Though they mine the territory of Britpop counterparts like Coldplay, Doves, Snow Patrol, and Travis just as masterfully, each time I see South live, they’re still playing Chicago’s intimate Double Door. Front man and lead singer Joel Cadbury’s voice is as hushed and dreamy as Chris Martin’s and South’s sound is grand and expansive—a lush atmospheric blend of guitars, hooks, melodies, and big booming backbeats. Each of their records has songs that are as infectiously melodic and memorable as anything Martin and company have landed on the radio.
So why haven’t I heard a South tune on Chicago radio? Why is my brother, who normally eats up any English rock band, oblivious to the band? I’ve heard that South have had a couple of tunes featured on American television shows for the young and the hip. You’d think having a song or two cast as backdrop on TV would go miles to getting your name and sound into the great unwashed; but it hasn’t. Frankly, I think the greatest chance South has to expand their fan base is by doing something they have been practicing all along: playing live.
The sheer joy that the members of South bring to their music was apparent from the onset. The band opened with “You Are One”—a stellar track from the latest record—which featured thundering drumbeats, “ooh-wooh” vocal interludes, Jamie McDonald’s chimey guitar riffs, and sweet mid-song tempo changes. Talk about a pop hit waiting to happen; “You Are One” rang with a grandness far bigger than the intimate confines of the Double Door. I don’t wish to intimate that the song had an arena sound, but the sum was certainly greater than the parts. Similarly, “A Place in Displacement”—with atmospheric dance beats and Brett Shaw’s tribal drumming—sounded like a lost Madchester dance track booming against the walls of the Hacienda.
Herein is the secret to South’s sound—a sound both typically English and, at the same time, quite distinct. Shaw, McDonald, Cadbury, and their two guest musicians Will Harper and Tom Harris, constantly found a deep musical connection with one another, creating a mood and a vibe that the crowd could feel palpably. And though South has undertones of bands like New Order, Killing Joke, Stone Roses, or Radiohead (all memorably epic band), the energy was all their own.
On stage, Cadbury and McDonald certainly energized one another. They egged each other on, playing their guitars in time, dancing and grooving, and reveling in the sweep and sway of the songs. During “Keep Close”, for example, Cadbury’s dusty, windswept acoustic guitar was matched by McDonald’s twangy, electric slide. Harris’ funky piano fills colored the timbre with a simple beauty as Harper plucked a funky bass line that got the whole band in step with the groove.
The good thing about small venue shows is that you can push your way close to the stage, making the experience that much more magnified. Even though Cadbury may declare in every tour city that, “We’re going to give you everything we’ve got,” one felt like he meant it as the band hit their stride moving from the miasma of feedback in “Habit of a Lifetime” to the twanging Delta blues of “I Know What You’re Like.” The crowd was stunned and hypnotized as Cadbury picked a mean and nasty slide guitar that resonated with a haunting hum. McDonald, meanwhile, strummed a somber acoustic guitar and serenaded the crowd in a whispery voice.
From the muddy blues of the Delta, South jetted back to the rousing anthemic jangle and sparkle of Britpop on the magnificent single “Paint the Silence” from their debut release From Here On In, followed by the softly swirling and glimmering “Colours in Waves”. The cascading and eddying riffs and the crashing drums of the song took the crowd. The only misstep of the night was choosing to encore with the solo acoustic guitar ballad of “By the Time You Catch Your Heart”. Though Cadbury poured his heart into the tune, his lyrics were lost under the murmurous din of chattering drunks.
So maybe that’s the answer; after all, nothing else adds up. Maybe there’s a single, simple reason why South haven’t hit the big-time: the world is just too full of drunks.