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Contemporary roots

JD McPherson / Brian "Big" Smith
Shank Hall
Milwaukee, WI
April 28, 2012
JD McPherson JD McPherson JD McPherson

Story and photos by Jennifer Bronenkant

Up until a couple of years ago, JD McPherson was an art teacher in Oklahoma pursuing his creative passions in music and film on the side. Things started to change when he found a kindred spirit in Chicago bass player Jimmy Sutton whom he met on MySpace. Sutton, who shares McPherson's love for original rock rhythms has an analog recording studio in the attic of his Chicago home. The two decided to put McPherson's music on tape using Sutton's vintage microphones and equipment. In 2010, they recorded the album Signs and Signifiers at Hi-Style Studio along with drummer Alex Hall and several other top Chicago musicians.

McPherson put his film experience to use and created a video for the "Northside Girl" track from the album, which took off on Youtube. Then as fate would have it, McPherson was laid off from his teaching job a year ago. Faced with uncertainty of employment, McPherson went headlong into his passions directing videos and working on his music. Rounder Records picked up the album and released it this April 17th. Rolling Stone magazine streamed the album live on their website. Things are definitely changing for McPherson.

Now touring in support of the new release, McPherson and his band started out at SxSW in Austin and continued on to club dates at key cities like New York, Montreal and Chicago before heading out on a European tour. Luckily for Milwaukee, Shank Hall was slated in as a stop.

Although he is just emerging on the national music scene, McPherson brought a band that is most certainly ready for prime time. Made up of crack musicians Jimmy Sutton on stand up bass, Alex Hall on drums, Raynier Jecildo on keyboards, Jonathan Doyle on tenor sax and Josh Bell on baritone sax, the band was impressive. The music they made was polished and powerful and their stage presence was entertaining and engaging.

McPherson, on guitar, sang most of the songs from his new album along with a few covers. The music is decidedly retro, harking back to the old rock and rhythm and blues of the fifties. Despite it's old roots, the music felt contemporary and drew both young and not so young to the show. Quite a few of the younger audience members came dressed in vintage clothing and were clearly there to dance the night away.

The set included upbeat songs from the album such as "Scratching Circles," "Firebug," and "Northside Girl." The band slowed down with the slow seductive drawl of "A Gentle Awakening." A rocking encore that included Chuck Berry's "Carol" and Sutton taking over lead vocals for his own "Don't Make Me Beg" closed the night.

While it is impossible to predict success in the music business, McPherson's impressive performance at Shank made it hard to envision him returning to such a small venue on his next Milwaukee visit. The audience on this night was fortunate to witness this performance in such an intimate room.

A solo performance by Brian "Big" Smith of Milwaukee's God's Outlaw opened the night with a sound also deeply rooted in early rock and roll, primarily the music of Sun Records original Johnny Cash. Smith's deep rich voice is perfectly suited to the Cash songs which filled much of his set. To this he also added Hank 3's "My Drinkin' Problem" along with his own originals such as "Uhaulin" and the heavily Cash influenced "Poetic Justice." Smith primed the crowd for the night to come by getting the dancing started with "Get Rhythm" and "Cocaine Blues."

JD McPherson Big Smith
Brian "Big" Smith
Big Smith
Brian "Big" Smith
JD McPherson JD McPherson
JD McPherson

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