone and I went to the satisfyingly cozy High Noon Saloon for the Handsome Family show.

The Handsome Family are currently touring behind their beautiful new album Honey Moon, which is a record that Brett and Rennie Sparks recorded as a 20th-anniversary gift to one another. It's an album of love songs, which rules out the dark, occasionally supernatural story songs they've proffered on albums like the idiosyncratic alt-folk masterpieces Through the Trees and Singing Bones... but doesn't rule out much else, since The Handsome Family's definition of "love song" extends to tales of cannibalistic insects ("Darling, My Darling"), crippling loneliness (the stunning "The Petrified Forest"), and the feeling you get, to quote Rennie's stage banter, "when you see a paper cup rolling down the street and you think, 'Man, that paper cup's got it made!'" ("Little Sparrows").

The stage banter was a hugely entertaining component of their show last Friday, too. As documented on their fine live album Live at Schuba's Tavern, Brett and Rennie spend a good amount of time between songs joking and bickering as only two people in deep love can. For instance, when introducing the cheeky murder ballad "Arlene," Rennie said, "We wrote this song back when we lived in Chicago. I was really depressed at the time, and at first I'd thought, 'Well, maybe I'll try growing tomato plants in the apartment. That might cheer me up!' So I tried growing these tomato plants inside but they died and I was still really depressed, so I thought it might help to paint the walls happy colors, so I tried that..."

At which point Brett interjected, "She painted the walls--I walked out of the shower one day and was confronted with this, and thought, 'What the fuck--that is the color of madness!' The walls were the color of, like, Van Gogh's sunflowers." [He paused to hold up a beer bottle with a violently orange label.] "This is the color our walls were!"

"It was summery!" Rennie maintained. "So anyway, the plants didn't cheer me up and the walls didn't cheer me up, so I thought, 'Well, maybe it will cheer me up to write a song about a girl who gets kidnapped and dragged into the woods.' And whaddaya know!"

Of course, the musical performances were great as well. Brett did seem occasionally aggravated by a malfunctioning guitar pedal (which drew indulgent smiles from Rennie that were as adorable as any expression you'd see shooting between Pam and Jim on The Office), but that was the only minor asterisk I'd put alongside a completely solid set. Judging from the live recordings I'd heard, I assumed Brett and Rennie would be touring with a prerecorded rhythm section confined to minidiscs, but they had two human accomplices (whose names I don't have handy since I loaned Honey Moon to Bert for the weekend), one flailing on half a drum kit and one violinist/second guitarist, both of whom added surprising and effective spontaneity to favorites like "My Sister's Tiny Hands."

Thanks to an e-mail I'd fired off before driving to Madison, they played a gorgeous rendition of "Whitehaven," which is both Bev's and my favorite Handsome song. As soon as Rennie said, "We got an e-mail this morning asking us to play this," I called Bev and she was able to listen to it, however murkily the transmission came through. (I was briefly awestruck by the ability to send an e-mail from Michigan that would result in a band playing a specific song that night in Wisconsin, which I could broadcast to my sweetie in Maine. Technology!) They also made room for T-Bone's favorite song, "All the Time in Airports," which performance you can watch here. (Thanks to that same YouTube user, you can also watch the Madison performances of "So Much Wine" and "Weightless Again.") The Handsome Family have been the number-one entry on my "bands to see live" list for, like, three years at this point, and I am happy to report that the wait was worth it and then some.

On the way back to the condo, T-Bone pointed out some hot tub showroom and said, "Yeah, that's one of those sketch 'Come get into our hot tub!' places," which completely cracked me up. My brother frequently has the sharpest comic delivery of anyone I'm aware of this side of Patton Oswalt.

The following morning, I was awoken by Mika cheerfully purring and rubbing all over me, and T-Bone discovered that the pack of bagels from which I'd eaten the previous evening was growing fuzzy things. He and LeAnne took me to the weekly farmers' market that's held on the square surrounding the Wisconsin State Capitol. Though it was crowded, being a lovely day and the first farmers' market of the season, I had a great deal of fun. I bought a bag of fresh cheese curds from this guy's booth. They were pretty great! Just irregularly-shaped hunks of soft cheese the color of circus peanuts, still moist with whey and squeaky between one's teeth (if you were feeling grumpy, I suppose you could imagine the little curdlets were actually shrieking as you gobbled them alive), but full of salty deliciousness! Madison strikes me as a very nice city.

They then took me on a tour of the amazing Epic Systems campus where they work: 350+ acres of eco-friendly, artful, hilariously detailed whimsy that's actually living the "Where ideas can hang out and do whatever!" dream that so many shortsighted '90s startups smothered in the crib. I'd been meaning to brag for awhile about getting invited to lunch at Google's fancypants Ann Arbor digs, but Epic makes Google's building look like some sort of half-finished Peace Corps sewer project. Epic's got waterfalls, kitschy themed boardrooms, and lots of nerd humor. For instance, the buildings have been named alphabetically, after astronomical phenomena (Andromeda, Betelgeuse-or-something-that-starts-with-B, Cassiopeia, etc.), but they jump abruptly from D to F. This is because the campus contains a treehouse-themed outbuilding... named Endor. Also, the observation deck of their gigantic, helix-shaped conference building is called "The Bridge," and overlooks a huge gathering room whose blocky carpet design, from above, is revealed to be a Space Invaders tableau.

And for those of us who've built much of our personality around actively disliking the Lucas/Roddenberry/Spielberg/Abrams sci-fi quadrant, there were still plenty of hipster Easter eggs. Hard copies of The Onion and Simpsons chess sets were strewn on tables in common areas. A test-your-strength machine sits randomly in a hallway. A vestibule designed to resemble a mid-20th-century NYC newsstand was furnished with time-specific periodicals, including a mid-1950s issue of Seventeen, in case Epic employees are curious about what Ann Shoket was up to back when she was a spry and naive 45-year-old.

There's also a 5,000-seat theater, about which T-Bone told me: "On Inauguration Day, they figured that everyone was going to be streaming the ceremony at their computers and they didn't want the network to completely crash, so they projected a feed onto the big screen in the theater and let us all watch the inauguration in here. One thing I noticed, though, was that throughout the entire ceremony, there was a sports ticker crawling along the bottom of the screen, with piddly little stories like 'Papelbon Gets Record Deal From Red Sox' that seemed really odd during a pretty important event. Well, apparently, they chose to stream the inauguration ceremony from MLB.com for some reason."

I had a blast there.

We ate lunch at Adler's House of Deep-Fried Yummies and returned to the condo to amuse the kitties and watch various Detroit sports playoff games on T-Bone's Slingbox. Then the three of us spent the night drinking champagne and playing Mario Party 5. Despite much encouraging profanity, we all lost to the computer player even though we had the skill level set to "learning disability." It was a really great night.

I had to leave in the morning, although I wish I would've had a few more days to hang out and explore the city. Getting into my car proved a problem, as I had again locked my keys inside. AAA was helpfully prompt.

So while I'm certainly not ready to approve Wisconsin as a whole (though maybe as "a hole," which I originally typed)... Madison gets a reprieve until I can investigate further.

CURRENT MUSIC: Camper Van Beethoven live at the State Theater on 1/8/09, a pristinely recorded and inspiringly performed concert I should've directed you to long ago.
Already sick of the heat, mourning the spring we never received.
Auto-Tune the News, which I've watched several dozen times in a row and have giggled at each time. It's hilarious, indefensibly catchy, and the only time any of these bozos has been useful.
11:02 a.m.

Doot? | |

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