photos by Laura Gray
Well, kids, they did it! Despite the player haters, the “media monkeys and the junket junkies with their plastic pantomime,” a few confusing dreams about David Bowie’s nipples in outer space and the occasional Debbie Downer, KEXP and Equalizer Chicago made it through an entire year in the Midwest. Even though the official Anniversary party is this July (coinciding with KEXP’s Chicago broadcast), Thursday, June 5th, marked one whole year that Equalizer, with the support of KEXP, has been showcasing the bitchin-ist independent bands this region (and beyond) has to offer. Some lucky bastard last week even won a drawing for 3 day passes to the Pitchfork Music Festival, further proving that Equalizer is indeed a night you shouldn’t miss if you live in Chicago and dig music.
I’m not too proud to admit that I was one of the doubters early on. When my (super hot) secretary interrupted my morning musings to bring me the press release last spring announcing this proposed endeavor, I exclaimed loudly to her, saying first, “NEVER INTERUPT MY MUSINGS! I found you on the Victoria’s Secret runway and I can put your perfectly formed ass back there, DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME!?” -- English is not her first language so you simply have to yell sometimes -- and second, “Now just hold the phone a moment! This will never succeed! How can a listener-supported independent radio station all the way from Seattle expect to gain popularity and support in Chicago through a monthly series of local concerts designed to display their eclectic and passionate programming format as well as their firm commitment to quality independent artists from the area!?” “Hogwash!” I snorted, “How dare you bring me this shit? Do you truly believe that just because The Chicago Reader and 312unes.com are sponsoring this that it has a snowballs chance in hell? DO YOU!?” I then threw my crystal tumbler of scotch into the imported Welsh stone fireplace in my office across from my massive Nicaraguan Cocobola wood desk and picked up the fresh mug of coffee next to me shrieking, “this is shit too! This is shit coffee and I will scald your sickeningly pretty face for making it, now GET OUT!” I hurled the boiling beverage at her as she fled the room rattling something in Russian -- or Chinese... whatever.
My point in telling you all this is that it seems that I was a little dramatic and thick headed in my assertion that Equalizer would fail and I am coming clean to all of you now to say that I was wrong. I was wrong when I wrote that op-ed piece for The New York Times entitled “Equalizer Chicago, this is shit and you are shit” and I was wrong when I made John Richards cry on Oprah by saying things like “Chicago doesn’t care about you or your stupid taste in music.” And “cut your hair hippie!” I didn’t realize how sensitive the little guy was... that one made me feel bad.
At any rate, that gilded parchment scroll (my fax machine uses parchment) sitting on the sterling silver Tiffany’s “press release platter” on my desk gnawed at me for weeks and I just couldn’t bring myself to burn it like I do most other things which displease me. So, under duress, I went to the very first Equalizer last June and to my surprise it was pretty good. To make an already long story somewhat shorter, I have continued going back each month and reporting on them as you have all seen here and gradually my blood lust has turned to admiration of this proud beast of rock as it has matured and cut its wide swath through Chicago’s music community with the impunity and fortitude of a Spanish bull. So there you have it, Equalizer and KEXP are a success in the Midwest. It’s been a whole year and people keep coming out and making this thing happen month after month and volunteers and listener support continues to grow out here meteorically so its final. I was wrong. The thing about globally renowned super geniuses like myself though is this: Since we are almost never wrong about anything, when we are wrong it’s only about really big important things that we are super-duper way wrong about, not little insignificant day-to-day stuff. I like to take comfort in that.
Two Loons For Tea, Silences Sumire, Ceiling Stars, and The Western Front stacked the deck at darkroom last week with a typically innovative Equalizer bill. As we have come to expect from those wacky cats at darkroom you never can tell what they will throw at you when you walk through those doors but you can bet it will usually blow minds.
The Western Front all the way from Iowa City were first to warm up the crowd at darkroom last week with a muscular electro-tinted rock sound that brought to mind Death Cab For Cutie’s more hook laden material. The Western Front created something of a musical cyborg on stage using racks of synths and computers along side guitars, tube amps and percussion toys. It was particularly amusing to see the keyboard player playing keys while simultaneously blending drum machine beats with acoustic drums like the kick drum underneath his keyboard. I hope his resume mentions “excellent at multi-tasking” because that can’t be easy.
After some expectedly mediocre DJ-ing by DJ Mikey Dance Panther, Ceiling Stars took the stage in their first officially promoted show as a new band. Ceiling Stars brings together members of acclaimed local band “Tenki” Garron Gaston and Sean Burke with singer guitar player Joe Phillips, Samantha Axton and awesome lap steel player “JK” to create a delightfully dreamy and satisfyingly twangy pastiche of alt country and shoe-gazey lo-fi pop lullabies. Although they did not have a physical CD on hand that night the band was performing in support of a full length downloadable demo available on their website. No one would have guessed that last week at darkroom was one of the bands first shows in front of a paying crowd and they seemed comfortable and confident delivering their set.
In a departure from the more structured song oriented arrangements of the previous two bands, Silences Sumire changed directions with a dramatic and moody 40 minutes of instrumental, electronic jazz infused psychedellia. Thomas Faulds and Charles Gorczynski armed with laptops and a saxophone crept onto the darkroom stage under a cloak of darkness after the lights were blacked out in preparation for the duo’s accompanying visual projections. Without warning a swirling flurry of lights and sound that was at times vibrant and up beat and at other times dark and smoldering with a building computerized glow flooded the bar and surprised the audience. With nods to experimental electronic artists such as Autechre and Venetian Snares as well as the more organic free jazz freak outs of John Coltrane Silences Sumire tied it up with a bow and handed it to those of us not hip enough to know how to hear it all in one place.
The main attraction last week however, was the Seattle ensemble Two Loons For Tea who have been garnering critical praise from all over the map with their new record “Nine Lucid Dreams” out on Sarathan Records (home to Feral Children and The Purrs). Two Loons for Tea is primarily songwriting duo Sarah Scott (singer) and founder of Sarathan Records Jonathan Kochmer (guitars and various other instruments) along with a rotating cast of auxiliary musicians on instruments ranging from vibraphones (don’t call it a big xylophone... seriously) to percussion and strings. Two Loons for Tea create melodic but ambient soundscapes that seem to spontaneously pluck hooks from thin air and build a pop scaffolding for a song before anyone even realizes there is construction underway. Sara Scott’s expertly honed voice conjures shades of Mazy Starr, Etta James and Billie Holiday and can instantly flip from pitch perfect note surgery to delicately deconstructed melodic meandering. The music is fluid and gives one the feeling that these songs could and might spill into any number of directions at any time yet they always manage to contain themselves just enough to be delicious without making a mess.
Congratulations, Equalizer, you’re one year old and still not sucking. July looks like it’ll be a flagship month with an unprecedented two Equalizers! They are rolling out the red carpet again for KEXP’s visit so stay tuned!
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.