At 7:30 the indie popsters who promoted this show were hanging up helium balloons to, in their words, "twee" Schubas up a bit. Already one of the promoters was spinning bubbly indie pop over the house sound system. Bands were still lounging unfettered while they restrung guitars. At 8:00 the doors opened and a slow trickle of pop fans slunk into the room. These are, I'm led to believe, my peers. I guess so. I wonder if I look as lonely as they do. At 8:30 Mike Reisenauer motioned to his band mates, and soon Madison's Pale Young Gentlemen was assembled on the stage.
About a year ago the band's publicity person urged me to see the band perform at the Cobra Lounge. On a whim I went. I fell in love. I added their songs to mix tapes. I spread the buzz. A year later the band is back in Chicago, promoting a new album, playing with a slightly different line up, and performing an entirely new set of songs that have few similarities to the ones performed a year ago. This wasn't shocking. I had a pre-release of the band's album, I knew about the shift. And after talking to bassist Brett Randall, the reasons behind the change were cleared up. But more on that in a bit. First, the show.
Pale Young Gentlemen is lead by Mike Reisenauer who provides vocals, guitar, and occasionally keyboards for the band. He is joined by Beth Morgan's backing vocals and her omnipresent cello. Gwendolyn Miller plays viola and bells, Brett Randall bass, and Matt Reisenauer drums. The band has a warm pop sound better suited for cold evenings in than for hot nights out. Mike Reisenauer's vocals are earnest; his lyrics intimate. While Reisenauer could probably convey all the emotion of the band's material with just his voice and acoustic guitar, it's the little touches such as the low groaning strings of Morgan's cello and the plucked strings of Miller's viola that add nuance and depth to the band. Morgan's voice provides nice balance to Reisenauer's, but gone are the times when the whole band would join in at full voice. This new Pale Young Gentlemen is orchestrated, tempered, and focused. The wild abandon of its earlier incarnation has been squashed, in effect neutering the bouncing and shifting rhythm section so prominent in the early recordings. Still, and with some reservation, the band closed its 50-minute set with "Clap Your Hands" – an Eastern European-tinged stomper that placed Reisenauer at his keyboard for only the third time that evening. When a band does everything so beautifully now, it's hard to fault them for past glories.
After the band played, I had a chance to talk to Randall. He was curious to hear my take on the set, but I could tell he was treading lightly, unsure of what he might hear. I told him, essentially, what I wrote above. Randall is happy with the band's direction, noting that "Clap Your Hands," "Fraulein," and many of the other similarly bounding songs found on the first album are years old – that album essentially representing a "best of" chronicling the early years. Like other performers who will be saddled with a "hit" that doesn't seem relevant to their current direction, Randall still likes the song, but finds it hard to put the energy into it that he once did. Maybe, with new songs so strong and beautiful, the audience can let these older, Weimar-era-styled songs go.
At 9:40 the growing audience collectively stepped six paces closer to the stage. The front row (still four metres from the stage) included one girl in a "Canasta" shirt. Later I'd watch her, and those around her, sing the words to nearly every song the band played. This band has fans.
Canasta is a six-piece subdued pop band from Chicago with a nearly nine-year history. A history, I must admit, that I'm not aware of. The band is fronted by Matt Priest who not only performs vocal and bass duties, but occasionally plays trombone as well. As with the Pale Young Gentlemen, male lead vocals are balanced by backing vocals of a female string player – in this case of violinist Elizabeth Lindau. While Priest’s vocals are confident, remarkably clean, and communicate a great deal of emotion, Lindau may be the star. When she is given the opportunity to sing lead, the band is at its best. This duo is joined by keyboardists Ian Wilson and Kyle Mann, drummer Josh Lava and guitarist Jeremy Beckford. Each of these players also provides ( I feel this should be singular but I’m not sure) backing vocals on occasion, and to great harmonic effect on the new (tentatively titled) song "I Don't Know Where I Was Going with This (Tony's Song)."
With so much of the band's music built around long phrasing from Lindau's violin, or Priests smooth trombone, the brief moments of nervous twitch in "Microphone Song" demand attention. A cover of Peter Schilling's "Major Tom (Coming Home)" had the opposite effect however, as the band's reinterpretation removed any energy that may have existed in the original recording, replacing it with languid vocal phrasing and a twinkling piano line that recalled the horrors of Coldplay. Although I admire the band's song writing abilities – particularly its smart arrangements that blend so many instruments – there is just not enough excitement or variation to keep me interested. I heard bands play this same formula on campuses all over the US in the mid 90s, and it was good enough to win devoted fans then as it is now, but it’s all too middle of the road for me.
Although this would be Bearsuit's first performance in Chicago, I was still surprised by the relatively small turn out. While half of the audience stepped forward again for the headliner (nearly making it to the stage this time), the other half simply left. Canasta has fans, but those fans don't know what they missed by leaving early. If Bearsuit were upset by the attendance, it didn't let the remaining audience know – there would be energy from the first note to the last.
After seeing several bands that built their sound through delicate shading, the music of Bearsuit was refreshingly simple. The bouncing, bubble gum punk of the band is as irreverent as it is precious. It's twee, it's C86, and it's (let's not beat around the bush) Bis all over again. This UK band is touring as a six-piece fronted by the effervescent, energetic, pigtailed, and just gosh darn cute Lisa Horton. Her keyboard and melodica work are trumped by her vocals, which are, in turn, trumped by her dancing. While guitarist (and occasional keyboardist) Iain Ross provides vocals on nearly half of the band's songs, he maintains a much more subdued persona on stage. In fact, he reminds me of sage-like Harris Trinsky from Freaks and Geeks – or maybe that's just the shaggy hair, the glasses, and the thin moustache. Jan Robertson also split her time between guitar, keyboards, and vocals, providing her over-the-top energy to the mix as well. Drummer Joe Naylor, bassist Charlene Katuwawala, and fill-in keyboardist Al Harle round out the live band.
Everyone on stage wore blue capes that were lined in gold and attached at the wrists. Each wore gold headbands, and had two blue stripes painted on their left cheeks. Only Horton, however, wore blue hot pants. Harle wore aviator goggles, but even though he was equipped with a cape, and pogoed with abandon, lift-off was never achieved during the band's 40-minute set.
Before the band played a note Horton informed the audience that crowd participation would be required. After a quick test of the required call and response (to which Horton declared "bloody good" earning her a rib from Ross who thought she was playing into British stereotypes) the band launched into the set. The audience participation came in spades – particularly from a creepily dedicated crew of men up front who danced and bounced throughout the set. One of them miffed the band by calling out for an unrecorded song the band performed five years ago as part of a session for John Peel. Yes, Bearsuit has fans too.
The show ended at 11:30, and despite a boisterous call for an encore from the aforementioned cadre, the band didn't return to stage. Instead its members moved to the back of the club, and began selling merchandise to a line of fans that included just about everyone left in the club. Whether all of these people were fans before the show or not, I can't say. I do know, however, that twee kids will wait an hour in the rain to pick up a UK-pressing of a picture-sleeve 45rpm single from a band that delights them. And that is even more adorable than pastel-coloured helium balloons.