It's a pretty clear indication that the spring/summer concert season is approaching fast when there are six bands playing in Chicago at four different venues on the same night and I want to see them all. As if in some sort of wonderful SXSW non-drug-induced flashback, Ben Kweller/Death Cab For Cutie, TV On The Radio, Jason Collett, Ambulance Ltd. and The Thrills were all in town last Friday. Having been properly trained for just this sort of occasion by my debut trip to Austin this year, I called around to get set times, made my list of priorities and plotted a course that would carry me across Chicago's North side.
As if the multitude of concerts in store for me at night wasn't enough, a single free Cubs ticket fell into my lap Friday afternoon. Ever the diligent worker, I cranked out my Friday matters of business in just enough time to see the eighth and ninth innings of the Cubs vs. Reds at the most beautiful ballpark in the world, Wrigley Field. I arrived at the park just in time to witness a miraculous come-from-behind Cubs victory made possible by back-to-back Sosa/Alou home runs in the bottom of the ninth. Needless to say, the atmosphere was electric and it carried over into the rest of the evening. But, as this is not a Cubs fan siteÖ on to the shows!
Properly revved up for an evening of rock & roll, I made arrangements to have a writer cover the first half of the Ambulance Ltd./Thrills show at the Metro and the TV On The Radio gig at the bowling alley-turned concert venue, the world famous Fireside Bowl. This left me free, if my calculations were correct, to catch Ben Kweller at the Vic, Jason Collett at the Abbey Pub and then, slapping a high-five to my man Phillip on his way out of Ambulance, The Thrills at the Metro.
For a variety of reasons, which includes not wanting to spend money on a cab from my place to the Vic, I arrived at the venue just in time to see Death Cab leave the stage. So strike one, but I had plenty of time to chill and scope out the crowd while I waited for Ben Kweller and his band to take the stage. The BK fans were made up mostly of young indie rock kids - lots of band t-shirts and wrist bands and shaggy hair and such. Most were probably in their late teens, but to me they looked barely over 12 and it was at that moment I realized that it's weird to watch 12-year-olds smoke cigs.
Anywhoo, as I watched BKs crew set up his gear, I realized that a couple things were missing. Drums, for one. Bass amp, for two. HmmÖ When BK came on, he dashed onto the stage and immediately broke into his patented version of acoustic "Ice Ice Baby." He then told us all a little story about how his bass player had broken his wrist that day playing wiffle ball. How someone can break their wrist playing a non contact sport with a plastic ball and bat is beyond me. I suppose it's just another reason why skinny rocker dudes shouldn't play sports, but hey, who knows. After Kweller ribbed his absentee bass player for a bit, he told us that rather than cancel the show, he was just going to play some solo stuff. I was all about it actually. I've seen Ben about five times now and apart from one or two songs during his set, I've never seen him play by himself.
The young rock veteran (sounds like an oxymoron, but it's not in this case) held nothing back. Rock jumps and crunching power chords intact, BK pulled most of his songs from his solo debut Sha Sha, including the title track. The crowd loved the intimacy of a solo Ben Kweller and even took the opportunity to help him out with backing vocals on just about every song that required them. Of course, Ben did dip into his his most recent album, On My Way, as well, rocking the title track, "Hear Me Out" and others. As always, Kweller seems incredibly at home on stage. Having been a rock star for most of his life probably has something to do with it, but it was great to see this engaging performer go at it alone for an entire set without missing a beat. About 10 songs deep, I skipped out to catch Jason Collett at the Abbey Pub.
Snagging a cab at the door (this bar is NOT within walking distance sadly) I high-tailed it on over to see Jason Collett. If you're wondering, "who the hell is Jason Collett?", you might know him better as the really tall, cool-looking guy from Broken Social Scene. Collett released his second solo album, Motor Motel Love Songs last year via Toronto-based do-it-all label Arts&Crafts (home to Broken Social Scene and STARS). Where BSS is more experimental and STARS are more pop, Jason Collett is all Americana. He plays good old American rock songs about drinking, break-ups, travel and the like. I'll admit it is sort of strange, since Jason is from Canada and all, but hey, I'm not complaining.
I've been a fan of Jason's solo work since I first received it about a year ago. As I said, it's very traditional American singer/songwriter rock music, but at the same time it's fresh and challenging, seemingly striving to take an off-center look at each individual tune. I've always thought that of all the 20 million Broken Social members on-stage at their performances, he is the coolest and most intriguing looking. I'm not one to go on appearance only, but I was glad to see that he retained those qualities as a frontman. Perhaps a bit inebriated, Collett was very interactive with the crowd. After playing the laid-back "Blue Sky," he joked with the crowd for not slow dancing. He said, "Don't you slow dance in Chicago? I don't know about you guys." Then he said that all Canadians do is slow dance, drink and fuck. Sounds fun. Pot is legal there too, right?
Wile Jason looked like his cool self, his band looked a little weird. His bass player had a weird "transient" vibe about him and his lead guitar player looked like a nuclear physicist who hadn't seen the sun in six years. Weird looking, yes, but they were tight, and that's really all that matters. I was really impressed with the show, so much so that I've been listening to Motor Motel Love Songs all weekend. Jason was the second of three acts, so he only played about a half hour set, but it ended just in time for me to catch a cab to my place, take my new puppy out for quick pee, and walk across the street to the Metro for The Thrills.
Last Friday was my first foray into the world of the The Thrills. They have to be the best Dublin-based surf rock band ever. Obviously these guys love the American West Coast and the Beach Boys and The Byrds, etc. It's always funny to me how a group of kids from the UK can get together through a common love of some era in American music history or some American city and not only derive their sound directly from it, but add their own little twist that makes it great. That was my immediate reaction to the Thrills. They wear their influences on their sleeve. They're not afraid of saying, "we love The Beach Boys" and I like that. Like their American surf-pop/beach rock forefathers, ¸ber-tight, three-part harmonies are a main attraction for the Thrills. "Big Sur" and "One Horse Town" were prime examples of that.
Dressed in a white button-down shirt and jeans, frontman Conor Deasy led the band through most of the tracks from the band's Virgin Records debut, So Much For The City. From my vantage point, he looked like a dead ringer for Ashton Kutcher (sans the trucker cap), but it was smoky and I do need some new contacts. The entire band were some good looking dudes and they play happy, fun beach music. SoÖ the obvious next question is, why haven't they been on The O.C. yet? Virgin has got to push for a live performance on that show. They'll look great, play great, and all the teeny-bopper O.C. fans will beg their moms for pin-up posters of the Thrills. Just a thought.
A quarter after midnight, the band wrapped things up and I went home to bed thankful for the rock that was bestowed upon me and eager for the summertime concert rush to begin in full force. A little early for bedtime I know, but the Cubs were playing again on Saturday afternoon and margaritas at El Jardin on Clark St. are a must. I needed to prepare.