We’re quickly approaching the two-year anniversary of The Courtneys’ excellent sophomore album II, and they’re still touring in support of it. Their commitment is admirable, and the reward is hopefully a wealth of new fans eager to hear more from the Canadian trio. A stop at Thalia Hall in Chicago on Friday night actually marked the end of their tour with Cloud Nothings, so they celebrated with a wildly fun performance that perfectly balanced their winning charm and sadder sensibilities.
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“I’m learning to like Chicago,” Protomartyr singer Joe Casey said toward the end of the band’s set at Thalia Hall on Thursday night. Protomartyr hail from Detroit, which has a storied Midwestern rivalry with Chicago, so the minor bit of animus is understandable. He also may have been kidding, but his detached demeanor on stage made it difficult to tell. That’s by design of course, befitting a singer and band that crafts songs so relentless and emotionally intense they often seem on the verge of total collapse. You can’t allow your feelings to become too invested when performing songs about the ails of the world, lest they hold you in a masochistic pit of despair.
There’s something different about Will Toledo these days. It’s not so much a look as it is a feeling. He seems freer, happier, and more energized on stage than he ever has before – or at least compared to the couple of other times I’ve seen Car Seat Headrest perform. And while there are any number of reasons why this might be the case, my sneaking suspicion has to do with Naked Giants. Specifically, their presence as openers and additional members of Car Seat Headrest has shifted dynamics in a very exciting direction.
It’s equal parts astounding and impressive that The Kills have been around for 15 years. For a band formed on the perilous dynamic of Alison Mosshart’s wildly frenetic, outsized vocalist and Jamie Hince’s ultra-cool, blues-indebted guitar work, one can envision a world where they burn out quickly over two or three impressive records then leave behind a beautiful corpse. Thankfully they’re smarter than that, and their longevity can be credited, at least in part, to their commitment to evolution while still maintaining the core tenets of their sound. No two Kills records sound the same, but you also wouldn’t think any of them were made by a different band.
Just like an album or a song, a truly great live show can change your life. Unlike an album or song, live shows are a communal experience that only exist for a brief moment in time before they become a distant memory. That’s why it’s so important to be as present as possible when you’re at a venue or music festival, to keep that memory locked inside your brain instead of locked inside your phone. Of course I’m as guilty as the next person for taking photos during a show (see all the examples below), but I do my best to only take a few and then put the device away.
Having said that, 2017 marked my busiest and most exciting concertgoing year to date. According to calculations, I attended shows on 71 days this year, and that’s not including the insanity of multi-day festivals such as the Pitchfork Music Festival, Lollapalooza, and Riot Fest. When all is said and done, my best guesstimation is that I saw 167 performances total, which takes opening acts and festival sets into account. So yeah, a lot of live music. It’s not nearly as much as the 500+ shows NPR’s Bob Boilen has pulled off in recent years, but I’d like to think it’s a solid amount for somebody that also has to maintain an active work and social life (not saying Bob Boilen doesn’t have either of those, but he arguably has more…flexibility).
Needless to say, it was tough choosing only ten performances from 2017 to highlight. Then again, this list could easily have been the ten best live shows I attended at the Empty Bottle this year, since they hosted an incredible array of big name bands and artists vastly underplaying at their tiny venue in celebration of their 25th anniversary. Instead, things are just a little more diverse than that, focusing on the moments that really stood out to me for one reason or another. Some were emotionally moving. Others were genuinely surprising or fun. The thrill of discovering something new, and the pleasure of hearing a set list comprised of many of your favorite songs. There was so much to love, and it’s my sincerest hope that you are inspired by this list to check out more live music no matter where you live. After all, science says that regularly attending concerts makes you happier.
On an exceptionally chilly Monday night on the Near West Side of Chicago, a few hundred people gathered at House of Vans for a remarkably intimate set from The National. The band had flown into town from Europe for a special performance at the Obama Foundation Summit, but arrived a couple days early to give fans an extra special treat. Tickets to the show were being given out for free through an online lottery, and considering the 500 person capacity of the venue, it’s safe to assume that a lot more people entered than actually won. Those with luck on their side were treated to an engrossing and often aggressive performance that skewed towards the dark and political.
On Friday night, Chicago’s own BONZIE (aka Nina Ferraro) held a record release show at Schubas to celebrate her excellent second album Zone On Nine. It was a wonderful and emotional set filled with powerful songs that pushed beyond the boundaries of traditional singer-songwriter expectations. In an industry full of easy to categorize artists, BONZIE stands out with her unique perspective, captivating voice and experimental arrangements. That she’s chosen to remain independent in spite of offers from record labels speaks volumes about the value she places on independence and doing things her own way. It’s worked well so far, and connected her with local legends such as producer Steve Albini and Tortoise’s John McEntire, as well as international notables including Portishead’s Adrian Utley.
The writing and recording of Zone On Nine took BONZIE on a lengthy journey across oceans and to a myriad of destinations. The music reflects this and is all the better because of it. Her live show is stronger than ever too, as the full band and backup singers created a rich tapestry that perfectly highlighted the complex emotions infused into every song. If the rapturous reactions from all the fans, friends and family in attendance were any indication, there are even greater things in store for BONZIE in the months and years to come. Pick up a copy of the new record, and go see her perform live if you get the chance!
“Fuck Trump! Fuck Pence! Fuck Jeff Sessions! Fuck Betsy DeVos! Fuck Steve Bannon!” Priests vocalist Katie Alice Greer yells, arms stretched high above her head, middle fingers extended. The crowd at Beat Kitchen cheers loudly in agreement. It’s only a couple songs into the band’s set, but even before that explicit statement Priests have already revealed their rebellious spirit. They tear through songs like someone throwing a tantrum, and it is loud and exhilarating and profound and life-affirming. And that’s so very important, especially in these challenging times.
Later in their set, Greer clarifies her position: “Lots of people want to call us a political band, but we’re trying to distance ourselves from that label. I said those things earlier not because it was a political thing to do, but because it was the human thing to do.” Therein lies the power of Priests. Their music connects because it pushes back against the status quo and encourages exploration beyond our current reality. It asks us, with the subtlety of a baseball bat to the side of the head, to wake up from our complacency and fight for the betterment of ourselves and others. Or, summed up in lyrics from their song “Puff”: “My best friend says, ‘I want to start a band called Burger King,’ and I say, ‘Do it! Make your dreams a reality!'” Oh yeah, and they’re funny sometimes too.
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.
In many ways, it feels like Eleanor Friedberger has been on tour for almost all of 2016 so far. Indeed, a check of her schedule reveals a virtually nonstop string of dates from February through mid-June. In the span of just over two months she’s now played two shows in and around the Chicagoland area, the second of which took place this past Friday at SPACE in Evanston. I was lucky enough to be on hand for that SPACE show, and am pleased to share some photos as well as a few thoughts on the evening.
Friedberger recorded her latest album New View at a farm in upstate New York with the band Icewater. They’ve joined her for this tour, not only opening shows with their own material but pulling double duty as her backing band. Naturally then, more than half her set was comprised of New View songs. She performed nearly every track on the album, along with recent one-off single “False Alphabet City”. All of the new material sounded great, and retained the classic early 70s vibes of The Band and Harry Nilsson without ever seeming tired or unoriginal. Friedberger has enough personality and lyrical prowess to pull every song into unexpected directions, and that dexterity is invigorating even when she’s aimlessly sauntering around the stage.
Admittedly it was also great to hear some older material too. There seemed to be a somewhat renewed focus on Friedberger’s first solo effort Last Summer, which featured some of her catchiest and funkiest material courtesy of songs like “Roosevelt Island” and “My Mistakes”. While the latter song felt just a touch off without a saxophone to add spice, it was still great to hear as a personal favorite of mine. Speaking of personal, 2013’s Personal Record was least represented overall in the set, though having “Stare at the Sun” pop up during the encore was a great way to end the night. Those electric and energetic anthems were missed, but considering the 90% seated, more middle-aged crowd at SPACE, might not have set the right tone for the show anyways.
After the show, Friedberger and Icewater stuck around the merch table to sell and sign things, as good artists do. Among the fans and well-wishers was a man with his young daughter, who couldn’t have been more than 10 or 12 years old. The girl talked about how much she loved the show, and asked for a photo. The two of them stood side-by-side and leaned up against a door, striking cool poses. What caught my eye was how Friedberger never stopped staring at this girl, a huge grin on her face the entire time. This is who she makes music for. Maybe one day that young girl will be inspired enough pick up a guitar and start writing songs of her own. One can only hope.
Local H is a Chicago rock and roll institution. They’ve been making music steadily for more than two decades now, with eight full lengths and a handful of EPs under the name. And that’s not even counting side projects. It’s the sort of work ethic many would call authentically Midwestern, built on the back of strength and perseverance. I call it aspirational. Most bands would kill to have well-respected careers that last half as long. It seems only right that Local H be celebrated for all of their accomplishments so far, with a continued eye on where they’re headed next.
While 2015 marked the band’s 25th anniversary of existence, 2016 marks yet another important milestone – the 20th anniversary of their big breakout record As Good As Dead. You know, the one with classics like “Bound For The Floor,” “High-Fiving MF” and “Eddie Vedder“. It’s remarkable how vital that album continues to sound today, to the point where it fits in nicely with other grunge-era notables like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots. What’s so impressive (and unique) about Local H is how Scott Lucas and Joe Daniels were able to capture all the noise, fury and hooks of their peers with just a single electric guitar and a set of drums. The ability to do more with less has been a trademark of this band since the beginning, and it continues to this very day.
In honor of As Good As Dead turning 20, Local H have turned the tables a little and decided more is more for once by embarking on a three month U.S. tour where they’ll play that classic album along with other catalog-spanning cuts. Things officially kicked off this past weekend, with a pair of sold out shows at Chicago’s legendary Metro surrounding the record’s actual release date of April 16th. I was lucky enough to attend Friday’s show (Night 1), which wound up being the perfect showcase for why this band is so special.
If Autolux fans have learned anything about the L.A. trio since their 2004 debut album Future Perfect, it’s that they take their sweet time. In their case, the preferred incremental gap seems to be six years, which embodies the period it takes them to write and record new music, then tour in support of it. The space occurred between Future Perfect and 2010’s Transit Transit, then once more leading up to the just-released Pussy’s Dead, their third full-length in a dozen years. Frustrating as the wait can be sometimes, the time they take to refine and gestate their sound tends to shine through on their recordings. Six years is more than enough of a gap to allow for different genres to grow and decline, so each time Autolux re-emerges from their self-imposed stasis the music landscape is completely different. Yet while their sound continues to evolve from album to album, it is clearly not dictated by trends. Similar to their peers and friends in Radiohead, Portishead and My Bloody Valentine, they follow their own path and wait for the rest of the world to catch up to them.
It’s been just over eight months since Mackenzie Scott (aka Torres) released her sophomore album Sprinter, and I’m fairly certain she hasn’t left the road since then. At the very least, as of this past weekend she’s played three shows in Chicago over that time period – easily more than most non-local artists. I’d argue it’s the town that keeps drawing her back, but exceptional circumstances such as a tour opening for Garbage likely brought her back sooner than anticipated. This particular time she was asked to return for the Tomorrow Never Knows festival, a multi-day, multi-venue event focused on raising the profiles of up-and-coming bands/musicians. This is also known as “something for Chicagoans to do in the dead of winter when concert season is slow.” For the record, it’s a great way to pass the time with plenty of great live music. The triple bill of Torres, Palehound and Julien Baker is just a small testament to that, as all three left a sharp impression on 2015 with highly personal, emotionally devastating albums. It made me concerned I’d be walking out of Lincoln Hall on Friday night a shell of a human being, my insides shredded from so much anguish. Thankfully that wasn’t entirely the case.
The night began with an opening solo set from Julien Baker. Her debut album Sprained Ankle earned her a place on many “Best of” lists last year, with special attention paid to her powerful and raw lyrics delivered with the nuance of a strong gut punch. In a stunning six song set, Baker wrenched every bit of emotion from each moment. The packed room stood in hushed silence as the weight and beauty slowly became too much to bear. It was an incredibly compelling example of how a performer can fully connect with an audience and even drive a few to tears. My own eyes began to well up towards the end, and that’s a rarity. The 19-year-old Baker is undoubtedly a talent worth following with a long career ahead of her. This was her first-ever show in Chicago, and judging by how many people bought her record at the end of the night, it certainly won’t be her last.
After the delicate sadness that was Julien Baker’s set, it seemed like Palehound wanted to deal with serious emotional fallout in a completely different way. Very few of their songs could be considered delicate, instead opting for a much darker, angrier tone spiked with heavier ’90s style grunge guitars in the vein of Hole or (most accurately) Speedy Ortiz. Ellen Kempner doesn’t take relationships lightly, so getting emotionally wounded after a break-up fosters aggression and resentment rather than clear-cut sadness and depression. That’s what the record Dry Food is all about, and it hits hard. So too does the band’s live show. While Kempner played a few songs solo with just her and an electric guitar, a majority of the time she was joined by a bassist and drummer who helped flesh out many of the songs and give those wounds an extra little twist of the knife. The trio dynamic also allowed Kempner to take some sonic detours on songs like “Easy” and “Molly” with some solos that really gave the crowd a taste of her profoundly excellent guitar skills. While it certainly left me impressed in the first half of the set, things calmed down a bit towards the end, which would’ve been disappointing if this alternate side wasn’t equally as compelling. At one point we were treated to a new song she hadn’t played live before, taking care to note that it was written more recently when someone new had come into her life and changed her outlook in a more positive direction. It was just about the only love song that would be played all evening, and offered a glimpse into where Palehound might be headed next. No matter how things progress in terms of content or subject matter, the band made it pretty clear on Friday night that they are highly talented and a force to be reckoned with now and in the future. Don’t be surprised if you hear plenty about them in 2016 and beyond.
The biggest benefit of touring incessantly is that you develop a much stronger stage presence. That is to say you learn what works and what doesn’t to help create the best, most entertaining and engaging version of your live show as possible. Given that Mackenzie Scott spent a majority of her time on the road in 2015, it makes perfect sense that she’s all the better performer because of it. When I caught her last May, it was mere weeks after the release of Sprinter and there were clear indications she was still feeling things out a bit with the new songs. These are growing pains every artist goes through, and some handle it much better than others. In the case of Torres, eight months ago she sounded great and put on a confident, strong show, but a few small things like the set list could have used some adjustment. Specifically, the overall pacing was a little off, and there were a few moments when it felt like Scott was holding back just a bit. For all I know it could have been the circumstances of that particular day, mixing things up on tour for the sake of variety. No matter the factors, by all accounts the set on Friday at Lincoln Hall represented an increase in consistency and showmanship.
The somewhat ironic thing is that the set list was nearly the same as the previous Torres show last May, just the order of the songs had changed slightly. That served well to even everything out and create a clearer path from start to finish. From the slow burn opening salvos of “Mother Earth, father God” through the clawing descent of “The Harshest Light,” the nine song set felt very much like a journey into and out of darkness. The 1-2-3 punch of “New Skin,” Cowboy Guilt” and “Sprinter” slammed with the force and subtlety of a wrecking ball, leaving destruction and devastation in its wake. The weight of these songs also physically manifested itself through Scott’s body as she visibly trembled during the more intense moments of the set. This was particularly prominent during the back-to-back combination of “Son, You Are No Island” and “Strange Hellos,” the former of which was all underlying dread and the latter of which was all powerful, fiery release. For those few loudly punctuated minutes, everyone in the room was rapt with attention as the walls were painted with sheer ferocity and self-confidence. This was Torres at her most vital, suddenly coming into focus and finding her footing after wandering around lost in the darkness. Such a captivating catharsis contributed to what was the best Torres show I’ve seen to date. Can’t wait for the next one.
In my preview for the Hinds / Public Access T.V. show at Lincoln Hall, I opened with a few remarks on garage rock and how more often than not it tends to have a very gritty, ramshackle-like quality running through every song. A slightly off-key vocal here or a missed chord there is part of the charm. The lack of sheen and perfection also occasionally gives the impression that an implosion could happen at any minute, instilling the music with a precious quality, like something magical was captured that almost didn’t come together. As the crowd at Lincoln Hall found out with sets from the two aforementioned bands on Thursday night, sometimes that sensation extends to live shows too, whether on purpose or completely by accident.
Starting the evening was Public Access T.V., a New York-based band formed and fronted by John Eatherly (ex-Be Your Own Pet). They’ve only got a handful of songs that have been released so far, but their sound has certainly evolved in the year or so since they formed. They played all of those tracks at Lincoln Hall, along with a few others destined for inclusion on their debut full length due out in early 2016. What struck me most about their live show was how tight they sounded. It stood in contrast to the loosely recorded versions of many of their songs, which realistically should have also been messier given their short existence as a band. Many artists take 2+ years to find their stage legs and craft a truly compelling show, so Public Access T.V. are ahead of schedule. Then again, with their members’ past history why wouldn’t they be?
Songs like “Monaco” and the recently released “Patti Peru” sounded quite good and were bouncy enough to dance to, which the crowd seemed to embrace for the most part. Most exciting for me however was the unreleased material they played. For a band who’s sound has undergone a significant sonic shift in the last year, these latest steps take things to a whole new level of excellence. An exceptional amount of talent was on display as Eatherly and guitarist Xan Aird both tore up multiple solos that were eerily reminiscent of modern garage heroes like The Strokes and The White Stripes. It was rather exhilarating to watch, even when mixed with some plainer material. Time will tell if Public Access T.V. actually deliver on the promise shown during this Lincoln Hall set, and if fans will embrace them even though there are probably hundreds of other acts trying to earn attention with a very similar aesthetic.
One of the main things I know about Hinds is that they like to party. It’s been evident since their inception, and you can hear it in the recorded versions of their songs too. Therefore it only seems fitting that when I first encountered the Madrid band at Lincoln Hall they had cans of Old Style in their hands. As I was standing up against the stage enjoying the opening set, all of a sudden Carlotta, Ana, Ade and Amber appeared right next to me, dancing, laughing and just generally having a great time. They took photos of Public Access T.V., heckled their bassist, and sang along to most of the songs. It’s always wonderful when touring bands clearly admire and fully support one another, so all credit to Hinds for refusing to stay backstage and celebrating their openers with the rest of the crowd.
When it came time for their headlining set, things suddenly took a turn in an unexpected direction. Opening song “Warning With The Curling” has a fantastic vibe to it complete with complex instrumental flourishes that really give it extra bite, particularly when compared with this early version when Hinds was only a two-piece called Deers. The problem was with the vocals, which started off as non-existent before they were upgraded after a minute to a level that was barely audible. Poor mixing at Lincoln Hall rarely if ever happens, so I’m not sure if someone was asleep at the sound board or the band purposely requested the vocals at that level, but either way I could tell that something was off from the start. The issues multiplied when after two songs the band was forced to put the show on hold because a string on one of Carlotta’s guitars broke. They asked John Eatherly of Public Access T.V. to come up and re-string it for her, which he kindly did. Considering that last year I witnessed a member of the band Blank Range re-string his guitar mid-song without missing a single note, this was a little disappointing by comparison. Still, broken strings happen to every band, and there’s not much you can do about them unless you’ve got a guitar tech/roadie working for you behind the scenes. So bad sound and a broken string struck during the first 10 minutes, and thankfully things didn’t get worse from there.
There were a couple of small alcohol-related issues that emerged over the course of Hinds’ set, but nothing worth noting except to say all the band members were pretty drunk from the start and the multiple beers and shots they drank between songs most likely didn’t help anything. Of course they didn’t really hurt it in the end either. When you’ve got a bunch of quality songs that for all practical purposes sound like they were recorded on a multi-day bender in the first place, playing them live while drunk just highlights that aspect even more. Plus they’ve probably been playing wasted for so many shows by now they have it down to a science. Still, that didn’t stop Carlotta from apologizing towards the end of the set, telling the crowd, “Sorry, we usually aren’t this sloppy.”
Despite being largely a collection of accidents, errors and alcohol-fueled terrors, there was something irrevocably charming about Hinds. Call it stage presence or generally mischievous attitudes, but when you throw heaps of personality on top of a dozen very good or great songs, a certain amount of leeway is given that both the band and crowd fully acknowledge. No matter how often things went wrong, everyone on stage and off was smiling and having a great time. The cheers were loud and passionate. At one point during “Chili Town” somebody climbed on stage and then crowd surfed just for the hell of it. When it came time for the encore, the band invited everyone to join them on stage for their cover of Thee Headcoatees’ “Davey Crockett,” despite the protests of Lincoln Hall security and management. Halfway through the song somebody stepped on a cord and unplugged Ana’s guitar. They paused for 20 seconds while she plugged it back in, and then picked up right where they left off with everyone singing and dancing along. It was the perfect way to end a gloriously imperfect night.
Join me after the jump for a collection of photos that I took on Day 3 (Sunday) of this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival. Photos are arranged by set time. They are also available in higher resolution on Facebook. Check out my full recap of the day, as well as all the rest of the coverage, by going here.