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Friday April 13th, 2007 at Lakeshore Theater in Chicago, IL
John Vanderslice, & St. Vincent
John Vanderslice & Annie Clark

Two hours before the show I began looking for my camera to freshen up its batteries. It was then that I came to the realisation that my camera was in my hotel room in Hartford, CT. This is exceptionally bad when you've been granted spots on the guest list for the sole reason that someone wants to use your photographs for publicity and promotions. I talked Katherine out of her camera (a Canon Digital Rebel) and set its battery to charge. I didn't think that I should actually ask her how it worked.

Twenty minutes before we were to leave for the show, two pierced, tattooed, twenty-year-old travellers toting oversized military-surplus bags showed up at my door. One of them had contacted me a month before via couchsurfing.com and I had volunteered my couches. That fact had escaped me until I heard the knocks on my front door. After quick introductions, and ceremonious handing over of the spare key, Katherine and I left the strangers in my house and walked to the bus stop.

Doors at 10pm really did mean doors at 10pm. Rather than wait in a short line with approximately a dozen other early arrivals, we opted for chips and guacamole at Chipotle next door. Oh that delicious salt. When we returned a half hour later, the doors were opening, and jovial concertgoers were taking the allowable baby steps into the theatre. As promised, Katherine and I were on the guest list. I'm always impressed when things actually work as planned.

The Lakeshore Theatre is a recent refurbishment. The decor is simple but classy. Not ornate. Not edgy. It's small, with only a slight pitch as the rows of seats angle towards the low stage. There may be room for a string quartet in the pit, but never an orchestra. While it's obvious that this is not typically a venue devoted to indie rock, the full bar out front does not belie the fact that this theatre is in Lakeview.

Opening the show was St. Vincent, the one-woman project of Annie Clark. Well, one woman with two microphones (one providing extreme reverb), two guitars, a stomp box, occasional pre-recorded accompaniment, and a birdcage. Although this stage provided numerous and ponderous focal points, I was immediately captivated by Clark's complex fingerpicked guitar work. Her style is avant-garde and bold in the way that indie rock seldom is. Her occasional forays into jazz lead me to imagine a dream pairing that would include Geoff Farina. But while the mechanics and arrangements of the songs may have been unusual, the structure was not. St. Vincent's songs are actual songs in the tradition of the social songs, backcountry and pre-war blues, or uptempo ballads popular in the early part of the last century. Those familiar with Clark's time as a touring guitarist with Sufjan Stevens probably have some insight into this dichotomy. Clark's voice is a high soprano that flits and leaps for effect as it tells her emotional and occasionally dark stories. There are, honestly, few comparisons that can be made.

Initially Clark seemed focused on her material, but later opened up adopting a relaxed, personable, and conversational tone. Unfortunately that same tone was taken by a gaggle of friends lead by one particularly annoying gal sitting in the row behind me. Those around the drunken and loquacious girl took turns spinning around in their seats to send silent glares – none of which were received. Nothing would quiet the shrew and her friends. At intermission, Katherine followed the girl out to the lobby, and (I can only assume) quietly advised the chatter bug to can it. One couple took the opportunity to move away from the area, most others traded stories of shock and disbelief. A friend of the girl who was sitting elsewhere in the theatre came over to ask her to be quiet, and before leaving, deputized an innocent bystander to shush the girl when necessary. None of this worked, but instead inspired the soused girl to proclaim that she would "throw down" with "that girl from the lobby" if she ever saw her again. I made the mistake of mentioning this to Katherine and soon the conversation degenerated to "Wanna take it outside?" Ultimately the girl promised to be quite for John Vanderslice, but noted that she didn't need to for "red-legged girl" (Annie Clark wore red tights with a blue dress).

When John Vanderslice took the stage with drummer Dave Douglas, the audience applauded as a unified whole. As always, Vanderslice was in an excellent mood, and friendly as a Labrador pup. There is no question – he is the nicest man in indie rock. He began the set with a new number (from a album promised for the fall), and then played through a quick set of favourites from the last few albums.

It seems odd to describe John Vanderslice's music, as surely everyone is familiar with his earnest but playful pop songs. However I was curious to hear how his typically lush and layered music would be handled by just the duo. Thanks to a bit of electronic wizardry, and considerable skill on behalf of a humble Douglas, the live songs were surprisingly consistent with their recorded counterparts. In fact, Douglas' accompaniment was spot on, as was able to control pre-recorded triggers, play live synths (mostly bass lines), as well as play live drums. Further vocal accompaniment was unofficially provided by a trio (or sometimes quartet) of women in the front row of the audience. At one point John stopped the show to commend the group's excellent harmonies. Unfortunately our "friends" in the row behind me also remained vocal – that is until their ringleader announced she was going to be sick and was escorted out of the audience by her boyfriend. The remainder of the show continued gloriously without interruption.

After coyly announcing the last song, Vanderslice reassured the audience that he would return to "play this thing called an encore." In fact, it wasn't so much a return as merely an acknowledgement that the next song constituted the beginning of the encore. After playing a few songs solo, Vanderslice brought back out Dave Douglas, and soon invited guests to join them on stage. Evidently anyone contacting Vanderslice ahead of time was able to arrange to join him on stage. As such we had a duet of "Dear Sarah Shu" actually sung by a girl named "Sarah Schuh," and another gentleman showed up on stage with a borrowed bass guitar ready to accompany Vanderslice on "Me and My 424." This song brought Annie Clark back out to play keyboards, as well as a number of back up singers from the audience – including the aforementioned trio of gals from the front row, as well as anyone else so inclined. The finale was a tender duet between Vanderslice and Clark.

After the show, Vanderslice asked everyone to stick around for a dance party, or at least to talk to him and buy some merch (Katherine was eyeing the John Vanderslice pillow cases). After waiting for nearly fifteen minutes I was able to get close enough to thank Vanderslice for our spots on the guest list, but was then moved to the "Please don't leave I want to talk to you" queue behind another half dozen (or more) of his friends. John Vanderslice has made a lot of friends. After waiting for another fifteen minutes, and failing to find a long-lost friend (or at least compatriot) whom I knew had driven up from Bloomington, IN for the show, I gave up and Katherine and I headed home.

To tie up the loose ends, when I returned I was met by disappointment (the photos I had taken were simply not usable), and mild surprise (my house had not been looted, or burnt down). So if anyone can tell me how to set the aperture, ISO, and shutter independently on the Rebel, or needs a place to crash for a few nights when travelling through Chicago, do get in touch.

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