A cold, snowy night in Chicago is no one’s friend. Even less so if you are a touring band from England and have to catch a flight the next morning at six am. Somehow, Oxford, UK, band Goldrush managed to make their nightlong affair at the Empty Bottle a warm and encouraging adventure for old shoegazer fans, new Brit pop appreciators, and anyone else who happened to be in the club to hear some good music.
Almost riskier than braving the snowpile parking spots and freezing temperatures was the fact that I had never heard any of these bands play, nor did I know very much about them. The opening band, Hopewell, was apparently an offshoot of Mercury Rev. It doesn’t really matter though because I missed their set. A girl sitting next to me said that they were “pretty good.” You could tell she was holding out for one of the next two acts.
As I arrived, the members of Goldrush were already setting up their equipment. The stage was jammed tight with guitars, amplifiers, too many monitors, Hopewell’s drumset, guitar stands, three mic stands, and a fully occupied tri-level keyboard stand. The five members hurried about, making final tunings on guitars and bass, tightening cymbals into place, and making sure effects pedals were to their correct tunings. The band disappeared to the back of the club to briefly pause and get composed before what was to be the first of two playlists they would perform during the evening.
Goldrush has a slightly deceiving – say rock ordinary – appearance as several other bands of the day do. Lead singer/rhythm guitarist Robin Bennett has the look of a Jeff Tweedy/Conor Oberst crossbreed. His playing style is somewhat similar to that mixture as well, fluctuating between acoustic and electric guitars and singing in a style that is effectively average. Robin’s brother, Joe, was by far the most versatile, talented musician of the bunch. With an air of late Jim Morrison (long and scraggily hair/beard, but minus the gut), Joe played with an energy that certainly took the performance to a more impressive level. He was stationed at keyboards but fluctuated between playing a bit of everything – cowbell, synth, tambourine, bass, guitar, trumpet, violin, shakers, and he also sang. Think Will Ferrell in the Saturday Night Live “Don’t Fear the Reaper” skit (the band even joked, “We need more cowbell”). The rest of the group was made up of normal looking 20-30 year old club rocking musicians.
What made Goldrush’s first set most effective was not only their energy but also the no-pretensions, focused attitude that they came with. When they took the stage a great amount of the audience was paying attention, and when they had finished their first two songs the only individuals with their eyes not glued to the stage were the bartenders, door watchers, and a small team of scenesters huddled at the bar in the back. Throughout the nearly hour-long set the group stayed loose and joked about cowbells, touring with Hopewell, Chicago being “the place where people yell,” and early flights. The scene was comfortable to say the least.
They played some of “the old ones” and a good amount of material from their latest album Ozona (Truck/Better Looking Records). The new album’s recording does the live performance little justice though, as you don’t really notice all the nuances until seeing them being created firsthand. Lead guitar player Garo Nahoulakian has a subtle style that sometimes gets lost in the fold because of the detailed soundscene that is going on. It’s easy to focus on the frontman Bennett (Robin) or the multitalented Bennett (Joe), but for the most part Nahoulakian gives the compositions their color and a sense of grandeur through his catchy riff forming and an eccentric but effective slide guitar technique.
About sixty minutes after capturing the collective attention of the Bottle, Robin Bennett raised his acoustic guitar over his head, the band modestly said their thanks, and the quintet walked off the stage just as quickly and uneventfully as they had took it. Although Goldrush wasn’t technically the headlining act, you could feel the 60-to-70 patron-strong audience wishing for just one more song.
Instead what the crowd would get would be another complete set with the Brit band backing up former Ride frontman Mark Gardener. Without the usual annoyingly long wait between acts, Gardener anxiously gathered to the stage flanked by the Bennett Bros. and Co. and launched into a set of old Ride songs and new solo material that he had composed in collaboration with Goldrush.
From the looks of the stage setup, the sound should have been loud and muddled. Gardener stood centerstage playing a 12-string acoustic guitar, Robin and Nahoulakian to his left, Joe and Hamish Tesco (bass) to his right, and G Roby on drums directly behind him. Each of the players took his appropriate role as the songs demanded – G Roby frequently picking up tambourine and shakers, Robin lightly strumming, and Nahoulakian laying off heavy lead guitar playing.
The crowd was visually more acquainted with Gardener at the helm. Many sang, or even screamed, lyrics right along with him. One guy yelled “Fuck Oasis” – because of former Ride member Andy Bell’s defection to the group – and Gardener responded, “Aww, come on, none of that…Well, OK…‘Fuck Oasis.’” Other onlookers annoyingly cat called song titles and “South Side!” as if any of it meant something to the group. Gardener even replied “Are you speaking Chinese?” to responsive laughs from the more patient watchers.
Somehow the Goldrush five made it through another hour set, this time including an encore, and by the end of it all it was well past 1 am. The collective was part-liquored up, part-physically drained but as they left the stage a final time, the room filled to the brim with a positive energy that certainly isn’t a given, especially on an unforgiving cold Chicago night at the Empty Bottle.