Enhanced by psychedelic sounds and Ben Ottewell’s whiskey-drenched voice, Gomez’s sophisticated blues-rock has the potential to help them do what so few British rock bands have done in recent memory—woo America’s manly, mainstream men. And sure enough, the craziest fans at the Vic Theatre in the artsy Belmont area of Chicago were athletic-looking guys in their mid-twenties. The pair jumped and screamed louder than anyone. But, then, two such fans do not a successful courtship make. Truth told, about 80 percent of the chairs were full when Gomez took the stage and the faces filling them couldn’t have been more different.
That’s a dangerous position for any band to be in. If audience members feel that they have nothing more in common than the tickets in their hands, an absence of community is felt. And that makes building a solid, devoted fanbase hard. Bands sell identity along with music, and until the public can name typical traits of a Gomez fan, there’s nothing for mainstream audiences to latch on to.
11 May 2006: Vic Theatre Chicago
But then, maybe they’re not interested in honing their image, in joining the stadium class. After all, the band’s mish-mash of fans is enough to fill 1,200 seats, and that’s nothing to sniff at. And they certainly seem to like variety. Ottewell may have stood centerstage with his guitar, but he isn’t the bandleader. The band has cultivated three great vocalists (many bands don’t even have one) and five songwriters.
It’s to the band’s credit that they haven’t become dependent on Ottewell’s Eddie Vedder-meets-Tom Waits voice. The policy of “you write it, you sing it” in the musical co-op that is Gomez resulted in the swapping of instruments and lead vocals throughout the night. Vocalist/guitarist Tom Gray was the showman, happily calling out to the audience “Fantastic! This is beautiful! Sing it with me!”, and beaming with pride when Ottewell cried out the hook on “Love Is Better Than a Warm Trombone”. Skinny Ian Ball who, like Gray, has a more accessible voice than Ottewell’s, shyly hunched over his guitar. Bassist Paul Blackburn and drummer Olly Peacock faced each other at the back of the stage—a sign of a skilled, unified rhythm section. That’s how you get Gomez’s deep, right in the pocket, groove.
The setlist spanned from 1998’s Mercury Music Prize-winning album Bring It On to their latest release, May 2006’s How We Operate. Songs from Bring It On, including closing number “Whippin’ Piccadilly”, earned the strongest reactions from the crowd. Many casual listeners probably lost interest in the band when they released the stagnant, somewhat disappointing sophomore album in 1999. That’s not to say Liquid Skin doesn’t have any great tracks—the performances of “Fill My Cup” and “Devil Will Ride” were bursting with raw energy.
Fast forward through a dub-influenced album and a back-to-basics rock album to How We Operate, and you’ll see that the band has reached a new level of accessibility. Sales of the first four albums never met Virgin’s expectations, and last year, after considering throwing in the towel, Gomez decided to start again with Dave Matthews’ ATO label. The band hired an outside producer to clean up their sound. Gil Norton, who has worked with the Pixies, Counting Crows, and others, was assigned the job. Almost all the blues are gone from the new music, replaced by increasingly accessible, sophisticated songs such as the Beatles-esque “Woman! Man!” So far, critics have embraced the album, but fans are still screaming for material that’s eight years old.
The obnoxious song requests—it’s called a setlist, people, and Gomez clearly follow one—were not the only noise violations that night. The volume was too freaking loud for the small theatre. (I know more than one person is going to call me an old granny for saying so, but it’s true.) When the piercing squeaks and high-pitched audio fuzz of a soundsystem in peril nearly drown out the band, particularly the vocals, things have gone too far.
Minus sound snafus, there’s more than enough talent in Gomez to justify huge artistic and commercial success. Unfortunately, they have yet to achieve the latter in America—at least not in the way that they might. Time will tell if the band’s cleaner sound will cause a single, unified audience to emerge. But, for now, fans of all types remain deeply attached to the band. And, all things considered, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, who wants to sit in a room with thousands of screaming guys in their mid-20s? Not me.