In case you haven’t heard, there’s a heat wave taking over Chicago and most of the country right now. It has created a problem and a half for so many people and businesses, though I’m sure the ice cream shops are experiencing a super boom. Power outages at a time like this can be fast and furious too, with so many people cranking the air conditioning. The good news is that despite it being 90+ degrees outside, outages were minimal, though not a lot of people were walking around outside. Inside of the classic Chicago venue of Schubas, they do not have air conditioning. Fans are their only means of keeping cool, and in their concert room they were on full blast. The less warm bodies in the room, the cooler it was. It’s part of the reason why it paid to show up early to see the triple bill of Faces on Film, Marissa Nadler and Timber Timbre.
For those unfamiliar, Faces on Film is the moniker under which Boston singer-songwriter Mike Fiore records. He’s got two full lengths out, and I’ll readily confess that I’ve heard neither of them. It’s not that I’ve actively avoided Faces on Film, but there are so many artists out there and I’ve only got two ears and so much time. After seeing him play though, I have to say that I was won over. Singer-songwriters are often a hard sell, primarily because there are just so many of them. Have a strong sense of melody, play guitar with precision, and sing with range and power, and hopefully the right kind of attention will come your way. Fiore played his entire set solo, just him and a guitar, along with a respectful audience. As it was still early in the evening, there were only about 20 people that bore witness to his soulful and heart-on-his-sleeve performance. The response was louder than you’d expect though, and it helped that Fiore was charming and had some solid stage banter. After playing an acoustic guitar for close to half the set and an electric guitar for much of the second half, towards the end he pulled out a new instrument he had bought on eBay. It’s difficult to describe except to say it was like a small lap-confined autoharp that sounded like a synthesizer. That said, he told everyone before pulling it out that it hadn’t been working properly ever since he got it, and that he’s yet to make it through a full song using it. It brought a fun bit of extra entertainment to the set as everyone held their breath the instrument would work for an entire song. The end result? We got half of a song out of it before it crapped out. That one instrument may not have survived a song, but Fiore not only did that, but pulled off a full set in very smart and economical fashion. Faces on Film is one to watch for the future, that’s for sure.
While it technically wasn’t what you’d call a “triple headliner” bill, all three artists on it played for almost exactly the same amount of time and almost exactly the same number of songs. Only the order of the artists constituted what might otherwise be desrcibed as a “pecking order” of who people came to see. It actually surprises me a bit that Timber Timbre is playing last on this tour, if only due to their fewer number of albums and experience compared to somebody like Marissa Nadler, who just put out her fifth full length last month. The only logistical reason she wouldn’t be playing last at a show like this is because of musical style. I’m almost positive her fan base is bigger than Timber Timbre’s (at the moment), even if Timber Timbre are rising pretty strongly in popularity. At the very least let’s say this is a double headlining bill, and the quieter, much more fiercely independent Marissa Nadler wound up playing second for that exact reason. The crowd had built steadily by the time she took the stage, so the 200+ person room was moderately full and eager to hear her melancholy folk songs. In my pre-show interview with her, she mentioned to me that she’s got a pretty bad case of stage fright, so there was just a hint of apprehension on her face before starting that first song. Yet like the brave soul that she is, and like she’s done so many times before, she pushed onward and through. After taking the first three songs completely solo, she brought a friend of hers on stage to play cello, which brought some extra richness and depth to the rest of the set. Songs like “Little King” and “Alabaster Queen” had just a touch more dramatic flair and intensity than on record, and the crowd’s attention was affixed only on the stage. Mike Fiore aka Faces on Film also came on stage in an assist capacity for the last few songs, freeing Nadler up to focus exclusively on her rich and haunting vocals. In a sense then, Nadler had her own backing band for once, and though they didn’t quite have enough people to throw some light drums into the mix, in the end it didn’t matter. By the time she closed with “The Sun Always Reminds Me of You”, you could have heard a pin drop in that room. I’ve been to far too many shows at which people will have open conversations with one another as music plays right in front of them. Most of the time such behavior results from somebody being bored and feeling that chatting will be more interesting. So many great artists have been forced to ignore idiots that choose to disrespect a performer in such a way. It’s to Marissa Nadler’s credit that I heard not one bit of conversation during her set, save for her own stage banter, which was primarily confined to introducing and telling us a little bit about the song she was about to play. For as quiet as it was, it was also an overly heartwrenching and passionate performance – one you simply just couldn’t ignore.
Last but certainly not least was Timber Timbre, a band I’ve done a minor amount of advocating for in recent months primarily due to their weird and unique take on music. Here is a band that brings together a number of familiar sounds, but not in any way you’d truly expect. At their heart, these songs are like what Nick Cave might sound like were he to attempt a doo wop album. There’s this almost scary waltz-like tempo on virtually every one of the songs on the band’s newest record, and the marriage of minimalist textures seguing into violent instrmental bits makes it that much more haunting. Speaking of haunting, the three piece chose to create their own stage lighting rather than use the traditional overhead can lights. In place of them were three construction lanterns with red bulbs inside, hung from makeshift poles next to each band member. It pushed the eerie atmosphere that much farther while crafting an intimacy that made the now packed room feel as if it were a sealed-off cave from which there was no escape. Given that we were all “trapped” in this situation, Timber Timbre made the best of it and played an assortment of songs from their catalogue. Even outside of the lights, the stage setup was odd courtesy of how each band member was surrounded by multiple instruments. Frontman Taylor Kirk did triple duty by playing the guitar and singing while simultaneously stomping on a bass drum. Mika Posen would alternate between keyboards, violin and a floor tom drum. Simon Trottier was sort of the everyman in the band, doing guitar but also autoharp and a number of various electronic gizmos that created unique sounds or backing tracks. So while the set up lacked a couple of the elements that are on the most recent Timber Timbre record, in particular saxophone. tracks like “Bad Ritual” and “Do I Have Power” still thrived in slightly different form. My personal favorite out of the set was “Lonesome Hunter”, which flew into a dischordant rage at the very end of it – something that felt entirely earned. The crowd, again holding deathly quiet throughout, threw an avalanche of applause on the band when they finished their set. Who knows if they legitimately had planned on doing an encore or not (as with pretty much every headlining band, such things are standard), but they did walk off and then back onto the stage after a few moments to seal the night with a grand rendition of “Trouble Comes Knocking”. It marked an almost triumphant end to a night that was really anything but.
That’s not to say anything was bad, in fact there wasn’t really a bad moment across all three sets. I’m speaking more to the extremely subdued and hushed nature of the entire evening. Unlike so many bands that infuse all sorts of energy and thrill-a-minute gimmicks into their shows, here were three artists that make uncompromisingly dark, quiet and slow music. That’s not something to be celebrated, but it is something worth praising. So many of us go out and have lighthearted, happy-go-lucky lives that we never truly connect with the sadness of others. We avoid emotionally stressful or challenging situations because of the fear we’ll get dragged down along with that other person. Yet no healthy, emotionally strong person strives for happiness each and every day of our lives. We need that sadness, that darkness, to help stay balanced and truly appreciate the better times. What these three artists did on stage, whether they were fully aware of it or not, was to help us access those feelings we choose to keep locked away from most of our friends and family. Nobody was about to break down and have a good cry, but when you talk about empathy and sheer drama, there was a wealth of it spread across 3.5 hours. When all the music was finally over, most everyone in the crowd filed out of Schubas in the close to silent fashion we had arrived. With the pitch black night sky overhead, that dark passenger stepped out onto the sidewalk with us, a gentle reminder that sometimes sunshine, lollipops and rainbows are completely overrated.