A triple bill at an unusual venue proved the spirit of the small, DIY rock show isn’t dead in the Windy City. The lineup of the Phenoms, Thee Shams, and the Peelers was something more likely to pop up at the bowling alley turned all-ages music venue the Fireside Bowl, but instead their performances took place at the Viaduct, a nonprofit live theater. The play currently running there had just ended moments before doors opened for the music fans, making for a brief but strange clash of cultures. What came after the scenery was shoved to the back and the amps were plugged in could be called The Night of the Rocker Guys—lotsa testosterone, my friends, but what with all the wussies on the charts these days, that ain’t necessarily a bad thing.
First up were the Phenoms, a five-piece band (vocals, bass, drums, two guitars), specializing in old-school thrash/punk in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s West Coast sense of the word. Sporting close-cropped hair and slacks, the lead singer may have looked like a clean-cut college boy, but he had the deep-throated sound of an old-school punk vocalist like Rollins or Danzig. As he paced frantically around the small stage, he seemed to be looking for something or someone to hit, but, alas, there would be none of that. Instead, he was a moving embodiment of pent-up male aggression, walking up to the crowd on the dance floor/stage (they were practically the same), yelling his vocals in their faces, and making them part of the show in the process. Musically, the group wasn’t doing anything new, but they did it with competence and good humor, and the bassist’s highly melodic lines particularly stood out.
The second band on the bill was Thee Shams, a young Cincinnati foursome who I’ve gushed over many times, most recently in a PopMatters special feature on up-and-coming bands called This Is It. This time out, they tended to bypass material from their debut album, Take Off, in favor of new songs. They also drew a larger crowd than at past Chicago performances, but still seem to suffer from the problem of sharing the bill with bands whose styles are too different from theirs. Thee Shams’ blend of Detroit-style ‘60s garage rock and psychedelia was great, but went under-appreciated by fans there to hear punk and hard rock. Still, the group made an effort despite no one being on the dance floor. Singer Zach Gabbard took on more lead guitar than usual (and guitarist Adam Wesley took over vocals for one number), but unfortunately Gabbard’s licks and his big, Van Morrison-like voice were not prominent enough in the mix. This was somewhat made up for by the group’s true secret weapon, drummer Keith Fox, whose combination of sloppiness and dead-on timing never fails to astound. The band threw in some murky, mid-song jams, such as the one on the set closer, “I Get High”, but mostly served up no-nonsense, three-minute wannabe classics.
The final performance came from Chicago’s Peelers, comprised of two guitarists, a bassist, drummer, and vocalist. These guys are obsessed with old-fashioned power chords and ‘70s-style hard rock, but infuse it with a punk attitude that makes them sound kind of like a Slaughter and the Dogs for the new millennium. When their singer started the show by announcing, “Welcome to the rock ‘n’ roll pep rally”, he meant it. Thrashing around the stage like a mulleted, wristband-wearing rag doll, he was a cartoon spectacle of everything a cheesy rock god should be, and loads of fun to boot.
Naughty-girl rapper Peaches has a song in which she sings, “You came to see a rock show / A big gigantic cock show,” and I can’t help but think that lyric has some relevance to the Phenoms / Shams / Peelers bill. But, you know what? If the cock rocks—and it did on Saturday night—so be it.