Silhavey & MachineGun Mojo Blow Roof Off Subterranean; Weekend Lineup 10/15 to 10/17
Wednesday night at the Subterranean Lounge on North Ave proved to be an exhibit of a very diverse array of Chicago acts. The four bands on tap (along with some Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale on tap) made for a great night out.
First up was Silhavey, hailing from northern Indiana. These dapper gents – pictured to the left – play power pop just the way I like it: quick and quirky. Lead singer Stephen Dranger takes center stage with his 88-key symphony orchestra. Yes, indeed, in Silhavey, the almighty, shapeshifting keyboard forms the center of their musical universe. For those doubters that seem to want to bury the keyboard (perhaps a digital piano, actually) in the 80s or in the sparse hipster electro-pop that rages on across the sea, Silhavey might ask…did it ever leave? But they’re by no means a one trick pony. The sunny, tight hooks of their music – reminiscent of anything from They Might Be Giants to the Apples in Stereo, depending on the song – are buoyed by the rhythm section of Lucas Sgouros on bass and Matt Sigler on drums, and the big, chunky melodies of Mike Regan’s guitar. The band opened with “Brother Man,” track one off of their EP Maru, launching the show with great gusto. As it turns a corner with mathematical precision into its breakdown, subtle “do-do’s”, that standby of 60s pop, appear, floating behind Dranger’s vocals. The crowd loves it, and so do I.
The rest of the set refused to let the energy abate, with joyous sampled horns in “Parables,” close vocal harmonies in many of the songs and even that most special of moments in rock music, elevating it to an art: harmonized guitar. Song “Breathing Fire,” sadly not available online (outside this Youtube clip) has the sort of immediacy that won’t be ignored, performing a slick “find and replace” on any other song that might be floating around in your head. Falsetto hooks bounced along in “Jungle,” as the band posed playfully, strumming with big, exaggerated motions. Completely un-self-conscious, they played through their set of 140 BPM gems with poise and genuine abandon. And have I mentioned the songwriting? Clever, but not in the way that makes you roll your eyes. Any band that can incorporate the line “you’re like a cancerous cyst” with a wry smile is OK by me. The crowd danced and shouted, the organ swells, coy piano and tongue clicks of the hi-hat responded in turn. On their track “Welcome,” Silhavey call out that “anything could happen tonight” – and I truly believed it. See the article below to hear a track from them, or listen to the full EP on their website.
Up next was Bear with Hawk Fist, a surprisingly visceral name for the subtle, restrained music of this two-man band. Soft and vulnerable, they played through songs like “Oh Hell Yeah,” with gorgeous strummed acoustic guitars. The lead singer’s musical partner played the very curious Dean V-Coustic, looking, of course, like the classic Gibson Flying V. Dreamy and shy, often self-effacing, the guitar was dreamy while the vocals were flat and unadorned. Along came a somber tune about a car crash, and the crowd began to recede. Something gave me the impression that nerves held these guys back a bit more than they normally would be, but the few little missteps were admirably shrugged off. A theremin was brought on stage to accompany an unusual romp, looking like a bizarre puppet show as Bear’s partner played call-and-response with his vocals. To close out the set, Bear whipped out a darkly humorous tune with instructions on “the best way to die” in “Lights Out in Berwyn.” A little emotionally volatile, it still provided for an interesting set, and a definite contrast to Silhavey.
Chatty Cathy then took the stage for the first time in a year, from what I gathered. With an album release up soon, they were eager and energetic and sounded remarkably polished. A 3-piece band led by Kortland Chase on guitar and vocals, their artful use of echo and their intricate song structures make them sound much larger. Falling somewhere on the spectrum between the Silversun Pickups and the jazz-informed prog inclinations of a Coheed and Cambria, they can go from a whisper to a shout at a moment’s notice, big power chords broken up by dense, liquid arpeggios. Though reliant on effects, they are all three excellent musicians with very involved songs, building tension (and a subsequent release) with ease. After a brief guitar problem and its replacement (helped by Dranger of Silhavey), the songs lost some of their distorted bite – for technical reasons – and took on the shimmering echo, further entrenching their set in complex, Radiohead-like numbers. Chase is capable of hard rock wails and of a distinct, clear falsetto, and he used both to great effect as the front rows engaged in some light moshing. Bombastic but undoubtedly interesting, look for more from this outfit soon.
Around 10:30, headliners MachineGun Mojo strutted onto the stage, eager to entertain. Lead guitarist Shawn Haybic began by creating a chaotic wall of echo. This soon devolved and launched into the jailhouse blues of “Palmer,” gritty and foot-stomping, with a rumbling bassline from Matt DiMare. Rooster Kanuch’s fiddle cut through the air, electric and unpredictable. And intermittent howls of harmonica punctuated the grim story intoned by Haybic. Onward they went, playing to a sizable crowd, they tackled early country romps to psychedelic walls of sound, high-flying blues to slow burning rockers. Excellent showmen to the core, highlights included Rooster strumming his guitar on the stage like a cello and most songs in which Haybic cut loose into a solo. The bar blues of “1923” demonstrated one of the many narrators that these songwriters take on, in this case an early 20th-century immigrant. A cover of John Denver’s “Country Roads,” a bit unrehearsed but fun nevertheless, reinvigorated a crowd, and we continued on their tour of Americana from Louisiana to a carnival and back to the Midwest. Track “Apples and Clowns,” fleshed out with expansive choirs in the studio version (available soon), still got airborne live thanks to the dueling guitars of Haybic and Kanuch. All told, these men delivered on their promise of whirling through the good, the bad and the unusual of “life, strife, God, sex and money.”
Tonight, October 15th:
7 PM At the Chicago Theater in the Loop, Sufjan Stevens will be playing, wielding his big arrangements and a wealth of new material. The Age of Adz – his first “new” studio LP since 2006’s Illinois (discounting symphonic concept album The BQE and his holiday music) – has been available on NPR streaming in its entirety for some time now. Sadly, that went down on its release date, October 12th, but you can hear a track below and more can be found on his website. Noted for its rather extreme departure from previous work, this new album relies more heavily on sampled drum loops, vocals dosed heavily in reverb, and a decidedly less organic take than the sweeping horns and strings of Tickets are $35, but it’s sadly sold out. If you go…tell me how it was?
8:30 PM At Lincoln Hall, Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack-mates DeVotchKa will be playing. With ever-fascinating infusions of Eastern European folk, classical song structure, glimmers of old-time folk and Nick Urata’s Roy Orbisonesque vocals, their music is something that must be experienced to be understood. Many listeners will be familiar with their tunes through the soundtrack of Little Miss Sunshine – see below – but 2008’s A Mad and Faithful Telling demands a listen from anyone with an interest in classical instrumentation (all four are consummate string and brass players). Tickets are $25, and they’re playing tomorrow night at the same place, same time.
Saturday, October 16th:
7 PM At Schubas, Julian Velard brings his hip, radio-friendly (but not uninteresting or unoriginal) pop-rock to town. Tickets are only $8 – catch him before he gets big. From piano pop to more lush arrangements, he’s drawn comparisons to a present-day Joel or John and has penned tunes for stars like Goldfrapp, Ben Kweller, Kate Nash and Marc Broussard.
10 PM Former singer and guitarist from the Drive-By Truckers Jason Isbell brings his new band (the 400 Unit) to the Double Door up on near the corner of Milwaukee and Damen. The lineup is stacked with great songwriters, it seems, as young, sly maverick Langhorne Slim is in tow. Tickets are $15; check out Slim’s earnest, refreshing take on the often vague “alt-country” genre below.