Decades ago someone declared that Thursday was the new Friday, and the bars desperately wanted it to be true. So here I sit, on a Thursday night, facing a four-band bill. A tease that the working week is over, but the knowing the reality is that Friday morning will just begin with blurry eyes. That's why I'm writing this in the back of the club while the show happens around me. Never put off tomorrow what you can get done tonight.
The long night that began just after 8:00 with locals The Hillary Watts Riot. The foursome has been around for years, delighting the barflies, but eluding the larger populace. Hillary Watts leads the band. She's small. She's spunky. She kicked off her heels, grabbed the microphone and didn't let go for 40 minutes. Generally, her voice is full and bluesy, and the band sometimes plays along in traditional bar band fashion. Sometimes the drums decide to drop an urgent disco beat and then the bass gets funky, and the guitar goes herky jerky and new wave. There are effects that squeal and pulse. About halfway through the set the band played "Slap Slap," transforming Watts from a microphone stand wallflower into a bouncing dervish. The band followed suit, and soon a dozen fans came forward to dance, and (when requested) clap along.
Chicago two-piece North by North were up just after 9:00, offering a half hour set of indie rock. Or maybe just rock. Who knows. Nate Girard's guitar was loud, it was full of power chords, a few leads, and, for a few glorious songs, it felt a lot like Thin Lizzy. Girard's vocals varied a bit from song to song, but there was plenty of croon in them. Not Danzig croon, but, well, maybe. Kendra Blank's drums were straightforward on some tracks (such as "Her Name Was Vengeance," the band's oldest song and closer), but on others there was all sorts of curious percussion added in. Not fills, just extra beats and hits that weren't necessary, but were nice to find. Let's call them extra credit. Blank provided a few backing vocals (mostly screams) and most of the banter. As expected from a duo that has been on the road for fifteen solid months, the pair's stage presence, and everything else about the band, was relaxed and honest, albeit bordering on rote. But I may be making that up. Now I feel bad for writing that. I'm going to go buy a shirt to make it up to them.
The stage quickly swapped over from one duo to another as Kansas City's Schwervon prepared for its set. I've written countless (I dare you) times about the band, but if you're new to the TMR world, the band lines up as guitarist Matt Roth and drummer Nan Turner, with both providing vocals. The duo writes deceptively simple, short, indie rock songs, defined by Roth's sinewy, overblown guitar as much as the punchy drums of Turner. However, as anyone who has seen the band can testify, the real joy of the band is Roth's dry humor juxtaposed with the corny dad jokes of Turner. Come for the music, stay for a couple awkwardly working out relationship issues on stage. On this night there were no spats, but Roth did turn the introduction to "Wrath of Angels" into a treatise on when religion (and churches, to be more specific) are appropriate. Turner kept egging Roth on, and he kept digging deeper (a regular occurrence); however, at the end of the monologue, the twosome ripped through the strongest version of the song I've ever heard. Closer (and cover) "Muscle of Your Heart" got a similarly muscular telling thanks to unusually intense vocals from Roth. Good set. Pretty typical set list.
The evening ended with Vela. After a cursory sampling of the band's latest album on Bandcamp, I wasn't optimistic. Okay, I was downright pessimistic. Live YouTube videos didn't ease my mind, although they did reveal the six-year-old band had once been a five-piece. Curious, as this Vela was just the vocals and guitar of Jonas Birkel and the drumming of Sean Cedillo. Another two-piece. A very loud, very dense, modern heavy rock two-piece. The kind of capital-R Rock made by Godsmack or Staind or Disturbed, and that is played on "active rock" commercial radio stations — just not my thing. Knowing exactly what to expect, I pushed my earplugs in deeper and decided to concentrate on taking photos. As predicted, I never got over Birkel's anguished, post-grunge vocals, but when he stepped away from the microphone, and the tempo slowed, Birkel delivered some seriously heavy and sinister, Sabbath-esque riffs. Suddenly interested, I pulled the earplugs out just a bit. That's when I discerned a faint, danceable Tejano bounce in many of the band's songs. This Latin fusion was unexpected and entirely enjoyable. I sat my camera down and looked about. While no band played to a large audience, Vela did draw its own young crowd that stood up front, nodding enthusiastically. These were fans I'd never seen at a recordBar show before, and they were enthralled. And they weren't the only ones — I caught Nan Turner dancing furiously to the first several songs in the band's set. And afterwards, when Matt Roth correctly identified the Queens of the Stone Age cover that the headliners closed with, I began to wonder if there might be something to Vela. Something worth the haggard Friday morning that awaited me.