One day down, two left to go. The start of the 2016 Pitchfork Music Festival was plagued with a light rain shower, followed by gray clouds that seemed somewhat ominous for the rest of the day. Thankfully it was a largely dry day, and the music was sunny enough that the skies didn’t matter so much. I’ll have all kinds of photos and other goodies once the weekend wraps up, but in the meantime please join me after the jump for a brief recap of everything I saw and did on Friday.
Category: show review Page 2 of 7
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.
With the rain completely out of the forecast and temperatures dipping back into the 80s, things were certainly looking up for Sunday at Pitchfork. Just about all of the muddy spots in Union Park from Saturday’s storm were now cleverly covered up with some quick dry solution and a whole bunch of carpet square samples. One of the big product placements over the weekend was a company freely handing out recycled carpet squares so people could sit on the ground without getting their pants dirty. I doubt becoming patchwork quilts atop mud pits was their original intention, but at least it was functional and made walking around easier. There was plenty of great music to watch as well, so join me after the jump for a recap of the third and final day at Pitchfork Music Festival.
What’s a summer music festival in Chicago without a little rain? Or a lot of rain? This year marked the first time in its 10 year history that Pitchfork was forced to evacuate the grounds due to severe weather. A similar incident happened at Lollapalooza a couple years back. Unlike that event however, organizers waited until seemingly the last minute before pulling the plug. That’s not intended to say that they did anything wrong, but rather tried as hard as they could to keep things going until they simply couldn’t anymore due to safety concerns. They made the announcement to please exit the park, and then less than two minutes later a massive, bone-soaking rain poured down complete with a lightning show for the ages. People gasped at the sky lit up while also running with panic due to the extremely intense downpour. Of course minutes after evacuating the rain stopped and about 30 minutes later Union Park reopened and the day continued. The grounds were a bit muddy in spots for the rest of the day, as one might expect, but overall the schedule wasn’t disrupted much and the situation was handled with relative professionalism. But what about the music? Read on past the jump, and I’ll share those details with you, dear reader!
Ah, the hallowed grounds of Union Park. How nice it was to return for yet another year, this time in particular to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of the Pitchfork Music Festival. Upon my entrance to the park I took a little tour, primarily to get the lay of the land and see what was new compared to years past. In short not much, though the smaller Blue stage has been angled a little differently this year, made a little larger and given a video screen. As a result of the small tweak, what was once a largely shaded area thanks to trees now has a bit more sun but also a bit more space to accommodate larger crowds. That aside, it’s everything in its right place. Here’s a recap of all the music I saw today, which was more a tasting portion of a lot of artists rather than full meals. Details after the jump…
My Morning Jacket are at their core an outdoor ampitheatre band. The music they make, in all of its triumphant goodness, can be so expansive that even the largest of rooms would have trouble holding it. That’s a big part of the reason why they’re often asked to play music festivals, and do so with the sort of wild abandon reserved for the headliners they are. Looking through their copious tour archive, I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn that My Morning Jacket’s last four shows in Chicago have all taken place at festivals and/or outdoor venues. The last time they played inside was in late December 2008, where they blew the doors off the Chicago Theatre for two nights in a row. It’s taken them seven years to return, which is probably how long the venue needed to repair and reinforce the “damage” from last time. Of course now they’re even bigger and more popular band with a few radio hits under their belts, so for 2015 a two-night stand becomes a three-night stand. Out of concern for my safety and the thought that the 94-year-old venue might not survive the 72 hour rock and roll punishment it was about to endure, I decided that attending the first show on Tuesday night would probably be the smartest choice. Immediately following the show I can tell you my biggest regret was not getting tickets to all three.
It began with a waterfall. Specifically, the psychedelic-looking one that graces the cover of their new album. It was projected onto a gigantic white sheet that covered the entire front of the stage. The first few plinks of keyboards rang out from behind the sheet, as did Jim James’ voice at the beginning of “Believe (Nobody Knows),” the opening track on The Waterfall record. As the song approached the first chorus, a blinding white light flashed on from the back of the stage, revealing the massive shadows of a band that many consider to be larger than life. It was a playful start to the show, and the curtain finally fell once they got around to the chorus for the second time. A massive cheer erupted from the crowd as the band was fully and exultantly revealed. I’ve seen a couple of other artists pull a similar stunt at the start of their shows, and honestly it’s effective even if it’s not original.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra are difficult to pin down. This is something that has only increased in magnitude over time. On his recently released third album Multi-Love, the band’s primary architect Ruban Nielson might as well have titled it multi-influence as he takes a signature lo-fi psych-pop sound and infuses it with elements of funk, soul, blues, disco and much more. The one thing holding it all together is the record’s overarching thematic exploration of polyamory (hence the title) and the impact one woman had when she joined Nielson’s already established family. While stylistic expectations and societal norms may be upended, the overall focus stays strong and prevents things from totally going off the rails. A similar approach has made its way into UMO’s most recent live shows, and was on full display this past Saturday night for a wild and funky set at Lincoln Hall.
Prior to Saturday, I had seen Unknown Mortal Orchestra perform twice. Both times were at outdoor music festivals, which was nice because their sound pairs nicely with nature. Yet fests are also built as variety pack samplers to give you a good taste of what an artist has to offer but may not be the truest representation of what they’d do in a typical show in the confines of a dark venue. What struck me about those previous UMO sets was how genuinely relaxed Nielson and his bandmates were, to the point of spending about a quarter of the time seated on the stage with legs crossed just playing guitar. Sometimes it’d be in service of the song, while other times it’d be part of some extended jam session that included effects pedals and plenty of knob turning. It only took two songs at Lincoln Hall before Nielson sat down, turning the outro of II track “From the Sun” into a jittery, radiating piece of white noise. While the idea was smartly conceived, particularly since that song has plenty of room for deviation from the recorded version, the execution in this case was a little less than ideal. Playing with effects simply for the sake of playing with effects can come across as a bit aimless if you’re not careful, creating the reaction of, “just end this already.”
In contrast, a little more than halfway through the set the band took single “So Good at Being in Trouble” and extended it to encompass some incredible guitar and drum solos. When a band fires on all cylinders like that, it can make for a truly transcendent experience, as this certainly was. It also served as a great reminder of how ridiculously talented of a guitarist Nielson is. No matter if he was jamming for fun or playing an intricate part because that’s what the song required, the way his fingers would fly around the fret board and pluck those strings was almost always a treat to behold. The real shame is that he didn’t do more of it. Of course when your set primarily focuses on your new album which doesn’t feature as many guitars let alone solos, there’s no point in trying to shoehorn them in. Actually Nielson put down his guitar towards the end of the night for a synth-heavy performance of “Stage or Screen,” which freed him up to climb atop some speakers on the side of the stage as well as pull off a funky spin into the splits as a capper. That was arguably the most fun he had all show, though the loud cheers from the crowd and people yelling “Ruban!” kept him smiling for much of the evening.
Speaking of the crowd, their passion and energy was nothing short of infectuous. There was an older gentlemen standing in front of me, likely in his mid-50s and dressed like he had just come from a fancy dinner, who spent most of the show jumping around, dancing and just generally having the time of his life. He might not have looked like the average Unknown Mortal Orchestra fan, but in many respects he showed more enthusiasm than a lot of people who are half his age. Part of me wonders if his fanaticism pushed others to more freely express their own by dancing and singing along. Things really picked up at the end of the set, with the one-two punch of 2010 single “Ffunny Ffrends” and 2015 single “Multi-Love” subtly placing emphasis on how much UMO has evolved over these last few years. The double-barreled encore of new songs “Necessary Evil” and “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone” then offered up a closing salvo, the gleeful smiles and writhing bodies connecting with each melody to ensure the future of this project will be anything but unknown.
Like Acid Rain
From the Sun
How Can You Luv Me
Ur Life One Night
The World Is Crowded
So Good at Being in Trouble
Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark)
Stage or Screen
Can’t Keep Checking My Phone
“It’s great to be back at the Empty Bottle,” Mackenzie Scott (aka Torres) told the packed crowd during her headlining set on Thursday night. “This is my third time here. I love this place.” If the extensive applause and cheering from the peanut gallery in response was any indication, the place and the people in it love Torres too. It was two years and seven days since her last visit, and much happened in her world during that gap. An extensive amount of touring helped build Scott into an even more dynamic live performer that only further solidified her fan base. She also found the time to write and record a sophomore album Sprinter, which was released earlier this month to widespread critical acclaim. To say things are better than they’ve ever been in the Torres camp appears to be accurate, and she only further proved that with her set at the Empty Bottle.
Immediately upon taking the stage on Thursday night with her three piece band, Scott pulled out a lighter and set some sage ablaze, waving it around the stage and out into the crowd. It was perhaps the most peaceful moment of the evening, as the music that followed was frought with high emotions that would eventually explode in pure cataclysmic fashion. The intensity began to build from the first notes of opening number “Son, You Are No Island,” which may be one of the quieter and more spare moments from Sprinter but carries with it an underlying threat as the guitar picking gets faster and the vocals become increasingly strained. Throwing the one-two punch of “New Skin” and “Sprinter” early on brought the noise level considerably higher thanks to some heavy guitars, but it wasn’t until “Cowboy Guilt” halfway through the set that things felt like they had truly shifted into fourth gear. That particular song diverted the most from the recorded version, in this case for the better by fully embracing its more aggressive elements and revealing this whole other layer that had otherwise been simmering beneath the surface. With the flood gates open, “Strange Hellos” arrived like the tidal wave it is and much of the crowd quickly tapped into that energy by jumping around for a bit. Some music writers have noted that the new Torres record is reminiscent of vintage PJ Harvey, and in that exact moment the performance also felt cut from that same cloth. Revelatory feels like the right descriptor to use for that mid-set section, a true glimpse into what Scott is like at her most focused and powerful.
After peaking like that, everything else is going to feel a little lesser in comparison. Thankfully “Honey,” the popular single from her 2013 debut, offered up a satisfactory slow burn that acted as a bit of a salve. Perhaps the most tender and beautiful moment of the set came at the very end, with the quiet ballad “November Baby”. For a few minutes it was just Scott and her guitar, with one of her bandmates contributing to harmonies as needed. But unlike the album version, the full band jumped in for a gorgeous crescendo that just felt like icing on the cake. Scott stepped away from her microphone and over to the edge of the stage, cracking a smile as she looked out into the crowd. Once the last notes had been played she quickly asked people near the front if they had a lighter for her sage. And so in perfectly cyclical fashion, things ended the way they began. Of course that doesn’t take the epic single-song encore of “Ferris Wheel” into account, which certainly represented a sobering way to end the night. “There’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do / To show you that I’ve got the sadness too,” Scott sang with pathos and grief. Part of the reason Torres has found success has been because her lyrics feel personal, yet relatable. It was clear as she exited the stage that the entire crowd, myself included, was also afflicted with the sadness. Whether that was due to personal pain or simply because the show was over, everybody felt it on some level. Kind soul that she is, Scott stuck around near the merch table to greet fans and offer up hugs as needed.
On May 14, 2013, Lady Lamb (Aly Spaltro) played a headlining show at Schubas in Chicago. She was very sick with a cold and by all accounts barely made it through her set. “If I recall correctly,” she said on Wednesday while reminiscing about that night, “I couldn’t even sing most of the songs, so I asked the crowd to sing along with me.” Quite a few people cheered when she said that, to acknowledge they were there and that she was telling the truth. Shows like those are the sorts that both the audience and artists remember clearly, because they’re far from what could be considered normal. Then again, I’d like to think that just about every Lady Lamb show is special and unique in its own way, which is why when Spaltro returned to Chicago to play the Empty Bottle with Torres about a month and a half later, she was 100% healthy and arguably even more memorable for her powerful and intense solo set.
Nearly two years to the day since her sick performance at Schubas, Spaltro returned on Wednesday night to headline the venue once again. Not only was she in tip top shape, but was also armed with a brand new record called After as well as a backing band to help bring her songs to life in a much fuller way. Things immediately got off to an elaborate start with the multifaceted “You Are the Apple” from Lady Lamb’s 2013 debut album Ripely Pine. In the grand tradition of starting strong and then going stronger, After single “Billions of Eyes” surged to life next, which got the crowd moving a bit with some serious head bobbing and a bit of a sing-along. At one point a couple people began to clap along with the beat, but unfortunately nobody else joined in so that stopped pretty quickly. Still, it was clear early on that people were connecting with the songs, they just showed it in a variety of ways.
For her part, Spaltro did a great job of mixing things up, really putting her three piece setup to good use with some of the louder and more aggressive numbers like “Bird Balloons” and “Spat Out Spit,” then giving them a mid-set break to play some quieter stuff like “Sunday Shoes” and “The Nothing Pt. II” solo. Those moments when it was just her voice and guitar really brought back the intimacy of her shows from a couple years ago while also infusing the set with greater doses of pathos and heart. The between song banter was a similar shade of earnest, with Spaltro expressing real gratitude for Chicago and everyone who came out to support Lady Lamb, which included her own Aunt Fran. I had the privilege of standing right behind Aunt Fran next to the stage for the duration of the show, and she was positively beaming with pride the entire time.
At the very end of her 90 minute set, Spaltro once again sent off her bandmates and closed by playing “Ten” solo. “This is my favorite song,” Aunt Fran whispered to her friend as the first notes rang out. It comes across like a diary entry brought to life, complete with the little moments and vivid imagery that we remember from our childhood. In one of the final verses, Spaltro sings the lines, “We were singing along / To every word of the songs / That helped make us who we are.” If the tear-streaked faces in the crowd were any indication, Lady Lamb’s songs have done their part to help shape lives in a similar fashion.
Multiple studies done over the last decade have pretty much all determined that our own personal tastes in music become established between the ages of 14 and 24. As these are the most formative years of our lives, from puberty to the completion of our education in high school and college to the friends and social groups we settle into, it makes sense that this would be a testing ground for the kinds of music we like. The reason I bring this up is because at the tender age of 19 I discovered the band Cursive. To be fair, I discovered a LOT of bands at that age and have continued to for a good decade since, but for one reason or another Cursive holds a special place in my heart. Their 2003 concept(ish) album The Ugly Organ very blessedly blurred the lines between alt-rock, indie, punk and emo so it provided a rather easy entry point for music fans of all stripes and colors. Working at a college radio station in the Midwest also brought the band to my attention, and few were the days when you couldn’t find me in the DJ booth jumping around to “Art Is Hard” as it blasted over the airwaves. ‘Twas a simpler time. But I digress. The point being, The Ugly Organ was a record I really got into and apparently a whole lot of others did as well. So much so the band decided to reissue it last fall with a bunch of bonus material, and follow it up this winter/spring with a two month U.S. tour in celebration. The band finally reached Chicago at the tail end of that for a sold out show at Lincoln Hall on Wednesday night. Here’s what happened. (cue Law & Order ::dun dun::)
One of the more noteworthy things about The Ugly Organ is that it’s Cursive’s only release that prominently features the cello. The band recruited cellist Gretta Cohn in 2001 to play on the record and tour in support of it, but in 2005 she left to pursue other interests and was never replaced. While Cohn did play a show or two with Cursive recently when they stopped in New York (where she now lives), she hasn’t rejoined the band or anything like that. The good news is that all of the other stops on this tour did have a cellist to help ensure that the album was properly brought to life, not to mention the bonus of adding cello parts to a bunch of other songs across the Cursive catalog.
Unlike a majority of bands who have adopted the trend of performing a classic album from front to back, Cursive decided to shake things up a bit because they didn’t want to be like everyone else. That was clear right from the beginning of their set, which kicked off with “Sink to the Beat” from 2001’s Burst and Bloom EP followed by “Big Bang” from 2006’s Happy Hollow. Those were but a couple of many interesting choices the band made across close to 90 minutes and 21 songs. Yes The Ugly Organ was technically played in full, but there were detours taken along the way to throw the crowd off and celebrate other records in bits and pieces. Of the non-Organ records, 2009’s Mama, I’m Swollen got the most love, but not by much. The biggest surprise of the night was probably “Excerpts From Various Notes Strewn Around the Bedroom of April Connolly, Feb. 24, 1997,” a song that appeared on a 2002 split EP called 8 Teeth to Eat You. That, or the song “Nonsense,” which was found on the Saddle Creek 50 compilation. Both of those tracks actually are included in the deluxe reissue of The Ugly Organ so it makes sense that they’d be played, but context aside they’re absolutely rarities and not the sort of songs you expect to be performed live pretty much ever.
As for The Ugly Organ itself, let’s just say it’s the sort of record that holds up really well. The 1-2-3 punch that is “Some Red Handed Sleight of Hand” into “Art Is Hard” into “The Recluse” still hits with the same force, only this time you’ve got a room full of people shouting along to every single word. “Art Is Hard” in particular is just a powder keg that set a lot of people off. Similar things could be said about the late set heroics from songs like “Bloody Murderer” and “Sierra,” the latter of which kicked off the encore. As great of a time as the crowd seemed to be having, the band looked like they were having a blast too. Frontman Tim Kasher seemed to suggest that the tour had been going on forever and they were all a little worse for wear, but there were no telltale signs outside of a couple small coughing fits that Kasher had between songs. Illnesses can be tough to recover from when you’re on the road and are unable to rest or take really good care of yourself. So long as it doesn’t degrade the performance though, such things are manageable. Turns out a night honoring The Ugly Organ was anything but ugly. It’s my sincere hope that Kasher and the rest of Cursive take inspiration from that record and this tour as they write and arrange material for their next effort. The world could use more albums like it.