The Big Shoulders Ball: Celebrating the Inauguration, Chicago Style
A busload of Chicago's best and brightest independent musicians storm the nation's capital on the eve of the Presidential inauguration and a former Chicagoan turned Washingtonian discovers that maybe you can transport the spirit of the Windy City -- if only for one night.
The Big Shoulders Ball: Celebrating the Inauguration, Chicago StyleCity: Washington, DC
Venue: The Black Cat
For all of the influence that it exerts on the world around it, Washington D.C. usually feels more like a sleepy town than a metropolitan capital. There are no skyscrapers, little hustle and bustle and outside of Capitol Hill and the National Mall, few reminders that this is, indeed, the seat of the American government. During the week of President Barack Obama's inauguration, however, everything was different. Massive crowds flooded the streets, the Metro stations, even the supermarkets. Hustlers competed with military police officers for the choicest street corners, so that they might peddle their Obama tchotchkes (my favorite were the "I ♥ Black People" pins). There was a palpable sense of excitement in the air, a feeling that after eight long years, the District could finally exhale in relief and look toward the future with optimism. For once, Washington D.C. really did feel like the center of the universe. That feeling extended to all aspects of Washingtonian life -- from the weeklong line outside of legendary dive Ben's Chili Bowl to the constant sirens of passing motorcades -- and D.C.'s live music scene was certainly no exception. Washington usually plays second fiddle to New York and Philadelphia on the East Court tour circuit but during inauguration week, Washingtonians were treated to a smorgasbord of remarkable musical combinations, the likes of which made even the most jaded New Yorkers green with envy. From Bruce Springsteen playing Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" with Pete Seeger on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to Kanye West splitting a bill with Fall Out Boy at the President's Youth Ball to the Arcade Fire opening up for Jay-Z, inauguration week's innumerable festivities were the stuff of dreams for pop fans.
Sans Pharmacists, Ted Leo still managed to turn in an impassioned set, daringly performing Curtis Mayfield's "Keep On Pushing" a cappella, covering Pete Seeger's "Quite Early Morning" (with its fitting refrain of "Don't you know it's darkest before the dawn") and turning in a rendition of his own "Bleeding Powers" that stuck in my head for days. Oddly enough, Leo was the only act of the night who seemed to have no formal ties to Chicago (a fact that he bemusedly acknowledged at the start of his set) though unsurprisingly, no one seemed to mind.
For the grand finale, Eleventh Dream Day were joined onstage by Langford and Timms, both of the Mekons, for a few numbers penned by Langford during his Three Johns and Mekons days (by the way, if you're not familiar with the Mekons' work, be sure to check out Mike Deane's excellent, ongoing series on the band's early singles over at "Sound Affects"). The mood was suitably jubilant, with Landford throwing scissor kicks into the audience as the Future of Music Coalition's Jean Cook stomped around the stage in combat boots while playing a mean fiddle. Unsurprisingly, Ted Leo ran back out on stage and joined Langford on vocals for a few of the Mekons tunes -- likely a dream come true for Leo, judging by his giddy demeanor. It almost felt like one of those old musical revues, albeit with relatively little tying the artists together save for their shared home. Still, it was a fitting end to a fitting fete for a President known for his commitment to collaboration, deep respect for his peers and love of all things Chicago. Music and politics both have a way of bringing unlikely people together but nowhere is that more true than in the City of Broad Shoulders.