Words by: Cal Roach | Images by: Alan S. Krause
Willy Porter :: 10.26.07 :: Shank Hall :: Milwaukee, WI
For 17 years now, Willy Porter has had a strong Midwestern following, flirted with the mainstream but never gotten much farther than first base. The puzzler is, why? Maybe Porter's lack of a controversial drug habit or other personal tragedy keeps him below the radar. Or, maybe he has carefully orchestrated his career this way, waiting a little too long between records, nurturing his regional popularity while dodging the national spotlight. Whatever the case, fans that flock to his shows are happy to share in one of Milwaukee's greatest treasures, as evidenced by the first of two shows at Willy's default home base, Shank Hall.
| Willy Porter :: 04.24.07|
For this tour, Porter is taking the Neil Young route, playing an acoustic, (mostly) solo set first, then bringing the full band out after an intermission. This isn't unplugged for the sake of unplugged. Porter's guitar playing ranks above virtually any pop musician today, channeling the speed and dexterity of Leo Kottke through his own distinctly fluid strum, which came across forcefully, incredibly smooth and practically free of fret noise on "Flying" and "Tribe." "Moonbeam" found his hands leapfrogging on the neck of his guitar, producing rich, varied waves of sound. One of the highlights of the acoustic set was the hilarious folk romp "Tilt-A-Whirl," followed by live staple "Jesus on the Grille," an extended free-form goof on what Jesus might say about the state of the world today. Set one climaxed with an energetic, soulful run through The Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," leading into an audience-pleaser that Porter has featured in his live sets since the early '90s, a musical Comedy Sportz act where the audience shouts out topics and Porter improvises a rambling tune based on the suggestions. If you can get past the inherent cheese, these romps are just pure fun, and usually pretty clever. To end the set, Porter played the magnificent title track to 1990's The Trees Have Soul, which capped one of the greatest individual guitar performances in recent memory. The fretwork at the end of the song was breathtaking, its execution as stunning visually as it was sonically. It's hard to gauge Porter's guitar work on disc. You have to watch him in order to appreciate how truly virtuosic the man is. It remained to be seen whether his band could keep up.
Set two began with "Roses in the Rain" before Dave Adler broke out with some moody piano flourishes. Adler has tended toward some slightly hokey organ sounds in the past but on this night he was all class. "Available Light," from Porter's acclaimed 2006 album of the same name, flowed from bluesy, twilight folk to a funky breakdown featuring juicy interplay between Porter and Adler, who was also on fire during the instrumental "Where Are My Keys?" where he pounded his keyboard and urged the whole band on in an inspired bout of improv that destroyed the studio version. Drummer Dave Schoepke was another driving force. Solid throughout the night, Schoepke took the reins for "Keys" and dared the rest of the band to keep up. The popular "Rita" proved to be a gratifying vehicle. Its subdued beginning sped into an erratic but sublimely energetic jam that built to a frenetic climax, then eased effortlessly to a close. It was a perfect example of the type of synergy a band with a penchant for improv strives for, and the pieces have fallen into place for this ensemble. Their ability to produce this type of instrumental excitement is a perfect complement to Porter's honest, insightful songwriting - craftsmanship that's as easy to miss, as it is rare in the live music scene. It's what makes Porter such a consummate musician. Whether he will some day make the leap to stardom is in the hands of the whimsical populace, but in the meantime he remains a Midwestern secret his fans don't want to keep to themselves.
| Willy Porter :: 04.24.07|
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