Anytime I go out with friends in Milwaukee we play a little game: Over/under, how many Wildbirds are we going to see? A show on the South Side, dinner on Brady ... I’ll probably set the line a little low, maybe 2.5 and take the under. North Ave? 3.5, and I’ll hit the over hard, especially if we’re headed towards Yield or Hotel Foster.
“This is our town,” sang the band on last year’s “When I’m With My Friends” EP, less a boast than a declaration of love that’s increasingly rare in a city that can seem OBSESSED with what it’s not -- namely, Chicago -- rather than happy with its own distinct brew of small town charm and big city culture. But the Wildbirds aren’t middle child syndrome Milwaukeeans. They’re all over their town, especially when it comes to our music. You could point to 2010’s “Sunshine Blues” EP as the disc that kick-started the current Milwaukee rock collective, and on stage and in crowds, no band is more present on the scene, or more important.
Unfortunately, new side-project Hugh Bob and the Hustle might break my game -- the usual quartet of Wildbirds Hugh (Bob) Masterson, Nicholas Stuart, Quinn Scharber, and Bradley Kruse, along with drummer Justin Krol, now have twice as many good reasons to be everywhere.
The spotlight shifts to erstwhile bassist Masterson, whose backlog of unrecorded songs was about the only thing the Wildbirds didn’t lose when they got jacked in Chicago and New York last year. You can understand how a band suddenly without its moorings -- hell, without its freaking instruments -- could find grounding in homesick Wisconsin ballads like “Ashland County” and “North Country,” or just want to let loose on bar stompers like “This Bar’s a Prison” and “Mess with Me.” Taking his first turn at lead vocals, Masterson sounds right at home kicking his rundown pickup, putting his arm around fading beauty queens, feeling that tug between the road out of town and the comforts of his front porch. Masterson isn’t the devilish rascal Stuart is in front of the Wildbirds, but that’s not these songs, or this configuration of this band. The old joke about country music is it’s all songs about bad women and pickup trucks. Well, “Red, White and Blue Jeans” is about one driving off in the other, and you don’t so much as chuckle because of how Masterson underplays his lingering hurt, like the empty whiskey glasses at his elbows are numbing the loss of his American dream.
Hugh Bob never strikes an inauthentic note, and the rest of the album’s country bonafides are just as impressive. Ryan Adams and the Cardinals steel guitarist Jon Graboff slides up and down most every melody, Nathaniel Markman’s fiddle adds some bittersweet grace notes, and singer Nikki Lane duets with Masterson on another ode to four-wheel drive freedom, “My Truck Feels Like Driving.” And just as authentic is that Wildbirds love of their hometown. “I finally found it when I moved to Milwaukee,” beams Masterson on “Milwaukee Man,” becoming perhaps the first singer-songwriter in history to rhapsodize the beaming lights of the US Bank skyline. On “Butternut,” Masterson thinks about a change of scenery while watching the local 4H queen wave from a tractor in the 4th of July Parade - the album is full of sharp details like that -- but in the end he admits “this town’s got a hold on me.” And while we don’t get a lot of tractors on North Ave., I get the feeling Masterson is still singing as a Milwaukee Man.
So over/under: number of better Milwaukee records in 2012?
The morning line’s at 2.
I’m betting the under.