Live Review: Equalizer Showcase, Darkroom, Chicago 4/3/2008

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review by Mike Turner
photos by Jeremy Farmer and Brent Kado

Darkroom, Ukrainian Village, Chicago, IL, Thursday, April 3rd, KEXP Equalizer, holy crap… did someone set off some kind of bomb that destroys everything that isn’t awesome? With the caliber of talent on hand last Thursday night, it sure seemed like it. Or maybe somebody cracked open a piñata full of flubber during sound check, transforming the perfectly competent and entertaining line up at darkroom into musical super geniuses with the power to blow minds… and fly. Alas, although I wish I could blame my injured sanity on the supernatural forces of flubber or weapons of mass awesomeness — remember the 90’s when “mass” was an adverb, i.e. “mass cool”? Yeah, me neither — I am afraid that it is merely the case that these artists are really that good and I should never pick up a guitar again. Cameron McGill & What Army, Brighton, MA, Needers & Givers, and the infamous PA band The Shackeltons packed darkroom to the gills last week with a jubilant multitude of Chicago’s best looking music enthusiasts. DJ’s Johnny Kesh and Mikey Dance Panther continued their monthly argument about whose ipod goes where and The Chicago Reader and 312unes slung their respective swag to the buzzing masses.

If you read last month’s addition to Equalizer Chicago’s monthly coverage here on the KEXP blog then you would have seen the very first “motion picture video” in a new series chronicling this intergalactically renowned event. Well, hold onto your flux capacitors my little cadets because a team of space wizards is working on another one at this very moment and it will be available right here for your consumption soon! Apparently the magical-scientific-gospel-astro-spells they are using take a little more time then just writing this crap down. Also, I think the baby Jesus has to approve it or something. Just hang tight and check back in a couple of days. I’ll remind you.

At any rate, for all of you “readers” out there who are wringing your hands at the steady demise of the written word and the subsequent “retardinating” of the American — uh, talking thingy in the wake of all this new “tekmology,” just pop your monocle back in and calm down! Luckily for you nerds I am a master of all twenty-six letters of the alphabet and I will continue to employ all of them like a freaking word ninja despite the fact that it is way cooler to watch stuff… happy?

mike.jpgphoto by Jeremy Farmer

So yeah, that’s right, there were FOUR bands at Equalizer last week –- that’s one more than usual. Four bands, two DJ’s, a virtually limitless supply of 312 beer (among spades of other alcoholic sundries) and FINALLY temperatures above 50 degrees in Chicago! All of this made Thursday April 3rd the ideal springtime night to come out of our Midwestern hibernation caves for spellbinding performances by some of Chicago’s (and Pennsylvania’s) finest musicians.

As the clock struck 9pm The Shackeltons, all the way from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, on their first national tour, wasted no time in making darkroom their own. With the stage adorned in scattered flowers, old telephones and white Christmas tree lights singer Mark Redding leapt to the microphone amidst the marshal and sinister groove of “Your Movement” already in progress thanks to his band mates and barked the opening lines. It doesn’t take long watching this band to see why they have already racked up such an impressive resume of critical press. Both Spin magazine and Rolling Stone along with numerous smaller alternative press outlets nation wide have lauded The Shackeltons and marked them as rising stars.

The arrangements are minimalist but driving and powerful and Redding’s impassioned declarations, wails, shrieks and occasional croons add weight and depth to each slashing chord. There are times during their smolderingly intense set that feel like what an indie rock religious revival might be like if such a thing could ever actually exist without the heaps of irony that would ultimately make something like that utterly pointless. Indeed Redding even cites gospel music as a major influence in his songwriting. With a mic clutched tightly in his hands along with a bouquet of flowers and sweat pouring down his face as he points to someone in the crowd begging them (seemingly on the verge of tears) to feel something, anything you can almost see the brimstone burning within him. It’s the secular kind of brimstone of course but that doesn’t change the fact that Redding is a natural preacher regardless of his motivation. I may have been saved that night myself but with all of the alcohol I can’t really remember.

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shackeltons1.jpgphotos by Jeremy Farmer

It was Needers & Givers who were charged with the daunting task of following The Shackletons blazing performance, and lucky for us they were well equipped to do so. In fact, they chose Equalizer as the night to officially release their debut album on Loose Tooth Records, The Other, and their own posse of celebratory revelers were on hand in support of the occasion adding to the already boisterous atmosphere. The core of Needers & Givers is made of three brothers. As a matter of fact, despite their respectively distinguished international musical careers Ian, Dylan and Christopher Hoffman all performed for the very first time on stage together last week at darkroom — apparently this month’s Equalizer was full of milestones.

Even in their infancy as a band, Needers & Givers have received critical praise from the likes of Innerview Chicago, Amplifier magazine, and NPR, where they were recently featured in the popular “All Songs Considered” program. Although the band’s stage presence is understated, their musical chops are undeniable and they succeed in delivering a set that gently and effectively weaves together many of their stated influences such as The Zombies, Wilco, The Beatles and Weezer. Ian Hoffman’s voice has a smoothness that floats above the unpredictable changes in meter and melody generated by his band, and it seems to lie tonally somewhere between Elliot Smith and James Mercer of The Shins.

needersngivers1.jpgphoto by Jeremy Farmer

Well, some say that it was merely that springy seasonal balm that got under the skin of Mikey Dance Panther, and others maintain that he was foolishly attempting to out dress the infamously dapper Cameron McGill who many attribute with the advent of the “hobo chic” look (think Charlie Chaplin meets Bob Dylan). However, regardless of the actual reason, Mikey certainly did arrive at darkroom that evening in a three-piece pinstripe suit strutting around and preening like some kind of southern dandy with ADHD. Of course he was effortlessly trumped by the clairvoyantly stylish McGill as soon as he entered the venue. McGill glided into darkroom looking like Daniel Day Lewis in a film playing a coal miner on Ralph Lauren’s ranch and you could just see the envy bubbling to the surface in Mikey’s eyes as he realized his spotlight had just been extinguished. Foiled again, Mikey Dance Panther — you beautiful megalomaniac son of a bitch, foiled again!

mpd20403.jpgphoto by Brent Kado

It was true, Cameron McGill & What Army looked fabulous as usual and they backed it right up by sounding every bit as amazing as their reputation warns. They were a tight and well-oiled folk rock machine last Thursday night, (evidently one that kills hipsters if you note Cameron’s guitar) no doubt a result of the countless dues this group has paid touring nationally and even internationally. Cameron has become a staple of the Chicago and greater Midwest music scene playing venues large and small, even including slots at Lollapalooza, Milwaukee’s Summerfest and the now bygone “The Late Late show with Craig Killborn.” Every time I see Cameron live I am reminded why I love the simplicity of singer songwriters at their best. No matter what the permutation of his line up is at any given show; weather he be solo, with a rhythm section or even sometimes with his “Quartet Offensive” string section, Cameron’s songs stand on their own with the singularity of classic works by legends like Lennon, Dylan or Steve Earl. Yes that is a tall claim but I am willing to stick by it.

The delicacy and power of his compositions with as little as one acoustic guitar and as much as a 10 piece backing ensemble is never obscured and it is the type of songwriting that causes others to either start composing themselves or give it up completely. I was particularly excited to see Katie Bracken singing with Cameron at Equalizer this time around which apparently is a non-guaranteed treat for McGill fans since she doesn’t tour with the band. The dynamic she brings to his songs with her warm breathy vocals is absolutely spine tingling. Cameron McGill and What Army will be starting a nation wide tour soon with Indiana’s Margo and The Nuclear So and So’s, so look for them in your town this summer, you won’t be sorry –- unless you have terrible taste in music.

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photo by Brent Kado

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photo by Brent Kado

cameronmcgill2.jpgphoto by Jeremy Farmer

Brighton, MA all the way from, wait for it… right here in Chicago — not Massachusetts as it turns out, were the end cap to this evening of exceptionally talented artists. Of course they were nothing short of exceptional themselves and in fact seemed to be an ideal closer after Mcgill’s powerful set. BMA have also been quite an industrious group of artists in the last year generating an impressive cannon of local press from the likes of Newcity magazine who named them one of their 10 artists “on the verge” and The Chicago Reader.

Originally formed as something of a side project to Matt Kerstein’s previous band Scotland Yard Gospel Choir (who played Equalizer back in October) it eventually became his focus and BMA’s new self-titled EP has been accepted enthusiastically in Chicago. Simple songs with layers of sound and emotional, insightful lyrics appear to be at least part of the formula for BMA and that formula clearly resonates if the intently rapt Equalizer audience who seemed to hang on every word last week was any indication. Many Wilco and Jeff Tweedy comparisons were overheard in reference to Kerstein’s charmingly lazy vocal delivery. I suppose his slightly scruffy appearance may have fueled that whisper a little as well. Whatever, chicks totally dig that shit.

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brightonma4.jpgphotos by Jeremy Farmer

Check out more photos from the night on the KEXP Flickr page.

That was Equalizer, folks! Only one more in the Pipe before the big one-year anniversary in June! On deck for Thursday, May 1st:

Dundrearies
Otter Petter
Scale Model

Don’t miss it!

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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One Comment

  1. Posted April 11, 2008 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    all the love to this sweet organization of love and music in chicago!

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