I haven't yet pegged Chicago. Every time I go to a show it’s at a different venue, with different start times, different crowds, different sound and different stage settings that affect my photography. I never know if I should expect crowded surroundings or if a show might be a quiet affair. And, as I know few local bands, I never know what to expect from opening acts. I hoped this show would give me some insight into what makes Chicago tick.
When I arrived at The Note it was a bit before 9pm. A scribbled note on the counter read, "Rain Delay Theatre has cancelled." Having never heard of the band, I had no idea if that was a good or bad thing. I did hope that the show might end a bit earlier for having one less band. However, I sat idly and alone in the club until a bit after 10pm when the first band began its set.
The night commenced with Aleks and the Drummer, a wonderfully bizarre duo that is almost as new to the scene as I am. Diminutive vocalist Aleksandra Tomaszewska fronts the band with her clean ("just a bit of reverb" was her instruction to the soundman), high vocals punctuated by a trained vibrato. She also plays a Farfisa Compact 60's organ that bellows its delightfully perky sound in quick blasts, adding an element of circus psychotica to her eastern European melodies. Under it all is drummer Deric Criss who blasts away at his kit completely independent (if not unaware) of the music that surrounds him. He surges from tight disco-punk rhythms (which work surprisingly well with the Russian and Polish-inspired songs) to full on cacophonies of maniacal prog-rock over-reaching. The supportive audience came close for the set, but most seemed unsure. As left-field as the band is, commercial success is a near impossibility. However, three facts could make this band a critics darling: first, the band's compositions are tight and interesting; second Tomaszewska's voice is piercing yet bewitching; and third, Tomaszewska is strikingly beautiful. I hope I get invited out to their next show.
Aleks and the Drummer's small stage footprint was soon removed, and the stage was then enveloped with So Many Dynamos’ equipment. I recently discovered this band's 2004 debut CD and, as a result, was excited to catch its show. While the band's live sound didn't exactly equate to its recordings of three years ago (there have been some lineup changes), I was impressed all the same. Songs are complicated and smart, yet still bristle with energy and passion. It's indie rock with a strong remembrance of post-hardcore. Touchstones like The Dismemberment Plan are an admitted and obvious influence. While So Many Dynamos isn't making startling new music, it is making good music.
The members of this quartet (comprised of two guitarists, a vocalist with keyboard duties and a drummer – no bassist) were grounded workmen with a thankfully unrehearsed live show. Aaron Stovall's vocals aren't polished and guitarist Griffin Kay (the band's former merch guy) has no rock star moves and even looks a bit goofy with his tongue hanging out of his mouth when he plays, but this is all part of the band's charm. These are real guys, playing their hearts out without any pretension. Despite the fact that this was the last night of the band's current tour, its members showed no sign of fatigue. From the opening riff to the final keyboard sustain, the band was in sweaty motion.
Before leaving the stage, So Many Dynamos pleaded with the audience to stay for the final band of the evening. Even still, the majority of the audience could be seen streaming out the door as So Many Dynamos packed up its gear. I overheard many fans say that they had driven four hours up from St. Louis for the show and were hoping to get home before sunrise; others were locals simply feeling the effects of a late start time. Regardless of the reasons, when Cars Can Be Blue took the stage it was to a much smaller audience.
Cars Can Be Blue is the Athens, GA duo of guitarist Becky Brooks and drummer Nate Mitchell. The band's music is simple pop built around snapping drumbeats and ringing open guitar chords (from a Dan Electro of course). Musical debts to Beat Happening (and all of that band's followers) are obvious and expected. Add in the cloying, girly vocals of Brooks and the less-than-tight boy-girl harmonies, and the band is about as textbook twee as one could imagine. Just so we know where I stand on this issue, this is a formula that I wouldn't mind seeing repeated 1000 times by 1000 bands.
Earlier in the evening I spotted the lanky Mitchell, and a women I assumed must have been Brooks (she has dyed her hair blonde since the photos on the band's website were taken). I watched as Brooks sat most of the night at a table watching the other bands, seemingly out of place at the club and definitely playing the typical wallflower persona prescribed by the genre. When the band began its set, however, all that changed.
On stage, both Brooks and Mitchell are quick and witty performers. The band bumbles delightfully through a set of songs designed to infuriate both the moral right and the politically correct left. However, as the songs are performed so innocently and wrapped up in such sunny melodies, it's impossible to take the songs as any true threat to The America Way.
At the band’s most extreme, in the aptly titled "Dirty Song," Brooks sings "Choke me with your cock, blow it on my face, your load I wanna taste." But folks, this is comedy. It's also designed to make us think about the inequities between how the genders are able to express their sexuality. Either that or Brooks just likes facials and wants us all to know about it. Other would-be shockers included an ode to abortion entitled "Abortion" ("It's been six weeks since I bled from my hole, all because my boyfriend didn't pull out his pole") and a love song (of sorts) sung by Mitchell to a handicapped individual with a golden voice entitled "Retarded Retard" ("When she sings it's like retarded angels getting retarded wings").
While I had to suppress my giggles through these tracks, the straightforward "Do You Remember" was the real winner of the night, as it both showcased the band's excellent song writing and demonstrated that Brooks actually has a pretty powerful voice when she chooses to use it. But like all the other songs in the band's set, "Do You Remember" received only a smattering of applause. Finally I looked behind me and noticed that only thirty audience members remained (including several folks saddled at the bar, uninterested in the event happening on the stage.) They majority of the audience seemed unsure of how to react to the band, creating an awkward silence where there should have been howls of laughing approval.
The band finished the set with the sequenced dance number "Do You Want It? (the SEX I mean)" allowing Mitchell to leave his drumkit, his clothes and the stage for some boxer-clad audience interaction. While there wasn't exactly positive energy flowing back to the band, the audience didn't hide its relieved smiles when Mitchell pulled off his boxers, only to reveal whitey-tighties. As the final number of the night (and following in the tradition of this tour), the duo let the sequencer handle the musical responsibilities once again while Brooks rapped through The Wu-Tang Clan's "Shame On a Nigga."
When it was all over, the band thanked the audience and, again, the audience smiled and applauded, but it was obvious that most of them had no idea what had just happened. I shared a similar confusion because I was no closer to understanding what makes Chicago tick.