Sugar Stems w/ Johnny Ill Band, The Midwest Beat and Head on Electric @ Bremen Café
Since starting strong with a Black Lips live LP in 2005, Milwaukee label Dusty Medical Records has released a slew of records, many capturing some of the best local punk, garage rock and power pop, including Ramma Lamma, Call Me Lightning and Drugs Dragons, but over the last two years, its output has slowed to a trickle. According to label head Kevin Meyer, though, 2014’s going to change all that, with discs from local acts Space Raft and the Sugar Stems, as well as Detroit’s Johnny Ill Band and France’s Sonic Chicken 4, due within the next six months.
To help kick start their comeback, the label organized a two-day festival of sorts featuring some of the most recognizable names in their expansive roster, which wrapped up with Saturday’s gig at Bremen Café after spending the previous evening at the Cactus Club. First up was Head on Electric, who got things moving in the right direction with a set heavy on new material, which builds on the trio’s unique amalgam of country twang and noisy, moody garage punk. Of course it was the latter that came through clearest as they loudly did their thing in Bremen’s tiny back room.
Following Head on Electric was another talented Milwaukee band, The Midwest Beat, who’s third full-length is tentatively scheduled for release on Dusty Medical sometime early in the coming year as well, with a few teaser tracks already up on their Bandcamp page. Their particular brand of power pop is versatile, oscillating between tight, catchy rock and earnest but upbeat Americana, as on the beer-soaked honkytonk anthem “High Life” (which went over well as the bar began to fill up for real) and more, but it all comes together as a cohesive whole, neatly tied up with some infectious three-part harmonies.
Although initially slated for early January, the new seven inches from motor city group the Johnny Ill Band arrived early enough to make this show, along with their performance alongside Ramma Lamma, Drugs Dragons and Space Raft during day one of the fest, into record release celebrations. Led by Johnny Garcia, the band specializes in a stripped-down, forceful style of garage rock, punctuated by a healthy dose of shrill synthesizer and rounded out by Garcia’s bleakly matter-of-fact, half-spoken, half-sung lyrics. The material from the DMR 45 proved to be a memorable highlight as did the meteorologically appropriately oldie “In the Wintertime.”
Capping off the night, and the festival, was the Sugar Stems, whose name is apt given that their bright melodic pop is sweet enough to give you cavities, full of sunshine hooks that bounce along at energetic tempos. They’re at their best live, where there’s a little more edge than on their recordings, and the crowd was certainly enjoying it, not letting them leave the stage without an encore that included an exuberant, sing-along rendition of “Love You to Pieces.” Overall, it was an entertaining night of eclectic, mostly local, music and a welcome sign of renewal for Dusty Medical Records.