by Michael Turner
photos by Laura Gray
Hey there, music fans! Can I call ya Joe? Gosh jeepers, that’d be grrreat! Let’s get started then! Skip, sparkle, wink. And so it was that on the eve of the vice presidential debate last Thursday, October 2nd Equalizer brought fourth upon this continent a new line-up. T’was a line-up conceived by darkroom and KEXP Seattle and dedicated to the proposition that all music is NOT created equal and that some of the particularly kick-ass stuff deserves a special platform in this town. Furthermore, if this platform is to be sponsored by The Onion and 312unes.com then all the better. Elephant Gun, Grammar and Takka Takka all valiantly gave their performances last Thursday night so that this music scene might live, united and free (well, at least cheep). It is altogether fitting and proper that they did so.
Yep, as is usually the case in Chicago, October’s Equalizer fell on a pretty busy night. Between the Cubs playoff game and the season premier of Joe Rogan’s Fear Factor — Oops! I mean the VP debates (sorry, I get confused with all the barfing) it looked like Equalizer had the makings of a perfect storm of a suckey night in indie-town. But nay, my friends, t’was not so! As doors opened at darkroom, its murky gloom was off-set by the flicker of a giant projection screen centered over the stage displaying the arguments of two inert talking balloon animals who may one day over-see special task forces for low priority government agencies which do things that no one knows or cares about. Yet, like a hipster magnet the large sparkling surface drew them threw the door one by one and two by two and ever closer the evening’s destiny of rock!
The sounds of the newly released Live at KEXP Volume Four in studio performances became the soundtrack to the battle charade of the blue blazers and effectively spared us the competing sounds of grating “folksy-ness” or droning stream of consciousness ramblings. Most in the room stood motionless like zombies for the duration trying to keep from getting dizzy by following the closed captioning. Ironically the debate ended and the credits rolled in perfect time with the final track on the KEXP disc — Rufus Wainwright’s “Going to A Town” with his apropos refrain: “I’m going to a place where everyone has been let down. I’m so tired of you America…” repeating in an uncharacteristically quiet darkroom.
But no sooner had the giant screen snapped back up inside its hanging receptacle and the stage lights flashed on then Elephant Gun leapt into action with all 100 of their members (or so it seemed) and shook the stillness loudly to pieces. With an instant cacophony of horns, strings, and gadgety percussion devices along side traditional rock instruments — guitars, drums bass, keys, Elephant Gun played a frenzied 35 minute set that smacked any of the residual bad taste from the debate right out of everyone’s mouth and reminded us all what we came here to do.
A collection of musicians from Elgin, IL, and Chicago, Elephant Gun sound like what I might imagine to hear in a bar brawl between the Minute Men, the Polyphonic Spree and John Philip Sousa. I happen to be a fan of all three of those artists so that is a complement. Anyone familiar with their new album “KP” which they recently self released might be a little shocked to see how much they step up the intensity level in their live performance but in my experience that is almost always preferable to the other way around.
Well, good ol’ DJ Mikey Dance Panther had his work cut out for himself last week I tell ya what… Ever the conniving spotlight whore, I think MDP knew he would get a run for his money when it was announced that Grammar would be performing. Besides having one of the most accomplished and well known rhythm sections in Chicago featuring Dan Moulder (Free Space, Cracklin’ Moth, Tom Schraeder, Moxie Motive), P. Griffin Baron (Atlantic Divide, Alison Breitman, Cracklin’ Moth), John Sarmiento (Snd on Snd) and the infamous Lizz Kannenberg of Snd on Snd and “Lizzbo” converting fame*, it is well known that Grammar frontman Brent Pulse is a dapper, dapper gentleman, rarely to be out dressed.
You see, the thing about physically beautiful — nearly perfect people like MDP is that they often become quite un-nerved when they are confronted with a beauty that threatens to rival their own. It was clear on this night that Mikey did not intend to let that happen. But as MDP took the stage in his finest… um, finery to introduce Grammar to their throng of adoring fans he was visibly shaken to be stepping into this mental coliseum of his own design to be judged on points of ever so precious style by no one but his own wildly out of control ego — like a gladiator of narcissism preparing for battle. Gasp! They both wore vests… Mr. Pulse had seen and raised the panther at every detail! Tie, check. Striking yet uncommon top coat, check. Ruggedly chiseled features with seemingly unintentional day old stubble, check and mate. The bastard!
Mikey grasped at straws as he awkwardly lingered on stage offering terse and inappropriate pseudo accolades to various band members; the impressively exhausting length of P. Griffin Baron’s name and the resurgence of the “testicle issue” for example, Lizz’s relationship status, Dan’s fantastic piano skills but possible communist connections or at least closet hippie-dom. MDP was beginning to crack. He wanted to rush at Brent as he tuned his stupid guitar and tear his beautiful perfectly selected clothes to tatters but he couldn’t… no, then they would all know. And no one must ever know…so he would welcome them… yes, he welcomed and introduced them with a smile but with eyes that betrayed his mouth’s benevolence and then he receded into the shadows.
Grammar are pros. I’m stating it here if you hadn’t guessed by the litany of accomplished projects following each of their names above. All of them have played Equalizer in different groups before with the exception of songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Brent Pulse. Pulse has been laying low for a couple of years to work on writing and recording; playing the occasional but rare show since his departure from the acclaimed Bumpus with Rachael Yamagata. Grammar is certainly a collaborative effort but it seems to draw its primary creative juice from Pulse’s well-regarded solo material, ratcheting up the energy to his dreamy lo-fi bedroom pop a few notches. The Formula works, but I’m a sucker for a song that can stand on it’s own with nothing more than a guitar or a piano. When you can take that same song and throw a band behind it without destroying the original nuance and in fact add a dimension then you know you’ve really got something. I also like watching musicians trade gear on stage, I think it keeps things fresh and Pulse has the chops to pull it off. Brent, don’t worry, I’ll do my best to keep those photos of you playing the flute out of Mikey Dance Panther’s hands. They wont end up on gayornot.com on my watch buddy!
All the way from Brooklyn New York came the main and final event of the evening. Takka Takka should be fairly familiar to most KEXP listeners by now earning some fairly regular spins of late from their new record “Migration.” Takka Takka has been building quite a bit of steam with this release and earning solid positive reviews from Spin, The New York Times, Time Out, New York Magazine and even the merchants of snark themselves Pitchfork who gave the new record a 7.2. Anyone familiar with Pitchfork knows that squeezing more than a 5-point rating out of the online alpha-hipster is no easy feat.
Takka Takka didn’t disappoint. They commanded the stage and demanded attention and darkroom succumbed willingly to their intense but whispery neo-psychedelic chimes and melodic wo-pop daydreams. Singer Guitarist Gabe Levine has a quite passion about him that looms larger than his slight bespectacled person when he performs. As any great band should do Takka puts you into a time warp when they play. You find yourself surround with and penetrated by the music to a degree that it is the only possible focus, and when it’s over you feel like it had only just started and you’re just a little bit sad. You will definitely want to see these guys again.
That was Equalizer, kids. Come back in November!
*A “Lizzbo” is a hipster boy (or girl) who has a crush on Lizz Kannenberg and yes… sigh, there are t-shirts.
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.