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Wednesday September 26th, 2007 at Schubas in Chicago, IL
The Brunettes, Ferraby Lionheart, & The Lucksmiths
The Brunettes
Jonathan Bree of The Brunettes
Ferraby Lionheart
Tali White of The Lucksmiths
[more photos]
[14.4M mp4 video]

I've seen some bad bills lately: opening acts that just don't make sense with the headliner, opening acts that are just abysmal, and bills where the band in the headliner slot is only half as interesting as its opening act. I say this because I had planned to see The Brunettes at Schubas from the moment I heard about the show. Weeks later when I saw The Lucksmiths were touring, I excitedly went to add that show to my schedule only to discover that the band had been added to the bill with The Brunettes. Oh bonus! Finally karma pays off.

Although scheduled to begin at 9pm, Australia's The Lucksmiths actually took the stage a bit early. Singer/drummer Tali White explained that the band was "punk-tual," followed by bassist Mark Monnone who punned that the band was "D-I-Why weren't you here earlier?" After the groans died down, the band agreed that when the merely on-time patrons arrived, everyone would tell them that the band had been playing for an hour and a half. The Lucksmiths then began its short nine-song set with "A Hiccup in your Happiness" from its latest studio album. Wacky, wacky guys.

The Lucksmiths' sound is classic twee. Marty Donald's hollow-body Epiphone guitar provides a constant jangle, Tali White stands behind his drum kit playing simple (and largely unvaried) bouncing rhythms, and both Mark Monnone and second guitarist Louis Richter play support roles to fill in the gaps. The band's sound is as airy and light as imaginable. While both Donald and Monnone contribute delightful harmonies, White's smooth, yet unassuming, voice leads most songs.

The Lucksmiths' performance was not one of energy or motion – no one really moved about the stage, and there were no impassioned howls from emotional band members – instead it was polite, fun, safe and cordial. This is exactly what the genre is known for, and The Lucksmiths continue to be its standard-bearer.

After The Lucksmiths' half-hour set, the stage was turned around for Los Angeles' Ferraby Lionheart. At his core, Lionheart is a singer/songwriter performing with either acoustic guitar or piano. His songs nod to the Tin Pan Alley craft of songwriting, and recall contemporary theatrical pop acts like Rufus Wainwright and Ron Sexsmith. To flesh out his arrangements, Lionheart performed with the trio of J Stare on drums, Scott Barber on bass, and Raymond Richards on pedal steel/other guitars. Richards' pedal steel was generally relegated to sliding accent work, but when it was allowed to shine, songs took on a decidedly country slant. While none of Lionheart's compositions could be called "gritty," the pedal steel and harmonica included on "Crack in Time" did highlight the song's Americana undertones. These moments might have been more reminiscent of Will Sheff's Okkervil River.

The band's performance was subdued, and there was no jocular audience interaction. Instead Lionheart methodically played his songs, allowing the compositions to do the talking. His fans, however, grinningly mouthed the words to each song, and danced along gleefully. It was easy to get caught up in the sweet pop melodies, and immediately after the show I picked up Lionheart's latest album, Catch The Brass Ring. I might just be one of those energetic fans the next time he comes through town.

Before this show, my familiarity with New Zealand's The Brunettes was limited to the six peppy fey tunes of the band's 2005 When Ice Met Cream EP. As such, I supposed the duo's live show would be quaint affair composed entirely of keyboardist Heather Mansfield and guitarist Jonathan Bree. Instead, six musicians with twice as many instruments covered the small Schubas stage. So what gives?

It seems I only knew half of The Brunettes story. While the band maintains one foot in the saccharine bubblegum of twee, its other foot rests amongst the Phil Spector assisted girl groups of the 60s. Obviously if the duo needs to recreate a wall of sound, it will need a large band.

So, the songs weren't twee and sparse, as I had anticipated, but instead the performance was grandiose. Not only was the wall of sound recreated, the addition of Stephen Hart on saxophone and Harry Cundy on trumpet made the minor soul undertones of the band's recorded music a focal point of the live show. I had trouble pinning down the formula. Lets see, there is guitar and bass and drums and sax and piano and glockenspiel all filtered through a wall of sound production, and steeped in anthemic rock. I couldn't quite place it, until the band spelled it out for me with its encore.

While I may have been shocked by the touring version of The Brunettes, both Bree and Mansfield were as adorable as I had imagined. Bree, in particular, was astonishingly cute as he rambled through his shyness, expectedly clad in a red argyle sweater that closely resembled the one seen on the cover of that 2005 EP.

The band closed its encore with a sloppy cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run." It was a rendition ripe with lyrics either forgotten or sung with uncertainty, but it also played perfectly to the band's instrumental make up, and the wall of sound production it is so fond off. Mansfield and Bree traded verses, with the whole band (and audience) joining for the choruses. Things couldn't have ended any more perfectly.

So just as I had come to see The Brunettes, but also received The Lucksmiths and Ferraby Lionheart as unexpected bonuses, I had also come to see the twee Brunettes, and gotten the lavish pop Brunettes for free. Really then, it was as if I had seen four shows for the price of one. And that makes up for a month of bad bills. Karma does love me!

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