The Big Shoulders Ball: Celebrating the Inauguration, Chicago Style

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.

The most sought after tickets, of course, were for the ten official inaugural balls, all of which were attended by the President and First Lady — an unprecedented feat. Being a Chicago transplant, however, I had little interest in celebrating the inauguration of America’s first Chicago President with all the pomp and pageantry of a high society ball. What I wanted was to be reminded of the excitement I had felt when I first saw Obama — then a State Senator who lived a few blocks down the street from me and taught at my school — speak to a room of Chicago politicos, proving through his eloquence and poise that blue collar Midwestern values just might have a shot at sneaking into Washington. Obama has always been as composed as they come but in those days there was still an air of scrappiness about him, a trait that started to dissipate once he had clinched the nomination. Though he occupied his seat in the ivory tower with authority, he was equally in touch with the working class mentality that has long characterized Chicago. While all of the official inaugural balls were sure to celebrate Obama, the accomplished politician and academic, none would evoke Obama, the plucky community organizer from the City of Broad Shoulders. Luckily, Chicagoans, just like the Daley machine on which they rely, are known for getting things done. In the absence of an official Chicago Ball (though to be fair, Obama’s Home States Ball did feature the South Side’s other favorite son, Common), the Hideout, a renowned hipster dive, partnered with community organizers Interchange and D.C. think tank the Future of Music Coalition (full disclosure: I briefly wrote for their blog) to bring a busload of Chicago musicians to D.C.’s Black Cat on the eve of the inauguration. From the get-go, it was clear that the Big Shoulders Ball was going to be an inaugural ball like no other. The “thrift store formal” dress code ensured that for every ill-fitting tuxedo, there would be a reveler in a delightfully gauche ball gown or full cowboy garb. Goose Island Beer — a rare treat on the East Coast — flowed freely at the bar and Chicago flags alternated with the Stars and Stripes, forming a backdrop for the evening’s performances. For a few hours, it was easy to forget where you were.

The night’s master of ceremonies, the Hideout’s ever-enthusiastic owner Tim Tuten, was a familiar sight to anyone who’s baked in the hot sun during a Pitchfork Music Festival. While effusively praising the soon-to-be Commander in Chief was already de rigueur, Tuten stammered so excitedly that he tripped over his own words as he hailed Obama. Still, a quick tally suggests that Tuten elicited more cheers than he did groans over the course of the night — though it was a close call, to be sure.

Judson Claiborne, an alt-country act featuring Christopher Claiborne Salveter, formerly of Low Skies, was tasked with the unenviable job of warming up the chatty room. While their music rarely drowned out the drone emanating from the back of the club, their gently melancholic dirges served as a pleasant opening to a show that would later take a turn for the raucous.

Though they hail from Kentucky, the members of Freakwater have plenty of ties to the Chicago alt-country scene. Unlike Judson Claiborne, they skew closer to the Old, Weird America of rural folk and mountain music, tempering their provincial instrumentation with deeply soulful vocals. Thus, it didn’t feel the least bit contrived when they launched into a welcome cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” — Obama’s campaign song — and convinced more than a few folks to move their feet.

You can’t talk about Chicago music without talking about the blues and you can’t talk about the blues without mentioning David “Honeyboy” Edwards. It’s incredible that, at the ripe old age of 93, Edwards is still touring, the last of the original Delta blues guitarists left standing. Even more incredible is the communion that he forms with his audience as he plays, peering deep into the eyes of the front row as his hand moves magically over the fretboard, carrying with it years of history and privileged knowledge. The crowd went wild when he dusted off “Sweet Home Chicago”, tipping his hat to the song’s author, Robert Johnson, who Edwards was with on the night of his mysterious death. During Honeyboy’s performance, Andrew Bird could be seen at the side of the stage, reverently watching the legend at work.

On paper the Icy Demons probably sound like a train wreck but in practice, they prove quite difficult to dislike. Defying categorization with an infectious zeal, they travel fluidly between synth-pop, electro, jazz, prog, hip-hop, post-punk and just about any other sub-genre you can think of. What makes it all work is the band’s cheerful enthusiasm, seemingly boundless energy and the deep grooves that tie all of their songs together.

Just as “Honeyboy” Edwards embodies Chicago blues, Ken Vandermark has come to represent Chicago jazz. Flanked by Tortoise’s John Herndon and Jeff Parker, the MacArthur Fellowship-winning saxophonist devoted his set to covers of Sun Ra, though the songs were permeated by a loose, improvisational feel.

Speaking of Tortoise, the celebrated post-rock collective turned in a set that was more than befitting of their reputation. Digging as far back as TNT, the band worked their way through one of the night’s longer sets with verve, style and a workmanlike precision.

Toward the end of Tortoise’s set, the band was joined onstage by Andrew Bird, Freakwater’s Janet Beveridge Bean and Sally Timms, of British punk icons the Mekons. On a cover of Mekons/Waco Brothers frontman Jon Langford’s “Sentimental Marching Song”, Bird’s, Bean’s and Timms’ voices meshed beautifully, lending a rich three-part harmony to the choruses.

Despite the fact that he was one of the younger performers of the night, Andrew Bird was clearly the most eagerly awaited. In anticipation of his latest full-length, Noble Beast, an eager fan yelled out for “Anonanimal” and Bird, ever the gentleman, complied, opening his set with the song. Armed with his trusty Line 6 loop stations, Bird built the song from the ground up, only to tear it down; creating live samples of guitar and violin lines, looping them and then layering them atop each other. Watching Andrew Bird work is always thrilling but on this night, as he made his way through old favorites like “The Giant of Illinois” and “Scythian Empires”, he seemed more relaxed than usual, recreating complex compositions with surprising ease.

Next up was writer Thomas Frank, best known as the founding editor of The Baffler and as the author of What’s the Matter With Kansas?. Though Frank would embark on something of a political tirade — berating that other fellow in the White House who would soon be out of a job — he managed to rally the troops around a few Chicago memes, decrying the lack of respect commanded by the South Side and lamenting the inferiority complexes of Hyde Parkers.

Easily taking the crown as the night’s loudest act, the Waco Brothers came roaring out of the gate with a ferocity as yet unseen, barreling through both rollicking alt-country numbers and punk standards like “I Fought the Law” with reckless abandon. Toward the end of their set, they were joined onstage by Ted Leo, who seemed more excited to be in the presence of Jon Langford than most of the fans in attendance.

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.

The final scheduled act of the night, Eleventh Dream Day, played to a half full house, as most of the club had slowly filtered out following Andrew Bird’s performance. Regardless, they played a deafening set, rivaling the Waco Brothers’ volume from the first note of opening number “Bagdad’s Last Ride”. Of particular note was the drumming of Freakwater vocalist Janet Beveridge Bean, who pounded on her trap set as if she were seeking to punish it.

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.