I discovered Smallpools back in my junior year of high school when they released their self-titled EP. They have since gone on to release their first studio album, Love Tap.
On May 11th, Smallpools performed at the House of Blues in downtown Chicago. The night started with two openers, Half the Animal and Great Good Fine Ok. When Smallpools took the stage, they launched right into one of their songs from their EP, “Over and Over”: truly a great song to kick off the show, featuring the line “I wanna live this night over and over.”
As I was standing there taking photographs, it was hard to keep my hands steady due to the audience all jumping in unison and causing the floor to shake. With the lead singer, Sean Scanlon, tucked behind the keyboard center stage, my eyes wandered over to lead guitarist, Mike Kamerman, who was having the time of his life dancing across the stage.
Smallpools has a very upbeat, alternative pop vibe. Their songs are very guitar-heavy with catchy melodies and a beat that makes it almost impossible not to dance. Even the casual observers in the back by the bar couldn’t help but bounce around to the music.
Definitely not without a sense of humor, Scanlon introduced a song saying “This song is about a relationship with a person you don’t really like any more… The only thing you will miss about them is their pet and their family.” Despite the fact that the inspiration for this song seemed to come from a very angsty place, it still shared that same optimistic, dancey beat as the rest of their songs – even if the lyrics were darker than the actual music. For example, they played their song “Dyin’ to Live” which featured the lyrics “We’re only trying to feel alright…We’re all just dyin, we’re all just dyin’ to live.”
The band closed out the night with their most popular song, “Dreaming.” Their first single and the song that launched their career – also my personal favorite. Overall, it was a really fun night full of dancing and fun, upbeat tunes.
There was nothing straight about May 3 at the House of Blues. From colorful, patterned outfits to rainbow flags draped around shoulders, eager fans livened up the rainy, overcast wait in line to see Lesbian Jesus – otherwise known as Hayley Kiyoko – in person.
Hayley Kiyoko burst onto the pop scene a few years ago after a stint with Disney, among other ventures (Velma, anyone?). Although some of her older tracks are not that impressively produced, she represented an often marginalized part of the music industry – gay women. Her newest release, Expectations, is a triumphant and tender exploration of this identity. She’s proud to be who she is, and it translates to her emotional and authentic music.
As I entered the venue, the crowd hummed with excitement that carried through the opening act, Allie X. Clad in a white wig, a puffy satin pink gown and a sheer mask with exaggerated features, she solemnly proceeded to the front of the stage only to be met with elated screams. She opened with “Paper Love,” an anthem of pain and loving people you shouldn’t. I had never heard her music before, but her synth-pop beats and high soprano vocals were easy to dance to.
Some of her songs were less memorable; as she stripped out of her elaborate costume to reveal a black, sequined outfit, I found myself more interested in her performance than the music at times. It was an entertaining addition to her unique, sometimes murmuring vocals that could get drowned out by the pounding drums backing each track.
The suspense was almost unbearable before Kiyoko’s set, especially in a room full of girls just as excited as I was. The tension built further as the room went dark and clips of her music videos flashed on a paneled screen. When she finally took the stage, the room erupted. She was showered in bras as she sang “What I Need,” one of her many new hits, and I could hardly focus on taking pictures. She moved fluidly, like there was nothing that could hold her back from being herself.
I thought the energy couldn’t grow any higher, but then she took her shirt off to “pay us back” for throwing bras at her. I was impressed by her overflowing confidence and wisdom that accompanied each song. She went from giving us relationship advice, to explaining her own romantic strife in “Wanna Be Missed.”
Arguably the wildest moment in the show was when she played “Curious,” her most popular single off Expectations. I was deafened by the cacophony of voices shrieking the iconic lyric, “Did you take him to the pier in Santa Monica? Forget to bring a jacket, wrap up in him cause you wanted to? I’m just curious, is it serious?” It’s understandable why. The song describes the all-too-relatable feeling of dating a girl who can’t handle society’s pressures. They create a facade in dating guys, because it’s “easier” than accepting who they are.
No one wanted it to end, and an encore was necessary. She delivered, finishing the show with “Gravel to Tempo” off her older Citrine EP. “I’ll do this my way, don’t matter if I break, I gotta be on my own,” she sang, giving the audience another piece of her before she left. That’s one of the greatest aspects of her; she does do it her own way. I exited the venue with my ears blown out and my heart full of hope because people like Hayley Kiyoko exist in the world.
Friday, May 11 saw the return of The Fratellis to Chicago, and they were received by an enthusiastic audience at Metro in Wrigleyville. Everyone was ready to sing along with The Fratellis older hits and new material, off their 2018 album In Your Own Sweet Time.
First up was the duo Blood Red Shoes from Brighton, England. With Laura-Mary Carter on vocals and guitar and Steven Ansell on drums and vocals, they delivered a punk sound that shook the floor. In the middle of the set, one audience member shouted out, asking them to perform their new single. Ansell responded by yelling “You’re a psychic motherfucker! This our new single, called ‘God Complex.’” The rest of the set passed, and at the end Carter let her guitar buzz as she held it up in the air in celebration before carefully setting it down on the stage, ensuring the noise would continue long after the duo bowed and left the stage.
After the stage was reset, the lights suddenly went dark and the crowd roared. No one came out–instead can-can music started up, and went on for a solid few minutes before The Fratellis finally took the stage, opening with their song “Got Ma Nuts From a Hippie” off of their iconic 2007 album Costello Music, closely followed by “I’ve Been Blind” from their most recent release.
Throughout the night, The Fratellis did a great job interspersing the old hits everyone really wanted to hear with their new material, which the audience still seemed to know inside and out. Jon, Mince, and Barry Fratelli delivered their iconic sound as they rocketed straight through a 21-song set with no breaks to speak or interact with the audience. It was a straightforward night without any theatrics, and the fans were clearly there for the music itself.
Crowd favorites “Creepin Up the Backstairs” and “Vince the Loveable Stoner” were worked into the middle of the set, with “Henrietta” and “Baby Fratelli” coming at the end, all from Costello Music. This was when the fake encore came, as the band left the stage and the audience stayed and cheered, waiting for the songs they knew had to be coming.
The Fratellis bounced back on stage for “We Need Medicine,” and, finally, the song everyone was waiting for–”Chelsea Dagger.” They’d been gifted a Fratelli Blackhawks jersey, and bassist Barry proudly showed it off to the crowd, eliciting a huge cheer, expressing the combined energy given to the crowd by both live music and hometown pride.
Two sets of lights flash from red to blue sending shadows flying across the sold out Rejjie Snow concert at Schubas Tavern, catching the smoke from the not so subtle blunt which started in the crowd and had now found its way on stage to Snow in their beams. The audience listened as the the ethereal voice of Dana Williams played over the speakers in the background of the song “Room 27”. Originally born in Ireland, Snow recently moved to New York to further pursue his dreams of music: something you would never guess from listening to Snow’s laid back West Coast sound with synths that evoke the likes of Pharrell and Tyler the Creator. Snow first came to the U.S. on a scholarship to play soccer at a Florida boarding school and has now found his passion not in sports, but in his music. While he may have found a home in his sound, standing on stage there was a sense that the easily distracted unmoving mass of people in Schubas made Snow feel more uncomfortable than homely.Snow struggled at times to find his place in the shifting environment. Standing to the right, I watched as Snow would turn to his DJ only to signal him with a cut to his throat to stop the beat half way through. Performing mostly songs from his brand new, feature-packed LP Dear Annie, he was forced to stand quietly while he traded the mic back and forth with the likes of Amine and Caroline Smith. With only his DJ accompanying him on stage, moments like the guitar solo at the end of “Sunny California” (a track off of Rejjie Snow’s 2017 project The Moon and You) fell flat. Watching Snow perform his second air guitar solo of the night I couldn’t help but wish there was an actual guitar in his hands–or at least in somebody’s. With songs that are as much about their lucious N.E.R.D. inspired instrumentation as they were about Snow’s crisp vocals,the band’s presence was both felt and missed.
Yet Snow wasn’t simply going to let the concert remain void of the energy he was craving. As “Room 27” continued to play over the speakers Rejjie Stood quiet looking out into the audience.This time with a blunt in his hand, inhaling and exhaling, suddenly it felt like Rejjie Snow found solid ground and took off. Moving with more confidence, his voice cut through the room just a little bit more and struck to the bone of the audience. A crowd that seemed frozen in place just a moment was now enjoying their contact high and starting to dance. Moving into more up beat songs such as “LMFAO,” Snow proved that his polished sound was not simply a fluke, but the product of a lifetime of dedication and genuine love for music.Finally the nervous MC from Ireland started to ooze the charisma that seemed so prevalent on his album. Committed to finishing the night off strong, Snow’s newfound energy filled in the gaps left by the missing band and feature artists. The lights still flashed in and out with the beat, and if you paid attention you could catch Snow smiling. Beaming and gentle, it further emphasized how deep Snow’s love for music goes. Even if it sometimes takes a blunt from a stranger to bring it to the surface.
Metro was packed on Wednesday, May 9, as people squeezed inside to get a good spot for The Struts. It was clear the audience was ready to take in the performance of this band and its frontman, Luke Spiller, known for putting on an energetic live showed aimed at “making rock-n-roll fun again.”
First up was Spirit Animal, a more indie-rock leaning group to listen to as attendees filtered in. Vocalist Steve Cooper was dressed in all white and working the small stage to his benefit, managing to captivate most of a crowd that initially wasn’t interested. They closed with a performance of their new release “YEAH!” out Friday, May 11.The second act of the night was The Glorious Sons, a rock band from Ontario, Canada. These guys had a much heavier sound than Spirit Animal, with gritty instruments and the thick, strong vocals of Brett Emmons. Emmons’ long hair became a focal point as it constantly swung in his face and emphasized his headbanging throughout their set.
Emmons’ movements around the stage were erratic and alarming at times, as he grabbed at guitarist and his brother Jay Emmons and at one point threw his mic stand, which Jay caught and set to the side. A cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” excited the audience, and the momentum kept going through the end of The Glorious Sons’ time on stage. In a similar vein to The Struts, The Glorious Sons seem to pull inspiration from the nasty old-school rock bands of the past few decades.Finally, it was time for the headliner–the lights dropped, and a dramatic voiceover began asking the audience if they were ready as the members of The Struts took the stage–all except for Spiller. He made a late entrance in a loud orange suited covered in massive fringe, with his hair and makeup done in dramatic fashion as always. They opened with “Put Your Hands Up,” a single from 2016, before getting into songs off their 2016 album Everybody Wants. Spiller fulfilled all expectations, asking “Are you ready for one of the greatest nights of your lives?” and telling everyone in attendance “If you’re not ready to let yourselves go, you may as well fuck off!”
After “The Ol’ Switcheroo” it’s announced that they’ve finished their second album, and the crowd goes wild as Spiller says they’re about to perform a brand new song, seemingly titled “Primadonna Like Me.” Throughout the set, Spiller had the crowd wrapped around his finger, getting everyone to sing along at his command and instructing different sides of the stage and balcony to sing different parts at different times.
Around the middle of the show, The Struts played a surprise cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and afterward invited a woman with a tattoo dedicated to the band up on stage with them. After “Could Have Been Me” came the fake exit as Spiller runs off stage, and guitarist Adam Slack was finally allowed a moment in the spotlight–he had been killing it all night, and finally got the chance for the audience to appreciate his insane talent.
Spiller eventually came back out in a completely new outlandish outfit for their finale, consisting of striped pants, a sequined shirt and jacket, and a large sequined top hat with a long hanging ribbon tied around it–also covered in oversized sequins. The closing song was “Where Did She Go” and Spiller pulled off one more trick with the audience, asking everyone to be his human fireworks. He got the crowd to all crouch down, and nearly everyone obeyed, staying down as Spiller continued singing and finally, called for an explosion–and, again, everyone listened, jumping up and beginning to dance.After the end of “Where Did She Go” Spiller and the rest of the band took a moment to bask in the cheers of the audience, having truly succeeded in getting everyone to loosen up and let go for a night of fun rock music. Golden lights came on and the four members lined up to take a bow and throw picks and towels out to the audience, after Spiller took a moment to dramatically say: “Chicago! Remember the name: The Struts.”
Jorja Smith, a 20 year old British singer, capitaved a sold-out crowd at the quaint Thalia Hall in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago on May 2. Smith’s smoky, yet extremely commanding voice helped create a truly intimate and warm feeling between herself and the audience. Although the venue was at capacity, as you watched Smith it was difficult not to become entranced by her angelic voice and stature. Albeit it may not have been on purpose, Smith did an amazing job of making you feel like it was just you and her in the room. Her constant deep gaze into the audience made you forgot about everything else in the world, besides her..
As Smith strutted out in her blue flapper-inspired dress and white Nike Cortez shoes, I literally lost my breath. Jorja, also affectionately known as JMoney on social media, began her concert with “Something in the Way,” a song off of her only release, an EP titled Project 11. As she sang, her blue dress and the blue background, along with her soulful voice, created a surreal atmosphere. Supported by her band –a guitarist, bassist, keys player and drummer–she then went on to play “Where did I Go?” and “Teenage Fantasy,” which are two new singles of of her upcoming debut album Lost & Found.
Smith’s silky smooth voice and overall appearance was amplified when she finally introduced herself to the audience using her distinct and strong British accent. Even though her words were met with deafening cheers and the occasional scream of “I love you,” Smith’s gentle voice and sensuous smile was still able to reach the audience clearly and confidently.
Smith then performed a few older songs, including “Beautiful Little Fools,” before she introduced a new song called “Goodbyes.” She prefaced the song with the fact that she wrote this song after losing one of her closest friends, which put her age and personal life into perspective. While watching her literally control all of the emotion and attention in the building, it was so easy to forgot that she is currently the age of a junior in college and is navigating young adulthood just like a lot of us in the audience.
The concert was amped up a few notches when she covered TLC’s famous song “No Scrubs,” giving everyone in their audience their first chance to sing along in unison. After she finished the song, she ran off stage, giving the impression that the concert was over. This led the crowd to chant her name until she returned.
Before she began singing again, she let her band perform a solo, as she sat on an amp and watched graciously. The solo seemed to not only re-energize the crowd, but gave her a rest as well before she performed her most popular songs. She started out with her powerful new single “Let me Down” before transitioning to “I am,” her single from Black Panther the Album, and “Blue Lights.” The crowd, vibing in an intrinsic swaying motion, passionately sang along more than ever before. After playing two more songs, Smith had the crowd enthralled and on their toes with her final performance of her hit “On my Mind.” Smith, who spent the entirety of the performance grinning and glistening, walked from end to end of the stage and made sure she was the center of everyone’s attention before thanking the audience and quickly running off the stage, leaving the crowd begging for more.
Smith’s hour long performance left a lot of the audience, including myself, wanting more.This was not because it was lacking anything, but because of her grace and heavenly persona that no one wanted to watch walk off the stage. Now I am more excited than before, for her debut album coming out in June.
The Seattle based rock trio Naked Giants made their first ever Chicago appearance on Saturday, May 5, at Schubas Tavern. Back on the West Coast, the band has made waves since 2015 when they came in as runner up in Soundoff, the Pacific Northwest’s largest under 21 battle of the bands. The group started playing together while they were still in high school and has been producing their own unique blend of garage punk, classic rock, R&B, and power pop ever since. With the incredible musical talent and commanding stage presence of this group, it’s easy to forget how young they are—so young in fact that WNUR DJ Anna White recalls befriending the “goofy” group while playing with her own band at Soundoff during her senior year of high school. Since then, the band has released an EP and a full-length album under New West Records, as well as played at Timber Music Festival in Washington and South by Southwest in Austin. After completing their own US tour this spring, the band will tour with Car Seat Headrest across the US and Europe.The band wasted no time in demonstrating their versatile musicality, opening with bassist Gianni Aiello and guitarist Grant Mullen playing with distortion and loop pedals while drummer Henry LaVallee laid down an energetic rhythm which helped the band seamlessly transition into their catchy first song. The band’s appreciation for punk shone through here, with fast, heavy strumming and flat, aggressive vocals. They then played one of the most popular songs off their new album, “TV,” after a brief pause to correct some technical difficulties. Aiello used this time to address the crowd, seemingly in disbelief that their music had travelled far enough to pack Schuba’s Tavern in Chicago. It struck me how adorably awkward he was. Next to me, Anna was laughing. Her word, “goofy,” was the best way to describe the atmosphere of the show. The music was fun on its own, but the guys were simply funny to watch. They obviously loved what they did and had great chemistry together, dancing around on stage and interacting with one another both physically and musically. Even the guitars complimented each other with inverse red and white coloring on the body and pick guards. They picked back up with “TV,” taking a humorous tone and proving once again the versatility by playing solos and layering sounds on top of the already fun song. Aiello even threw his bass behind his head for a mid-song solo, all without missing a beat.
The next song, “Everybody Thinks They Know,” turned this energy back onto the crowd, using a call and response in the chorus that got everyone dancing and singing to the pop groove. Not a single song sounded like a regurgitation of their studio cuts. Every song had solos, breaks, experimental change ups, and, of course, theatrical performances from the band members themselves, with both Mullen and Aiello flying around the entire stage (and floor) and LaVallee twirling his sticks and flicking sweat off his brow and onto his drums. There was never a lull in the energy of the show from either the crowd or the band. Even when the band slowed down with a more blues inspired piece, “Slow Dance II,” the joint guitar-bass improv in the middle of the song kept the mood lively, adding a very “goofy’ twist with Aiello and Mullen facing each other in center stage and Aiello giving a playful tug on Mullen’s whammy bar.
They didn’t pause to talk to the crowd very often, preferring to let their songs flow together using their common garage rock elements as a bridge between different melodies. The show’s climax came with an incredible drum solo from LaVallee, who played what seemed like an entire song on his own. He was so far into his zone that he stumbled into the back wall, exasperated, on his way to center stage for a victory lap. The show didn’t end there—the band played one final song called “Ya Ya,” one of their oldest, and again invited the crowd to participate with hand clapping and call and response.
The show ended with a bang, with the guys dancing, jumping, doing tricks, and truly just having fun with each other. Their energy was infectious, and everyone left that night with a smile on their face. When the Naked Giants come back in September on their tour with Car Seat Headrest, they will definitely have a fan base waiting for them.
My night at Concord started out on a weird note. I walked into the venue and was messing with the settings on my camera as a group of Henley-clad middle-aged people took the stage. They call themselves the Well Known Strangers. If you like the Rascal Flatts, puka shell necklaces, and Logan’s Steakhouse, then this may be the band for you, in which case you should skip ahead a paragraph or two—because the fauxhawks and diamond studded earrings didn’t distract me from the awful brand of regurgitated country-biker-rock this band played.
The guitar players looked like someone’s past-their-prime stepdad, and the guys for whom abalone rosettes were invented. I physically felt the skin on my face tighten as I was sucked through a wormhole and transported through the space-time continuum from N Milwaukee St., present day, to the muggy South Mississippi baseball fields I grew up playing on. It’s not that the band was technically bad; they played pretty tightly and utilized an electric cello quite well. However, their music meshed better with the likes of Florida Georgia Line (if you can swallow the fuck-clobbering horse pill that is calling that garbage ‘music’) than 90’s rock legends I came to see. I was quite frankly insulted.
Sometime between the start of the first set and the moment my ears and eyes began to bleed, I made it to Concord’s bathrooms and finally took the time to soak in my surroundings. This was my first visit to Concord. The venue houses four separate bars, polished hardwood floors, and a clean bathroom complete with an attendant handing out paper towels and mints. And besides that, it’s fucking huge. I know you’re probably here to read about the music and not the venue, but damn. This place is nice. A huge step up from the usual grungy bars I shoot in. Let me bask.
Next to take the stage was the band The Orphan The Poet. I’d heard of these guys before, but written them off as Panic! perpetrators, and hadn’t given them a listen. In reality, they embodied more of a Dance Gavin Dance vibe: a band with whom they’ve toured in the past. They brought a tenacious energy to the stage and clearly knew how to work the crowd. “Let’s do a thing!” lead singer David Eselgroth shouted as he led the crowd in a thunderous rhythmic clapping exercise. Later in the performance, Eselgroth would descend to ground level and interact with fans along the rail as lead guitarist Ty tripped on his pedalboard, fully busting his ass, and continued playing from the ground. The show must go on, I suppose.
After cranking out some originals, the Columbus, Ohio natives demolished a cover of Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi,” challenging the crowd to a chorus-singing contest, which Eselgroth would later resign from and jokingly beg to rejoin our team.
Up next was The Cringe, a New York City band with two SXSW performances under their belts. They were excellent performers and were clearly well-versed in both crowd interactions and classic rock, but that’s about as far as my praise extends. They absolutely crushed a cover of “Ramble On,” nailing the guitar swells and splashy cymbals… But then again, who can’t play Zeppelin? After a few impressive-ish guitar solos, the no-frills band made way for the night’s main attraction: Blind motherfucking Melon.
As the stragglers arrived to fill whatever space remained in Concord, I entered the photo pit, not quite believing the reality presented before me. I made note of the sparse setup on stage: a Gibson LP Custom, a Fender Tele Custom, what looked like a Taylor Grand Auditorium, a custom mic’ed mandolin, a custom… you get it. These guys are the best kind of gearheads. They don’t bring the entire back room of Guitar Center with them, but what they do bring is nice. And very expensive.
As the grips unrolled a giant black light tapestry, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to face the sweetest, oldest woman I’ve ever seen on the rails of a rock show. “Recognize this?” she asked. She gestured to the necklace she was wearing: the very same one that the otherwise naked Shannon Hoon (Blind Melon’s ex-lead singer, who died in 1995) wore on the ’93 cover of Rolling Stone. How could I not recognize that necklace? And how the fuck did she get her hands on it? Turns out she was Shannon Hoon’s mom!!! WTF.
Blind Melon took the stage to ridiculous applause, appearing as a motley crew of mismatched outfits and rocker auras. Vocalist Travis Warren, Hoon’s replacement, ran out in a full suit, complete with a red tie, a Clooney-style golf hat, and bare feet. Rogers Stevens—fellow Mississippi-native, attorney, and lead guitarist—embodied the cocaine cowboy aesthetic for which he’s known.
Eighteen of the twenty songs on their set-list came from three of their own albums, spanning the twenty-year gap from 1993 to 2013. The band enveloped themselves and everyone at Concord in their neo-psychedelic, folksy, alt-rock vibes, pioneered in the height of the grunge scene of the 90s. They became so enveloped, in fact, that at one point I clocked a guitar solo at five and a half minutes, prompting a, “whoops, that was kinda long,” from Warren.
The height of any show put on by a band with a large following is the multifaceted makeup of said following. Think DMB fanatics, Phish Phans, Deadheads… the like. After a long night of receiving high-fives from plastered, dreadlock sporting white guys closer to my dad’s age than my own, a security guard made his way through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. A dirty looking forty-something redirected the guard, getting a kid in a jean jacket kicked out for smoking a blunt that was actually his. The scene made me think of old Tom and Jerry cartoons. After giving the guard the “he went that way” routine, the guy turned, laughed, and high-fived me again before producing another blunt from god-knows-where and continuing in his indulgence and gentle moshing.
I may be biased since Blind Melon is one of my favorite bands of all time, but they put on a helluva show. None of the tracks sounded like the studio recordings—something that doesn’t come easily after 25 years of playing the same songs night in and night out. The middle-aged wooks and I had a blast. I bought a twenty-five dollar hat. Poetically, Shannon’s mom’s face lit up every time I made eye contact with her from the pit. The monolithic band, and more importantly Shannon Hoon, can rest easy knowing their legacy is well preserved and his mom made very proud. We all went home happy.
When I first heard Natalia Lafourcade’s sweet, melancholic Spanish sound I knew I had found a new favorite rainy-day artist. Yet, after attending the Mexico native’s performance at Concord Music Hall, filled with a vigorous Latinx fan base and groovy guitar and trumpet solos, I realized her sound is much more dynamic than I had originally thought.
The show began with just Natalia and her lead trumpetist beside her. He let out a long minor note that reverberated throughout the venue, and immediately, everyone recognized the song: “La Llorona” (which translates to “The Weeping Woman”). Written about a figure from Mexican folklore, Lafourcade’s “La Llorona” hit home for many folks in the crowd; as she sang, many others joined in with her, while others shouted “¡Viva Mexico!” and “¡Viva La Llorona!”. A turquoise mist flowed between the two on stage, a subtle reference to one of Mexico’s most prized stones. The song culminated in the trumpet’s crescendo, with Lafourcade’s wail lingering throughout the crowd.
The theme of Mexican pride continued onto the next song, “Mexicana Hermosa,” which translates to “beautiful Mexico”. This time, Lafourcade was solo on stage, with just a dark red light beaming over her tightly-braided, traditionally styled hair. Within her first three words, the crowd joined in, swaying with the slow tempo. Lafourcade beautifully ended the song with a series of “la-la-las”, and as the crowd sang along, I closed my eyes and felt like I was sailing through water. No wonder “Soledad y el Mar”, or “Solitude and the Sea,” came next.
I absolutely loved the jazzy rendition on the originally acoustic song, a cool transition into the more upbeat portion of the show. As the trumpetist, guitarist, pianist, and drummer joined her on stage, Lafourcade picked up the microphone and danced around them. Naturally, the crowd followed, including a little girl dressed in a traditional Mexicana outfit with a red rose in her hair, twirling and smiling about the dance floor.
The rest of the night was phenomenal. Most songs came from Lafourcade newest album, Musas, but she also added crowd favorites from Hasta la raíz, including “Nunca es Suficiente,” “Lo Que Construimos,” and “Mi Lugar Favorito.” The crowd, myself included, savored every part of the performance, and you could tell Lafourcade was pleased from the huge smile beaming on her face. The combination of Lafourcade and her bands’ incredible musical talents as well as messages of Mexican pride made for a lively night of singing, dancing, and genuine enjoyment. I definitely know now that Lafourcade is not just a rainy-day artist; she has a multifaceted sound that can be enjoyed, no matter the setting.
Geologist opened, injecting the crowd with all the slack-jawed energy of an
intravenous muscle relaxant. But not the fun kind that reaches up to your skull,
something more like Benadryl, just fuzzy dissociation accompanied by a mild headache.
Stooped dutifully before his computer-pad, head bobbing passive to metronomically
pounding bass-vibrations of his own creation, he seemed less an object of audience
attention than a static fixture of the room, music commanding all the attention that I
imagine a pair of actual rocks might. Fittingly, nobody but the Geologist gave it much
interest. Every now and then, the endlessly repetitive thumps and screeches of his
ambient “experiment” would shift at the level of a single voice, changing rhythm or
character – these occasional breaks of dynamicism elicited polite murmuring and
whooping from the crowd, stood on idle and compulsively shifting feet. Eventually, his
song (or perhaps songs, I’m really not sure) dwindled to an anticlimactic finish, and he
shuffled off the stage, the only real movement he’d made since coming out in the first
At this point, I’d love to tell you that Panda Bear came out and floored me with his
raw musical prowess, scorching the audience with the ruthless acidity of his
computerized sonic mastery. Maybe I’d have been thrown back to my first moments of
transfixion with AnCo’s frenetic and childlike musical energy – teenage summer,
Merriweather Post Pavilion lodging itself in the CD drive of my van for the month of July,
hot summer nights backed by bouncing psychedelic jubilance floating some freak
removed cousin of Brian Wilson’s vocal harmonies. That’d make me happy. But I can’t
lie to you. In reality, Panda Bear was fine. Or maybe OK. I’ve heard much worse things.
Geologist, for example. While Panda Bear’s ascent to the stage did fill Thalia Hall with
something it’d been thus far lacking that evening – actual, recognizable, and potentially
even enjoyable, music – the comatose blandness of his stage presence did hard work
to negate any effort I might have otherwise made to groove with it. In retrospect, it was
almost poetic when they took Geologist’s computer-stand off the stage, only to replace it
with a larger, more complexly wired variation of the same thing, this time a tool for
Panda Bear. Panda’s set was exactly that – a more complicated, well-organized, and
colorfully lit adaptation of the same drowsy white-bread essence which plagued
Geologist. Maybe I’m just an asshole. But I really couldn’t tell what he was doing up
there on stage – the general impression was of listening to a very poorly-mixed version
of PBVTGR (his most recent album, which is terrific and worth listening to), muddied by
the acoustics and human ambience of a ¾ full concert hall. Like his boulder-loving
counterpart, he remained firmly planted behind the shield of his DJ gear for the entire
set, exuding exclusively molasses-like energies.
There’s no question Animal Collective is past its early 2000s glory days of
creative brilliance, but I’m left wondering a few things. How can someone who’s music is
saturated with freewheeling, caustic energy, be so oppressively dull on stage? Does
Panda Bear realize how bad Geologist is, and let him open out of kindness anyhow?
Would doing so be crueler than facing him with the truth? Did I truly hate the show this
much, or am I just enjoying being a critic? Heavy questions of morality weigh upon
Panda Bear’s visit to Chicago. All in all, I recommend Panda Bear’s music without
hesitation, but recommend his live act only to those who consent to set their
expectations to the music of a literal Panda, growling irritably between bites of bamboo
stalk, perhaps with a live-reading of a NSF grant proposal written by an actual geologist
as the opener. Only then might you find yourself pleasantly surprised.