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Futurebirds w/ Bigfoot and Hello Death @ Cactus Club

May 16, 2013

May. 17, 2013
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They may be from the distant indie-rock stronghold of Athens, Ga., but the six young men of Futurebirds made themselves right at home in Milwaukee Thursday night, winning over a sparse Cactus Club crowd with a cathartic set of noisy Southern rock. They were joined by local up-and-comers Bigfoot and Hello Death.

I hadn’t heard of Bigfoot before, and this turned out to be only their second show. The three-piece made up of two guitars and a drummer played songs built on simple, two-chord progressions plucked out by guitarist and singer Chelsea Foote, whose bluesy rasp was a highlight and reminded me of Cat Power’s Chan Marshall. Lead guitarist Chris Belkofer used a wide selection of effects pedals to push the songs beyond minimal in  deeper, more psychedelic direction. Drums were a recent addition, and the band still seems to be gelling and getting used to playing live.

About two songs into its set, Hello Death’s Nathaniel Heuer, who is nearly as tall as his upright bass, quietly suggested that the audience move closer. It’s not that Hello Death’s songs are unapproachable. In fact, a lot of them are pretty catchy. But they do feel soul-bearing in a way that might make standing too close seem somehow impolite. Or maybe the haunting, fragile folk songs sound better when you’re in the shadows. Whatever the case may be, the audience accepted Heuer’s invitation and shuffled into the light for the rest of the set. The band, as usual, was pitch-perfect, except for a few technical difficulties toward the end, which were handled with laughter and grace.

With a record out on the reputable Fat Possum and a huge summer tour scheduled, Futurebirds have every right to act like rock-stars, but they cut a humble figure Thursday,  watching the other bands and yucking it up with some super-fans before the show. So it was all the more disarming when they climbed on stage for an hour-long set that was never less than ecstatic. I can’t think of a band I’ve witnessed having more fun than Futurebirds appeared to on Thursday. Although they cling close to their style of noisy Americana, Futurebirds’ live set has all the energy and sweat and stage moves of a punk show. We can’t forget the wistful yawns arcing from the pedal steel or the heavy, steadying force of the rhythm section, but it was the three stringy-haired guitarists who were constantly moving, bopping and lunging all over the stage, punctuating the big moments with well-timed but everlastingly sincere vertical leaps, exchanging looks that seemed to say, “I can’t believe we’ve finally made it and this is all happening to us: a bunch of laid-back rock ’n’ roll dudes from Athens, Ga.” The way they were acting, you’d have thought they were playing to a rabid, sold-out crowd at the Pabst Theater or something; all warm energy and fuzzy vibes. But when I turned around, there couldn’t have been more than fifty people in the room. The front row was empty except for the two super-fans and an old man who had actually seated himself to the right of the stage. For Futurebirds, this was another night in a long string of nights just like it, and that’s what made it so amazing, that it seemed as if they were playing these songs for the first time. They were riding a wave they had summoned for themselves, getting high on their own stuff, making noise for noises’ sake, for the love of the game, for the love of the ’lectric guitar and the USA and whiskey shots (courtesy of the super-fans)—because rock music is, after all, a lot of fun.


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