Chicago is not just one of the biggest cities in America, it's been home to some of the best independent record labels over the last half-century. From 1950s start-ups like Chess, Vee Jay and Mercury to more recent marques like Drag City and Thrill Jockey, Windy City labels are always reliably setting trends in various genres. Bloodshot Records has been leading the way in punk-tinged American roots music for 15 years now, and will celebrate that milestone with a series of "Beer-B-Q" shows across the country, including a stop at the High Noon Saloon on Saturday, August 22.
Even though Madison is one of the smallest cities on the tour, label co-founder Rob Miller says it was a natural choice. "Madison was the first city outside of Chicago to ever pay attention to Bloodshot," he explains. "The Old 97s found an early audience there. Spent many a night on I-90 driving back at 5 a.m. from wildly successful shows. All our bands would play there. Unlike my college town of Ann Arbor, there is still a strong indie retail component, great radio and music savvy fans who support weirdo labels like us."
Bloodshot fans are likely preparing to make a day of it at the birthday party on August 22; doors open at 3 p.m., with music beginning at 4 p.m. and continuing all night long. It's also a recession-beating special free show, giving listeners a chance to check out some bands they might have missed in the past and some favorites who haven't hit town in awhile. If you haven't already picked up a ticket or signed up for the guest list, though, you could be in trouble; the RSVP list is already at capacity.
"We have to call it sold out," said Miller on Wednesday. "If people want to come, I am sure there will an ebb and flow of people all afternoon and night, so there may be times when they are below capacity and will let more in."
Visual art by Bloodshot musicians will also be a part of the Madison Beer-B-Q. A traveling show coordinated by Yard Dog Gallery, a folk and outsider art space that's hosted label showcases at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, will feature works by Exene Cervenka, Jon Langford, Ben Weaver and others. And of course there's the music!
Here's the lineup.
Deano Waco & the Purveyors at 4 p.m.: A new collaboration between Deano Schlabowske (of Dollar Store and the Waco Brothers) and members of the Meat Purveyors. You can hear a sample of their efforts right now for free at Deano's website; hopefully this album will see a proper release sometime soon, because it's an excellent slice of sometimes hazy, yet always pointed country sounds.
Bobby Bare Jr. at 5:15 p.m.: One of two second-generation performers on the bill, and perhaps the set I'm most looking forward to seeing. A friend has been telling me to check out Bare Jr. for a couple years, and after hearing his last album (2006's "The Last Meow") I can see why. Along with joining the Bloodshot Beer-B-Q tour, Bare Jr. has just released a new EP collaboration with David Vandervelde (for another label), re-imagining the songs of '70s soft-rockers Bread and America. Seriously.
Ha Ha Tonka at 6:30 p.m.: A great young band from Springfield, Missouri, Ha Ha Tonka's genre-crossing music is hard to pin down. It's sort of like a Midwestern marriage of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Blackwood Brothers and Leonard Cohen. Their new LP Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South expands on the promise of their debut with 13 carefully crafted tracks of anthemic indie roots rock. It's one of those albums where you find yourself singing along before really figuring out what the heck the songs are about.
The Bottle Rockets at 7:45 p.m.: Hey, guess what -- the Bottle Rockets also have a brand new record out, making 2009 a better year already. The band has been around just a bit longer than Bloodshot, releasing their first album on long-gone East Side Digital in 2003. The band is also one of the few still-active originators of the alt-country movement, an amazing feat when considering their backstory of bad luck with record labels during their first decade. Thankfully, it appears they have found a steady home at Bloodshot. The new album Lean Forward reunites them with producer Eric Ambel, and finds the band's ability at chronicling the people and places of working class America in top form.
The Deadstring Brothers at 9 p.m.: Sonically of a combination of early-'70s Rolling Stones and a more rural slant, the band features players with Detroit and London roots.
Waco Brothers at 10:15 p.m.: Originally formed by Mekons member Jon Langford to more directly explore his interest in country music, the Waco Brothers has since taken on a life of its own through a series of straight-talking albums and legendary live shows. It's a rare opportunity these days to see them without driving down to Chicagoland.
Justin Townes Earle at 11:30 p.m.: Those still standing post-Wacos will be treated to the effortless-sounding swing and smoky ballads of the talented offspring of Nashville rebel Steve Earle. J.T. Earle also recently released his second album, "Midnight at the Movies," and its' blues-inflected Americana gradually works its way into your head.
With the rapid rise of digital formats and transmission models leading to reduced sales of physical media, the modern recording industry has transformed rapidly into an unpredictable frontier. Combined with the shaky economy, that's led to trouble for even major indies like Touch & Go, which dropped its manufacturing/distribution deals with other labels earlier this year. Miller says he can't make any clear predictions about where Bloodshot is headed in the future.
"I am no closer to being able to answer that question than the first time it was posed during our five-year anniversary," he explains. "I want to be able to walk into the office and not be embarrassed by our catalog. I want to continue to put out music that I find entertaining and interesting and compelling. Why else do it? There are 6,000 easier ways to make a living. I hope, beyond our survival, our culture will decide that music -- and writing and photography and films -- have value. Right now, I am not so sure."