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Wednesday March 19th, 2008 at Subterranean in Chicago, IL
The Slits, Old Time Relijun, Shellshag, & Post Honeymoon
Ari Up of The Slits
Old Time Relijun
Shell and Jen Shag of Shellshag
Nick Kraska of Post Honeymoon
[more photos]
[linked video]

The downstairs lounge at Subterranean is quite nice. I learned this when Katherine and I had to sit there for an hour while we waited for the doors to open upstairs. With four bands on the bill, I was already expecting a late night – this delay only meant less sleep. Ultimately, of course, the doors did open, and I made a precautionary beeline for the front of the stage. As it turns out, my anxiety was unnecessary and at just ten minutes past 9:00, the duo of Post Honeymoon climbed onto the stage.

Post Honeymoon is the musical project of actual post-honeymooners Nick Kraska (bass/drums) and Rachel Shindelman (vocals and keyboards). The band's sound is somewhat akin to that of She Wants Revenge – an electronic-infused alternative rock band with flat gothic vocals. At the beginning of the set Kraska played bass, leaving percussion to a small drum machine, and allowing Shindelman’s keyboards to carry melody, as well as buzz and hum with a quite-convincing electric guitar sound. Later Kraska would move to acoustic drums, tasking Shindelman to provide the low end. While both incarnations were effective, the latter seemed unnecessary – the drum machine version of the band seemed quite serviceable and left Shindelman a free hand for colouring the compositions.

Kraska and Shindelman are obviously very comfortable together, and the stage banter represented this familiarity. Playing for a small audience built almost entirely of friends and fans, allowed the duo to speak candidly, tease each other playfully, and play with no pretension or, unfortunately, flair. This is the sort of band that might do well with a bit more of a performance, because as presented that night, I felt I was privy to a practice session or a gig at a house party at best.

Quickly the stage was reset, exchanging one two-piece band for another. Brooklyn’s Shellshag, however, was considerably more ragged than the opener. Based on the hand-sewn pants, the well-worn gear, and the improvised percussive anklets and belt, I assumed I’d soon be assaulted with some crazy crusty punk. In truth, Brooklyn’s Shellshag (an amalgam of guitarist “Shell”’s and drummer Jen Shag’s names) is much cuter and fuzzier than all that - especially the fuzzy part. Shell’s beaten and stickered Gibson guitars (first a Flying V and later, after breaking a string, an Explorer) buzz with enough feedback and distortion to recall early Jesus and Mary Chain records. Shag’s drumming is simple and effective. She stands (or more precisely pogos) behind a snare and two toms, beating the drums mercilessly, all the while shaking her ass and to activate the various bells, shells, and hooves attached at her waist. Shell’s voice nimbly shifted to suit each song in the band’s 25-minute set, although I was most fond of his voice when he let it drop to a deep smooth baritone. This voice – combined with Shell’s stringy blonde hair and tall, thin frame – conjured images of Iggy Pop. And like much of the set, the band’s song “Shut Up” definitely contained raw power. But despite all the emotion and energy (and not ignoring the smashing of instruments at the end of the set) the band still retained some Olympia-style twee – particularly with its cover of Liz Phair’s “Fuck And Run.” This is a band I’ll definitely be seeing again.

After removing the carnage of cords, mic stands, broken drums, and guitars from the stage, Portland’s Old Time Relijun was up. It had been ten years since I saw the band, but remembered it as hectic, visual, and largely unlistenable. The years, however, have been kind to Old Time Relijun. Whether the band has moved towards the center, or if the center has moved toward it, Old Time Relijun is now a quite enjoyable, if still twitchy, post-punk band. Thankfully some things haven’t changed, and guitarist/vocalist Arrington De Dionyso is still a maniac. His guitar work is hectic, frazzled, and experimental in a Captain Beefheart sort of way. His voice is jerky and electric. Lyrics are growled or spit out as Dionyso bobs and weaves to dodge a barrage of aliens or goblins or whatever unearthly creatures vex him. The unflappable Aaron Hartman still provides a constant (if not monotonous) rhythm with his upright base. He plays with his eyes closed; I can only assume it is to shut out the chaos around him. The drumming of new member Germaine Baca is similarly only utilitarian. This leaves just the occasional elongated sax wails of Benjamin Hartman to provide contrast to Dionyso’s guitar jabs. This Hartman also adds to the stage show playing both tenor and baritone saxophones at the same time. If Old Time Relijun had been the headliner, the audience would have gotten its money’s worth. However, The Slits were still up next.

I watched anxiously as The Slits’ gear was set up. Everyone in the band looked so young that I had to check Wikipedia to insure my recollection of the band’s timeline. Turns out that only original bassist Tessa Pollitt joins singer Ari Up in this resurrected Slits lineup. The band is filled out by Anna Schulte on drums, Michelle Hill on guitar, and a very young Hollie Cook (the daughter of Sex Pistol Paul Cook) on keyboards. After all the gear was placed, configured and checked, the band again vanished to the dressing room upstairs, leaving the audience to wait ten minutes for the scheduled 11:30 set start time. On cue, Shell returned to the stage and introduced the band. This wa the audience’s first glimpse of the lame-clad and dreadlocked Ari Up.

After a handful of reunion gigs two years ago, the Slits project has been reinvigorated, and these dubby post-punkers are again working on new material. I wasn’t able to record a full set list, but the band opened with “Shoplifting” and played heavily to its 1979 album Cut. And although the band played this material cheerfully and with gusto, Up made it clear that the new direction of the band lies in the reggae that Up has immersed her self in for the last 25 years.

Having just come from SXSW, Up’s voice was a bit hoarse and her band was a bit worn. Citing these facts, Up invited several audience members up to sing the backing vocals for “Typical Girls.” While these typical girls were genuinely flabbergasted fans, they were neither on time nor in tune. It was, however, spectacular to watch Up interact with the befuddled backup singers. This dynamic was repeated when Up would turn her attention to Hollie Cook. The 25-year age difference gave Up the aura of that hip aunt, trying to coax out a shy niece. When Cook was too embarrassed to come out from behind the keyboards and dance with Up (who bounced and skanked throughout the set), Up partially mooned the audience saying, “Chicago is no place to be shy.”

Aside from a few punk rock moments (such as early Peel Session rauncher “Vindictive”), the majority of the set was built around both new and old dub numbers with meandering lyrics, chants, and toasts. Classic tune “Newtown” benefited from Up’s more authentic Jamaican cadence, even her accent still contains hints of European polyglot.

Jen Shag was called onto stage where she sang and jingled along to these final numbers, and later Shell found his way to stage to provide backing vocals as well. Up was completely at home on the stage, directing her band and audience in whatever impromptu direction she felt necessary. This was particularly true when the show was hijacked by the chants, calls, and whoops that Up referred to as “The Slits prayer.” This free-flowing trend continued through several new numbers, each peppered with requests for the “High grade” marijuana that the Up said the band sorely needed. I thought that the band had just come from Austin?

When the band returned for its encore, Up quickly shot down calls for “Ping Pong Affair,” again stating, “We finished Cut, I’m not coming here to do no more old shit.” She then returned to her mantra, “Spread the news that the Slits are new. This is a new Slits.” With that, the band launched into “No More Crew War” – a dub song dominated by Up’s toasting, Pollitt’s funky, slithering bass line, and a smooth backing vocal. Legacy or not, the band does this incredible well, and so fans of The Eternals and The Jai-Alai Savant should start watching now for the first release from the new Slits.