Rogue Wave entered Schubas, a small, intimate—and on this night, cramped—Chicago music tavern, from the back of the room, strumming acoustic guitars and softly singing “it’s you I wanted” as the players snaked and meandered their way to the stage. The crowd loved it. In front of me, the fleece-flocked gent with the backwards ball cap turned to his chum and bellowed, “This is gonna rock!”
Not my first thought, to be honest. I wondered, cynically maybe, whether, with an entrance this special, Rogue Wave could back it up. Easing into their first few numbers, the band’s players certainly displayed passion and skills. They attacked their guitars and drums with spirit. Unfortunately, earnestness does not necessarily translate into magic. I asked myself whether every rock show needed to be stellar to be unforgettable. After 29 years as a concertgoer, I’ve seen my share of masterpieces, failures, and everything on the pendulum swing. Rogue Wave managed to find that middle ground. While I couldn’t deem them inadequate, I was not wowed.
The set contained hints at greater things: there were certainly flashes that seemed headed towards fireworks, but that ultimately stopped short. A song like “Phonytown” had the right elements—crunching guitars, stuttering riffs, funky drumbeats, and Zach Rogue’s heartfelt crooner’s quiver—but rendered itself inert.
At this point, I turned to my companion for his assessment so far. His reply was, “If The O.C. were still on the air, Rogue Wave would make a guest appearance.” A little harsh perhaps, but I knew exactly what he meant. The music seemed more like a mood-setting background score than something at all memorable.
Packed with potency, however, was “Sewn Up”. On this tune, the band crafted a glittering mosaic awash in swirling guitars and Rogue’s plaintive, hushed vocal timbre. The melody, brooding but buoyant, glinted with a cascading coda of ringing electric riffs and crashing cymbals that ended with a haunting hush. Strangely, the crowd responded with quiet applause.
The anthemic “Publish My Love” quickly followed, with Rogue’s pleading couplets disquieting the raucous grandeur at well-timed interludes. Yet still the disconnect remained. Songs rich in resonance on record failed to sparkle live—though as mentioned, there were bits and pieces of glory. A standout moment came with the finale of “Love’s Lost Guarantee”, the three guitarists all assaulting and screeching their axes while the full complement of voices joined in on the “ah…aaah…aaahs.”
Hands down the most hypnotizing moment was the segue from “Bird on a Wire” into “Lake Michigan”. “Bird” rose and fell with spirits of grace and ease, culminating with each band member, one by one, grabbing drumsticks to join drummer Pat Spurgeon in bashing his kit, pounding an insistent tribal finish. As expected, the rousing thump morphed into the opening march of “Lake Michigan”, Rogue Wave’s beautiful and, yes, brilliant pop gem. Finally, something close to grand had emerged from Rogue Wave’s set. I am not normally that guy who waits and waits for the hit, but tonight I needed the hit. I had wanted the show to be great. Unfortunately, the pendulum swung the other way. Why couldn’t more of the night been as dreamy as these four minutes?
Another song was about to start, but the band had already hit their zenith. I’ll never understand why bands don’t always realize the power of ending on a high note. Rarely do I find a band better on record than live, but Rogue Wave seem to be the exception to my rule. I find their songs to be memorable, sweet at times, dreamily mining similar worlds as Death Cab for Cutie or the Shins. Yet, translated to the live environment, Rogue Wave’s tunes utterly failed to resonate.