Written by Chad Taylor
Wednesday night at the Mews.
Both the first and last words in that sentence can make for a highly frustrating experience, if you're looking for (or playing) live music in Des Moines. Wednesday night is troublesome, because it's smack in the middle of the week, and if you're a local act trying to get Des Moines' denizens out to see a show on a week night, you're engaging in a ton of wishful thinking. Des Moines is a town that steadfastly refuses to party on a school night.
And then there's The Vaudeville Mews. It's a steadfast venue with strong ties to the local scene and home to countless bands' first shows. With the passing of venues like Hairy Mary's and The Blues on Grand, if Des Moines still has a local music venue that can be described as "legendary", Mews is it. But none of that changes the fact that a lot of their shows seem to be put together with all the coherency and fluidity of someone playing Cards Against Humanity.
So, putting it all together and on any given weekday night at the Mews, you can probably expect that a) the place will be empty regardless of the quality of the music, and b) you're probably going to hear a couple of acts that don't really mesh well together.
So it is written, so shall it be done.
This past Wednesday brought Milwaukee five-piece The Midwestern Charm to town, playing along side Ames prog-jam four piece Doctor Murdock and Raygun's own Nappin' Dylan Boyle. True to Des Moines' mid-week form, calling the crowd "sparse" would be an insult to sparse things. I did the occasional head count throughout the night, and I never got above 15. But Boyle has never been one to be put off by a small crowd, and proceeded to grab the few that were there and take them to church.
Boyle is a master slide guitarist, and maybe one of the four or five best guitar players in the state, full stop. But what really sets him apart from anyone you've ever seen, is what happens between songs. Whether it's nervous energy, or all part of some absurdest plan, Boyle's between-song banter is the perfect mix of Rain Man, Morton Downey Jr and Andy Kaufman. There's just no telling what you'll get from him. Maybe a dissemination on the life and theories of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Or just a diatribe about how much small-town Iowa sucks. Or gems like this one from Wednesday:
"Elvis Presley fucking sucks, man. He stole all of his songs from black people. I mean, I steal my songs from black people too, but I'm not on fuckin' American Bandstand."
Every single Dylan Boyle performance is a case of "come for the music, stay for the banter, walk away amazed by both."
Doctor Murdock took the stage second. It's never an enviable position to have to follow Boyle on stage, but it's made even harder when you're playing a wildly incongruous set that can't even ride the wave of the one that preceded it.
Doctor Murdock is a perfectly fine act, in and of themselves. They're a prog-heavy jam act, and as a descriptor like that implies, the music can be a bit esoteric for the tastes of some. But still, on their own, or in some other bill, it's pretty easy to see how people could find them enjoyable. But tonight it didn't really seem like anyone was feeling it. The already small crowd dwindled further, and soon Doctor Murdock was left playing for the other bands, and a couple of bored looking lurkers in the back of the room.
The final act I watched for the evening was The Midwestern Charm, a band who I'd recently reviewed in Cityview, so I was anxious to give them a live listen. Again, this wasn't the best night to catch them on, as the bill wasn't a cohesive one and it was hard to reset your senses after every band and take on a different sound and feel. On top of which, it was a late night (Midwestern Charm took the stage a hair before 11pm), and playing for small crowds can very easily suck the life out of a room.
It was for all of those reasons that I walked out of Mews feeling like The Midwestern Charm was a band better in the studio than on the stage. I'd found their album to be extremely easy to listen to, with a high level of replayability, but the live set just seemed to be a bit of a mess. These are, however, all things that I'm willing to chalk up to an extremely off night, as there was nothing about the scenario that could have been ideal for any of the acts, not even Doyle, who frequently says that nobody comes to his shows anyway.
I've long been of two minds about Vaudeville Mews and its place in the local music scene. On one hand, I applaud the venue for being one of the few places that books music five nights a week, even when, after all this time, they know full well they're probably going to take a bath on three of those nights. It shows a level of commitment to the scene and to music in general that the city sorely lacks overall, and it's to be commended.
So even though it seems harsh to take all of that into consideration, but to still say "do it better", it would be nice to see them step up simple things like taking more care with booking and paying more attention to promotion.
Wednesday night at the Mews. It's a sentence that illustrates both how far music in Des Moines has come, and how far it has yet to go.