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Grand Duchy: 24 July 2009 - Chicago

Frank Black's post-Pixie band fan the musical flames without going up in smoke.

Grand Duchy

Grand Duchy

City: Chicago
Venue: Subterranean
Date: 2009-07-24

After the punk rantings of the previous band, Big Science, the full house of hipsters were primed to emote with post-Pixie band Grand Duchy. Unfortunately, there were some sound problems with the microphones, which caused the crowd some minor angst. But when Francis Black finally came out -- his baldhead lit up like a neon hood ornament, his black shades covering his face, and his black T-shirt hugging his meaty frame -- there were relieved cheers. Violet Clark -- Black’s wife and the band’s other permanent member -- looked like a deportee from Star Trek. She appeared on stage with white, alabaster skin, red pouting lips, a button nose, and brilliant blue eyes that gleamed at the crowd. She wore a jump suit -- possibly borrowed from the Jetsons -- and classic petite black boots. Her short, impish hair-cut completed the space-aged look.

Along with drummer, Jason Carter, and keyboardist, Silver Sorensen, the group launched into “Come on Over to My House” with Black churning out psychedelic, post-punk progressions as Clark scrunched up her luminous nose, the veins almost popping in her neck. It was clear from the opening song that Black and Clark know how to play off each other in the live environment. At times they stood together, their bodies intimately positioned while engaging in fiery duets or exchanging lush harmonies. Other times they postured separately like lone wolves -- each fully engaged in a private orbit.

During the searing “Ermesinde” Black unhinged a hypnotic, chromatic riff before uttering, “I’ve been waiting for you baby since the day that you were born.” From there, the lyrics descended, “On the first day of your journey in the chapel where you pray / Asking Holy Mother Mary why they’re giving you away.” Shoving his face into the microphone, Black impaled the harrowing melody. The beat was as riveting as the magnetism between husband and wife. After coming up for oxygen, Black proclaimed, “We are called Grand Duchy. We are a stateless band -- but this next song does reference a regional place.” This place turns out to be “Fort Wayne”.

The focus tonight is their new nine-track release Petits Fours, which was released earlier this year. Live, Black’s power chords ring out as Clark thrashes around vocally with an infectious punk sensibility. “I will be the whore,” she screeches before dedicating the next song to all the couples, singing about how “a heart can only beat so fast.” Who would guess that Clark, after a heated night of twisting her slight body into contorted figurations and pouring out heart-felt vocals, would soccer-mom her children, who are along on tour with her and Black, the next morning. “The Long Song”, which follows, is indeed long, but it’s also sassy and oddly romantic. As if on cue, Clark shoots a bright, extravagant smile over to Black. You can’t help but wonder when they wash the morning dishes, who dries and who puts them away.

Black sings “The Long Song” sweetly, his falsetto coming as a welcome surprise compared to his previous moans and grumbles. But it's when he utters an almost comic scream that the fans hoot and holler the most. His fuzzy guitar work teases the raucous drum hits as Clark reaches deeply and desperately into her vocal pockets like a panhandler fumbling for booze money. “And it’s in your hair, and it’s in your mind, and it’s in your face and it’s in your solitaire design / And it’s in your eye sockets, sockets, sockets / I never knew where I belonged / It’s such a long song,” Clark sings.

Looking out over the crowd, Black asks, “what about dirty songs?” Clark sways, sucks the microphone, and begins to play a slathered bass line. In comparison, the synth is calming -- an antacid for the rough, edgy musical patchwork induced by the steady combination of bass and guitar. “Touch me with your fingers and I’ll show you how,” states Black, screaming the statement louder than any other lyric this evening.

As the loudly sung lyrics might insinuate, there’s an element of sensorial overload to this show. When Black and Clark trade vocals and compete dynamically with their instruments, it’s difficult to know where to rest your eyes. The stage is full of exuberant emotional expression and continual movement.

“Volcano” wraps the set up with Clark hopping up and down like a kid on a pogo stick gathering momentum. Huge drums trail her bounce as she sings, “it’s gonna burn, burn, burn.” It’s an apt line for a band capable of fanning the flames without going up in smoke.

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