Last night, Sarah and I drove to Fort Atkinson, WI to see Richard Shindell and Tracy Grammer play at the Cafe Carpe.

We had never been to the Carpe before, so we had no idea what to expect. The last time we saw Richard Shindell and Tracy Grammer play together was at a local venue named Luther’s Blues. Luther’s Blues is a venue that holds many a several hundred people with a pair of bars, an elevated stage, bar tables and bar stools. It’s not much to look at, but it does book reasonably big name acts.

The Carpe, as its regulars call it, is a very different venue.

First, it isn’t located in the heart of a university of 40,000+ students. It is located one hour east of our house in a town of 11,000 people.

The Carpe has a very casual seating and ticketing arrangement. You call them for certain shows to purchase tickets. Then, if they have seats, you send them a check. They send you nothing in return. The night of the show, you walk in the door and check-in at the bar. They ask if you called in beforehand to get tickets and if you paid. You answer, “Yes.” A waitress then shows you to your seats.

The stage at the carpe is a small, ever-so-slightly elevated platform probably sixteen square feet in area. Most of that area gets filled up with microphone stands, monitors, extra guitars, and the like. So, the performers stand near the front of the platform and near the audience. Seating for the audience consists of chairs, old rows of movie theater seating and bar stools along the walls. The room might hold twenty or thirty people.

We had been looking for an opportunity to see Shindell again, so we called early in February to get tickets for last night’s show. As such, we had probably the best seats in the house. We sat about four feet away from the performers in the very first row.

Most of Grammer’s set was devoid of memorable moments. She is touring with another folk musician, Jim Henry, who plays a variety of instruments and sings back-up. They are not touring with a sound technician and it showed. For the first couple of songs, it was difficult to hear Grammer’s voice over the instruments and they often had to fiddle with the Carpe’s amplifier located behind the stage.

In addition, Grammer indulges herself in tuning her guitar after every song. This not only slows the pace of the show, but it also affect her rapport with the audience. She attempts to tune her instrument and chat into the mike at the same time and ends up doing neither well. Her talk ends up sounding something like this, “This next song…[twang, twang, twang]…was something…[twang, twang, twaaannng]…that one of my…[twang, twang, twang]…friends….[twang, twang, twang]…sent to me…[twang, twang, twang]…to play…” You get the idea.

Grammer’s set did have some high points. The songs “Shadows of Evangeline” and “Preston Miller” off her new album “Flowers of Avalon” were real winners. Both have a real driving beat and interesting lyrics. Both Grammer and Henry really seemed to enjoy playing them, as well.

Shindell’s set was less canned and less irritating. He tuned his guitar before starting his set and tuned just one string a second time during the show in a quick and efficient manner.

He also launched into a funny and seemingly spontaneous rant about how he recently decided that folk singers ought to swear more. Wisconsin Public Radio taped the show last night for broadcast on a future date. I’m sure they’ll have to edit out that portion of the evening’s events. Maybe they can edit out all of Grammer’s tuning and chatter, as well.

Shindell takes requests during his show which is fun. The guy next to me had a written list of requests that had to be thirty songs long. It was like he took every song of Shindell’s last three albums, sorted them by some system, and then wrote them down. In the end, one of his requests was granted.

Shindell performance of “Transit” was rushed as though he’s tired of hearing it. “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” was strong; as was the evening’s finale (which was performed with Grammer playing violin) “So Says the Whipporwill.”