First up was an unrelenting set by the Warlocks on Thursday night (Aug. 6) at the Empty Bottle. The band’s latest album, The Mirror Explodes, is a good one, and the Warlocks’ live show is still a fuzz fest filled with throbbing guitars and the sort of chords that the Velvet Underground used to play, all shrouded in tons of fog. Some of the more enthusiastic fans at the Bottle were yelling, “More smoke! More smoke!” I missed the first two bands of the night, but got there in time for the opening set by the Morning After Girls, who were a good match with the Warlocks — leaning a little more toward jangly and psychedelic ’60s music but with plenty of loud fuzziness.
The Morning After Girls don’t actually have any girls in their band, and neither does the San Francisco group known as Girls, who played Friday night (Aug. 7) at the Hideout. (You might think Girls does include a whole bunch of girls if you saw this publicity photo, however.) I’ve been listening to the Girls song “Lust for Life,” which is not to be confused with the Iggy Pop song of the same title, ever since it was posted as a free mp3 at www.sxsw.com. Lead singer and main Girl Christopher Owens sounds very British, almost like Bob Geldof, and this song reminds me a lot of the songs collected on Rhino’s DIY series by bands from the late ’70s and early ’80s that were moving from punk rock into more melodic pop. It’s a terrific tune, one of my favorite new songs from 2009.
But Girls don’t have an album out yet — their debut, simply called Album, comes out Sept. 22 on True Panther. That makes me wonder why they would do a national tour without much product to sell or promote. They deserved a bigger crowd than they got Friday at the Hideout, but it’s cool that they’re getting some buzz from Pitchfork, which promoted the “Lust for Life” video today. Girls delivered a decent performance Friday at the Hideout, though I felt like I was watching a band that hasn’t fully figured out its sound. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. At one minute, Girls sounded like late ’50s or early ’60s pop balladry. Then there were great tunes like “Lust for Life” and “Hellhole Ratrace” (available on a 10-inch vinyl single), played without much feedback on the guitars, all the better to emphasis Owen’s fabulously whiny quasi-Brit vocals and his endearing melodies and lyrics. And then the group cranked up the feedback for a couple of louder songs that were more like VU raves. Not everything worked, but when it did, it was great. I bought the “Hellhole Ratrace” single at the merch table and was hooked by that song, too, when I got home. Can’t wait for the album.
The opening band Friday, Chicago’s Smith Westerns, would have been worth the price admission all by themselves. Like Stranger Waves, this is another awfully young local band (pre-drinking-age, I think) playing energetic, dynamic garage rock that sounds like the sort of stuff garage bands around here played in the mid-’60s or punk bands played in the mid-’70s. There’s more than noise to these guys, who have some strong melodies in between those riffs, and the way their twist around onstage makes it all seem incredibly fun. Their new self-titled album is well worth getting.
Saturday night was the only Lolla-related show I saw over the weekend: the Lollapalooza after show at the Hideout featuring the Low Anthem and Joe Pug. Pug was the headliner, but the Low Anthem were the main reason I was at this show. Although they played early in the day at Lollapalooza on one of the small stages, this Rhode Island trio was near the top of my list of bands I wished I were seeing at Lolla. Their new CD, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, has some superb folk-rock with beautiful high vocals. The opening track, “Charlie Darwin,” is one of my favorite songs of the year, with a haunting melody and lovely lyrics. The Low Anthem is on a prominent record label, Nonesuch, and an NPR critic recently played “Charlie Darwin” as one of 2009’s best songs, but the buzz about them seems to be building slowly right now. I chatted before the show with a couple visiting from London, who said the Low Anthem seems to be more popular over in the UK at the moment, thanks in part to getting the lead CD review in MOJO magazine.
They sang some hushed, very pretty songs at the Hideout, and the crowd watched in what seemed to be silent awe. The two guys and one gal in the Low Anthem switched off on instruments throughout the whole set. I especially like the spooky sound of Jocie Adams playing the crotales — a percussion instrument featuring metal disks attached to a horizontal bar, which she played with a bow. Clarinet and horn were also part of the musical mix, and the more rocking rootsy songs seemed to fit right in with the more mellow ones. (The first few times I listened to the new CD, the louder, grittier songs seemed jarring compared to tracks like “Charlie Darwin,” but after repeated listens, the album is feeling more like a unified whole to me.)
Joe Pug was up next. He’s a talented singer-songwriter from Chicago who plays folk rock firmly rooted in the style of Bob Dylan and more recent folkies like Steve Earle. I rather like Pug and his music, which I’ve gotten to know since he starting giving away copies of his EP on his Web site. But I was somewhat shocked to see the sort of crowd response Pug got on Saturday at the Hideout. The place was sold out, and after the Low Anthem was finished, a bunch of hard-core Joe Pug fanatics moved up to the front of the room. A lot of people were singing along to a lot of Pug’s lyrics, and when they weren’t singing along, they were letting loose with yelping exclamations of appreciation for Pug’s music — “Yow! Ow!” and the like. To be honest, all of this boisterous adulation got on my nerves a bit, but I was extremely impressed with the fact that Pug has developed such a devoted following since the last time I saw him doing an opening set at Schubas. If Saturday’s show is any indication, Pug could be the next Chicago musical to hit it big. He puts on a lively performance for someone in the singer-songwriter category, grinning often as he plays, and his backup band brought out the more rocking side of his music.
On Sunday night (Aug. 9), Scotland’s Trashcan Sinatras made a rare visit to Chicago, playing at Schubas. It was the band’s first Chicago concert in several years, and the audience at the sell-out show included folks who driven from as far away as Detroit. The Trashcan Sinatras play light, melodic pop of the sort that the Go-Betweens and Aztec Camera were known for, but they play it with enough punch that it avoids slipping into sappiness. (Alas, I can’t say the same for Sunday’s opening band, Brookville.) It was a charming show filled with tuneful songs, and the crowd loved it. These were clearly some devoted Trashcan fans, seeing as how they sang along with many of the key lyrics. The band seemed to be eating up the adulation, and they played a long encore with four songs. It was a wonderful way to wrap up a Lolla-free musical weekend.