Saturday night at Chicago’s Beat Kitchen brought the arrival Omaha, Nebraska band Criteria. It was my first time visiting the Beat Kitchen and despite the somewhat awkward layout of the establishment, I was impressed with the rustic décor. A long bar that opened to a moderately sized auditorium separated the performance area from a series of booths. Those people who occupied the booths seemed to be oblivious to the live performance and appeared to simply be neighborhood locals attempting to enjoy an evening drink. However, closer to the stage, bobbing body parts indicated almost fanatical commitment to the performers. It was an all ages’ show and everywhere I turned there were reminders that much of the audience was still in high school. A gorgeous girl in fishnet stockings, three-inch hot pink pumps and a head of smoky red hair shook her body violently as Criteria performed “Good Luck” off their most recent album, When We Break.
Criteria’s sound could roughly be described as Ted Leo meets Saves The Day meets Cursive. However, the influence of Cursive is to be expected considering Criteria front man Stephen Pedersen was one of Cursive's founding members. But Criteria differs greatly from the other Omaha bands that make up Saddle Creek’s astounding roster. With the release of Criteria’s second full-length album, Pedersen delivered a coherent portrayal of his life as a paid lawyer juxtaposed by his desires to start the perfect rock band. Pedersen is in fact a graduate of Duke Law School, and yet his ability to write incredible music has lead him on a different path. Criteria has a hint of pop-rock coupled with a series of edgy, punk-rock power chords. But the band’s drummer, Mike Sweeney, keeps the tempo at a reasonable pace and frequently pounds away at the toms, alleviating that frantic heartbeat-style rhythm popularized by the conventional “punk” band. In addition, Pedersen’s vibrant vocals instill a melancholy characteristic to each song, and create an emotional resonance that provides Criteria with exceptional depth.
At the show Criteria maintained a certain charisma on stage that was almost intoxicating. In the crowded performance area I had managed to find a small platform adjacent to the merch table. From my vantage point I could see just above the tallest heads in the room, giving me a clear view of the exhilarating performance on stage. But as the band progressed through their set I was drawn closer and by the time Criteria had begun to play the audience-requested “Self Help,” I found myself squished against hordes of other fans standing directly in front of the stage. Had it not been for the high ceilings I may have passed out, due in part to the abundance of cigarette smoke in the room. I guess if you're not old enough to drink, the least you can do is smoke a pack in an hour. Regardless, the stench of beer soaked floors and burning tobacco provided a sadly comforting feeling.
Each member of Criteria brings something unique to a live show, and together they work hard to provide the audience with a memorable experience. I couldn’t help but think the band’s bassist, AJ Mogis, had a stunning resemblance to producer Rick Rubin but his presence on stage was uncanny. Flailing guitars and extreme head-banging brought an unexpected level of intensity to each song, exciting the crowd, who in turn did the same. For a moment I felt as though I had somehow been transformed by the music. I felt as though I was fifteen. The deep passionate lyrics, which are often spiced with ironic cynicism, had a way of connecting to present day experiences in my own life. Criteria provided as much as anyone could expect of a live show - great acoustics, energetic, motivated musicians, and a charming allure that over the course of the night captivated everyone in the room.