There was a slight chill in the air last Friday night as School of Seven Bells and Active Child rolled into town to play a show at Lincoln Hall. Interestingly enough, the last time I saw School of Seven Bells was in the also-chilly late fall of 2008 when they had only released their debut record “Alpinisms” and were opening for M83. Since then, they’ve toured the world over a couple times and released a sophmore effort “Disconnect From Desire” that was a little different but still just about as great as their debut. With the small adjustment in sound and the couple years worth of live shows under their belts, it left a big question mark as to how their live show has changed. As for Active Child, they’re a (one man) band I’d been meaning to check out, but given the massive stockpile of music I deal with on a daily basis I never got around to it. That curiosity is exactly why I showed up early enough to catch their opening set Friday night.
Upon walking into Lincoln Hall, Active Child had just gotten started and the very first thing I encountered when looking to the stage was the man behind the name Pat Grossi singing and playing the harp. It would have had a very Joanna Newsom-ish vibe were there not some dark computer backing beats being provided by a pair of laptops and some guitar work courtesy of unofficial bandmate Stratton Easter. Having just two people on stage always makes for some interesting challenges, mostly in the recreation of the many layered sounds that appear on record. The laptops helped, but Grossi and Easter did all the real leg work, often moving between instruments such as keyboards and guitars to pull it off in what seemed to be effortless fashion. Of course just because it looked effortless doesn’t mean that it was, and mid-way through their set Grossi had to pull off a layer of clothing to keep cool. The crowd was very gracious to the band, though they clearly had a few female friends that were not shy about screaming loudly and even telling people to buy merch before Grossi had a chance to. It was all very amusing and interesting, but also pretty impressive from a musical standpoint. The songs sounded great and had a very moody, almost psychedelic vibe that worked well with the lighting and smoke machines. It also made perfect sense as to why Active Child was touring with School of Seven Bells given their somewhat similar sounds. Having not heard any music by the band prior to walking into their set that night, I can now say that Active Child is excellent both on stage and on record. I picked up the “Curtis Lane” EP after the show.
One of the more interesting things that happened before School of Seven Bells started their set was a lack of a tuning session. Most bands will set up their instruments and then tune up with the sound guy for 10 minutes, picking at a guitar or hitting the snare 50 times to get a level right. All SVIIB did was plug in, sing a few notes into the microphone, and then walk off stage as some pre-recorded atmospheric noise played over the speakers. Why they made everyone wait another 15 minutes before re-emerging and officially starting their set is a mystery, but it did allow sufficient time for the smoke machines to turn the entire stage into something rivalling London’s foggiest days. With psychedelic visuals projecting on the black curtain above the band as well, there’s certainly been some showmanship added to the band’s otherwise strong live show. When I saw them in 2008, School of Seven Bells were already a pretty strong live act. Given that Alejandra and Claudia Deheza both came from On! Air! Library! and Benjamin Curtis had spent plenty of time with Secret Machines, they were all seasoned pros before they even got together on this project. Perhaps the real point in playing those dreary instrumentals and building up smoke was to get the crowd into the appropriate mood. Everyone was pulled into the band’s world, a dark and dreamy place where the lines between reality and fiction, life and death, band and audience, were significantly blurred.
It was only fitting then that School of Seven Bells started their set with the fuzzy “Alpinisms” cut “Half Asleep”. The smoke, lighting and enchanting harmonies of the Deheza sisters turned the whole ordeal into a hypnotically beautiful way to begin. Lincoln Hall has the most technologically advanced and arguably strongest sound system in Chicago, but even that couldn’t stop a few minor microphone sqeaks during a couple songs during the set. Other than that, everything else was technically flawless and worked well with the shoegaze-inspired sound. The stage setup was purposefully functional too, with the Dehezas up front on guitar, keyboards and vocals while Benjamin Curtis and the touring drummer hung out in back. Having a live drummer is something a bit new for the band, who were getting by using drum machines when touring to support their first album. Whether he adds or subtracts from the good music that’s already there is up for debate. I chose to regard the drummer as unnecessary but never to the point where he hurt any of the great melodies the band has going for them. Much of the time he was competing with a drum machine anyways, and a lot of what he was supplementing with wasn’t overly complicated. If it makes SVIIB feel more like a full band, then he clearly serves that purpose at least, but otherwise it makes little difference whether or not he’s on stage.
As one might expect, the band ran through a set that mostly consisted of songs from “Disconnect From Desire”, given that’s the new record they’re supporting. “Windstorm” sounded pretty great in a live setting, though the album version is probably just a little bit better. “Heart Is Strange” fared better on stage, as did “Bye Bye Bye”. One of my personal favorite SVIIB songs “My Cabal” turned into a birthday dedication, which was nice and a better rendition than I heard when seeing the band a couple years back. My only real disappointment was the lack of certain highlights from “Alpinisms”. Without a “Iamundernodisguise” or “Connjur” to be found, that was a slight let down in an otherwise excellent set. There were many times the music and atmosphere blended just right to transcend the experience you’d get by simply giving one of the band’s records a close listen via headphones.
At the start of their encore, Alejandra Deheza prefaced things by saying, “Um, we’re gonna try something”. That “something” turned out to be a cover of “Kiss Them For Me”, originally by Siouxie and the Banshees. It was quite brilliantly done and mixed with the band’s sound nearly perfectly. I’m pretty sure Alejandra forgot the words to the last verse of the song, but it didn’t really matter, because everybody on stage looked like they were having a blast. That was really the only moment in the entire show when they were all grinning ear to ear and truly letting loose on stage. They came off as a bit stiff at the beginning of their set but gradually grew warmer and happier as things progressed. The crowd was receptive as one might expect throughout the set, though I was left wondering how many of them actually recognized the Siouxie cover during the encore. No matter, there were lots of satisfied faces leaving Lincoln Hall last Friday night. The smiles might not have been there, given that SVIIB aren’t exactly the happiest or most upbeat band in the world, but looking at the eyes, you could tell it was a great night. Should you have the opportunity, going to see School of Seven Bells and/or Active Child touring through your town is definitely something worth doing. Not nearly enough bands these days attempt to make their live shows experiences rather than simple jam sessions, but thankfully these two bands know that there’s more to a performance than simply playing back the songs from your records verbatim.