Bees, Castles, and Boris Yeltsin
Call it the poor man's South by Southwest. Ever since I went to that glorious explosion of live music back in my salad days, I get a little sad inside every time it rolls around and all I can do is live vicariously through blog and Twitter updates. While I can't afford something of that magnitude (aka there's no college radio station that will pay for me), I still relish that as a teacher I get a spring break at all. The past couple years I've decided to take advantage of the time off and go on solo road trips around the Midwest, visiting as many friends and seeing as many shows as I can during my week of freedom. Sure, the shows were only at night and the friends whose floors I slept on worked during the day, cutting weeknight shows to a minimum, but I still managed to see a total of seven artists within seven days. And while they weren't all necessarily mind-blowing, every concert was a memorable experience. Click play on the mixtape widget at the end of this post and read on about the Midwest's finest opportunities for live music from last week...
Milwaukee is kind of a craphole. I should know; I grew up there. And yet, even though my family no longer lives there, I still find myself there at least once a year, and almost always the reasons are the same: music and friends. There are not a lot of decent venues to play in Milwaukee, but I'd heard ever since my teenage hangout The Globe closed down a few years ago, Mad Planet was the place to go. Having never been there before, I was excited not only to see three bands I liked and never seen live before, but also to experience a new space in an old place - a place I used to call home.
In typical Milwaukee fashion, I walked in and realized, yup, it's your typical bar. So it was nothing fancy, no big deal. It had a black light that embarrassingly illuminated all the white cat hairs on my jacket I failed to lint roll before I left Minneapolis and a healthy amount of regulars that were glued to their barstools - leaving absolutely no one on the floor in front of the stage. At least there was room to stand and see the bands. As the first band in an all-instrumental lineup, Canyons of Static absolutely tore the place down, playing mostly new tunes plus a couple from their solid 2008 release The Disappearance. Their brand of droning but incredibly intense post-rock is not necessarily a new sound, but with a subtle infusion of melodic keyboards and guttural unmic'd screaming from the polar bear of a man behind the drum kit, they hypnotized me and frightened me simultaneously. With flashes of abstract projection against the pitch black stage and three intermittent white screens, it was also a visually compelling set-up - the perfect kick start to a much anticipated spring break.
Next up was Male, a new Chicago collective of ambient experimentalists, featuring former members of Joan of Arc and Pan American. I understand how pretentious that sounds, but what makes this awkwardly-named group rise above their own artsy-fartsy-ness was definitely their presentation. They could have gotten up there and just swelled their guitars and barely touched the drums and stared at their feet the whole time. But no - with a charmingly theatrical frontman manipulating the guitars through a laptop while seemingly being possessed by the music emanating from his bandmates that surrounded him, jutting his fists into the air with every new layer projecting out through the speakers, I found myself once again transfixed. Toms were tickled, turntable crackle was looped and placed every so slightly in the mix, and guitars were both reserved and blasting, creating sonic textures that felt both soothing and completely insane.
Finally, local favorites Collections of Colonies of Bees utilized both the climactic splendor of the evening's opener and the quirky but still artful execution of Male to completely own the night. My traditional stop at the record store before epic road trips found me digging in the used section to, in a twist of fate, find a copy of the band's latest album Birds, which I played heavily during my drive and certainly used to psych myself out. And while so often I have found myself disappointed by a band's live act after falling in love with their record, it was indeed the opposite with the Bees. The gentle minimalist expansions of Rhodes piano, keytar, sparkling guitars from virtuoso Chris Roseneau (formerly of Pele and Vermont), and manic drumming filled every possible void in my eardrum, and even though they never strayed too far from a main riff, they got the most of their few notes, creating a tense mood and briskly cathartic releases. As I left Mad Planet and drove back with their sounds still ringing in my ears, I looked at the Milwaukee skyline before preparing for my next destination and realized it's actually quite the pretty sight. All it took were two of the city's best acts to convince me that maybe the place I grew up wasn't so shitty after all.
A couple days later, I took the scenic route down to Chicago (screw you, Blagojevich's tollways!) and readied myself to meet a friend at a relatively small but well-known place called Schuba's. I had been there once before, over five years ago, to see Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie perform solo (no regrets, I'm a sappy sentimentalist, get over it) and remembered the packed but comfortable place fondly. After a leisurely dinner next door catching p with a friend, we scuttled over to catch the last half of opening act Drew Danburry, whose latest record, This Could Mean Trouble You Don't Speak for the Club, had a few gems of slacker pop perfection, but mostly was just pleasant and cute in the headphones, but nothing much more. The same turned out to be mostly true for his live shtick, which was singing earnest and catchy ditties in between intentionally awkward banter - most of which was entertaining. Then again, I'm a sucker for anyone who can talk for more than a few seconds about The Neverending Story. What truly surprised me, however, was his last song, which he played without a band and with only a ukulele, and brought the all-ages crowd to a complete hush. It was adorable and awe-inspiring all at once.
Then on stage came the insufferably young and spritely Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, who two years ago I couldn't have cared less about, but on their last release, Pershing, they have one of my favorite songs of the year, which is embedded below for your listening pleasure. I enjoyed the majority of their set before they finally broke into my jam, "Modern Mystery", but ultimately their music is good for diversionary soft listening and nothing more. It's not challenging or unique - it's just comfortable. Kinda like Schuba's itself. Nothing wrong with that. Hopefully, however, now that they've proven that they can write a song that keeps the pop rock steadiness but also adds a wallop of energy and heart, they'll get even catchier and more likeable on the next album.
And I should have known this was going to be a train wreck when I got randomly carded approximately 74 times before the show even started. Too bad too, because out of all the bands on my spring break schedule, the one I thought I knew wasn't going to suck at all was Crystal Castles. Having seen them play in Minneapolis last year, I thought this would be a surefire way to send off my spring break makeshift music festival in proper fashion. Too bad so sad. The prelimary act, The Bang Bangs, weren't a positive omen either, with their minimal onstage presence and typical mix of empty beats and hollow synths. If I can appreciate ambient guitar swells for 40 minutes and can't get behind this meandering mess, then I think it's safe to say it was an epic fail.
I thought for sure the night would turn around when the duo of vocalist Alice Glass and programmer Ethan Kath came out on stage after a deathly long period of waiting. And for a few songs, I was revved up just like I felt during their show in Minneapolis. The rhythm pulsed violently to a strobe light and the electronics chaotically screeched into the heavens before Alice caterwauled infectiously to the beat. Right around the time of one of my favorite tunes of theirs, "Courtship Dating" from their self-titled disc, however, I felt it get stale. A truly epic light show kept my interest and attention for a bit, but as Alice chugged more vodka and Ethan attempted to play drums along to a few songs (very boringly, I might add, especially after reading Christian's drummers post for further realization), I wished it would end. It was depressing, yes, especially in light of how much of a blessed-out party their full-length is, but ultimately, it was still spring break, and I still got what I wanted: music and friends. South by Southwest, I'll catch you when I'm not broke.
Chris Polley teaches high school English, often with his hair disheveled and a glint of crazy in his eye, in the Midwest's greatest city, Minneapolis. He rambles on and conducts discourse with friends and strangers about the horrific beast that is pop culture over at The Blogulator.