If you live in Chicago and have a deep appreciation for music, you should know about the Tomorrow Never Knows festival. It’s a 5-night event taking place at a few venues around the city, featuring the newest of the new when it comes to buzz bands. The lineups are traditionally diverse and equally excellent, and this year features such luminaries as The Helio Sequence, Sun Airway, Handsome Furs, Mister Heavenly (Islands/Man Man/Modest Mouse), Marketa Irglova (of The Swell Season), Freddie Gibbs and Twin Shadow. The lineup I was most looking forward to was Thursday night’s show that featured Chicago band A Lull, fresh Jagjaguwar signee Lia Ices, the positively lovely Frankie Rose and the Outs, and the psychedelic stylings of The Besnard Lakes. Every one of those artists is great for different reasons, and that’s a big part of what makes Tomorrow Never Knows such fun. So while I typically take a 3 month sabbatical from going to shows (perchance there is a terrible snowstorm to deal with), upon checking the forecast earlier this week and seeing no threat of severe weather, I risked it and picked up a ticket for Thursday night. As hoped, everything cooperated.

Okay, so maybe everything didn’t fully cooperate. I had hoped to make it out to Lincoln Hall at the very start of the show, but ran into a half-hour delay . As a result, I missed the opening set from A Lull, one of Chicago’s better local bands. They’ve got a new record called “Confetti” coming out on Mush Records in April, and probably played a bunch of stuff from that. Keep this band on your radar though, big things are expected of them in the coming months and years. Anyways, I did make it to the venue just in time to catch Lia Ices at the start of her set. For those not in the know, Lia Ices is a female singer-songwriter from Brooklyn with a healthy bit of attention swinging her way as Jagjaguwar prepares to release her new record “Grown Unknown” a couple weeks from now. Her instrument of choice is the piano, but there’s plenty of guitar and other elements at work in her songs both on record and in the live setting thanks to a backing band. The crowd for her set was moderately sized, as these things tend to go when you’re the second of four acts on a bill. All for an artist that the majority of them had never heard before. She played most of the tracks from her forthcoming record to what might best be described as a warm audience response. Ices makes a good mixture of slower balladry and more upbeat pop numbers, both executed with a formality and classic ideologies. On stage, as lovely as she is, Ices is still a bit…icy. There was a certain awkwardness about her set that was made most apparent as she tried a little bit of between songs banter. There were points where it seemed like she wasn’t sure what to say next, only that she should say SOMETHING. That’s not to say she’s a bad performer, rather it speaks to her relative inexperience with live shows. Surely she’s done a reasonable amount of touring prior to now, but it’s going to take a bit more for her to appear truly comfortable in front of a large group of people. A lengthy tour in support of her new album should push her a long way in the right direction. I’d be interested to see her again in a year to find out how she’s developed as a performer. Her new record certainly sounded promising the way she played it on stage, and I’m looking forward to giving it a full review in the next couple weeks.

Lia Ices – Grown Unknown
Lia Ices – Daphne

While Lia Ices wound up being one woman’s songs performed with a backing band of all guys, Frankie Rose and the Outs was one woman’s songs performed with a backing band of all girls. Of course the Outs are a little more significant presence, as they are part of the official band name, and are actively participating in the writing of new material. Pretty much everything on the band’s self-titled debut record was written by Rose though, and she’s the official star of the show – like Huey Lewis is to the News. Frankie Rose is a bit notorious these days for having joined and then quit three different rising and important bands in the last couple years. She was on board drumming with Vivian Girls just as they made their name, then left/was asked to leave and wound up as drummer for Crystal Stilts, who then blew up big. Then there was Dum Dum Girls, who’ve also done well in the past year. But it was a handful of months ago when Rose just decided that maybe fronting her own band was the easiest way to go. She may have been best known for her drumming, but she was equally skilled at guitar and could sing, so why not. She put the Outs together piece by piece, so much so that she taught one of her friends how to drum from scratch so that girl could be part of the band. The debut record turned out great, and in fact just barely missed my top 50 albums list of 2010. The music is very lo-fi garage rock a la her former bands Vivian Girls and Dum Dum Girls, but in this case there’s also some sharper edges and innovations to help it stand out from the fray. Performing live, Frankie Rose and the Outs are a thing to behold: vibrant, exciting, and noisy as all hell. The technical skill is impressive on its own, lest you forget the songs are pretty dynamite as well. The best artists are able to take their recorded product and breathe new, even better life into it on stage. This band has that going for them, and as a result that bodes very well for their future. Not only that, but Rose comes off as a very interesting and fun personality, and her between song banter was nothing short of witty. The singular gripe that comes along with this set is that it was far too short. Yes, the songs themselves aren’t exactly long, but they plowed through 10 songs in about 25 minutes when their allotted time was 45 minutes. Given that there were a couple of new songs thrown in amongst the ones already on record, there were still a few more the band could have played. Instead they said goodnight, leaving the crowd begging for more but not getting any. After the show I made a small complaint via Twitter about the short set, and apparently a few others did the same, because Rose addressed the issue via her Twitter account, basically saying that they played a full set, and while it may have only been 20 or so minutes long, it felt like 3 hours to her. That was later followed by a couple amusing Tweets first saying she’s going to start playing 4 hour sets, then trying to say that as a non-headlining band, you don’t want to take too long and have to be told to stop. Whatever. We got 10 thrilling and loud songs out of the band, even with some small sound problems early on (they didn’t get a soundcheck), it was one hell of a show. Go see Frankie Rose and the Outs should you have the opportunity.

Frankie Rose and the Outs – Candy
Frankie Rose and the Outs – Little Brown Haired Girls

With Frankie Rose and the Outs finishing early, that gave The Besnard Lakes a little extra time to set up/start early. They did both, not that it really mattered because they still would’ve had buffer time if things had gone as planned from the beginning. But The Besnard Lakes are coming off a highly successful year that saw them release a stellar sophmore record titled “Are the Roaring Night” (that was among my Top 50 Albums of 2010) and embark on an extensive tour around the world that after a few months is just now wrapping up. The last time the band was in Chicago was over the summer, when they played a free show at the city’s crowned jewel venue of Millennium Park. I was unable to attend that show, but the band’s epic, psychedelic songs surely fit a massive and gorgeous outdoor theatre like that exceptionally well. The confines of Lincoln Hall are by comparison a whole lot smaller, but their top-of-the-line sound system helped to assure that the band could deliver yet another classic performance. Deliver they did, completely captivating the audience with an off-the-rails display of instrumental mastery whilst adding sharp visual stimuli courtesy of some seriously impressive lighting and smoke machines galore. These are exactly the sorts of things you want to happen at a show like this with a band like this, just as the photographic evidence (which I will post shortly) will help prove. The interplay of light and shadows and smoke just all came together to create an ethereal haze that washed over everything in tandem with the walls of sound. The set list was a collection of their best tracks, from the epic “Like the Ocean, Like the Innocent” to “Devastation” to “And You Lied to Me” to the local-baiting “Chicago Train”. Every single part of it was 100% excellent, and for a band so road-weary it makes the feat that much more impressive. Among the most amusing moments of the entire night was the story Jace Lasek told about the number of truckers on the road that tell him he looks just like cult leader David Koresh (it’s so true). Then someone yelled out that maybe he should start a cult of his own, which ultimately ended on a joke about making sure everyone drank a cup of “free juice” before the end of the show. If The Besnard Lakes were to legitimately start a cult though, there’s a good bet that a number of people in the crowd on Thursday night would have joined immediately. That was one epically great performance they put on, helping to solidify their growing reputation as a band that will blow your mind. It marked the perfect cap to what was overall an excellent and variety-filled evening. The best show I’ve seen in 2011? Without a doubt. It’s also the only show I’ve seen in 2011 in this two-week-old year. One can only hope every show turns out as well as this one in the remaining 350+ days we have left on the 2011 calendar.

The Besnard Lakes – And You Lied To Me
The Besnard Lakes – Albatross