This is the last of my trilogy of album review/concert review double features from our recent musical holiday to San Francisco, Portland and Vancouver. The last show was Frank Turner, but while I was there I discovered a new (to me) opening act and was impressed. Since he’s got the new album and not Frank, I’m going to review that first and then talk about the concert at the end.
Frank, if you want this kind of VIP treatment you’re going to have to stop teasing me and release that new record. For now, let’s turn our attention to Wisconsin’s Trapper Schoepp.
Disc 1052 is…Rangers & Valentines
Year of Release: 2016
What’s up with the Cover? This cover brings to mind that old adage, “If you’re going to be drawn and quartered, make sure you wear your best suit.”
OK, that’s not an old saying, but it is still good advice. Sure the suit will be ruined, but by the time they ride your various parts to the four corners of the kingdom, your suit will be the least of your worries.
How I Came To Know It: For a guy who knows a lot of music I confess I’d never heard of Trapper Schoepp before I saw him open for Frank Turner at the Commodore a week ago. After I heard him though, I wasted no time getting to the merch table to buy a couple of his CDs. This was one of them.
How It Stacks Up: I’m not sure. I have two Trapper Schoepp albums, but they are two of 20 CDs I bought while on holiday, and I’ve only listened to 13 so far and the other Schoepp album (“Run, Engine, Run”) isn’t one of them. Despite that I took the time to listen to “Rangers & Valentines” several times in recent days and based on how good it is, I’m going to guess it is the best.
Ratings: 4 stars
Not every artist is good both live and recorded. I’ve seen lots of artists that are only good in the studio, and others that only grabbed your attention when they’re physically there in front of you. In the case of Trapper Schoepp, you’re good either way. Schoepp’s youthful energy, insightful songwriting, and innate sense of timing and delivery all translated to CD without a hitch.
Like a lot of good music, it is hard to categorize Schoepp. He is mostly good ol’ rock and roll, but there is a healthy dose of country twang and bit of Dylan-esque folk music. He reminded me favourably of Canadian singer-songwriter Luke Doucet, another genre-crossing talent.
Schoepp is a young musician, but you get the sense he has a strong sense of musical history. I heard elements of sixties pop, seventies country and eighties rock in his music, but he’s blended it all into a sound that is fresh and modern. The guitar on “Don’t Go” even feels a bit like the guitar sound in early U2 – only more organic. Schoepp then blends that sound with a southern fried country-rock riff, and a heart-worn narrative of duty and disillusionment worthy of a Steve Earle ballad.
“Talking Girlfriend Blues” sounds like an homage to Bob Dylan, all the way down to the title and delivery, but Schoepp keeps it original. The song also shows off his strong sense of humour and talent for self-deprecation as he tells of a series of near-misses on trying to find a girlfriend. Like Dylan he knows how to wrap up a rambling image with a funny tag line:
“…by the time I dropped her off
She was doing her best cough
I went in for a kiss, it was more of a lick
It was about that time that she said she was sick
But I knew it was just of me.”
Schoepp has a solid understanding of how to let imagery do the heavy lifting, like the use of football in the opening of “For Jonny”:
“Drank booze from bowls
Sang “Dixie” out of tune
Missed the football game on Sunday
Passed out at noon
“I wanted to hit the town
But the town it hit me
It’s been knocking me down
Since I was 19”
The way he puts those football images in your head in the first stanza means its lurking around in your mind when the town knocks him down in the second. The booze here is like a concussive sideline hit, and an evocative image of someone partying at an unhealthy level.
In previous reviews I’ve bemoaned artists that played stripped down in concert, but then added too much production to their recorded work. I heard Schoepp solo on a single guitar, and “Rangers & Valentines” is a full band, replete with horn sections, piano, pedal steel, organ and more besides. Here the additional instruments are welcome additions, adding layers to songs that already have solid bones to work with.
The horn section on “Mono Pt. II” is sublime, blasting around in the chorus, and making an ill-timed bought of mononucleosis strangely celebratory. There’s even a cowbell on “Settlin’ or Sleepin’ Around”. Is there any song that isn’t made better by cowbell? I can’t think of any.
“Rangers & Valentines” is an excellent record, and one that I think will feature heavily in rotation on my stereo.
Best tracks: Mono Pt. II, Talking Girlfriend Blues, Settlin’ or Sleepin’ Around, For Jonny, Don’t Go, Dream
The Concert – September 13, 2017 – The Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver
At last, after a thousand chances to go, I finally found myself in the legendary Commodore Ballroom. I’ve wanted to see a show there for decades and for whatever reason (scheduling, money or just plain lack of motivation) I never made it over. Eventually, it took following Frank Turner up from Portland to make it happen. We’ll get to Frank’s show at the end, but let’s give the opening acts some time first, shall we?
Band of Rascals
Frank Turner had two opening acts, and the first of them was “Band of Rascals” a blues rock outfit from my home town of Victoria that came on for about a half dozen songs as the place was filling up.
It’s never easy to be the first of three bands, but Band of Rascals took the stage with a good deal of energy. They played solid bluesy grooves (particularly the bassist, who I felt was the hidden star of the group) and were generally well received, but it wasn’t my cup of tea.
As we got settled in for the next act, I took a little time out to down a double rum and coke or two. Unlike San Francisco, I was no longer feeling the restless need for rebellion. For this reason (and because the spiced rum selection at the Commodore is atrocious) I took it a lot slower. I’m sure my liver appreciated the change of pace.
Next up was Trapper Schoepp, who you may remember from such blog entries as “Disc 1052: Trapper Schoepp”. If that doesn’t ring a bell, scroll up.
Anyway, unlike his record that is full of horn flourishes and other great instrumentation, Trapper appeared on stage armed with nothing more than a guitar and a rakish smile. No doubt it is hard to drag a full band all the way from Wisconsin.
Fortunately, Schoepp didn’t need all those extras to sound great. He has that busker-like talent of making his guitar do double duty as percussion and melody and his vocals were strong, crisp and clear.
It helps when you write great songs, and as I noted in the album review Schoepp has the talent. These were songs that had catchy hooks, great narratives, and just the right mix of humour and wisdom.
Schoepp had a natural command of the room, which in the Commodore isn’t easy. That dance floor is big, and it is festooned with a lot of drunks; getting their attention takes effort. Schoepp managed it with an “aw, shucks” quality that was a little bit of humble and a little bit of relaxed confidence that comes from people who just know they’ve got a talent for getting people to pay attention to them.
He certainly got my attention. I started the set wondering whether I was going to try to risk ordering a drink on my tab from the floor server or wander back over to the bar and do it direct. In the end I forgot all about getting a drink and just watched the show.
After he finished up Schoepp was at the merch table and I got a chance to meet him. He was engaging and present with what I call “something going on behind the eyes”. I like to think he is going places – hopefully to my hometown, where I can see him play again.
And then, the moment all of us rabid Turnerites were waiting for came…Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls took the stage.
Frank Turner was good in Portland, but opening act in a sit-down auditorium is not the proper way to see him. Here, under the soaring ceiling of the Commodore ballroom and in front of close to 1,000 rabid fans, he was finally in his element. He did not disappoint.
I’d seen Frank a couple years earlier at a similar venue (the Neptune in Seattle) and vowed I’d see him as often as I could from that point forward. Turner’s show at the Commodore was even better than my first experience, which is saying something given the bar he set back then.
Turner was on fire, amping up a throng that was already packed tight on the dance floor. We remained on the side at our table, but added plenty of noise and excitement from there. Best of all the way the seating is tiered I was able to see just fine and could also stand, dance and shout as the mood struck me without wrecking the experience of anyone behind me.
Frank has three rules at his show: be kind to each other, sing along if you know the words, and dance if you don’t. They are easy rules to follow. His repertoire has plenty of sing-a-long tracks that cleverly mix self-affirmation and self-examination.
A good Frank Turner crowd doesn’t just sing along to the chorus or hook, they know the words to the whole song, and this crowd did not disappoint. I felt very much among my people, and it felt good.
In addition to the great music and enthusiastic delivery Frank had a few tricks I hadn’t seen yet. These include having a friend of his from the audience crowd surf from the stage to the bar at the back of the room, get two shots of whisky, and then crowd surf back where she and Frank had an on-stage toast. Before she set out Frank reminded everyone to be respectful of her during the journey, and the crowd enthusiastically called out their collective promise to do so.
Later Turner exhorted everyone to give a stranger a hug. I rushed to a guy at a neighboring table and gave him a bear hug like he was a friend I hadn’t seen in twenty years. He happily reciprocated.
Turner takes the overused expression of “music brings people together” and makes it live and present in the flesh. More importantly, it never feels like a schtick or a gimmick. He loves to perform, and he’s damned good at it, and he has the musical talent to back up that passion.
After the show was over, we met up with our friends Casey and Helene, who we’d lost earlier to the dance floor crowd. Here they are:
They weren’t strangers, but shortly before or after this picture was taken I hugged them too. Our other friends Andrew and Theresa slipped away sometime near the end of the encore, beating the rush but if they hadn’t, I would’ve hugged them too. I’m a bit of a hugger. Seeing a Frank Turner show with friends definitely makes it better, but going to a Frank Turner show means being among hundreds of friends anyway – you just haven’t met them all yet.