Empty Bottle – Chicago
As the local band Del Ray did their sound check before a nearly full house at one of the Empty Bottle’s free Monday shows, I thought about the dynamic of an audience watching a band for nothing. As much as a free show is a benefit to the consumer, I have to think that it can’t be as much of one for the performer. As they tested each drum kit with a rowdy solo, people would cheer – whether out of joy or impatience it was unclear. The audience at a free show is going to have the same expectations as a paying member, even if not having to cough up cash might make them less entitled. You can look at the set as a strange act of altruism on the part of the performer. The act of paying creates a link between performer and audience member, something that’s not there for a free show as the performer could simply not play and there’s nothing that would really be owed. If money is exchanged, you can just fetch your lawyer like when Creed’s devoutly Christian yet drug addled Scott Stapp ended up sued for botching a Chicago show in 2003. Chances are, the crowd at the Empty Bottle isn’t going to sue a band, but there’s still a strange psychology going on in the brain of any human expecting something for free.
Surveying the stage I was personally just happy to see a band with not just two drum kits, but two drum kits pushed to the front of the stage. Not only could I enjoy the multiple drummers, but I easily studied what they were doing. Once they finished up and finally launched into their set I was already strangely tired from standing. Bringing a full messenger bag of crap to a show is a really bad idea, no matter how necessary. I was momentarily distracted with the loud click of a drum machine backed by keyboard drone. They then filled it in with lush, post-Tortoise styled rock which caught my attention. Midway through the song, the lead guitarist jumped in on the second kit, helping the very talented lead drummer make a beautiful kinetic mess of the rhythm section. Lead drummer Michael Johnson is the kind of musician who effortlessly glides through maneuvers that anyone who’s given a sideways glance to a drumstick can see are terribly complex. As a band, they play with the loud/soft dynamic in a similar way to Explosions in the Sky, though Del Ray takes a generally more metal-influenced approach: there’s that familiar build, everything begins to get more intense, and then suddenly we’re being pummeled with riffs. It’s heavily tread ground, but they manage to accomplish it with a level of competence that brings them above the rest. Musically they’re at their strongest when they put their balls into it, two drummers blazing behind vaguely Melvins influenced riffs. The slightly swirling guitar work is almost hypnotizing in its simplicity, something that works both for and against them. During one of the numbers, the ‘Black-Sabbath-raped-Mogwai’ guitar line simply served as a backing to the growing spectacle of the two drummers subtlety interacting. For their final number they broke into a suitably epic number, with a Middle Eastern tinged lead guitar line leading to the familiar build and burst into stoner metal territory. Saving the song from mediocrity were a few false ends, shifting into a different mode at a point when it could have easily ended or simply repeated the main riff over. This ability to consistently defy my expectations was definitely one of the key things that will make me seek them out again in the future.
As the transition between the two bands occurred, and the amount of equipment on-stage grew, I was suddenly puzzled. Mice Parade began as a solo project for multi-instrumentalist/Bubble Core manager Adam Pierce. Musically it defies any specific genre tag, as a weird blend of neo-Folk, skittering Jazz percussion, and chill electronic undertones. Given that the scope of the solo project has grown over the course of its seven album lifespan, I didn’t know what to expect for a live show. The last album had guest vocals by Kristin Valtysdottir from Mum and work by Him drummer Doug Scharin. One could only hope that everyone would get dragged out for the tour… and thankfully they did. When everything was done, seven people crowded the tiny Empty Bottle stage (though, admittedly it’s a stage that would make a solo artist look huge by comparison). The touring band was full and eclectic; 2 drum kits, a keyboardist (with a sexy bass synth), xylophone, rhythm and lead guitarist playing a rather bizarre looking guitar. As they launched into the opening strums of “Ground as Cold as Common,” clapping and cheers rose up from the crowd. Probably the strongest track off 2005’s Bem-Vinda Vontade, it made me perfectly happy to have the band open with my favorite track. Adam Pierce spent the song playing along with Doug Scharin on the second kit, while the vocals were handled from the shadowy corner of the stage by Kristin Valtysdottir, who until she started singing I didn’t even know was there. To actually hear her twee voice live is the aural equivalent of being abducted and probed by aliens; I personally didn’t think the sounds she made on record were humanly possible, but I was wrong. It was mildly disappointing to hear her covering vocal duties for Adam, because his laconic delivery is one of the most pleasing aspects of the song. I ignored it, primarily because the complexity of the music was enough to keep my interest. The classical guitarist was incredible, casually working his way through finger picking that inspired carpal tunnel in those watching.
The dynamic of the group was strong, though something was ultimately off. It felt like though the band was comprised of exceptionally talented people that hadn’t played together in a long while. The energy of the set was also somewhat uneven, going from a subdued number fronted by Kristin Valtysdottir to the distorted chords of “Passing and Galloping”. This song came just as my energy was flagging, and the strange, vaguely afro-punk mix of distortion and tribal drumming served to wake me up a bit. On the song “Boat Room,” Adam Pierce was back on the second kit and in an interesting twist; Dough Scharin manipulated the drum tones from an effects rig by his own kit. The result created an interesting dub twist on the already unique Mice Parade sound. With this song you can see why they stray from the path, as they look the happiest pushing the boundaries of their music. For the set finale they pulled it together for an almost punishingly gorgeous rendition of “Days Before Fiction.” After an extended spacey outro, they filed off stage without an encore, I felt relieved as my legs were unhappy from standing through the short show. As much as I was prevented from being totally satisfied because of something I just couldn’t put my finger on, I might have had reason to bitch if I’d paid to get in… but I didn’t, so I just shut my mouth and wandered back into the night.
Previously published at Loose Record