Chris Porterfield (center) and company will give Madison fans a taste of their forthcoming album.
When Field Report take the Majestic's stage for the Wisconsin Folk Fest on Jan. 4, the performance won't just mark their first show of the year. It will demonstrate just how far Milwaukee's Chris Porterfield and company have come as they march toward the release of their second album.
The folk rockers' headlining slot at the fest, which also includes Blessed Feathers, Whitney Mann, the Corey Hart Band, J.E. Sunde and hosts Count This Penny, is their latest gig in a string of Madison-area shows. These concerts provided snapshots of how Field Report have changed since their self-titled debut, which received high marks from Paste and Prefix in 2012. In February, Porterfield played the High Noon Saloon with a six-piece ensemble; in June, the UW Memorial Union Terrace with a four-piece; and in September, a solo set at the Majestic when opening for Over the Rhine.
"When Field Report started touring, nobody really knew what we were in for," Porterfield says. "The guys who played on the first record all made themselves available for the road. We didn't really know what that meant, and it continues to reveal itself. But as the tour dates keep piling on, real life still happens in a parallel universe. Some of the original guys had to attend to real life. That happens, and that's okay."
The current touring lineup of Field Report is Porterfield on vocals and guitar, Travis Whitty on bass, Ben Lester on pedal steel and synthesizers, and Shane Leonard on drums. The same group recorded the forthcoming album, which doesn't have a title yet but is slated for a spring release. Porterfield says the band recently finished tracking the record over a few weeks in the country north of Toronto.
"I think this set of songs is stronger than the first record, both musically and lyrically," he says. "I'm proud of what we did, and I'm weirdly not stressed out about how it will be received.It's the record I hoped we were capable of making. It's less cynical and more honest. There are moments that are really poppy, and moments that are achingly pretty and deeply sad, and there is some ugliness, too."
A bit of that ugliness stems from writer's block.
"There was a period leading up to the session where I was stuck," Porterfield explains. "I couldn't write anything I believed in, because I was worried about it. But songs and sounds came so naturally when we began. I think there is joy and trust that we experienced in the process that made its way into the recording."
In 2013, Porterfield also had one of his songs covered by a group of musical legends, the Blind Boys of Alabama. Their most recent record, I'll Find a Way, was produced by Porterfield's old friend and former bandmate, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver.
"The Blind Boys thing was a trip," Porterfield says. "I had been at Justin's studio helping out on a session...and he mentioned that he was going to be part of the new Blind Boys record, and that he had pitched "I Am Not Waiting Anymore" to them. I was excited but didn't think anything would come of it.…Driving back to Milwaukee a week later, he called and asked if I could do a rewrite tailored to them. And they needed it quick. I got home, said hi to my wife, and pulled a Bible out. I stole from Psalms and the Gospels, demoed it and sent it off in an hour. I didn't hear anything for a few months, and then I get a text with a video of them singing it. I freaked out. I think they and Sam Amidon sound fantastic."
If 2013 was about building a foundation for the future, 2014 will be about taking Field Report's new music on the road, Porterfield says. And this journey begins with the Majestic.
"It's really weird that we've played New York and L.A. 500% more than Milwaukee," he says. "The Midwest is where we all live, and we want to make sure that our hometown and regional friends and supporters know how important they are to us. We're stoked for the Majestic show.…We couldn't have asked for a better way to ring in the new year."