Concert Reviews @ 30,000 Feet: The Last Five Bands I’ve Seen But Never Wrote About

Happy Easter, folks. I thought I’d publish something today that could be worth a read; I think it’s probably the longest thing I’ve ever written on this site. I started writing it on my flight to Austin for SXSW and I ended up mostly finishing it on the flight back. It’s basically some show reviews written from lasting memory as opposed to immediate think-and-recall that you can do the morning following a show. I guess that’s how I’m doing my SXSW coverage, too.

As I mentioned briefly at the start of the Yeasayer/MGMT review, I’m a predictable procrastinator when it comes to writing up show reviews. While it can be explained as “different strokes for different folks,” in terms of how you decide to write you own reviews, most people find it better to write it up and recite your thoughts on the concert as soon as possible as it’s fresh in your mind. I’m like most people, except sometimes I’m super lazy and I choose to invest my energy elsewhere in posts that are easier to put together. Whattayagonnado.

At any rate, I needed to get some thoughts off my chest while I’m on the airplane heading to Austin for SXSW. I’ll be planning on seeing more music than one person ever really needs to consume within one week’s time, and if I leave these “reviews” floating around my head for too long, I’ll explode. My Getting Things Done schema is not working for me lately. Time to tap into the memory banks on these…

Del Rey, Tight Phantomz, & Minsk
Saturday, February 2, 2008
Empty Bottle, Chicago, IL

A few weeks previous to this show, I had seen a flier in the Logan Square neighborhood promoting the 10th Anniversary of Del Rey, a band I first saw while in college at a party down in Normal, IL. That party was part of one of those weird nights that stuck with me after all these years; tons of seemingly random things happened that combined together into a dreamlike set of situations that produced a fun and somewhat scary night (and some good memories, too). One of those random things was that an amazing sounding math-rock band was providing the soundtrack to the party, while playing in the kitchen next to a keg with a drummer playing music with a joint hanging out of his mouth. I remember thinking something along the lines of “hell f***ing yeah,” especially when I saw these guys actually playing their instruments after being drawn into the kitchen by their groovy droning sounds.

Needless to say, I tend to jump at any opportunity to catch these guys live, especially at a venue like the Empty Bottle. They keep a pretty low profile around Chicago but have had a couple solid shows over the past few years, including an opening spot for The Secret Machines at one of their shows at the Metro (which I missed, unfortunately). I’ve written about them a bit in the past, too. These guys are great live and their set that night was no exception. If I had one gripe at all, it was that they didn’t seem to get long enough to play given that it was their 10th Anniversary show. Both bands that opened up the show seemed to get longer on stage overall, and I’m definitely confident that only one band deserved nearly as much time as they took. See if you can figure out which band I think that is.

The band that opened the show was a group called Minsk, one that I had read was heavy on the psychedelia type of music that I would call myself a minor fan of. The band had a huge amount of equipment up on stage, and when I say huge, I mean literally huge. The drummer with tribal tats on his face had a huge-ass kit, the kind of kit that rock drummers buy because they want their drums to sound towering and boomy. Both the guitarist and the bassist had full stacks and an army of pedals at their disposal, and the frontman/keyboardist had a few different synths and keyboards going on.

Their music was slow as hell and droning on and on and on and on and on and on and on — it was incredibly boring s*** — and this continued for at least an hour. I tried to get an EDGE reception on my iPhone to text my friend something along the lines of “yawn!” and was entirely bummed that I didn’t have any reception in the club. We hung on for this one as long as we had to get to the next band. It wasn’t my finer moment in musical appreciation, as the critic me simply wanted to write this band up to point out the fact that they have no clue how to read a crowd, nor inspire a positive reaction as the opener to get the other bands nicely prepped for more crowd interaction. I don’t understand how this happens, actually. How can a band be so deep into their own f***ing feedback to not see that everyone in the club is bored as hell? Well, I venture to guess that this is really all the band has to offer and therefore has to soldier through the set they’re touring the country on. Do you have good opening slots in Cleveland and Detroit and just shake off the Chicago doldrums by hitting St. Louis promptly thereafter? I wonder.

Thankfully, the next two bands were going to excite the crowd and get them interested in actually enjoying the music that’s being played out of the exceptionally loud PA. Tight Phantomz took the stage after Minsk and quickly got to playing their set, which featured some really cool showmanship unlike many other bands that tend to play this club. I say that because I fear that some indie bands — or any new bands for that matter — really don’t pay attention to their live show or playing to any crowd (even friends) for that matter. I’ll admit that I’m no musician trying to make it these days, but that’s all it really takes. If you can focus on your live set and really make yourself someone worth watching, even if you sound completely out of tune or if you botch that last part of the second verse, people will continue to respond and come see you in droves. Based on the 45 minutes that Tight Phantomz (or TP for short) delivered, I’m convinced these guys will have a nice future ahead of them if they decide to take the time to be bigger than a set of Chicago scenesters.

Once the band got going and playing, everyone was having fun and was rocking out to them. I don’t remember the specific timeline now, but at one point the lead guitarist and vocalist shouted out to start over a part of the song that they had just played. It ws framed in a way that made it look almost rehearsed, like they always repeated this part of the song, but you came to find out later that the band just thought they weren’t having a good set. Not only did they restart one of their parts mid-song, they ended up stopping one early to get tuned up because they thought they sounded like s***. It was insanely impressive how well they seemed to be confident onstage while making these mistakes, of which I hardly noticed until they made mention of it. I think many creative types tend to be their own worst enemies.

Alden and I went to this show together, and I think he mentioned quickly after the set that this was his new favorite band. We vowed to go see them again whenever the next chance presented itself. And finally, Del Rey was up for their 10th Anniversary Set as a band, a true milestone for an indie band that would normally have only lasted until one of their girlfriends decided to move away from Chicago. They’ve defied hipster scene expectations.

For the many of you probably unfamiliar with this band’s music, they are an instrumental rock band that largely operates within the math-rock and space-rock sonic spectrums. I’ve been a fan for a while, as I tend to be a fan of any great instrumental that can prove to make interesting music without providing a lyric at all to guide the emotional connection to said music. The band sets up two drum kits stage center, and with the exception of the full-time drummer, everyone else switches instrument on each song (seemingly). The set itself was short, but they got time to go into a couple tracks off their newest album while also providing the crowd a taste of the first song the band had ever written together (or was it the first song the band had ever played live together? I can’t remember now…). It was most enjoyable when they displayed their two-drummer prowess on the tracks that called for it (“Dust Huntress” was one they played that night, with no “Dualsunsystem,” unfortunately). I had forgotten that there’s a part in the tune where one of the drummers stands up to go get a guitar, with a tag-team drum move where that drummer standing grabs the other drummer’s cymbal right after he crashes it. It’s a fun move to see live, and I’m sure they’ll *always* do this move when they perform this song. It’s too good to let go of.

We went off into the night totally psyched at the show we just saw. Hopefully I never cross paths with Minsk again, and hopefully Del Rey will play for an hour or so next time. I guess that’s the best I can hope for. Oh, and right — I hope Tight Phantomz go on to be huge rock stars. It’s killer that they choose to accentuate their band pluralization with a “z” as opposed to the proper Oxford dictionary style spelling of an ending “s.” If they get big, I can see a whole host of products, bands, web apps, etc. opting for the “z” over the “s,” much in the style of that overly used bad habit of prefixing “x” to any product or event that during the 90’s. 2008 is the year of the Z.

Umphrey’s McGee, Om Trio
Friday, February 15, 2008
The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA

Earlier this month, I got the pleasure of spending a little time out in California for work. February was one of the snowiest months on record in Chicago, and it was a welcome getaway for me to enjoy the sun and mild weather in California’s famous technological hotbed, Silicon Valley. I decided to stay out there until the weekend to get a better lay of the land — I’ve only been out there twice in my life — and I got the fortunate chance to go catch my hometown boys, Umphrey’s McGee, at The Fillmore in San Francisco as they began a three-night run at the storied venue. I was eager to see the openers, Om Trio, because supposedly this was the first time the band had played together in over three years. And I was definitely most eager about the fact that I was going to get to see all of this in one of the most famous music venues in the United States.

I drove into the city and found a parking space relatively easily, and within five to ten minutes I was standing on the floor of the venue halfway between the stage and the sound booth. It wasn’t sold-out from what I gathered, which was hugely surprising to me considering that Umphrey’s McGee automatically sells out every show they play in Chicago (obviously a home town crowd will do that for you). It was nice to be able to walk around the venue and get a feel for all the space the room has. For the Chicago heads, The Fillmore kind of reminded me as a little, mini Aragon Ballroom. Big and open, sure — and the Fillmore is a lot tighter and the acoustics were a billion percent better than the Chicago equivalent.

Thankfully, my friend told me to get there early to give myself some time upstairs at the venue, a second-floor full of seats, bars, and concert posters from the full history and gamut of the artists that have graced the stage there. It’s absolutely incredible. I immediately busted out my camera and starting trying to capture as much as I could using my crappy point-and-shoot, and I think I got a few that came out okay. In the time I was doing that, I also found my way into the lounge area of the venue where there was a one-man band (as opposed to DJ) that was spinning his own music, looping some drum machine tracks, adding echo to his instruments, laying some melodica in at the right times, and just getting everyone nicely grooved out while waiting for the show to start. When it did, I quickly made my way downstairs to catch the Om Trio play a triumphant set returning to a home town that treated them well in the jamband’s recent history.

For those unfamiliar, Om Trio’s music is heavy on the jazz and groove elements similar to what Medeski, Martin & Wood, Benevento/Russo Duo, and Soulive have been doing for awhile. Their set starting with some straight ahead music along the lines of what fans would have remembered about them, and they seemed to run through a good mix of their originals that, for me, all kinda blended together in the end. That happens when you’re unfamiliar with a band, but I really enjoyed watching their set. They were all smiles the entire time, and the bassist has a way of playing that is hard to resist dancing along to. He forces into his instrument when the right time change is coming, enough to give the crowd a sample of what’s coming next and what they would want to prepare for. Throw up your hands, dig into your own groove, do whatever — and just play along with what they are capable of. It was fun.

Between sets, I wandered back upstairs to get a better glimpse at the posters that I hadn’t looked at already. “Oooh, a batch of Wilco posters!” “Wow, check out that Primus poster with a graphic mashing up Elvis with the Incredible Hulk!” Man I was geeked. The dub/lounge one-man band started to get really interesting at this point, most likely due to the fact that I was two Sierra Nevadas deep and wanted to get my buzz on a little bit after a long week at work. I knew to go downstairs and grab a good spot for UM after a bathroom break and a guess at when they would come on, and I found my way up to about 20 feet back from the band and chatted it up with the guys next to me when it was obvious I was flying solo.

The lights went down, everyone’s lighter started to flicker a bit, and the guys in Umphrey’s McGee made their way to the stage for a ripping set of originals that started strong with “Bridgeless.” The band played solid throughout the set and they looked super comfortable after being on the road for weeks. This band always seems to exude its confidence, even if they are stepping into a half-full audience and playing a solid, driving opener or by simply finding themselves lost in the double-guitar attack stylings of Jake Cinniger and Brendan Bayliss. I’ve actually heard people complain lately that they seem too confident and too proud of their abilities, but that’s always been the fun of this band. It’s mock pretentious; believe me, I’ve seen these guys enough to know that they don’t take 100% of their set or performance as seriously as their facial expressions would imply. The song, “40’s Theme,” is a full representation of this.

I’d have to go back to the setlist now to remember what they played, but I do remember loving every second of it. That’s all that really matters to me anymore; the fact that I got to see them in a perfect venue after a great week is a memory that won’t soon fade.

As standard for me lately, I’ve found these Umphrey’s McGee shows almost impossible to write about because of the close connection I feel to their music and live show. When you’ve seen a band over 20 times, it’s so hard to stay objective and on-point while trying to avoid the ridiculousness of trying to dissect every song and every jam they did within the three-hour concert. Who the hell would want to read that, really? It’s not interesting to know that “Der Bluten Kat” morphed into something else, because really, DBK *always* morphs into something else that sounds pretty good if you’re a fan of the band. One of the best things about jambands that I’ve been close to is that I’ve never really seen a true meltdown or bomb of a performance — the exception to this being anytime a band covers something that’s well outside of a realm that they’re comfortable in — because jambands have built their songs, sets, and fanbase around the idea that they can stretch, try new things, take rock and turn it into reggae, take blues and turn it into electronica, etc. It’s impossible to screw it up if you have fans that really like music. It’s impossible to screw it up if you have a fanbase that believes that part of the fun of seeing concerts (and life in general) is the journey there and not necessarily the destination.

I have so many friends that are afraid to believe in music that inspires the journey to create something new out of the moment, or out of the energy from the crowd, the city, or the energy, etc. They want music to end up at a destination that’s familiar, because that’s how they contextually consume music and art. I obviously have no problem with that, except the fact that I find it hard to convince others why a band like Umphrey’s McGee is more than just noodling, guiar solos, and Dead covers. I think that’s the point of my writing in many ways; I want to show that a jamband can be a great live show just like an local math-rock band can impress even the most jaded of scenesters. I may not be good at communicating it all the time, but a band that can play live is one that will continue in the new music business and find success by reaching an audience of people that are willing to see them more than once a year.

Maybe you just need to see them for yourself. Stop taking my word for it already…