WORDS BY CHRIS ARWADY | PHOTOS BY FASSBINDER PHOTOGRAPHY
There is no incense, nor are there peppermints. There are no pipers at the gates of dawn or surrealistic pillows at Thalia Hall in Chicago on the last day of September. Instead, there are twisted, heated arguments of sound; stereophonic ideas traveling hither and yon like the crisp autumn wind blowing off of Lake Michigan. From the lush, worldly arrangements of headliner Chicano Batman to the sparse, moody meditations of support act Khruangbin and the breathy dreampop of NYC up-and-comers the Shacks, indeed, psychedelia reigned supreme in Pilsen this evening.
Thalia is a beautiful old building – one of Chicago’s premier venues – and it will be jam-packed tonight for a sold-out Saturday night show. The hall fills in quickly as the Shacks pensively drift through a 45-minute set as a wine bottle encapsulating a letter to anonymity washes up on a beach. Singer Shannon Wise wields a pawnshop-hero bass guitar that is almost the same size as she is, petite and clad in an ornate green dress, while her high school companion and songwriting partner Max Shrager navigates thorny, intricate guitar parts and contributes on vocals.
Lyrically, the songs are deeply personal, with Wise forlornly whispering temperamental melodies that circle broadly over the interplay of the quartet’s shoegaze-meets-doo-wop musical output. The Shacks have a remarkable pedigree for their young age and look to be capable of great things – keep an eye on them in 2018 as they release their first full-length LP.
Anticipation builds as Khruangbin takes the stage. The groove-heavy interplay of the Texas-based trio is built on a solid pocket constructed by effervescent bassist Laura Lee and Donald Johnson, whose subtle approach behind the kit contrasts nicely with Mark Speer’s well-crafted and technically proficient guitar melodies. Musically speaking, Speer is the peanuts in the Snickers bar that is Khruangbin, adding some appreciative crunch to the surf-inspired modal jazz that is the band’s forte.
Their deliberate thematic ruminations are raw, dancey, and infectious and are encouraged by the trio’s onstage dynamics, like a druggier, more cosmopolitan iteration of the Meters.
Its content famously inspired by a series of road trip cassettes of vintage funk music from Thailand, the band snakes its way through selections from its 2015 LP, The Universe Smiles Upon You, and its two previous EP releases in a 60-minute set before leaving the stage to the thunderous applause of a crowd of 700 strong.
It is Chicano Batman, though, who most of the audience came to see, and they arrived on the scene to a particularly warm and celebratory welcome from the audience. Opening their 90-minute set with a rollicking “Black Lipstick” and immediately powering through several cuts from the critically-acclaimed March release Freedom Is Free before giving the crowd a breather, the quartet are architects of an altogether unique sound that borrows as much from the Latin music of their roots as it does from socially-conscious 70s soul. This sweet hodgepodge is laden with unrestricted instrumental revelry that evoke aural images of the Flaming Lips and Sky Blue Sky-era Wilco.
Frontman Bardo Martinez alternates between an electric guitar and a pair of keyboards that face out from center stage, driving the band with a brightly-timbred pinwheel organ and a potent upper vocal register. Bardo, who is Chicano Batman’s chief lyrical composer, is an energetic team captain, and he is backed ably by adroit lead guitarist Carlos Arevalo and a rhythm section comprised of drummer Gabriel Villa and bassist Eduardo Arenas, both of whom are incredibly capable of laying it down. Arenas and Martinez switched instruments and Arenas took over on lead vocals for the cumbia-driven “La Manzanita”, a distinct departure from the band’s decidedly more conventionally-rock-n-roll sound, before launching into a series of fan favorites, including “She Lives On My Block,” “Friendship (Is A Boat In A Storm)”, and the title track from Freedom Is Free.
By now, Martinez is bouncing around onstage like a tennis ball, engaging abundantly with his bandmates and whipping the crowd into a frenzy for what I consider the high point of the evening, the half-sung/half-spoken “The Taker Story”, a six-minute rant about the natural state of mankind set to a bass-heavy 7/4 groove, creating an end result that is reminiscent of the early ‘70s blaxploitation soundtracks a la Superfly or Black Caesar. It’s fantastic.
Chicano leaves the stage for a couple of minutes before returning for a raucous encore, which Martinez introduces, saying, “This song is, uh… kinda fucked up.” The band drops down into the beautifully depressing “La Jura,” a minor-key dirge about a close friend being murdered by a police officer, before picking up the tempo and closing with the much-loved “Magma,” from 2014’s Cycles of Existential Rhyme.
All told, the whole spectrum was on display tonight at Thalia Hall, juxtaposing the introspection of The Shacks with the hypnotic jamminess of Khruangbin and the swirling, high-energy compositions of Chicano Batman. Three compelling bands, along with the intimacy of the venue and engagement of the crowd, made this a show that I won’t soon forget.
Two Fish and an Elephant
Lady & Man
Cycles of Existential Rhyme
Ballad of Raymundo Jacquez
Lisandreando > La Manzanita
She Lives On My Block
Freedom Is Free
Friendship (Is A Boat In A Storm)
Right Off The Back
The Taker Story
It’s A Balloon