KEXP Presents: Equalizer, Chicago 11/1

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Review by Mike Turner
Photos by Heather Stumpf

I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Ok, um, how should I put this? I know you’re mad because I was nowhere to be found last month and there you were, scrolling up and down the KEXP blog thinking “wait a minute, where is my regular riotous recap of Equalizer Chicago? JUST WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE!?” I want you all to know right now that I have not abandoned you. Nay, my friends, in fact it is quite the opposite –- I was protecting you! Listen, folks, nobody knows better than I (your intrepid narrator) how this thing we call Equalizer has escalated to gargantuan proportions. You have read my retellings of the ever-mounting heaps of collateral damage, the senseless carnage caused by this “rock and roll music,” the wasted minds (such a terrible thing) blown to smithereens and scattered all over Chicago avenue jettisoned by the powerful and nefarious forces of these musical samurai that darkroom routinely employs for the express purpose of rocking faces off! Rocking faces off? I ask you, how is that responsible!?

Though it started innocently enough, there were those who said from the beginning that KEXP and darkroom were playing with fire. Well, much like San Diego County there’s no controlling it now –- we’re just going to have to let it burn. So you see, with all of this knowledge weighing down on my shoulders, understanding full well that our collective musical sanity teetered on the brink of oblivion I could not in good conscience submit a report last month considering the particularly magnified state of affairs in October. When KEXP rolled into town with their signature Master P style convoy of platinum plated, diamond encrusted tanks and Hummers (John and Cheryl rode a hog and sidecar made entirely of lasers) they forcibly commandeered Engine studios for three days of broadcasting live the most innovative and incendiary local music the Midwest has to offer. I realized then that if we all made it out of this alive there was no way I could blog about the corresponding Equalizer. It would be like punching a coma patient in the face moments after he woke up, I just couldn’t do it. Far be it from me to presume, but you couldn’t handle it… you couldn’t.

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Forgive me? Great, thanks. As for the business of the November 1st Equalizer, well, it was good. And by good I mean expectedly epic and fantastic, yada, yada, yada. What do you want me to say? I already used all of the adjectives I know. The doors opened early last Thursday to accommodate a special four-band Equalizer bill featuring Big Lazy, The Ladies and Gentlemen, Icicles, and Casper and The Cookies. The usual shenanigans commenced: DJ Johnny Kesh used his ninja magic to somehow simultaneously bartend and DJ, while Mikey Dance Panther made tons of mistakes while looking unapologetically fantastic. KEXP swag was raffled, sponsors (312unes.com and The Chicago Reader) were thanked and many Goose Island beers were consumed. Chicago’s appetite for abuse, I mean live music, never ceases to amaze me and they came through yet again as the crowd built itself into a frisky gamboling lot shortly after 8pm. Seriously though, there were a great deal of healthy diversions in the windy city that night and walking into darkroom is akin to putting your name on the liver transplant list, but these people just keep coming back every time! If you ask me, KEXP is putting their damn communist mind-controlling fluoride in the beer in that place. I suppose it could also be that the bands are always really, really good.

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It was an eclectic bill on Thursday night which took us on a journey leaving “Twee as fuck” station at around 9pm, traveled through the dramatic and precipitous power pop mountains and finally dropped us off near the boarder of instrumental groove and avant-garde expressionism at 2 in the morning. When Casper and The Cookies from Athens, GA, took the stage the first thing I noticed were their huge matching disco ball false eye lashes. When the band blinked under the darkroom lights as their respective blinking needs dictated, it was like a little Japanese tour group was standing on stage with flash cameras. The second thing I noticed is that they are all adorable… in that Jim Henson kind of way. Their songs are catchy as hell, not to mention tight and well performed and they made me happy... also in that Jim Henson kind of way. Singer/guitarist/keyboard player Jason NeSmith (ex Of Montreal member) even used a conductor’s baton on stage to direct his band mates in synchronized head nodding -- like cats watching a tennis match. Hilarious.

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The sparse, jangley and synthy-sweet arrangements of Casper and The Cookies flowed effortlessly into the follow up set by Michigan-based band Icicles, most notably known for their infectiously catchy Target commercial tune “La Ti Da” off of their new album Arrivals and Departures. Don’t pretend like you haven’t heard it. I know that you only have a TV for “watching art house documentaries on DVD and sometimes The Simpson’s” but you have definitely seen this commercial. However, if you are like me you thought that the song in the background was in Spanish and that word they kept singing in the chorus was something exotic like “laterra.” You know, all drawn out –with a rolled r pronunciation. Am I the only one? Regardless, I was glad to find that the Icicles hit song was not the only highlight of the bands performance and they breezed through a bouncy selection of Bell and Sebastian/Camera Obscura style indie pop like a gaggle of frolicking puppies in a sunny field…if puppies wore 1950’s cat glasses and matching blouses. Between Icicles and Casper and the Cookies I was glad that I had remembered to bring my pipe and cardigan sweater. What? This is Chicago –- it gets chilly! I listened to the rest of their set from my wing backed leather chair next to the Darkroom fireplace leisurely leafing through one of my favorite hand stitched calfskin tomes. Darkroom actually does have a fireplace.

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No sooner had I reached my state of cashmere-swaddled harmonic nirvana then I was jolted awake from blissful musings of Glasgow raindrops and sugared blades of grass by a thundering 46” kick drum that could only belong to one Mike Zelenko of The Ladies and Gentlemen. It would seem that the evening was shifting gears. Indeed the unmistakable blasts of synth, the stabs and slashes of crunched up guitar and that bigger than Bonham back beat were all harbingers of Chicago’s new wave power pop darlings The Ladies and Gentlemen. While at first it seemed that this tactical force of sharp dressed men threatened to blow the gingham dresses and hand made totes out of the bar and into the street, a most curious thing occurred to the contrary: Darkroom was mobbed! I sprang from my chair and clung to the mantle spitting out my pipe to avoid the rush of hormonally crazed young women, and men all tumbling toward the stage like English soccer fans fleeing to the gates in a riot at Manchester Stadium. Manners had been retired for the evening and we were left with dance rock abandon! The Gents wasted no time tearing into their debut full-length LP appropriately titled Ladies and Gentlemen… and the Darkroom was right with them for every note.

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Honestly, I can’t think of another act that would have been up to the task of chilling out Darkroom after The Ladies and Gentlemen’s vulgar display of “booty control.” People really didn’t want to stop dancing! Remember that scene in Tommy when they put Roger Daltry in that Iron Maiden made of syringes and shot him full of acid, and he has that crazy hallucination of Tina Turner (the Evil Acid Queen) freaking the hell out? She’s just running around and screaming and shaking like she’s having an epileptic seizure? It was kind of like that but with more “white guy dancing” and less rhythm. All I can say is thank God Big Lazy came all the way down from New York to make sure we didn’t hurt ourselves. I can imagine the call coming in to their head quarters (like the hall of justice) and Stephen Ulrich answering the phone and going: “Yes? Oh, hmm, I see. That sounds serious… we’ll be right there.” Click. “Guys, Chicago needs us. Let’s roll!”

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It’s easy to see why Robert Christgau of The Village Voice calls them the Big Apple’s Crème de la Crème. It’s not often that an instrumental pop outfit comes along that can really hold your attention and never seem boring or fall into predictable musical modes. Big Lazy are serious musicians that have the chops to fill in the space where a vocal might rest and they execute their well-crafted tunes in such a way that the absence of lyrics is never mourned. Watching Big Lazy on stage is hypnotic and though it’s probably been said before, I couldn’t help feeling like I’d been transported into some creepy David Lynch movie (ok they’re all creepy) where these guys are the house band in an unsavory joint where something sinister is going down. With a drum set, a guitar and an upright bass Big Lazy settled the darkroom like an expert snake charmer and when they were done I think everyone sort of felt like they had just lost a one-on-one basketball match with their fathers. Big Lazy didn’t say much on stage but their polite thank you and good night as they left the stage may as well have been a “not yet kiddos, try again in a few years...” Oh, snap! We got schooled!

Don’t forget to check out December’s Equalizer Chicago! It’s a special Highwheel Records showcase featuring: Bang Bang, Arks and Walking Bicycles. The first 100 people in the door get a free Highwheel vinyl and CD giveaway.

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One Comment

  1. Posted November 13, 2007 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    This is great, Mike. I hope we get to read more from you soon.

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