Rare is the high quality triple bill, where it’s worth arriving early and staying late just to see every single second of music. Most of the time it’s easy to glance at the one or two opening acts, not recognize the names, and decide they’re worth skipping so you don’t have to sit through a bunch of stuff you don’t know or care about. Okay, that might be overreaching just a little bit. There are plenty of adventurous music fans who understand that many of today’s openers are tomorrow’s headliners and have a desire to discover new music through live performance. If you’re one of those people, thank you for giving a damn.
“Give A Damn” is one of the ideas that the band Nice As Fuck is trying to spread, to the point where they sell (and sometimes wear) t-shirts with that exact phrase on it. Those who know anything about the trio probably give more than a damn about this somewhat secretive supergroup, made up of Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley), Erika Forster (Au Revoir Simone) and Tennessee Thomas (The Like). They just released their first studio recorded single earlier in the week as this is a relatively new project, but they have been performing live on occasion these last few months, either headlining tiny shows or tagging along with M. Ward as they were on this particular Thursday night at Thalia Hall in Chicago. The goal appears to be as minimalist as possible with their presentation. All of their performances take place “in the round,” which basically means on ground level away from the stage, where the crowd forms a circle around them. The only lighting provided comes from a multi-bulbed peace symbol about the size of a wreath.
That skeletal sensibility extends to the songs themselves, which is essentially just Thomas and Forster providing different rhythmic patterns with drums and bass while Lewis sings. To some degree it feels like there’s a piece missing (like a lead guitar or synth), but that’s undoubtedly intentional, perhaps to shake things up a bit. At the very least the Nice As Fuck aesthetic is punk. They’re rebels dressed in military jackets and berets, but then cover The Minus 5’s “Put Your Guns Away” in a plea against violence (particularly relevant given the recent events in Orlando). They end their shows by chanting, “We’re nice as fuck, wish you good luck,” which has all the charm of a smile and a hug with the underlying menace of a middle finger. This dichotomy is a large part of what makes them so fascinating, particularly on bouncy post-punk songs like “Door” and “Cookie Lips,” where the frustrations of romance lead away from gendered pining and toward reclaiming independence and a better understanding of oneself. Both the band and crowd appeared to have a great time, from communal clapping and sing-alongs to Lewis’ playful interactions with people standing nearby. It truly was nice as fuck to witness a Nice As Fuck show. I’m excited to see where they go from here.
Another band with a very promising start is Brooklyn’s Big Thief, who just released their debut album Masterpiece at the end of May. Their sound is a familiar one, rooted in a folk-inspired singer-songwriter sort of mentality somewhere in the vein of Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten, Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, and yes, even Jenny Lewis. There are equal amounts of beauty and heft in singer/guitarist Adrianne Lenker’s vocals, and those powers become magnified with the ambitious instrumental work from bandmates Buck Meek (guitar), Max Oleartchik (bass) and James Krivchenia (drums). While that’s represented well on record, Big Thief push things to a new level when performing on stage. Their set at Thalia Hall on Thursday night began just as Masterpiece does, with Lenker playing and singing a song on her own. It’s the sort of humble beginning that’s raw and intimate, yet in this particular case the true weight was lost due to an inattentive and somewhat disrespectful crowd. Idle chit-chat in the back half of the venue was almost at an equal volume with that first song and left me both distracted and annoyed. Things got a little better by the second song when the full band joined in, but the quieter moments would still be partly soundtracked by those with no sense of place.
Big Thief’s ability to make the best of a somewhat bad situation goes a long way towards showcasing their mettle. They still managed to give a very affecting performance that nearly pushed me to tears at one point. Three songs into their set, they stopped in the middle of album standout “Real Love” as Lenker dedicated it to those who were shot in Orlando as well as the entire LGBTQ community. There was a very clear quiver in her voice as she was talking, the tragic events of days before still fresh, lending this particular song an extra layer of meaning. “Real love makes your lungs black / Real love is a heart attack,” are just two of many lines in a song about devotion and despair. Love makes us vulnerable to hurt. Meek held a high-pitched guitar squelch for what felt like 20 seconds after Lenker made her dedication, the equivalent of a moment of silence, before the rest of the song came crashing down with propulsive force on the back of one of the night’s most explosive and cathartic guitar solos. It was overwhelming to the point where Lenker got off her feet and knelt down for the two songs that followed. Meek joined her and shared a microphone on the first, and Oleartchik showed a similar solidarity on the second. While nothing would (understandably) reach that same emotional peak for the rest of the set, Big Thief still delivered a beautiful, if slightly understated performance, dripping in nuance and reflection.
When M. Ward took the stage for his headlining set, it appeared he’d be taking a similar sort of understated and reflective approach. After all, his latest album More Rain was crafted with gloomy days spent on the couch in mind. In fact, much of Ward’s solo output these last several years has been wallowing in a sort of melancholy that’s nearly the antithesis of his early material. Of course with nine full lengths to his name and additional projects like She & Him and Monsters of Folk, the guy could be forgiven for playing around with different moods and styles. The good news is that he’s not beholden to any of them on stage if he so chooses, and proved as much at Thalia Hall with a set that was the purest showcase for his extraordinary talents that I’ve witnessed from any artist in quite awhile.
Choosing to begin with the instrumental “Outro (AKA: I’m A Fool to Want You)” was a funny choice, and not just because of the song title irony. It has a distinct “mysterious gunslinger in a classic Western” vibe, but at the part of the film where the hero has been shot and might well die face down in the desert. Just as the sadness begins to wash over you and the already dim lighting grows even dimmer, the melody takes a slight turn and morphs into an instrumental cover of The Beatles’ “Michelle”. The sincerity comes with a sly wink, and suddenly Nice As Fuck show up on the side of the stage and start dancing. Jenny Lewis then stayed on stage and sang “Radio Campaign” as a duet with Ward. As the country-folk two-step of “Magic Trick” kicked in right after and created a big group sing-along, there was an unerring sense that the night was only going to get wilder and more fun from there.
One of the best Monsters of Folk songs made an appearance. Ward trotted out covers of songs by Julio Cesar Sanders, Sonny West, Daniel Johnston and John Fahey. He took some of the finest songs in his entire catalog and added impressive guitar solo after impressive guitar solo. He brought out Chicago folk hero Kelly Hogan to sing backup vocals on a song. And perhaps most importantly, he stuck primarily to his older, acclaimed material. 2005’s Transistor Radio and 2006’s Post-War were both incredibly well represented, occupying close to half of the 23-song setlist. While it’s not a tremendous vote of confidence that only three More Rain songs were played, it was ultimately a wise choice given the setting and generally playful vibe that had been established. Beyond Ward’s own (I’d say secret) status as one of our greatest living guitarists, his band is also filled with top-notch veteran musicians, including The Minus 5’s Scott McCaughey. They’re smart enough to know exactly when to push hard and when to pull back so Ward can take the reins. The whole thing was a real pleasure and a revelation to watch in a myriad of ways. As somebody who felt generally ambivalent towards the man going in, I walked out feeling liked I’d just witnessed something truly extraordinary. If you have the chance to see him perform, there’s little doubt in my mind you’ll become a convert too.
Outro (AKA: I’m A Fool to Want You) + Michelle (The Beatles cover)
Radio Campaign (with Jenny Lewis)
Time Won’t Wait
Whole Lotta Losin’ (Monsters of Folk cover)
I Get Ideas (Julio Cesar Sanders cover)
Girl from Conejo Valley
Never Had Nobody Like You
Eyes on the Prize
Rave On! (Sonny West cover)
To Go Home (Daniel Johnston cover ft. Kelly Hogan)
Bean Vine Blues #2 (John Fahey cover)
Duet For Guitars #3
Fuel For Fire
Here Comes the Sun Again
Nice As Fuck