Emulating the first actual cold winter’s night of the season the Phenomenal Handclap Band began their set with the opening track from their eponymous debut, “The Journey to Serra da Estrela.” Its spaced out moaning winds echoed those outside, creating the perfect beginning to a celebratory night (the band returned to New York after months of touring) that was punctuated with repeated surprises. Unfortunately none were musical.
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I’ll say this much for Ghostland Observatory—they have a great lighting rig. Wafer-thin sheets and spires in all manner of colors peppered the room the moment the lights went down; it was hard not to get excited with the visuals alone, but just in case, the band members also wore sparkly garb to heighten the effect. Frontman Aaron Behrens’ voice is rubbery and unpredictable enough to be engaging almost no matter what the context, but for the most part this is a duo so dependent on autopilot that there will rarely be more than 1.25 people actually playing anything at any given time. Thomas Turner, actually rocking a cape (sparkly), did his part by pushing the various triggers and play buttons, but Behrens’ purpose is apparently primarily to make it appear as though there is more than just that happening. It only worked sometimes, the most notable shortcomings being the faux-abstract portions that inevitably screamed either FUN WITH PRESETS or else ROSS HAS A KEYBOARD. Oh, and then there was the talkbox, for which Turner channeled not Frampton nor Kanye, but Richie Sambora. (So are we actually supposed to be distracted from the music by all these shiny things?) I think we can all agree that seeing this band is a hell of a lot better than merely listening to them, because this was a wonderful presentation of largely boring songs. But hey, welcome to the music industry.
Recording artist Elvis Perkins and his multi-instrumentalist band of minstrels visited the Bowery Ballroom last Friday, gently closing the gap between folk and rock along the way. It was the first of two stops in the city in support of his latest effort, Doomsday EP, recorded with his trusty backing band Dearland. Fittingly, the group’s set began with a dirge, Perkins and his associates main lining through the Ballroom for “Slow Doomsday” before fully unwrapping it upon reaching the stage. Their sound ached and moaned in all right spots—something that Elvis Perkins in Dearland maintained all night. Though the audience’s dysfunctional dynamics often became their own distractions (the quiet half of the crowd yelling at the less attentive half to shut up; couples making out while groups of guys high-fived each song; Facebook updates from the first row) Elvis and his brilliantly adaptable band managed to transcend it all. Jumping from folk intimacies like “While You Were Sleeping” to “Stop Drop Rock and Roll,” Perkins proved his bygone lyrics could transform any style in his repertoire. But it wasn’t entirely Elvis. A pair of violinists provided swaths of drama to numerous tunes while a trumpet player joined trombone player, gorgeous harmonizer, and instrumentalist Wyndham Boylan-Garnett for a brassy introduction to the full-throttled version of “Doomsday,” which wrapped up the band’s set. Its beer-hall oomph was rowdy and visceral enough to get even the meekest crowd members bobbing (namely the boys from opener Bowerbirds yelling out to Elvis from the front row.) The brief revelry felt as old-fashioned as Perkins’ standard-issue frames, but his insightful lyrics and beautiful arrangements won’t go out of style anytime soon.
Approaching Chicago’s Vic Theatre, I was anticipating a sweaty and exhausting night. Americana extraordinaires Old Crow Medicine Show (OCMS) were in town, and listening to their panoply of sound (everything from bluegrass to folk, country, gospel, jug band, traditional, rock and blues) could be an endurance event, as their youthful exuberance easily trumps any old-time music stereotypes.
Regrettably, I showed up halfway through the band’s first set. As expected they were in the midst of tearing up the stage, with a packed main floor absorbing every note. On stage musicians Ketch Secor (fiddle, harmonica, banjo and vocals), Willie Watson (guitar, banjo and vocals), Kevin Hayes (guitjo and vocals), Morgan Jahnig (bass), and Gill Landry (slide guitar, banjo and vocals) were picking and stomping out their original “Raise a Ruckus.” Sparks practicaly flew.
Soon they toned it down and followed with “Next Go Round,” a slower bluegrass ballad. It was symptomatic of the entire show as OCMS toyed with each song’s mood and theme by intertwining fast, knee-slapping jug songs with crooning serenades. Between sets they sang traditional roots tunes “Hard to Love,” “Tear it Down,” “CC Rider,” and “Tell it to Me,” intertwined with covers “Corrina Corrina,” “Minglewood Blues,” and “Down Home Girl.” Singing original compositions of love, heartbreak, distressed cities, living the good life, partying, hustling, trafficking and boozing transformed the Vic Theatre into a back porch nestled deep in Appalachia. All that was missing was moonshine.
The band mostly played acoustic, with an occasional crossover to electric guitars, bass, keyboard and a hint of drums, as they performed selections from all three of their studio albums with an emphasis on their 2004 eponymous debut. The strongest crowd response came from OCMS’ classic “Wagon Wheel,” a tune Secor wrote by completing fragmented Dylan lyrics from 1973. A crowd pleaser for sure, it got everyone singing along to its sweet intonations.
While the band raged on stage the theatre remained absolutely packed making it difficult to both maneuver and claim a suitable spot. Strangely, there weren’t many people dancing. I noticed several people standing tall with their arms crossed across their chests and some sitting down, blockaded by standing spectators.
Though it seemed that audience enthusiasm was lacking (shocking for any Chicago gathering), the fans saved their true appreciation between numbers. It appeared that those who went wild during actual songs were those girls lusting over the band’s good looks (including one particularly hysteric woman screaming out Secor’s name, followed by “you’re sexy!,” at the top of her lungs.) At one point during the second set one bold fan tossed a bra onstage towards Watson and Landry stage left, making them feel like true heart-throbs.
The evening was brought to a close with a two song encore, featuring an electric country rock rendition of “Get Back” by the Beatles.
Chicagoans were lucky to experience the treat of seeing Toronto’s The Hidden Cameras after so long. Unfortunately the band had to cancel their last tour date here due to visa complications. For over an hour, and with no lack of energy, lead singer Joel Gibb and his entourage brought a vigorous set with guest appearances by openers, and fellow Canadians, Gentleman Reg.
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