Too Much Rock
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Friday February 1st, 2008 at Schubas in Chicago, IL
Ra Ra Riot, The Virgins, & Essex Chanel
Wesley Miles of Ra Ra Riot
Rebecca Zeller of Ra Ra
Nick Zarin-Ackerman of The
Travis Lee Wiggins of Essex
[more photos]
[12.1M mp4 video]

When I moved to Chicago last year I had a list of criteria to help me select an area of the city. One of the items of consideration was proximity to relevant music venues. As such, my house in Roscoe Village is a half mile from the Beat Kitchen, and more importantly, about a mile from Schubas. I had no idea then how often I’d make the trek to Schubas, or how happy that club would make me. Despite an inhibiting mix of ice, slush and 10” of snow, the walk to Schubas was more than warranted for this bill.

From what I have been able to gather, Essex Chanel is a vanity project of prodigious Chicago multi-instrumentalist Travis Lee Wiggins. To celebrate the release of his latest disc (“Dancing At Weddings”), Wiggins assembled a well-heeled backing band, landed on an excellent Friday night bill at Schubas, and set to recreate the album live – or at least to play through the entire album in order, without stops.

While I understand Essex Chanel’s past efforts are a mixed bag of experimental styles and non-genres, the songs performed were squarely pop rock with an abundance of keyboards (played by Wiggins himself), and vocal effects. These songs, when played by a backing band dressed in ill-fitted suits (some more ill-fitting than others), come to resemble the repertoire of a hip wedding band that still won’t scare your granny.

Although Wiggins was an energetic and affable frontman, songs were quite danceable (as promised) with memorable refrains, and the assembled backing band played the material admirably, the audience was already preparing for The Virgins. Essex Chanel didn’t have a chance.

After a half hour set change, New York City’s The Virgins returned to the Schubas stage. The last time it played Schubas, it was opening a different sold-out show. Either the band is quite good at picking touring partners, or it is actually The Virgins that are drawing the crowds. It was certainly The Virgins that drew throngs of young girls with digital cameras to the club that night.

The last time I saw The Virgins I was interested; this time I was convinced. The band has a wonderful way of revisiting the known while sounding completely fresh. There are shades of Modern Lovers-esque proto-punk (particularly in the spoken delivery of vocalist/guitarist Donald Cumming), but also bits of atonal no wave guitar that mixes playfully with straightforward 4/4 garage rock songs. Stomping beats, strong bass lines, and Cumming’s falsetto speak to disco more so than disco punk. The Virgins are born from the same stew of influences that bore Blondie three decades earlier, yet the two sound nothing alike.

Cumming is tall and striking. He’s not pretty, but he’s as sexy as they come. The audience, however, seemed more interested in bassist Nick Zarin-Ackerman –calling out to him from the crowded floor. The running dialogue between Cumming and the audience was easy, natural, and electric. Once the band has completed an album, small clubs like Schubas will never see it again.

As The Virgins still taxi down the runway toward fame, Syracuse’s Ra Ra Riot is now scheduled for takeoff. After an eventful 2007 filled with both accomplishments (major international tours, the release of its debut ep, recording of its forthcoming full-length debut) and profound loss (the death of their drummer/songwriter John Pike), 2008 will be “the year” for this six-piece band.

Furthermore, timing and tastes are on the band’s side. This band has all the touchstones of the current craze: it is an ensemble, ripe with strings, playing indie pop built on high-energy disco punk rhythms. Even your mother likes The Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene right? Thankfully Ra Ra Riot lives up to whatever grand comparisons can be made, and perhaps trumps the aforementioned bands due to the players’ passion and execution.

Frontman Wesley Miles doesn’t have the magnetism of Cumming, and no member of the band elicited the same sort of catcalls or fanaticism shown to The Virgins. And while Ra Ra Riot is certainly conscious of it’s audience, the ensemble is somewhat insular. The players are in constant motion around the stage, and when two players bump into each other (sometimes literally) there are smiles of recognition, and often interplay as one leans against the other. These moments are genuine, and for the benefit of the band, not the audience. The players have formed a tight knit family (possibly due to the loss of John Pike) that finds joy in performing with each other, and that vibe is obvious to the audience.

Unlike many other large bands, there are no inconsequential players in Ra Ra Riot. Specifically, the string players are key to the band’s sound. The cello of Alexandra Lawn is mixed loud and sweeps songs along. Rebecca Zeller’s violin can either provide the sharp interesting jabs that commonly come from a second guitar, or, alternately, carry the melody of the song. The end product is songs that are sweeping, bold, genuine and infinitely catchy.

The band played a set of seven new songs, a cover of Kate Bush’s “Suspended in Gaffa”, and three songs from its EP. When called back for an encore, the band played an up-tempo new number, and then turned off its amplifiers before leaving the stage. However, the cheering continued and the band were obliged to return. Miles told the audience that the band had never played a second encore before. Whether genuine or not, it was obvious the band had not planned to play one on this night. Having exhausted its current repertoire, the band dug out its cover of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love” – a song they regularly closed with during its first tours.

After saying goodbye to fellow photographer Robert Loerzel (find his shots of the night here), I put my hat and gloves on and set out for home. It’s only a short walk – about a mile.