As we move perilously closer each day to the immanent KEXP live broadcast invasion of Chicago this month I am reminded more often just what a vital music town and indeed music community Chicago is right now. I can’t think of another city of this scale (and I have lived in quite a few others) where the social structure surrounding live music is as large, interconnected and supportive as it is here. Maybe I just notice this more in the summer because everyone is so darn happy to be alive after making it through the wretched Chicago winter that their “juis de’ vis” compels them to be out every night either creating something artistic themselves or encouraging others in their efforts to do the same. It’s like everyone is thinking; “crap, I may only have four months to live before possibly freezing to death waiting for the late North Ave bus after work in November. I’d better make it count... lets drink some beers and listen to some tunes, I love you man!” I guess its also just easier to see who’s at your shows when it’s light longer and folks aren’t buried under the ten layers of clothes it takes to go anywhere during the rest of the year.
Last Thursday’s Equalizer sponsored by KEXP, The Chicago Reader and 312unes.com was such a damn music scene love fest that if it weren’t for the kick-you-in-the-teeth “rawk” of Sound on Sound and Ramova, the swift and punchy pop hooks of Vamplifier and the don’t-you-know-how-many-cool-other-bands-we’re-in?-(no?...oh, really? Darn...) sonic experiments of Website I would have sworn there must have been a bowl of dosed Kool-Aid around there somewhere. In a unique twist to KEXP’s monthly Chicago showcase, each of the bands last week represented a different one of Chicago’s more established alternative press/media outlets: The Chicago Reader, The Onion, Time Out Chicago, UR Chicago and Chicagoist.com all had an entry. I was expecting at least SOME serious shit talking and maybe even a knife fight or two to go down (is it really so much to ask for a little knife fighting?) but the darkroom pre-show BBQ one the back patio was like a hipster Melrose Place episode (the Christmas show where everyone gets along). To continue that metaphor, DJ Mikey Dance Panther was definitely Heather Locklear’s Amanda Woodward character. Anyway, ya know... everyone knew everyone, everybody was laughing, smiling and chatting like old friends (because they are), trading band war stories, hangin’ out, gorging on charred encased meat products, drinking cheap beer and talking about up coming shows blah, blah, blah. It really brought a tear of joy to my ever so tight pants. So, you’ve got the who’s who of not only Chicago’s alternative media community but also the local hipsterati who they write about each week all under one roof + beer + grilled meat, which by art school math apparently = unicorn. The preceding equation isn’t really germane to my point but it is an interesting fact.
What I am trying to illustrate here is that three Tibetan midgets from a Cirque de Sole act clad in matching unitards could have strolled onto that patio at any point and it somehow it wouldn’t have seemed out of place to see a skinny tattooed fellow from some band stand up and hand them a PBR saying “hey guys glad you could make it, you know everyone right?” And THAT’s what’s so great about Chicago right there, because they would, and everyone would know them too and the after party would be in their fucking blimp orbiting the Sears tower! I just like the atmosphere of inclusion here even if I tend to kick it in the balls sometimes.
So, fast forwarding a couple of hours, Sound On Sound representing Chicagoist.com and in a round about way UR Chicago magazine was first to accept Thor’s mighty challenge of rock and they picked up his divine gauntlet with a flourish befitting the seasoned rockers they have now become. It was a triumphant set indeed for a group who has really proven itself in battle over the last couple of years and come into it’s own as a staple of the Chicago music scene. Snd on Snd slashed and bashed their way through 40 minutes or so of up-tempo crunchy attitude-caked goodness that sent us all straight back to high school (or at least the early 90′s) before we were too cool for fun and you’d crowd surf at a damn wedding if it would make things interesting. Bassist/journalist/artist manager/music bizz entrepreneur extraordinaire and perennial object of scenester desire Lizz Kannenberg didn’t even have her instrument plugged in for the first song but she sure played like it was! No doubt enforcing John Coltrane’s assertion that it’s really all about the notes you don’t hear -- wa, wa, wa, waaaaaaa! But seriously, the notes we did hear sounded killer once her bass rig was up and running. Jon Sarmiento followed dexterously in the footsteps of fellow front man/drummers Phil Collins, Don Henley and that guy from The Romantics further destroying the stereotype of the tone-deaf drummer. Kidding! Sarmiento doesn’t sound like someone who scores Disney movies but he is a good singer -- so there you have it. I did like The Romantics though, for real...
Guitarists Kyle Ryan and Vel Vetri get “mad props” as we used to say back in ’93 for trading some scorching licks while their muscular tube amps easily tore through darkroom’s cavernous gloom and virgins and warriors alike danced the ancient dance of revelry and reverence to those purveyors of that which rocks. And thus it is written that on the third day of the seventh month of the year two thousand and eight, Sound on Sound made the rock and the rock was good!
Not a band to take a challenge of rock lightly, Time Out Chicago‘s own Ramova (named after the Bridgeport neighborhood’s old Ramova Theater) was next in line to sip from the sacred chalice of rock, and drink deeply they did my children. For the uninitiated, Ramova with the dual vocal attack of bassist January Overton and Guitarist F.R. Hilbun sound something like that brief collaboration between The Plasmatics’ Wendy O Williams and Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister. With ex Grackles drummer Nicole Roach triangulating this lethal trio Ramova is a lean teen fighting force. By the way, none of them are teenagers... I just like using that expression. But fight valiantly they did! They fought the fight that only rock can wage (the good one) against all that which does not rock. Thor and Dio smiled down approvingly from Valhalla as they shined their enchanted light of rock upon Ramova so that all might witness its glory... of rock. Amen.
After a typically cringe inducing introduction by DJ Mikey Dance Panther who, clad in a clingy lavender colored v-neck t-shirt had his “heavage” on full display for all to nauseatingly gaze upon; the immortal, rock thirsty and pecan pie obsessed quartet Vamplifire took the stage to represent The Chicago Reader. FYI: “heavage” is a new English word awaiting official induction into the dictionary and it was brought to my attention by one Mr. Pat Kenelly the attending Equalizer sound engineer. According to Pat the etymology of this word is quite simple yet multi-dimensional. Essentially it is man cleavage or “he” cleavage as the case may be. This is a phenomenon mostly blamed on the popularity and proliferation of American Apparel’s ridiculously deep V t-shirts among anemic urbanites. However, as Pat points out, this phenomenon often elicits a “heavingly” vomitous reaction in it’s victims as well (read witnesses) so, there is a poignant duality in it’s meaning. In defense of DJ MDP however, he did report that the hyper-feminine lavender color of his oh so delicate shirt was the result of accidentally washing a previously white v-neck with his purple “manties.” The tragedy of it all!
Thankfully, Vamplifier was able to stifle it’s inevitable fits of barftastic spewage in the face of Mikey’s style hiccup long enough to deliver a tight set of melodic but razor sharp pop rock that had all of darkroom bouncing to the spongy and jangly interplay of Nord electros and electric guitars. Sadly DJ Johnny Kesh was not so lucky and the darkroom sanitation crew had to be called. Vamplifier walk that thin line between sugary and agro that I absolutely love when done correctly. Thankfully, they succeed and evoke a stylistic mash up of something between Sloan and Nirvana fused with personalities that seem much bigger than their stage. Singer guitarist Scott Shehan has a very cool choppy vocal delivery style a la Brit Daniel of Spoon and when keyboardist Jane Hanna ads her smooth, contrasting back up vocals to the mix it is easy to understand how they became “world famous in Belgium.”
Well, you know it was only a matter of time before a band would form and call itself “website.” Apparently Website was the band to do just that. And now we have Website... the band. Something of an indie “super group” by some standards Website brings together Guitarist Sam Zurich of Make Believe, Cap’n Jazz and Joan of Arc and drummer Ryan Rapsys of Euphone and Ambulette to create a shoegazy, and occasionally meandering collage of sounds and textures that spiral off of some genuinely driving grooves with digestible hooks. Naturally, they chose Equalizer to debut their project for the first time in front of a live audience. That’s right, last week was in fact the very first show for Website, but their smoldering performance made it clear that we would be hearing much more from this outfit soon enough. To anyone in attendance who really dug this band at Equalizer I hope that my prediction is true because ironically Website does not have a um, website... save one underdone myspace page with one picture of a cat and no recordings and there is really no other information about them that I can find.
So, who won this epic battle for Chicago’s rock supremacy you ask? Who among the arbiters and tastemakers of the alternative press community can hold their heads high in triumph and wear the crown of rock for their respective media outlet!? That I am afraid you can only know by looking deep within your hearts my friends. You see children, believing in rock and roll is a lot like believing in Jesus, and wizards and Eskimos –if you truly believe, then its real to you and that is all that matters. If you pray hard enough to Ronnie James Dio and Thor I think you’ll find the answer. Now get out there and sacrifice a goat you little scamps you’re making me all misty. And don’t forget to set the carcass on fire after it’s bled dry!
Also don’t’ forget there is an extra special second Equalizer this month which just so happens to also be the KEXP listener appreciation party! Yay! Featuring:
And as always resident DJ’s Johnny Kesh and Mikey Dance Panther
It’s a free show kids!
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.