Concert Review: Vienna Teng with Alex Wong and The Bowmans; Schubas

The show last night was, to put it pretty simply, beautiful.

Ok, so I get there around 8:45 – after the doors have opened but before the show at 9. I’ve learned that getting to Scubas’ early doesn’t do me any good, as I just stand around and feel awkward because I’m there by myself. If I get there 10-15 minutes beforehand, I’m still there early enough to waltz right up front, only minus all the standing around and waiting. But this time… there were chairs. CHAIRS. Seriously, you have no idea how much this boggles my mind. The music room at Schuba’s is probably not that much larger than my living room/kitchen, the stage is about waist high on me, and it’s really just this tiny little place where people stand and mill about and it’s just not a … chair sort of place.

But chairs there were. (In the end, the chairs worked, even if I was bitter about having to stand in the back. The concert was so laid back and, well, grown-up that I don’t think a crowd of standers would have set the right mood.) And the chairs were all full by the time I got there. I skulked in the back, right behind the last row of chairs, placing myself behind this girl who I honestly never would have pegged as 18+ except for the fact that she got into the bar in the first place. Anyhow, she couldn’t have been any taller than 5’, so that was as good as it gets for me, having to stand but finding the one person I could see over. On my left were a whole bunch of people who were friends/family of Vienna Teng – apparently she has an aunt in Chicago, and her grandmother lives somewhere in the near Midwest — and to my right was a hippie guy who was friends with the opening act, The Bowmans. So it was a little weird being surrounded by all these people “in the know”.

The crowd demographics were different than what I expected — there were a lot of grown-ups/middle-aged people there. I heard someone call it the “NPR Crowd”. The younger people were all crammed in the back standing, because apparently everyone else roughly my age made the same assumption I did, that getting there mega-early was pointless. Whoops.

The Bowmans opened, and they’re twin sisters from Iowa who sing sort of eclectic folk music. They’re sort of what I imagine Ani DiFranco would be if there were two of her and they were from the Midwest and weren’t even remotely political. And also liked the xylophone. Their voices sort of reminded me of Ani in a way, though. They both had very clear, pure voices that could shift to raw and strong when needed. And they did something that I see so, so rarely in singing outside of chorus/opera/showtunes: dynamics. I’d never really thought about this until I watched them, but other than a song getting soft, really, how much shift do you really hear in a lot of “popular” music, dynamics-wise? Normally the instruments will get softer and maybe the singer will move a little more into a whisper, but that real difference, the crescendo and decrescendo that get hammered into you as a music student is so often absent in live music. Think about it for a while.

They played for about 45 minutes, a very well-balanced set between slow and fast songs. They were hilarious in that very dry, down-home Midwestern sort of way. They did a little song that one of the twins said she wrote when she was eight, and it was about a pig on a farm and was absolutely adorable. Another song was about being in Holland and having a lot of fun, though one of them made sure to point out “but we weren’t smoking pot! We don’t do that! I’m allergic to pot, which I know even though I’ve never done it.” Mmhm. One twin played the xylophone and the tambourines with a zeal I’ve never quite seen before. She had a lot of fun with her tambourines. The other played guitar. I picked up their CD afterwards and can only hope that they’re as good on there as they are live.

Eventually Vienna came on with Alex Wong, who sang and played drums/guitar/other weird sounding instruments. And the glockenspiel. She opened up what “Whatever You Want”, and then I believe she went into “Recessional”, which just gives me shivers on the CD, and was every bit as beautiful live. Vienna was very calming, down-to-earth during the performance. I absolutely loved watching her play the piano – you can clearly tell she’s very professional, classically trained. Her posture was perfect, her poise and the way she held her hands over the keys was just downright textbook classical pianist. (Take note, Rufus Wainwright and your awful slouching! I love my big gay boyfriend but his posture is terrible!) She was really wonderful to watch.

She did a fairly wide selection of material, including three new songs that should be on her upcoming album. The album isn’t completely done yet; Vienna talked about how she’s a very slow songwriter and that she actually recorded the music to the album without all of the lyrics being done yet. All three of the new songs were really good – one was called “In Another Life” and seemed to be about, well, two people knowing each other in other lives. She closed her set with a new song called “Grandmother Song” – before she gave the name of the song, she said she was nervous performing it because the person it was about/inspired by lives in the Midwest. She said she was probably including it on her new album whether or not her grandmother liked it. It was very different from her usual songs; she stood up and sang away from the piano, and I think Alex just drummed for it. It was very jazzy, a real “belting” song rather than her normal soft wispy melancholy songs. It was basically a list of things her grandmother told her, some funny (all the good men you should be looking for are in grad school), some serious (take advantage of the opportunities you have that I never did) and was a great highlight for her vocals.

Other songs that I remember that she performed were “Gravity,” (which I believe she said she’s made a music video for now) “Green Lake Serenade” (a song in Chinese that she dedicated to her aunt from Chicago who wasn’t at the show; she said she always imagines/remembers her aunt laughing at her when singing that song because the aunt would say that Vienna’s Chinese accent was funny”), “Shasta”, “Nothing Without You,” “Homecoming,” “I Don’t Feel So Well,” and “1BR/1BA”. The last two were particular highlights for me. 1BR/1BA has hilarious lyrics which anyone who has ever looked around for an apartment can identify with. That one started out with Vienna drumming on her legs, which Alex let her keep doing as he took his time adjusting his mic stand. She said she was going to wind up with welts from it. Also, she plays up the lines about hearing your neighbors make noises you never want to hear, for hilarious effect. And prior to “I Don’t Feel So Well,” she told a story about how she and Alex took the ferry from Michigan to … um. To Milwaukee? Whatever, there’s a ferry that goes across the lake, and they thought it would be a fun way to get from one side to the other. Only they got on the ferry and Alex immediately got horribly horribly ill – whether it was seasickness or his breakfast reuben sandwich disagreeing with him, it didn’t really matter. So she said that she would dedicate the next song to Alex, and then launched into “I Don’t Feel So Well,” which got immediate laughter. She changed up the lyrics to talk about the lake ferry and the reuben sandwich, to much laughter from the audience. “That’s so sweet,” Alex said when the song was over.

Vienna performed a few songs on her own, and Alex went to walk off stage so she could have it to herself. Now, I’ve mentioned that Schuba’s is really small, right? Right. And the stage…doesn’t have a backstage. So apparently Alex got up to walk off, and realized too late that there was no backstage, just a wall. So for two songs he stood around pressed up against the wall because there was nowhere else to go. When he came back out he mentioned what happened, and Vienna said that she spent the whole time trying not to laugh at him, because he was just standing there with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

She also did an awesome cover of Radiohead’s Idioteque – she asked how many people there had gone to Lollapalooza (Radiohead was one of the headlining bands) and maybe three people did. “Well,” she said, “that shows how much overlap my audience has with Lollapalooza.” Pretty sure we’ll never see her play there. She also performed a song with Alex that his band/duo does, called “In the Creases,” about breaking up with someone that all your friends hate. So your friends are glad that you’ve broken up, but you can’t help but miss the other person. It was a really nice song.  Her encore was “City Hall” and “Eric’s Song,” which was a request from someone in the audience. She said that song is the only real, full-out love song she’s ever written, though now it’s about a guy that she’s “really good friends with” – songs live on even when the relationship flops!

The real setlist, ganked from her forums:

01. Whatever You Want
02. Blue Caravan
03. Gravity
04. In Another Life (New)
05. 1br/1ba
06. Recessional
07. Shasta (Carrie’s Song)
08. Green Island Serenade
09. Homecoming (Walter’s Song)
10. In the Creases / Alex Wong
11. Antebellum* (New)
12. Nothing Without You
13. I Don’t Feel So Well (Reuben Sandwich Version)
14. Idioteque (Radiohead Cover)
15. Harbor
16. Grandmother Song (New)

17. City Hall
18. Eric’s Song