KEXP Presents: Equalizer Showcase, Darkroom, Chicago 1/3/08


Stuffed to the bursting point with seasonal delights, and soaked until saturated with a dingy mixture of spirits from around the globe in rolled Equalizer last Thursday just in time for the January show. “Hey, buddy, glad yer back, it’s been a while,” said darkroom. “How was yer Christmas and New Years, man? Can I getcha somethin’?”

“No! I can’t eat another bloody thing, fuck off!”

“Geez, calm down! You sure about that? How about this wafer thin mint?”

“No, fuck you, I’m full.”

“Really? It’s wafer thin…”

“Wafer thin, huh? Well… I guess maybe I can have that… shit, give me a beer while you’re at it.”

“That’s the spirit, Equalizer — here have another… uh oh, um, you don’t look so good, EQ…”


And that’s how it happened. I was there, I saw the whole exchange — it was disgusting! The shock wave from Equalizer’s consumption triggered combustion shook the building. There were fatty globs of cellulite plastered and dripping from the ceilings along with partially digested turkey parts, fruitcake and corn… there’s always corn. I crept out from under one of the tables moments later rattled and confused in time to see Mark the bartender stand up from behind the bar and shake the lard from his luxuriant handlebar mustache like a dog fresh from the bath… a bath of lard.

Strangely, the resulting smell inside darkroom was like that of a bread factory (some might say bakery) with just a hint of pine. As hideous as it looked I couldn’t help feeling a pang of nostalgia as the scent of a corpulent and exploded Equalizer done in by its own holiday gluttony took me back to festive days of yore. Then, as if from a dream, out of the muck a band began to take shape on stage. No wait, it was three bands! My God, like a phoenix rising from the mucus, the entire January line-up of Equalizer manifested before us, instruments and all. They must have been trapped inside that behemoth in some sort of larval state the whole time! Box of Baby Birds, Kinetic Stereokids and Smallwire all struggled against their ectoplasmic amniotic sack, but before long they had clawed their way out using drumsticks and guitar headstocks as crude tools. These foals of rock and roll sprang from stage and wobblingly galloped to the swag tables of 312unes and the Chicago Reader where they were cleaned lovingly by volunteers who licked the remains of the nutrient rich cocoon from their glistening hides to prepare them for the long night ahead. Only Box of Baby Birds remained on stage. Apparently too weak to clear the subwoofers in one jump after their struggle into this new and curious world they had no choice but to rock for their very survival.


It was a trial by fire, but rock they did. Lit only by the glimmering phosphorescent creosote that coated the inside of darkroom, Box of Baby Birds chirped softly at first starting with a hushed performance of “Weekly Monthly” off of their debut self titled LP. Soon, however, they had spread their wings and soared and sang effortlessly through the rest of the set with lush arrangements of piano and violin to match melodic guitar strumming and pillowy vintage sounding drums. Box of Baby Birds draw obvious comparisons to Elliot Smith and Bonnie Prince Billy as well as Wilco’s more sedate numbers but distinctions are prominent in their delicate song craft which steer their tunes down a path that is similar but different from the subtle twang of rootsy Americana or the influential march of early Brit pop. The result of these subtle distinctions is an ostensibly soothing familiarity underpinned with the cold tension of unexpected minor keys that form a river connecting each fragile song to the next.

As Box of Baby Birds confidently cleared the stage DJ’s Johnny Kesh and Mikey Dance Panther began pounding the decks in a particularly aggressive slinging of “beatz” quite contrary to the soothing lullabies of the previous act. According to the ham fisted Johnny Kesh, the intended purpose of such a punishing set was to shake the invasive gelatinous goo from the darkroom walls (it was everywhere) and to wake up the sluggish attending Chicagoans who were lazily sloping about the bar like fat insectoid parasites in near carbo-catatonia still feeding impulsively on the carcass of an eviscerated Equalizer giant. The vibrations seemed to help at first, and for a while there a glimmer of sentient life began to creep back into the black bulging eye balls of the undulating herd of gorged beetle creatures sporadically in taking and outputting slime. But it just wasn’t enough, despite the furious button pushing, back and fourth name calling and ass-slapping in the DJ booth, DJ’s Johnny Kesh and Mikey Dance Panther needed help. Thank God for Kinetic Stereokids. I really can’t see how anything else would have been right in that situation yet they proved to be the magic bullet.

“Sonic alchemy” would be the clichéd rock critic phrase that comes to mind when trying to describe KSK but really they defy description which is another clichéd rock critic phrase and that makes this whole business of describing which I am attempting to do now quite maddening. I will say however, that the over stuffed beetle creatures seemed to love it. The interplay between pre-recorded tape loops and Justin Ford’s angular guitar riffs and in fact the combining of the two by literally playing a tape recorder into the pickups of the guitar in question apparently began to react with the exoskeletons of the dazed audience creatures and their shells began to crack. As KSK continued with a frenetically building pace of fuzzy swirling guitars, syncopated drums and retro recordings mixed with synthy samples and satisfyingly glitchy effects, calcified shards of beetle armor began to chip and crack and fall away. A metamorphosis was occurring. Like caterpillars into butterflies, human forms began to emerge from the bloated insects, roused from sated apathy by these unique electrical currents and uncommon timbres.

It was relieving to see this transformation take place and in that moment it seemed that 2007 in all of its soulless immutability and relentless destructive marauding was finally dying. People looked confused but rested — and certainly well fed, although no one wanted to discuss that part — ew. As the newly reborn crowd gradually drew closer to the glowing circular bar in the center of darkroom to buy each other drinks and shake off the last bits of bug chunks, Smallwire began.


The melodic but icy Nico-esque vocal harmonies and unisons of Kristin Barendregt and Kristina Dutton (formerly of The 1900’s) quickly began to evaporate the remaining creosote still clinging to the darkroom interior. With their effortlessly blasé yet pitch perfect delivery Smallwire saw darkroom become less grotesque primordial womb and more foggy, mossy temperate rainforest. Piano notes fell like drops of cold clear rain that Dutton’s violin wiped away before soaking into our clothes and Jeff Grubbs punchy drumming lent traction and kept us all from slipping into a new age experiment. At times there is something almost Celtic sounding about the arrangements on Smallwire’s yet to be released LP from which they drew on Thursday night but it is punctuated with just enough gravely guitar stabs and drum flourishes at just the right moments to keep it a safe distance from western European world music territory. Simple melodies atop other simple melodies built and permeated the fog until a new ecosystem was established. Carcasses were composted in time laps reality as giant rib cages sank into the floor, butterflies flapped wings on remote rivers and catalyzed chain reactions resulting in smiles over drinks all the way across the bar. Hobbits returned to the Shire from Mordor and peace was restored to darkroom.

That was Equalizer. It was a weird one, but what else is new?

The next Equalizer is Thursday, Feb 7th!

Yea Big and Kid Static
Meat Number 5
Hollywood Holt
Resident DJ’s Johnny Kesh and Mikey Dance Panther plus a special guest DJ!

Mike Turner and his partners at darkroom produce KEXP’S “Equalizer Chicago” a monthly showcase of on the verge Midwestern artists. Mike has consulted in the music industry nationally for 6+ years and currently resides in Chicago as a practicing social critic and sometimes DJ.

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