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.
Tag: set list (Page 1 of 2)
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.
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
There was a chill in the air all throughout Chicago this past Friday night. It was odd only because not a day or two earlier, temperatures were in the mid-to-upper 90s. You could say that fall showed up from out of nowhere. Or maybe it had something to do with the “eerie” Friday the 13th, where bad things happen because of a random day on a calendar. But if you’re looking for a more honest, completely non-scientific explanation for the seasonably cool weather, it’s because Washed Out (aka Ernest Greene) came to town. Greene was one of the original artists to get wrapped up in the “chillwave” genre descriptor when it first came to prominence around 2008. Chillwave grooves might be quite lovely overall, but they project a rather frigid demeanor as well. You’re invited to sit back and relax, but don’t get too comfortable. The chillwave tag might be all but dead these days, and Washed Out may have transitioned to greener pastures via the latest album Paracosm, but that doesn’t mean the city of Chicago has to accept it. We are the Windy City after all, and just like our weather our opinions about things can change dramatically thanks to even the slightest passing breeze. For the sold out crowd at Metro on Friday however, the physical and mental temperature rose big time thanks to cerebral but immensely fun sets from two bands that ignited a dance party of sweaty bodies.
Starting the night off right was New York band HAERTS. They’ve spent the last few months gathering more and more attention for their singles “Wings” and “All the Days,” both of which are bouncy and dynamic pieces of synth pop. You could call them part of a trend in 2013, boasting a similar sound and style to that of Chvrches, another band poised to hit it big despite not having an album out yet. At least Chvrches have got an EP right now. HAERTS are readying their debut EP, titled Hemiplegia, which has been in the works for awhile but will finally be out on September 24th. This tour with Washed Out provides a nice preview of what to expect from this young band in the immediate future. The good news is that the outlook continues to appear bright, and the new songs tend to be as strong as the pair we’ve already been exposed to. They played all four tracks from their EP, including the aforementioned singles, then dove into material that will presumably be on their full length, which is still tentatively due later this year. This is material they’ve been performing and essentially sitting on for at least a year now, if producer Jean Philip Grobler (aka St. Lucia) is telling the truth. One of the best and catchiest of the new tunes is “Heart,” and you can watch the band perform a live rendition of that as part of a recent Yours Truly session. Outside of all that, I’m not sure about the titles of anything else they performed, except to say that there was another fun one and also a slow ballad. On stage, HAERTS sound good and look good too, but those two elements alone don’t win you awards for being a great live band. Their faithful renditions of their recorded output left little room for sonic detours, and the overall stoicism stripped back any genuine emotional impact the songs might otherwise have had. In other words, they might do even better than they currently are if they adopted a looser and more playful attitude on stage. Maybe that’s a quality you attain with time. For now though, HAERTS packed a lot of punch into their opening set, and the crowd got a little bit into it. Hopefully the next time they come through town it will be on a headlining tour in support of their record, and they’ll be better than ever.
The first thing that amused me about Washed Out’s set happened before any notes were even played. It was that the entire stage was decorated in flowers and vines and even patches of fake grass, all in service of fulfilling Ernest Greene’s grand, nature-laden vision. After an album and an EP of intimate but emotionally cold music, the new Washed Out record Paracosm seeks to change things by adding warmth and more organic elements overall. It very much sounds like a summer album to help connect you with the world around you, and all the album art and music videos push this theme even further with flowers, plants and jungle animals. That’s why the look of the Metro stage was so appropriate and equally fascinating. But as far as organic elements go, the biggest positive the new record has to offer is a lot of live instrumentation. In the past, Greene has used samples played off a laptop both in recorded versions of songs as well as in concert. When I last saw the band in fall of 2012, there were more people playing live instruments than I expected, but a laptop was still used from time to time. Now in fall of 2013, all of that computer technology has been eliminated. A handful of people joined Greene on stage to help bring everything to life, and the results were positively lovely.
Starting with Paracosm‘s opening track(s) “Entrance/It All Feels Right,” the crowd got into it right away and bounced along with its upbeat rhythm. Greene strummed an acoustic guitar and sang in tandem with one of his bandmates to create a dual, echo-laden vocal. That vocal style would be adopted for much of the set, and it begs the question of whether or not this choice had anything to do with a lack of confidence/vocal weakness or is intended to be an aesthetic that’s there solely to provoke certain vibes. Whatever’s behind it, everything sounded (and felt) right/well constructed. There was a surprise early on in the set when the band played “Belong,” off the 2009 High Times EP which is the first and probably least recognized Washed Out recording. The live version on Friday night was a bit different from the studio version, which is understandable given how much the show and on stage personnel has evolved since then. The same went for “New Theory” and “Get Up” from the Life of Leisure EP, though there was a certain faithfulness to the recorded original, just recreated by people instead of a computer. Overall the dozen songs performed were pretty evenly split between the varying Washed Out albums and EPs, and actually it could be said the new album was slightly underrepresented by only squeezing three (technically four if you count the 90 second instrumental “Entrance”) of its songs in. Of course they were the poppiest and most enjoyable tracks on the record, and that was perhaps the underlying strategy when performing live – to never let the energy drop. The crowd was dancing and having a great time, so why slide one of the slower and less engaging cuts into the set? The second half in particular was heavy on the hits, with new single “Don’t Give Up” leading into “Feel It All Around” (aka the Portlandia theme song), and “Amor Fati” to close things out in a fun way.
Greene wasn’t a man of many words during the Washed Out set at Metro, but he did introduce the first song of the encore as “one for the old school Washed Out fans in the house.” The band then launched into “Despicable Dogs,” which is actually a cover/remix of a Small Black song that was put together for a split EP back in 2009. Of all the unexpected surprises during the set, that one probably qualified as the biggest. Technically speaking, the band took that song and made it their own, but it wasn’t that far removed from the chillwave original anyways. The novelty was the main selling point. Reflecting on the show afterwards, there were a lot of those unique touches that popped up throughout the 65 minute set, all the way down to the decor. Chillwave may be a subgenre of music on its last legs, but not only did Greene prove himself to be at the top of that pile, he managed to prove there’s still plenty of life left in that particular sound. His continued evolution remains our gain.
Paracosm full album stream:
Entrance/It All Feels Right
You and I
All I Know
Don’t Give Up
Feel It All Around
Eyes Be Closed
St. Patrick’s Day is a big party holiday. Just take one good look in any bar and you’ll likely see it packed with people drinking green beer. Call it tradition or whatever else you want, so long as there’s an excuse to have kegs and eggs at eight in the morning. This year the holiday fell on a Sunday, which with most people having work the next morning, might make you think things would be calmer. Not so much the case, from my experience. The reason I bring it up is because many probably woke up with a severe hangover on Monday morning, which led to a long day of vowing to never drink again. That wasn’t my Monday, but for many of my friends it was. It’s telling that none of them were available to attend an evening of girls with guitars on Monday night at the Empty Bottle. The two bands on the bill were Supercute! and Kate Nash, a show that had been sold out for months in advance. Before the show, I found myself asking, “Is Kate Nash really that popular?” because honestly I know very few people that might consider themselves fans of hers, and those that are tend to reference her debut Made of Bricks more than anything else. She came out of the stew of Myspace discovered artists back in the mid-00s and sort of followed in Lily Allen’s footsteps but as more of a second or third fiddle to her “fuck you” pop star act. Yet here we are in 2013, and Allen is all but a faded memory having retired from music a couple years back. Meanwhile Nash presses onward and carves her own unique path and apparently a die hard fan base with it. I’ve liked all her records, but also tend to forget about them after six months. I went to the show for a couple reasons: 1) Nash has a new record out called Girl Talk that’s pretty good. 2) I’ve never seen her perform live before, and that’s something I’ve been meaning to do. 3) Supercute! was opening for her, and I was particularly interested in hearing what they would have to offer.
So let’s start with Supercute!, because they were first up for the evening. If you’ve never heard of Supercute! before, they’re an all-teen, all-girl four piece band from NYC. Their ages range from as young as 13 to as old as 19. The band was started in 2009 by Rachel Trachtenburg (who played drums as a member of The Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players starting at age six) and her friend Julia Cumming. They wrote some goofy songs about candy and boys and such together using ukuleles and keyboards, which then led to performances and studio recordings. They’ve only expanded from there, adding new members and releasing singles and building a fan base show by show. Kate Nash has been a Trachtenburg family friend for several years, and she’s really taken Supercute! under her wing and done most of her touring with them in recent years. Nash also produced their debut album DON’T PoP MY BUBBLE, which will officially be released on June 11th. In their short 20 minute set, they mostly stuck to new material, though some of what qualifies as “new” they’ve been playing live for quite awhile now. Still, even the songs they’ve been performing for years got some new life injected into them thanks to their beefed up and more aggressive approach. The ukuleles and keyboards are still present, but play much less of a prominent role thanks to the addition of bass and electric guitars. Their songs, while often lighthearted and goofy, were also thrown a little off-kilter into a darker and more psychedelic territory. It’s fascinating because the girls have on these colorful outfits and makeup, and you’ll wind up with their songs in your head, but your brain is equal parts impressed and scared. While they’re clearly very talented and have a big future ahead of them, there’s also a weird sense of concern that maybe they’re growing up a little too fast. You could say they’re almost a modern-day version of The Runaways, though not as brash or sexualized. Their live show is solid, but also needs a little bit of fine tuning that will work itself out the more they tour. I may not be anywhere near the teenage girl demographic that Supercute! are aiming their music towards, but I still enjoyed and appreciated their set. Others in the 21+ crowd did as well, as I overheard a guy behind me say to his friend in near disbelief, “They were really good.” So chalk up another ringing endorsement for this band, they’re one to keep an eye on.
Oh, what can I say about Kate Nash? She’s an absolute delight, and it’s easy to understand why her fans are so devoted to her. Devoted to the point where they crowd funded her new album Girl Talk after she fell from the graces of a major label record deal for wanting to take a different direction with her sound. It’s eerily similar to what Amanda Palmer pulled off a few months earlier, though Nash didn’t get a million dollars in donations like Palmer did. In the end it really doesn’t matter how much money you make, so long as you make enough to keep doing what you want to do. And now the completely liberated Nash wants to play the bass and prove she can rock just as hard as any guy. To me, such an evolution was inevitable for her and I had no doubt she could pull it off, but apparently her label was looking for the next Regina Spektor instead of the next Courtney Love. Okay so she’s not a hot mess with more drugs and alcohol in her veins than blood, but she does have a similar vocal range to pull off syrupy sweet one moment and a rage-filled wail the next. That balance of dark and light is all over her new album, and in essence bled into her live show as well. She started with “Sister” and its deep bass line, which eventually turns into a raucous punk rock groove complete with some guttural vocal acrobatics. That sort of visceral and cutting anger boiled to the surface more than a few times throughout the show, in particular on songs like “I Just Love You More,” the old b-side “Model Behaviour” and her cover of FIDLAR’s “Cocaine,” which she retitled “Grrrl Gang.” Much of it was rather “riot grrrl” in nature, with Nash and her all-female backing band really making the most of their talents by taking even the poppiest songs and dirtying them up a bit. “Foundations” is the song that brought her to the attention to a lot of people in ’06-’07, and while she’s basically obligated to perform it at all her shows from here to eternity, she by no means has to keep it in the same bubblegum piano pop arena of the recorded version. The guitars don’t exactly transform the song into something entirely different, they just bring some additional forcefulness and speed that strips some of the charm but allows the lyrics to take more precedence, which is kind of nice.
Obviously a fair amount of the set list was populated with Girl Talk tracks as that’s what this tour is supporting, but everything else was a great mixture of older material, rarities and covers. Her take on “My Chinchilla,” a song by early ’90s Canadian indie pop girl band Cub (which counted Neko Case as a member for a brief period) felt like it was made for her to sing, as is blended so effortlessly with her charming and witty personality. Her between song banter was one of the show’s greatest highlights, and made all the more amusing by members of the crowd yelling things at her. “I just really want to touch you!” a girl at the front of the stage yelled. Nash thought for a moment, then wandered over to her and extended her arm, which the girl touched for a brief moment. “It’s been awhile [since somebody touched me],” Nash said with a wink after it happened. A couple songs later, someone (apparently a man) threw a bra on stage. “Oh wow, thank you,” Nash said sarcastically before following up with, “By the way, what kind of man brings a bra with him to throw on stage?” That’s the sort of vibe you get from people late on a Monday night after St. Patrick’s Day I guess. When she wasn’t busy interacting with the crowd, she also told funny stories like the time she accidentally knocked out one of her front teeth. But one of the things that really struck me was how she also took a few moments to talk about the charity she’s working with called Because I am a Girl. It’s a campaign designed to protect and empower women in developing countries and provide them opportunities they might not normally have to achieve their dreams. I am not a woman nor do I live in a developing country, but I admire the cause and hope you’ll consider donating. Hopefully you’ll also consider donating to the well-being of Kate Nash’s career by buying her new record or going to see a show. While I’ve always liked her music, I’ve never been as passionate about it as I have been with other artists. Now that I’ve seen her perform, I walked away an even bigger fan than I was going in. It’s always a great show when something like that happens.
Buy Girl Talk from Amazon
See the set list and tour dates after the jump!
Fiona Apple put on a raw and visceral show at the Chicago Theater tonight. It was one part punk rock and another part heartbreak. Through it all the crowd cheered wildly, even at the slightest moment of silence, and there were plenty of “I love you”‘s being thrown around in grandiose fashion from both men and women. On the whole it was intense and invigorating to watch, as she took her voice beyond its normal capacity and threw her body around the stage to the music. She also pulled rather liberally from her entire catalogue, careful to give each of her four records their due instead of focusing largely on her new one, The Idler Wheel… The main lesson learned from tonight was this: if you can see Fiona Apple perform live, make sure you go. She may not be one for banter, but talking might have taken away some of the magic in her performance. Here’s the full set list from the show. There was no official encore, though Apple left the stage for a minute at the end of “Criminal” while her band continued to play, then came back out for one more song.
Fast As You Can
On the Bound
Anything We Want
Sleep to Dream
Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)
Every Single Night
Not About Love
It’s Only Make Believe (Conway Twitty cover)
I’ve reviewed a few Wilco shows before, and I’m sure I’ll review a Wilco show again. Even though I was there, I won’t be reviewing this one. It was as good as almost every other Wilco show I’ve seen, even though I didn’t fully appreciate the sound system in the ballpark. Nels Cline is still killing it with those guitar solos, Jeff Tweedy’s vocals are sharp as ever, and there were some nice set list surprises at this show. That’s all I’m going to say about it. Here’s the full set list:
Dawned On Me
War On War
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart
Box Full of Letters
Not For the Season (aka Laminated Cat)
Side With The Seeds
Say You Miss Me
Jesus Etc. (with Andrew Bird)
Hate It Here
I’m Always in Love
Heavy Metal Drummer
I’m the Man Who Loves You
Art of Almost
A Shot in the Arm
California Stars (with Andrew Bird)
The Late Greats
“I have no idea who I am anymore,” Thom Yorke joked near the end of Radiohead’s set at First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre on Sunday night. Plenty of people could say the same thing sincerely about Yorke and his bandmates once the show was over. For incessant Radiohead devotees and casual fans alike, the band’s trajectory since releasing The King of Limbs last year has been anything but normal. They’ve forsaken guitars and more traditional song arrangements for music that’s heavily influenced by the electronica subgenre IDM and kinetic polyrhythms. The response hasn’t exactly been enthusiastic so far, in large part because it’s quite a bit different from some of their most popular work on albums like In Rainbows and OK Computer. The closest cousin to The King of Limbs is Kid A, and even that was more of a subtle art statement than a fidgety dance record. Still, it was the new album with its twists and turns that transformed Radiohead’s live show from a display of superb rock craftsmanship into a morbid dance party. Consummate professionals that they are, the band is in no worse shape because of it.
Things didn’t exactly get off to a mindblowing start though. Opening with “Bloom,” the live rendering of it felt just a little sluggish and mixed with a little too much bass. With most of the crowd utterly distracted because the band was on stage and they needed documented pictures of it immediately, the so-so launch either went unnoticed or was shrugged off as soon as “There There” kicked in. It’s also worth noting that as with any new album, sometimes it takes a band a bit to figure out the right way to perform certain songs. Perhaps “Bloom” is one of those. But from that point onwards, things only got better. “There There” benefited from the dual drummer attack Radiohead is using to supplement their newest material. Portishead’s Clive Deamer does a wonderful job working in tandem with Phil Selway, and in certain situations even Jonny Greenwood or Ed O’Brien would pick up some sticks and add extra fuel to the percussion fire. That was perhaps most noticeable on “Morning Mr. Magpie,” one of a couple tracks from The King of Limbs that managed to exceed the recorded version.
The middle of the main set attempted to calm things down a bit starting with piano ballad “Codex,” but when you’ve got a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands that can get a little tricky. As Yorke’s falsetto moaned into the night and the keys were tapped with measured grace, some overzealous fans felt it necessary to cover the quiet with quite a few “Wooo”‘s and “Yeah”‘s. It stripped away some of the power that moment could (and was intended to) have had, which was unfortunate. Also just a touch unfortunate was the live treatment given to “The Amazing Sounds of Orgy.” Fantastic as it is that Radiohead chose to perform one of their best b-sides because it was a good sonic match with everything else that night, it was the only other song besides “Bloom” that didn’t hit the way it was supposed to. There’s an underlying dread about a political menace woven through the song, as Yorke himself explained when introducing it, but the band dragged while playing it and sucked some of the raw emotional power out as a result. The recorded version on the “Pyramid Song” single gets it all the way right.
The second half of the main set was about as perfect as anybody could ever ask for. The song selection was a fantastic mix of old and new, a pair of huge hits, and a massive dose of energy that sent the crowd into a frenzy. There was the sing-along to “Karma Police,” Yorke sending his voice soaring on “Reckoner,” the dance party on stage and off for “Lotus Flower,” the fuzz and buzz combo of “Myxomatosis” and “Feral,” with a closing capper of “Idioteque.” No doubt those last several tracks fulfilled the vision Radiohead had to shift their direction towards a much more physical live show. If they can find a way to harness that magic for the entire night and not just a majority of it, who knows what that would do to a crowd. Bodies might explode from sheer ecstasy.
In the last week or two, word quickly spread around the internet that Radiohead had a brand new song called “Full Stop” that they were playing around with during soundchecks on tour. A couple people managed to get some shoddy recordings of the band messing around with it, but it had never been performed during a show before. That is, until this show. With bright tye-dyed rainbows of color splashed across every video screen surrounding the band, the excitement in the air was palpable and every hair on my body was standing straight up. Holding true to the more electronica-based material from The King of Limbs, the song starts fast with a hazy keyboard base. Tension and speed quickly build atop one another until the dam fully breaks about three minutes in. Yorke’s voice yo-yos between normal and falsetto near the end so many times he sounds like a skipping record. Call it euphoria from hearing it live for the first time, but I think “Full Stop” is destined to be a hit. “It’ll get better with age,” Yorke said after they’d finished playing it. If it’s this good now, who knows what it’ll sound like five years from now. It’s tough to even fathom.
The first encore wrapped up with a ripped up rendition of “Bodysnatchers,” which was the most rock and roll the band got all night. Then Yorke stepped back behind the piano and teased a little of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” before blending it seamlessly into “Everything In It’s Right Place.” That’s sort of typical Radiohead fare, and they’ve been doing those sorts of things for years now. Relatively new to their encore plot is the stark and stripped down version of “Give Up the Ghost,” which Yorke and Jonny Greenwood played to start the second encore while everyone else remained backstage. Thankfully this time the crowd was much more sedate and respectful relative to the emotion and quiet of the song, and it represented one of the more powerful moments of the evening. “Identikit” is another new song they played that hasn’t yet appeared in studio recorded form, and like “Full Stop” it’s a percussive dance juggernaut worthy of getting excited about. After ignoring almost their entire pre-Kid A catalogue all night, Radiohead finally said goodnight with the show-ending classic “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” “Immerse your soul in love,” Yorke sang as the last lines of the song. With their stellar execution, jaw-dropping stage set-up, quite a bit of dancing and upbeat demeanor, the band gave out plenty of soul-immersing love to the Chicago crowd on Sunday night. I’d like to think we returned that love in full.
Morning Mr. Magpie
The Amazing Sounds of Orgy
Little By Little
Full Stop (FIRST TIME PERFORMED)
The One I Love–>Everything In It’s Right Place
Give Up the Ghost
Street Spirit (Fade Out)
Radiohead made their “Chicago” stop on the King of Limbs tour tonight, and I was there to witness all the action. I’ll have a full report for you in a day or two, but in the meantime, here’s the full set list for your pleasure. It includes the first-ever live performance of new song “Full Stop”. To say that every hair on my body was standing on end and shivers went down my spine during that song is putting it lightly. When a reasonable quality video of it hits YouTube, I’ll be sure to let you know.
Morning Mr. Magpie
The Amazing Sounds of Orgy
Little By Little
Full Stop (FIRST TIME PERFORMED)
The One I Love–>Everything In It’s Right Place
Give Up the Ghost
Street Spirit (Fade Out)
14 years. That’s how long it’s been since Jeff Mangum played a show in Chicago. If you think that’s a long time, there are other major cities where it’s been longer. See, in 1998, after a year’s worth of touring in support of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Mangum put his Neutral Milk Hotel project on hiatus. As we’ve learned from so many other bands, that typically translates to a break up with plans to never return. He was good on his word too, vanishing into the world of the mundane everyday, but still keeping his legend alive with periodic guest appearances on friends’ records or shows. There was the 2001 show in New Zealand where Mangum performed 13 songs under the name World of Wild Beards Incorporated as a favor to his friend Chris Knox. There were also the special appearances at several of the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour dates in 2008, in which Mangum perfomed the NMH b-side “Engine” and nothing more. But it wasn’t until 2010 that rumors began to circulate about a potential return to the stage. In May of that year he performed 5 songs at a benefit concert in Manhattan which attracted a flurry of attention for all the reasons you’d expect. The trail went cold once again for a few months until December, when a small crowd of about 100 witnessed Mangum perform 10 songs in a Brooklyn loft.
The start of 2011 appeared to also be the true start of Mangum’s return to the spotlight too, for just about a year ago it was announced he’d be performing at the ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror Festival in New Jersey that fall. Mangum then announced a handful of East Coast dates to create a pseudo-tour surrounding that festival appearance. The Neutral Milk Hotel website got a shiny new upgrade, a box set was announced that included every single song ever recorded by the band including a bunch of unreleased material, and there was the promise of more tour dates. All of it led to one conclusion: Jeff Mangum is back, and for real this time. It may have taken him a few months of sporadic East Coast dates, but he’s finally made his way back to the Midwest, and with that comes the two nights in Chicago this past Monday and Tuesday. Held at the 900 capacity Athenaeum Theatre, tickets for both shows sold out in a mere couple minutes. I was one of the lucky few to snag a ticket to both nights, which is why I’m pleased to offer this retrospective of both shows.
Opening both nights was the trio of Andrew Reiger, Laura Carter and Scott Spilane, more recently known as members of Elf Power and The Gerbils. Spilane was also a member of Neutral Milk Hotel back in the day, and that played a role in Mangum’s set that I will get to in a little bit. But the three of them shared the stage and assisted in playing one another’s songs in addition to a handful of covers. It was kitschy, it was sparse, it was fun and quite a bit weird too. Most of the crowd sat there and patiently listened, less with enthusiasm and more with a shoulder shrug. I wonder if they sold any merch after the show that wasn’t NMH-related. Personally, I think Reiger, Carter and Spilane are all very talented people, and while I enjoy the occasional Elf Power song, I’ve largely settled on the idea that it’s not quite my cup of tea. It’s all part of the Elephant 6 family anyways, a collective of bands and artists I admire for their creativity and true spirit of independence but have difficulty actually liking. In both hour-long opening sets, the constant switching between instruments and vocalists made for a solid amount of variety, and covers of songs made famous by Randy Newman and Frank Sinatra brought at least a small degree of familiarity to those left in the dark. Did they have to go for a full hour, pretty much equal to the amount of time Jeff Mangum spent on stage in his set? Probably not, but at least it could be considered an attempt to give you your money’s worth.
So the stage was set for Jeff Mangum’s big return. Four different guitars surrounded a lone chair at the center of the stage, when out walked the man, the myth and the legend himself. Wearing his traditional plaid shirt and conductor’s cap, it’s basically his uniform for performing, but that’s not to say he treats it like any real job. The guy that came out on stage for both those shows wasn’t a recluse or a hermit or even somebody that’s a touch off mentally. He was downright jovial, smiling, and entertaining as if no time had passed since the last time he came through town. Of course it had, and on the first night he was asked where he’d been. “Living with the love of my life,” was his reply, and that seemed to satisfy as a round of applause followed it. We all do crazy things for love sometimes, including giving up a very lucrative career as a musician. Throughout both shows Mangum encouraged people to both shout questions at him between songs and also to sing along at the top of their lungs. He did this early on in the first show and much later in the second, and the difference in crowd behavior was noticeable. We’re so polite in the Midwest that nobody is going to speak up unless told to. The questions on the first night were a bit more insightful and larger in number, asking everything from if we’d get any new music (“I really like these older songs, don’t you?”) to which song is his favorite to play live (“Oh Comely”). As for the singing along, there was less of it on the second night but both crowds appeared to be a little apprehensive to try and belt it to the rafters. Both nights I thought I was the only one in my section singing and that the other side of the room was doing a far better job. That may have been the acoustics messing with me. I think the real reason why so many were hesitant to sing was out of pure reverence for the songs. They are in many ways sacred melodies, and we paid to hear them sung by Mangum, not a collection of Mangum devotees.
Between song banter and crowd interaction aside, Jeff Mangum’s performance was nothing short of excellent. The guy has clearly not lost a single step, and in the last decade and a half probably gained a few as well. Having heard a number of official and unofficial Neutral Milk Hotel bootleg recordings from the late 90s, it would appear that Mangum has better control over his voice than before. He wasn’t off-key for a single moment in either of the two Chicago shows, and given some of the pitch-shifting vocal acrobatics required on many songs that was impressive. His ability to hold a single note for an extended period was put to the test as well, and that’s something he passed with flying colors. Speaking purely from a melody standpoint, there was a certain ramshackle charm to strumming these songs out on solely an acoustic guitar. The songs lost none of their emotional power just because there wasn’t a full band to stand behind them. When some of the songs needed a bit more punctuation, Scott Spilane and Laura Carter and other guests would show up out of the wings and add a trumpet here, a flugelhorn there or even a cello as was the case with “Naomi”. Everything coalesced at the end of the regular set when everyone came out to do the instrumental “The Fool”. That’s the sort of song you need a full band for, and it gave his friends the chance for one last curtain call.
The set lists for both nights were almost identical in terms of songs performed, but different in how they were ordered. “Little Birds” was the only song unique to the first night, while “A Baby for Pree” had the distinction of being a second night exclusive. My favorite of the two shows was the first one, and that’s not just because I was hearing so many of the same songs for the second time on the second night. Starting the second night set with “Oh Comely” felt like a crucial mistake to me, as its fragile 8 minutes are better explored once the audience has had a chance to become better acclimated with how the evening is going to go. Put a different way, I consider the song to be the most important in the Neutral Milk Hotel catalogue, and to lead with it feels like playing your trump card too early. The slow and measured “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2” felt like a far smoother introduction on the first night, quickly transitioning into the energy of “Holland, 1945” and “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone”. Generally speaking, the flow of songs felt more organic and balanced in the first set versus the second. Either way though, the night always concluded the exact same way – with a massive audience sing-along of perhaps the most famous Neutral Milk Hotel song, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”. After an hour and some change, it left the room in a blissful high, smiles on their faces and a standing ovation. Mangum would give one final wave and stroll off stage in the same leisurely fashion he strolled on. Just like that he was gone. I’m grateful to have at least known after that first night I’d be seeing him again 24 hours later. Once the second night was done though, the crowd of 900 all collectively felt the loss. Cross another “must see” artist off the bucket list, but with the implicit suggestion that it might never happen again, at least not in Chicago. Some people counted their lucky stars they got to spend a single evening hearing classic Neutral Milk Hotel songs being performed by the man that wrote and composed them. I feel eternally grateful to have doubled that, and hope sharing with you either brought back fond memories or helped bring you closer to something you weren’t able to experience yourself. There’s no telling exactly what Jeff Mangum is going to do next. Beyond touring this spring I’m not even sure he knows.
Night 1: 2/6/12
Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
Song Against Sex
King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2 & 3
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Night 2: 2/7/12
King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 1
King of Carrot Flowers Pt. 2 & 3
A Baby for Pree
Song Against Sex
Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
Prior to this Metro show, I’d only seen Los Campesinos! twice before. Both times were at Lollapalooza, but both were vastly different from one another. The first time, the band was playing one of the small side stages, had just released their first EP, and the crowd to watch them numbered less than 200. For a festival set, even on a side stage, it was a small crowd. Yet it was as if the band was hoping to win every single person over, even the ones casually walking by on their way to see another artist at another stage. They had an intense energy, playfulness and songs that showed it off while being catchy as hell. After the show, I immediately bought their EP and had them sign it, which all of them did while drawing doodles on it and chatting with me for an inordinate amount of time. There’s just something about those super young bands, so full of life and possibility, that you hope they never lose such charms. A couple years and a couple albums later, Los Campesinos! returned to Lollapalooza, this time on a massive stage with a massive crowd. I was excited to see my old friends again, but watching their set became a bit like going to your favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant to find it’s now become super popular and there’s a 2 hour wait to get in. The band was getting the success they so rightly deserved, but I felt as if some of their edge had been lost. Throw on top of it the fact that one of their core members Aleks Campesinos! would be leaving the band at the end of the tour, and I began to worry about the future of these indie pop upstarts. Their last album Romance Is Boring was also much darker and less energetic than their previous efforts, though it was still one of the best records of 2010. That darkness held strong on their most recent effort Hello Sadness, but that album felt like it took the band full circle, the lyrics holding strong and the hooks suddenly perking up to increase the likeability factor. Turns out they’re doing just fine without Aleks (and a couple other now-former members) in the fold. It had become high time, in my mind, to finally see this band outside of a festival setting and see if they could win me over once again.
All ages shows tend to bother me just a little bit, mostly because so much of the youth of today feels that talking to their friends while a band is performing right in front of them is a good idea. If you paid money to see a show, you’re there to watch the band, not talk to friends. You can do that anytime. For free. But the one thing all ages shows bring to the table is the spirit of youth. When everyone’s paying attention, there’s jumping around, sing-alongs at the top of your lungs, and generally good vibes to be absorbed by all. Los Campesinos! provided a great assist in all of this straight from the beginning of their set, starting with the dynamic first single and track off Hello Sadness, “By Your Hand”. Following it up immediately with prior singles “Romance Is Boring” and “Death to Los Campesinos!” both kept the energy level high and also provided a great retrospective of where the band is at present vs. where they were in their early days all of 4 years ago. It was the sonic equivalent of a knockout punch from the get-go, which is probably why everyone behaved themselves in the most immature way possible. There was dancing, there was singing, there was crowd surfing and even a touch of moshing, but thankfully it appeared that everyone was physically okay for the duration of the show. Gareth was doing his best to keep a cool head as the ringmaster of the proceedings, encouraging everyone to keep having a good time but also to be mindful of others and helping those in need. It was about building friendship and community as much as it was seeing some great songs performed, and it seems everyone got their way. Those hoping for catalogue-spanning highlights from Los Campesinos! weren’t really disappointed either, though as expected the majority of songs were from their new album Hello Sadness. It was grand to hear bouncing around from “Songs About Your Girlfriend” to “We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed” to “There Are Listed Buildings” and “Straight in at 101” without so much as a blink of an eye. Things slowed down just past the midpoint of the set, as new songs “To Tundra” and “The Black Bird, The Dark Slope” were emotionally tough but dragged in a crowd that was looking for a good time all night. Nothing that a little “You! Me! Dancing!” couldn’t fix though, which it did and kept the celebration going for another few songs, including the encore.
Closing out the main set was a very good rendition of “Baby I Got the Death Rattle”, even if much of the crowd apparently didn’t know the song’s closing lyrics of “Not headstone, but headboard/is where I want to be mourned.” Gareth clearly tried to get a sing-along started and it unfortunately didn’t quite work out. Finishing the encore with the classic “Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks” worked out far better, and there was a distinct smell of satisfaction in the air when the band walked off the stage that last time. That smell may also have been sweat. What helps make Los Campesinos! an exceptional band, outside of their dynamic and fun live shows, is the respect they have for their fans. They walked off the stage, through the backstage area, and straight to the merch table, where they remained until the very last person had cleared the room. They signed stuff, drew stuff, took photos, shook hands, engaged in too-long conversations, and basically did the same thing as the first time I saw them in 2007. To know that in spite of all their success and growth the last few years that they still care for their fans and put in the time and effort, well to me that’s the mark of a great band. It’s also a big reason why I’ll probably be a fan of theirs for as long as they’re around.
By Your Hand
Romance Is Boring
Death to Los Campesinos!
Life Is A Long Time
A Heat Rash in the Shape of the Show Me State; or, Letters from Me to Charlotte
Songs About Your Girlfriend
We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed
There Are Listed Buildings
Straight in at 101
The Black Bird, The Dark Slope
You! Me! Dancing!
The Sea Is a Good Place to Think of the Future
Baby I Got the Death Rattle
Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks
Upcoming Los Campesinos! U.S. Tour Dates:
Jan 31 – BLUEBIRD THEATER, DENVER CO (16+)*
Feb 1 – CLUB SOUND, SALT LAKE CITY UT (ALL AGES)
Feb 3 – ELECTRIC OWL, VANCOUVER BC (19+)
Feb 4 – NEPTUNE, SEATTLE WA (ALL AGES)
Feb 6 – WILD BUFFALO, BELLINGHAM WA (21+)
Feb 7 – DOUG FIR LOUNGE, PORTLAND OR (21+)*
Feb 8 – DOUG FIR LOUNGE, PORTLAND OR (21+)*
Feb 10 – GREAT AMERICAN MUSIC HALL, SAN FRANCISCO CA (ALL AGES)*
Feb 11 – ECHOPLEX, LOS ANGELES CA (18+)*
Feb 12 – CASBAH, SAN DIEGO CA (21+)*
Feb 15 – CLUB DADA, DALLAS TX (ALL AGES)*
Feb 16 – FITZGERALD’S, HOUSTON TX (ALL AGES)*
Feb 17 – THE PARISH, AUSTIN TX (ALL AGES)*
Feb 18 – THE PARISH, AUSTIN TX (ALL AGES)*
*with Parenthetical Girls
In case you haven’t heard, last week Wilco ended their fall/winter U.S. tour in support of their new album “The Whole Love” by performing 5 shows in their hometown of Chicago. Dubbed “The Incredible Shrinking Tour”, each night built upon the one before it as the band started at the 3,500 capacity Civic Opera House and ended a few days later at the 500 capacity Lincoln Hall. Along the way, there would also be stops at The Riviera (2,300), The Vic (1,400) and Metro (1,150). While I would have loved to have attended all 5 shows, time, money and ticket availability reduced me down to only 3 of the 5 nights. Still, 3 Wilco shows are better than 2 or 1 or none, and I also happened to be in attendance at the last two nights in which the band played their smallest shows in years, probably over a decade. Each show I attended also had its own distinct vibe and set list, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to recap and review each one. Let’s go in order.
For those that don’t know, Wilco is in the midst of a 5 night residency in their home city of Chicago at the moment. They performed on Monday night at the Civic Opera House for Night 1. I was unable to get tickets to that show (or I should say, rejected the option of buying very, very bad seats), but was able to make it out for Night 2 at the Riviera Theatre. This isn’t a show review, and I’m not going to write one right now for a couple reasons. The first being we’re in the middle of Listmas here and I’m buried in things I have to write. The second is that there are still 3 more Wilco shows to go before the week ends. I will be attending two of those three. Next week, once all the Wilco shows in Chicago have wrapped up, I’ll throw something together that essentially recaps all of them. For now, I wanted those looking for it to have the set list for the Riviera show. Naturally, the new album “The Whole Love” was (and will remain) the focus for the time being, however what I find most interesting are the choices made outside of the new material. Will the band try and attempt vastly different set lists each of their 5 nights in Chicago? The Riviera show featured plenty of changes from the Civic Opera House one, so we shall see. I must say that I LOVE how much attention “A Ghost is Born” got, and whipping out little-heard songs like “I Must Be High” and “Just A Kid” (from the freaking Spongebob movie soundtrack) was truly inspired. Overall a spectacular night, to the point where they even made the typically horrid sound system of The Riv work some magic. Must’ve been because I was standing next to the soundboard. Anyways, I’ll have more info and some additional set lists from the Wilco shows on Friday and Sunday nights as well, not to mention a full writeup/recap coming early next week. Until then, here’s the set list from The Riv show.
Less Than You Think
Art of Almost
Bull Black Nova
Side with the Seeds
I Got You (At the End of the Century)
You Are My Face
I Must Be High
I’m Always in Love
Can’t Stand It
Dawned on Me
The Late Greats
Just A Kid
Outtasite (Outta Mind)
I’m A Wheel
Sometimes even the crappiest of bands makes for the most engaging of shows. That’s not to suggest The Kooks or The Postelles are crappy bands, but to put it another way, neither one of them will generate a huge amount of underground hype, largely because their music isn’t diverse or experimental enough. You don’t need such things to become successful, but they certainly do go a long way when looking to earn some respect from intense music lovers. If your songs are bright enough and catchy enough though, a fan base will come along with them in spite of loads of indications (i.e. bad press) you should ignore it. It boggles the mind sometimes how a band like Nickelback goes on to sell millions of albums while bands like Real Estate or Destroyer continue to live in relative obscurity. For The Kooks, their success is easy to hear as they’ve essentially provided a modern update to The Kinks’ Britpop stylings. Hell, change the “oo” in Kooks to “in” and you get Kinks. The band’s first two albums were lovely in how plainly catchy they were, and apparently two crappy reviews from Pitchfork means your third record gets entirely ignored. But they’ve also been getting steady radio airplay around the world, starting with “She Moves in Her Own Way” and branching out to “Always Where I Need to Be”, “Shine On” and most recently “Junk of the Heart (Happy)”. Their star continues to rise, in spite of some rather intense criticism. Similar things could be said about The Postelles, though their road to success appears to be a little tougher. Sonically their self-titled debut also updates a classic sound, that of 50s pop in the vein of Buddy Holly with the flourishes of The Strokes. It should come as little surprise that The Strokes’ Albert Hammond Jr. liked the band enough to put them under his wing and produce a portion of that first record. The Postelles may be having more difficulty getting people to listen to their record, but once they do so many are won over. It helps as well that the band has been touring almost non-stop in the last year and have been building an audience with some high energy shows. Their touring with The Kooks feels like a match made in heaven, given their somewhat similar sound and fun live sets. So in spite of having rolled through Chicago earlier in the month while touring with The Wombats, The Postelles returned to the Windy City on Saturday night, opening up for The Kooks at The Vic. It was one wild time.
First off, I want to give a quick shout out to the Chicago band Yawn. I like those guys quite a bit, and they were the first band on the bill Saturday night when doors opened. Yawn was actually joining The Kooks on tour as Saturday night was also The Postelles’ last night on tour with The Kooks. But I missed Yawn’s set and can’t very well write about it, but having seen them before and being familiar with their latest record “Open Season”, they’re well worth keeping an eye on. Have a look at their official website to learn more about them.
After dodging some seriously heavy raindrops on my way to The Vic, I arrived with just enough time to shake the water from my hair and catch the start of The Postelles’ set. The crowd was surprisingly heavy already, though it was a sold out all ages show, so perhaps parents dropping off their kids just wanted to get rid of them as soon as possible. Just kidding, there was a good mixture of older teens and 20-somethings on the whole, but nobody much older than that. Spending so much time at 21+ shows has ruined me in some ways I guess, because the energy and enthusiasm of the rather youthful crowd was intense. Everybody seemed intensely excited to be there, the bands included, and at times the screams got so intense I felt they were giving me hearing damage. I expected such raucous cheering when The Kooks were on stage, charming British lads as they are, but things were just as lively for The Postelles. It makes more sense if you know their music and have seen them live though, because the hooks suck you in easily and make it a breeze to sing along to as the band gets extremely playful and moves around the stage like they want to engage you in every way possible. They had no reservations about climbing atop the monitor speakers at the front of the stage for a quick guitar solo or intense vocal moment, and every time they’d do it, there would be screams of excitement from the crowd. Their 30 minute set saw them powering through much of their debut album, hitting particularly hard with singles like “123 Stop” and “White Night” along with deeper cuts like “Stella” and “Hey Little Sister”. There were people standing around me that had never heard The Postelles before but wound up singing the choruses to half the songs anyways because they’re so damn catchy, and with so many clapping along and jumping around you’d have to be a real Scrooge not to have had a great time. Towards the end of their set they polled the crowd as to whether they should cover Elvis or The Ramones, and it appeared to be a relatively even split, so they chose The Ramones because they’d done Elvis the two nights prior. Their cover of “Beat on the Brat” was remarkably good, and if you’re interested in hearing a version of it, there’s a covers EP available for free download below (email required) with that and songs by The Smiths, Joe Jones and Wreckless Eric as well. Before closing out their set, The Postelles played one new song that will likely appear on their next record. Naturally, it wasn’t a change in direction but a continuation of their already established sound. And yeah, that was pretty catchy and fun too. You might not walk away from a Postelles show sharply impressed with the material you heard, but if you can switch your brain to the “fun summer popcorn action movie” setting rather than the “intense drama award-winning movie” one, you’re almost guaranteed to have a blast.
The Postelles Tour Dates:
December 6th – Bootleg Theater – Los Angeles, CA
By that same token, The Kooks have not only a lot of the same things going for them, but they’ve got more material and success to back it up. Their 90 minute set was a 21-song steamroller that struck a strong balance between old material and new, singles and deep cuts. They started their set with “Is It Me?”, one of the catchier numbers on the new record and a good slower, quieter build to a more energetic chorus. The crowd was into it, but perhaps that was more the result of general excitement over the band finally being out on stage. Cameras in the air everywhere, and Luke Pritchard hopping up on the monitors at the front of the stage really did the trick right off the bat. If that didn’t work out for them, they slammed into high gear immediately afterwards thanks to “Always Where I Need to Be”. Hands were in the air and people dancing like they just don’t care. That feels like a cliche thing to say, but it also happens to be true, so keep that in mind before you judge. The set list appeared to be designed as an effective parsing out of the band’s best known songs with a consistent atmosphere of energy in between. The middle of the set was when the crowd appeared most lost, what with a couple newer tracks and some deep cuts from earlier records. Pritchard’s solo acoustic version of “Seaside” was a definite highlight that provided everyone with a brief moment of calm before the second half of the set got even more nuts. The Kooks closed out their set with a 1-2-3 punch that built the crowd up to an extremely high point and naturally left them wanting more. The combination of “Ooh La”, “Shine On” and “Do You Wanna” was ultimately what pushed the show over from great to excellent, the band growing more ferocious and intense with every minute. Pritchard worked the stage like a young Mick Jagger, swaggering one minute and egging the crowd to cheer louder the next. There wasn’t a whole lot they could do in the encore to top what was accomplished during the main set, but it was smart of them to save a couple big ringers for last. Non-album cut “Saboteur” was an interesting choice to start the encore considering it was the only thing on the set list that wasn’t on any of the band’s three records. The title track and first single from “Junk of the Heart” scored big points given its constant radio presence in Chicago, and “Inside In/Inside Out” classic “Naive” ultimately closed out the evening. As the band quickly worked towards that finish, the crowd maintained their energy and enthusiasm the entire time. It was an amazing thing to behold, and probably a testament to both the band and their fans that so many just didn’t stop for a minute to catch their breath but simply jumped, danced and sang along like it was one of the greatest concerts they’d ever seen. For some of them, it probably was. I may not think the world of The Kooks’ music, but I have a certain appreciation for what they’re trying to accomplish. They may not be getting any better on record, but live they’re simply not to be missed. It wasn’t the best show I’ve seen this year, but it made me feel young and just a little bit…naive once again.
Is It Me?
Always Where I Need to Be
She Moves in Her Own Way
Tick of Time
See the Sun
How’d You Like That
Mr. Nice Guy
Do You Wanna
Junk of the Heart (Happy)
As a music venue, the Riviera Theatre is one of the worst in the city of Chicago. In fact, it kind of borders on abysmal. I dislike it so much that I’ve had a personal ban on going to shows there for the last several years. That was a result of attending multiple shows there and having normally great live bands turn in terrible performances. The common denominator among them all was the Riv, so I imposed a ban, vowing to only break it in the case of a show so rare it’d kill me to miss it. This is why it has been close to 7 years since I last set foot in the venue. Naturally then, I was by no means excited to get back there, but a situation finally emerged that I could not pass up. The Smashing Pumpkins were returning to their hometown for the first time in a long time (not counting the charity show they played at Metro last fall), and The Riv just so happened to be the moderately small venue they chose to play. They could have sold out a venue at least 3x the size, which made the experience special. Not only that, but they’ve been putting a dent in their 44-song “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope” project and are set to unleash their ninth full length “Oceania” next month. So add in the chance to preview some of that and despite my apprehension about the venue along with how well this revamped lineup is doing, I felt it was something I needed to see at least once.
One other reason I was a bit excited about the show was that the band Light FM was opening. They’re out on their first national tour in support of their freshly released album “Buzz Kill City”. I’ve been listening to that super catchy, fuzzed out synth pop record quite a bit in the last couple weeks, and was interested to see how it translated in a live setting. There’s also a certain charm to see a band in a state of relative infancy (they’ve been around awhile but are just now gaining national attention) try to win over a whole new set of fans. Given that the start time was a prompt 7PM, The Riv wasn’t yet at full capacity when Light FM took the stage. The band was still grateful to those that did show up early, and in my opinion it was worth it. They breezed through a 20 minute set, giving them only enough time to perform a handful of songs, but making each one of them count. They may not be the most active band when on stage, something that might make sense given the sort of music they make, but sometimes those things need to be sacrificed to ensure the quality is there. Similarly, it’s comforting that Light FM take a very basic approach to their live show and are successful. There are so many bands that feel the need to dress up their performance with a gimmick to try and set themselves apart, but more often than not it’s a measure to try and counter mediocrity. One of the bands on this bill fits that description perfectly, and I’ll get to them in a minute. On the whole, Light FM’s set was pretty good, in spite of only getting a relatively brief snapshot of what they’re capable of. Those that were there seemed to enjoy what they heard too, even if they had just shown up to get as close to Billy Corgan as possible. This is a promising young band with plenty of growing left to do, and the more time spent playing live the faster that growth will occur.
The two bands opening for the Smashing Pumpkins on Friday were hand-picked by Billy Corgan. That’s probably the only reason that Fancy Space People were on the bill. Corgan is essentially serving as a “mentor” for the band, pulling them from relative obscurity and working closely with them on the relatively small amount of music they’ve released so far. Their debut EP was released on Starry Records, which is directly connected with Coldwater Studios, both of which are owned and operated by Kerry Brown, of the former Chicago band Catherine. Corgan has known Brown from way back in the day when the Pumpkins shared a practice space with Catherine in Chicago. More on that connection later, but the point being Corgan has his fingerprints all over Fancy Space People. My initial impression of the 8-piece band that showed up on stage was one of odd curiosity. I wasn’t terribly far from the stage, but from my vantage point it appeared that this was an all-female band dressed to the nines in sparkly leotards. Upon closer examination however, and after noticing that one of the band members clearly had facial hair, I came to realize that at least half the band was wearing long-haired wigs and all sorts of makeup, effectively creating a gender-bending androgynous situation. That was the first oddity. The second was how committed the band was to staying “in character”. They consistently referred to the crowd as “Earthlings” and spoke of offering up intergalactic protection from forces that might otherwise threaten to harm us. The song lyrics also backed up the banter. It was pure theater, and entertaining as it was, the whole spectacle wasn’t enough to distract from the moderately poor quality of the music itself. First of all, having 8 members in your band for a sound that clearly doesn’t require it is simply excessive and it wouldn’t surprise me if a few of the parts were doubled over just to add some more power to the songs. Secondly, while there’s certainly a void in the glam rock/hard rock genre since Kiss has become less and less active over the years, is that a void that needs to be filled? Different strokes for different folks, I guess. There was nothing outright terrible about Fancy Space People’s set, but it’s clear these guys and girls need to work on their sound first and their stage presence second. Make some songs worth hearing and tone down the rhetoric a little and people will pay attention. It seemed to me that much of the crowd was apathetic towards the band or scoffed at how showy the whole thing was. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night though was how Fancy Space People effectively bridged the gap in sonic styles between Light FM and the Smashing Pumpkins. By incorporating the synths of Light FM and the psychedelics of the Pumpkins, the three-act bill ultimately made sense, and that’s at least something Billy Corgan got right.
Prior to speaking directly about how the Smashing Pumpkins’ set at The Riv was, I’d like to issue a small disclaimer first. My history with this band has been a tumultuous one. The Smashing Pumpkins were a staple of my years growing up, and records like “Gish” and “Siamese Dream” were (and remain) essential listening for fans of 90s rock. So many people loved this band, which is why it was such a shame to see personnel like D’arcy Wretzky and James Iha go. When the Pumpkins broke up in December of 2000, that was the end of an era for me. In my opinion, the real Smashing Pumpkins died that day, and when Billy Corgan put out the call to re-establish the band in 2005 sans everyone but drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, to me it hasn’t been the same since. There have been multiple lineup changes since then, with the only constant being Corgan, and devoted fans will argue that’s all you need. After all, one of the main reasons people keep leaving the band is because Corgan takes on a dictator-like status, seeking to control every aspect of the Pumpkins sound and going so far as to re-record the parts of other members if he feels they are not good enough. Then there are the post-reunion live shows, which often find Corgan in a less than jovial mood and berating the crowd for getting upset the band isn’t playing more of the hits. It would seem that the Smashing Pumpkins version 2.0 are seeking to erase the legacy they developed in the early years. That’s what disappoints me the most I think. But I also give some modicum of credit to Corgan for some of the ballsy moves he’s made in the last few years. Projects like the 44-song “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope”, which has been getting released piece by piece since winter of 2009 is a daring and bold attempt to be different. As that song cycle continues to progress, the majority of those songs have also been released as free downloads, which is Corgan saying he hopes people will try them and be inspired to purchase a limited edition box of them packaged together. In the last couple years the live shows have gotten less angry and more devoted to the power of the music, likely because many of the old fans have quit following the band and the ones that remain truly believe in what he’s doing. I consider myself a purist, disliking much of what the Pumpkins have done recently but still intrigued enough to keep an eye and ear on them in case something brilliant happens. So with fingers crossed, my hope on Friday night at the Riv was to try and enjoy what would likely be a set heavy on post-2000 material. Believe it or not, Corgan & Co. managed to actually surprise me.
As the Smashing Pumpkins took the stage at The Riv, I immediately felt out of my depth. They launched into the epic “Quasar/Stella Polaris and the People Mover” and immediately backed it up with “Panopticon”, the trio of which kick off the upcoming Pumpkins record “Oceania”. Very few (if any) people have heard that upcoming record yet, and while the crowd was cheering because the band was on stage, there was a sense of bewilderment to it. You can’t sing along to these songs because you don’t know them and have no idea where they’re going. The first bit of genuine excitement came with the black curtain behind the band dropping to reveal two large, mirrored propellers and an intricate lighting rig. Yet that unveiling was marred by the lights all shining on full blast at once, effectively blinding the audience for a bit as their pupils played catch up. As to how good the new songs at the start of the show were, they’re far more psychedelic in nature than the older Pumpkins stuff, and The Riv’s shoddy sound system created a much muddier and uninspiring mix than the songs themselves probably deserved. My bet is they sound better on record.
The first surprise of the evening came four songs in, when the band played the 1992 “I Am One” b-side “Starla”. That one really separated the hardcore fans from the more casual fans, and it would turn out to be just the beginning of a night largely devoted to looking back. Many of the songs were distinctly old school, but it was about the farthest thing from a greatest hits parade that you could get. The first third of the set was rounded out via deep cuts from “Gish” and “Siamese Dream”, with “Mellon Collie…” single “Muzzle” sandwiched in between. There was a weirdly balanced mayhem as the set progressed, with a pair of songs from “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, Vol. 3” getting played, but having the first two volumes completely ignored. Also completely ignored were “Zeitgeist” and both of the “Machina” records. Outside of about half the “Oceania” record, the main focus appeared to be on “Gish” and “Siamese Dream”, along with b-sides and outtakes from those records. It’s been so long since I’ve listened to “Pisces Iscariot”, the rarities compilation from the band’s earliest recordings, that I was fumbling to remember cuts like “Frail and Bedazzled” and “Obscured”. Yet there’s also something discomforting about the few oddities that the Smashing Pumpkins pulled out of their back pockets on Friday night. Those b-sides and outtakes were cut from the main records for a reason, even if they were put onto compilations later. Very few bands can claim their b-sides are nearly as good as their main catalogues, and the Pumpkins are probably not one of them. So why whip them out and why now? Well, turns out there will be deluxe reissues of “Gish”, “Siamese Dream” and “Pisces Iscariot” before the end of the year. So was it promotionally motivated? You bet it was. Does it make them any less interesting to hear? Not really, as much of it is better than the band’s later catalogue. As evidenced by their touring around “Zeitgeist” a few years ago, Corgan seems to have a distaste for any of the old Pumpkins singles. Hence only four made the cut for the evening, with “Muzzle”, “Siva”, “Cherub Rock” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” each clearly garnering the loudest crowd responses of the night and some intense sing-alongs. After the show I heard a few fans grumbling about the lack of easily recognizable songs in the set, but saying it was still “better than a few years ago, when they played even less than that”.
If there was one thing I learned from watching this Smashing Pumpkins set, it was that Billy Corgan is a much better guitarist than I’ve ever given him credit for. Sure, he’s been responsible for writing and composing almost the entire Pumpkins catalogue, but I always figured that he took the ideas of James Iha or whatever guitarist that was in the band and repurposed them for his own self-aggrandization. With more nameless and faceless personnel surrounding Corgan than ever before though, it’s less and less likely they’re writing these brilliant parts that he’s taking advantage of. They seem to be more about following his lead than challenging it. And you know what? It works for them. The dynamic allows for some give and take between all of the band members, even if they’re not as talented as those that came before them. The back-and-forth guitar lines between Corgan and Jeff Schroeder on “Siva” gave the song a little fresher life than it does on record. Bassist Nicole Fiorentino and drummer Mike Byrne both kept a strong rhythmic dynamic to most of the songs, and the former’s vocal harmonies intertwined remarkably well with Corgan’s nasal tones. You still should probably call this the Billy Corgan Show though, because whenever he wasn’t playfully sparring with his bandmates, he was off on some extended guitar solo. Over 2.5 hours, I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed somebody take more solos than Corgan did. It reached the point where it was excessive and also physically painful for Corgan himself. He cracked a smile through much of it, but there was a point during an intense version of “Silverfuck” that he had to shake his hand out because it had gotten so cramped up from all the soloing. All that intricate guitar work ultimately served a purpose, which was to unite the past, present and future of the Smashing Pumpkins under one large umbrella. He purposely chose the more prog-rock and psychedelic moments out of the older material to merge it better with the newer stuff that places distinct emphasis on it. On the couple songs that didn’t serve that unifying purpose, he forced them into it by drawing them out into longer arrangements, accented with more solos. And you know what? It wasn’t half bad.
At the start of the encore, Corgan came out to deliver some of the only stage banter of the entire night. After acknowledging his brother up in the balcony, he talked briefly about the early days of the band and how they shared a practice space on the North Side of Chicago with this great local band Catherine. Catherine broke up in the late 90s, but Corgan has remained friends with them and has been working towards getting them to reunite. So it was with great pride that he re-introduced Catherine to the world as they performed together on stage for the first time in over a decade. They played a two song set, with Corgan contributing some guitar, and it was some great post-punk rock that appeared to indicate Catherine hadn’t lost much of a step. “A fine wine we are not,” one of the guys in Catherine proclaimed before launching into “Broken Bunny Bird” off their 1994 record “Sorry!”. It was exciting that they were back together, but a younger-skewing crowd gave clueless stares and polite applause to the band as most were entirely unfamiliar with the material. Most likely many were disappointed that Corgan was giving the encore time to this other band rather than playing more Pumpkins songs. The truth is, it was a little shocking that Corgan yielded the stage to anyone given his love of the spotlight. To close out the night for good, he seemed to want to throw the crowd a bone and leave them wanting more by breaking out “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”. Ironically it was the one moment of the entire set where Corgan appeared to be uninspired. He raced through the song at a faster than normal pace, like he was trying to remove a band-aid that was stuck to a thick patch of hair. The hope was the pain would go away quicker if he just ripped it right off in one quick motion. The crowd was more than satisfied though, and smiles were easy to come by. For a night that was largely built on the unfamiliarity of new material, rarities and deep cuts, it was just a little surprising they were smiling at all.
Quasar/Stella Polaris and the People Mover (Oceania)
Starla (I Am One single b-side)
Geek U.S.A. (Siamese Dream)
Muzzle (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness)
Window Paine (Gish)
Lightning Strikes (Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, Vol. 3)
Soma (Siamese Dream)
Frail and Bedazzled (Siamese Dream outtake)
Silverfuck (Siamese Dream)
Obscured (Gish outtake, Today single b-side)
Pale Horse (Oceania)
Thru the Eyes of Ruby (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness)
Cherub Rock (Siamese Dream)
Owata (Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, Vol. 3)
My Love Is Winter (Oceania)
For Martha (Adore)
Idiot (Catherine song)
Broken Bunny Bird (Catherine song)
Bullet with Butterfly Wings (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness)
Remaining Tour Dates
Oct 17 Washington, DC 9:30 Club
Oct 18 New York, NY Terminal 5
Oct 19 Providence, RI Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel
Oct 21 Boston, MA Orpheum Theater
Oct 22 Philadelphia, PA Tower Theater