Chicago’s Schubas Tavern is typically a very good place to see a rock show. The space is an intimate backroom, something akin to an old speakeasy but minus the dank. Normally, even at full capacity, the room is cozily crowded. For this Cold War Kids show, however, I dare say the event was oversold as audience members were shoe horned in place, with nary any elbow room to move and certainly no room for dancing.
Two songs into the set, Cold War Kids’ lead singer, Nathan Willett—also feeling Schubas’ tight embrace—declared, “It feels good to be playing a room this small.” At that moment, yes, the Cold War Kids seemed poised to reward their coterie of fans with something palpable, something raw, and something near at hand. The band appeared fueled with a restless energy. Guitarist Jonathan Russell and bassist Matt Maust prowled and pranced around the stage almost locked in a dancing bob and weave as they strummed and thumped jerky and jittery chords and notes.
Willett too moved freely, never content to merely find center stage. However, during their new single, “Something is Not Right With Me”, he did occasionally stand tall and straight, flailing his arms like an enraptured preacher as he howled the chorus while everyone in the crowd shrieked and shouted back at him in harmony.
Willett has described Cold War Kids’ music as “soul punk.” I am not sure who else would fit that genre. What I hear is a sound that certainly borrows from soul, but also from blues and from gospel. Undertones of electric Dylan or early street-slanging Springsteen are also buried in the Cold War sound. With each tune, the Kids dabbled in gritty and urban sounds, mixing the ringing, rancorous riffs of Russell’s guitar with sinewy and supple bass lines, off kilter piano plinks, and big bombastic drumbeats.
The fever pitch of the show’s first movement was clearly “Hang Me Up to Dry”, one of their best tunes. Willett’s impassioned, halting voice wrapped around memorable lyrical imagery as he demanded, “Hang me up to dry, you’ve rung me out too, too too many times. I’m pearly like the whites of your eyes.” Willett’s vocal pleading was answered and anchored by Jonathan Russell’s bracing and jagged stop time guitar slinging and Matt Aveiro’s double-step drums. As expected, the mob of fans was easily drawn in to the repetitive chorus, nearly drowning out the band with a collective shout.
Unfortunately, soon after the urgency of “Hang Me Up to Dry” the Cold War Kids seemed to fall off the rails. The mood shifted. A slow ballad gave way to more mid-tempo melodies and scattershot time changes. Song after song seemed more a sketch of something than a memorable masterstroke. Rhythms collided with one another within each tune with almost purposeful discord. “Robbers” snuck in with street corner poetry allowing Willett to update the feel of say, Springsteen’s “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City”, creating a bit of that self-described slow burning “soul punk.” Yet the Cold War Kids’ update of that Springsteen sound didn’t mark them as vanguards to me.
Though the crowd continued to find the Cold War Kids performance engaging and transcendent, I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed. Any curious anticipation I had had entering the doors of Schubas was dimmed by the mere adequacy of the song craft. The stylistic shifts and constant time changes grew a bit tedious as the set wore on, making for a slightly schizophrenic sound. Memorable melodies and genuine grooves were lost amidst dueling ideas and emotions. The skill, the passion, and the energy all existed in the Cold War Kids’ kit bag but somehow the sum of the parts didn’t stick. I found myself checking my watch wondering how much time I felt was left in the show. By the time set closer, “Hospital Beds” hit with its instantly rapt stomp, catchy chorus, and almost fervent and zealous chant of “put out the fire boys don’t stop” I couldn’t help but think the flame had dwindled halfway through the set.