I arrived at The Sandbox a little late, making my way to the front of the small club a few songs into the local opener's set. While guitarist Ever Morales and drummer Robbie Valluri looked familiar, their band, Caroline, didn't ring any bells. Turns out that this focused post-hardcore band with soaring guitar work, complicated drumming, and cathartic vocals is the realization of a young band I covered 18 months earlier. I wasn't impressed then, but now the band has a real presence and a surprisingly full sound. Amazing what a little time can do.
I suppose I should back up and explain that The Sandbox isn't really a club. It's really just a small single-room storefront leased by record store Vinyl Renaissance, and rented for all-ages shows in hopes that the crowds might generate more awareness, foot traffic, and sales at the record store. As such there really isn't a sound system or any lighting rig at The Sandbox – just a few colored bulbs in the rooms security lights, a comically small portable PA used to amplify the vocal microphones, and, of course, there are no monitors. In the summer the venue is impossibly hot, and in the winter, terribly cold. There is no bar, restroom, or green room. There is a stage, but, at least on this night, the bands elected to set up on the floor instead. As such the room couldn't hold more than 40 fans, and I'm sure the Fire Marshall wouldn't like even that number. In short, it's the sort of place that kids gather, put a bit of sweat equity into, and then lose a year or so later when suddenly someone in the neighborhood cares enough to report sidewalk drinking, loud music from an open door, or an uptick in graffiti. The Sandbox has lasted longer than most due to it's location in an entertainment district and the record store subsidies. Long enough that it should be better, but still everything that it needs to be.
There was a slow turn around as the four members of Chicago's Bedroom Sons set up their gear. The project is a solo effort of guitarist Chris Dertz with a touring line up provided by a rotating cast of players. On this tour the band drew heavily from his touring partners, utilizing Ratboys' Dave Sagan on bass and Will Lange on drums, as well as adding Kenna Hynes on Rhodes piano. Other players noted, but it was Dertz's Fender Stratocaster that sat front and center. Dertz isn't afraid of a lead, and offered clean bending solos that would make Poison's C.C. DeVille blush. How they worked within the context of Bedroom Sons emo-leaning pop/rock is anyone's guess, but the result was quite nice. Sadly, the room suffers from what I'll refer to a "practice space" mix, in that members of the audience can move from spot to spot in the room and hear something entirely different. If, like Hynes, you want to hear the keyboards, stand stage left. If you want Dertz's guitar, stage right. You want a mix of the two? Well, good luck. This is a shame as the two did blend quite nicely in a number of songs, including one new track entitled "The Motion" which should appear on the band's new album due out soon.
After a twenty-minute break, fellow Chicagoans and touring partners Ratboys were ready to begin. This show would be the band's fourth consecutive performance in the region as it worked its way home from a month-long West Coast tour. The respite will be short, however, as the band will soon begin a month-long tour of the South with Woozy. That tour, like this one, will put the band in small DIY and all-ages venues like The Sandbox, despite touring behind a strong album just released on stalwart label Top Shelf that might entitle it to larger venues. It would be a stretch to call that album punk, but the band's ethos certainly is.
Ratboys is led by the electric guitar and vocals of Julia Steiner with guitar leads provided by Dave Sagan, bass from Will Lange, and drums (for this tour anyway) by Jordan Parel. The band's 35-minute set began with only Stein's small voice and her finger-picked guitar. This intimate tone made up the entirety of several songs, but, more often than not, was only a piece of the bands highly dynamic compositions rife with stops and volume shifts that brought Steiner to a full voice. The vocal dynamics reeked havoc on the small PA, resulting in squalls of feedback until Chris Dentz volunteered to act as a human noise gate for the entirety of the set. As he took his position at the PA behind the band he reassured the thankful Steiner, "I know your songs." I watched from the right of the stage in front from Steiner, meaning I wasn't able to hear the majority of Sagan's guitar leads, but I thankfully still caught the positively crazy drumming of Parel. Unlike Dentz I wasn't familiar with the band's songs, but I made sure to pick up its latest album, AOID, at the end of the night. I'll be ready next time.
Although locals The Family Bed were ostensibly the headliners, the duo would play to a smaller crowd than the band before them. Whether this was the result of the show running a bit late on a school night (the band wouldn't start until after 9pm), worsening weather, or poor promotion (band members indicated that they learned they were playing the show at the last minute), is anyone's guess. Unfortunately, those that remained were only given a half-hearted performance as members Hilltop Panoli and Hopyard Mathison (both calamitous aliases) were simply uninterested in playing. The duo, who swapped guitar and drums throughout the short set, rarely addressed the friendly crowd, and when they did it was to mumble self-deprecating comments. If it weren't for a fan in town from New York, there would have been no encore, and even then Panoli hedged his bets before playing the requested "Sorry," noting that the song was written before he knew what good music was. Overall the result was less than enthralling despite a crowd that sang along from the emotionally raw opening number "Underwater Now Pt. IV" until the bitter end. As always, some shows are better than others, and while The Family Bed still played a solid set of songs, heart and intensity are key ingredients in the band's music, and both were missing in this performance.
After the forced finale was finished, I packed up my camera, stepped over the band gear that littered the room, pulled my coat up around my ears, and slipped through the not-quite soundproof door out onto the street. It's getting colder and that bodes well for The Sandbox – as both patrons and the noises they like will be held in behind closed doors, away from the neighborhood busybodies. If the kids can keep their cool, there may be a whole winter full of all-ages Sunday matinees in my future.