The door leading to the stage was still closed at 8:45 as an unseen band worked through its soundcheck. I slipped into a booth, first opening a menu, and then my book. After a cranberry juice, a very spicy hummus plate, and about twelve pages of Everything is Illuminated, the door to the club opened up. I settled the $10 check and made my way to the front of the stage.
Although Chicago's music scene is impossibly large, I'm still surprised when I catch a fantastic local act that I had never even heard of. Such was the case when Chicago's Blueblood opened the night with a 45-minute set of soul-infused post-punk. On stage, vocalist M. Quinn Des Enfants is a southern preacher testifying to his audience with all of the prerequisite drama. His vocals are expressive, his pipes strong, and despite a few microphone stand histrionics during the band's finale, he never oversells the performance. Inventive drumming from brother Thom Des Enfants, and whining guitar leads from Mark Bachara highlight the tension of the band's compositions. Generally I disdain any opening act that plays over a half hour, but Blueblood had me hooked.
Evansville Indiana's Mock Orange was up next. It takes a bold band to own up to Evansville as a hometown, but Mock Orange seems to like doing things the hard way. I first saw the band headlining a bill five years ago when I was working in Florida, and my assessment then still stands – this band does everything right, but simply plays it too safe. Vocalist/guitarist/frontman Ryan Grisham has a rounded wholesome voice that reminds me of fellow Hoosier Shannon Hoon (of Blind Melon). In the world of yelp-to-be-heard indie rock, this isn't a good thing. Grisham's guitar leads are numerous and well played, but again, this isn't typical behaviour for the band's chosen genre. Second guitarist Joe Asher provides more typical fare in the form of textured guitar lines full of bending notes and chorus. The bass playing of Zach Grace is big, with bold runs, but he never moves beyond a supporting role in the band's compositions. Although the band brought along multi-instrumentalist Jesse Gallamore for the tour, he is woefully underutilized; few bands can make use of a full-time tambourine player. When Grisham or Gallamore play acoustic guitar, the band's compositions open up a bit, highlighting the band's undeniable heartland-rock undercurrents. The band's 45-minute set ended with a big sing-a-long that demonstrated the mass of fans that the band had drawn out. There's no denying the band's fanbase, its talent, or its perseverance to make it on its own terms.
Toronto's The Most Serene Republic has it much easier; the seven-piece ensemble's brilliantly irreverent indie rock is the sound of now. Furthermore the band has had the advantage of touring with the like-minded Broken Social Scene, and records for that band's Arts & Crafts record label. This would all stink of bandwagonism if the band weren't so damn talented.
For anyone who listens to music with headphones, who counts rhythms, who is moved by brilliant arrangements, who shakes their head in amazement when a vocal line is born seamlessly out of a trombone swell, The Most Serene Republic is truly a delight. This was definitely a show that I looked forward to.
The Most Serene Republic's Adrian Jewett is a tall redhead with wide, wild eyes. He loves the microphone stand, and plays with it constantly: either allowing it to teeter back and forth between his waiting hands or tipping it to its edge, looking to the audience for feedback, and then grabbing it to save it from a fall. He is frequently frantic – moving from the microphone to his trombone, or beating on drummer Tony Nesbitt-Larking's cymbals. But then, several times in the night, he simply froze, staring out somewhere beyond the audience while the rest of the band contributed about him. Jewett addressed the audience sparingly but with great effectiveness. When someone in the audience made the strange request of "make us dance," Jewett replied that dancing wasn't possible as these songs weren't in 4/4. He then explained this next song was in five and challenged the audience to find a way to dance to it. A song later, and after some thought Jewett shook and shuddered about the stage flailing his arms, explaining that's the only way he's found to dance to the band's music.
Accompanying Jewett at the front of the stage is vocalist and guitarist Emma Ditchburn. Her guitar work is typically built on broken chords that perk the ears, or conversely, on quickly strummed clean ones that blend into the noise of the band. She trades overlapping vocal lines with Jewett, or, again, adds her voice into the ascending din of the band. Guitarist Sean Woolven and keyboardist Ryan Lenssen also provide vocals to the effervescing chaos of sound. When everything is on the verge of imploding, voices or instruments fall out leaving a sparkling piano line from Lenssen, a bold brass line from Jewett, or even a violin melody from Simon Lukasewich.
While these nuanced moments are common in the band's recorded work, in a live setting the music loses most of its colouring. The tiny elements of composition are lost, Jewett performs most of the vocals rather than sharing them amongst the various players, the quiet moments aren't as quiet, and the loud moments are often muddled. In a word, the live sound is simply "live." As most of my favourite Most Serene Republic songs rely on the intricacies of composition rather than the energy of a live show, those songs were wisely skipped by the band. Good things come to those who wait, however, as the band closed its 11-song set with "Present of Future End" – my favourite song from the new album.
When prompted, the band returned to the stage for a two-song encore that was merely more of the same. There was no momentous sing-a-long finale, no explosions, no smashing of instruments, and no musicians writhing about on stage – there just didn't need to be. When the players left the stage again, I packed up my cameras, purchased a Blueblood CD at the merch table, and then pushed through the heavy door into the aftermath of an ice storm. Getting home would be a whole different adventure.