Tomorrow Never Knows

The Tomorrow Never Knows festival got bigger this year. It used to be a series of mid-January concerts at Schubas. This year, it was five nights of shows simultaneously happening at both Schubas and its new sister venue, Lincoln Hall. January is generally not all that exciting of a month on the concert calendar, but the TNK fest brought a good selection of up-and-coming indie-rock bands to Chicago.

I attended two of the shows during the festival. Last Thursday (Jan. 14) at Schubas, the headliners were Surfer Blood, a young band from Florida that’s been getting some buzz lately. I like what I’ve heard of Surfer Blood’s studio recordings. It might be a little too polished and amped up, but the power-pop single “Swim” is pretty darn catchy. The band has inspired some wild comparisons to other groups. Time Out Chicago said they sound like a mix of Asia and Brian Eno. Friends I follow on Twitter mentioned the Fixx and Boston. I was thinking more along the lines of the Ponys and OK Go. As a live act, Surfer Blood needs some practice. The band wasn’t bad, but songs that would have been appealing as three-minute pop singles got stretched out twice as long as that, until the repetitive chord progressions just got boring. Then again, “Swim” sounded really strong without all that heavy compression and reverb on the studio record. Surfer Blood abruptly ended its set with drum-set-smashing antics… ensuring that there would be no encore.

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Thursday’s show started out with the annoyingly named Lasers and Fast and Shit. With dramatic back lighting and lots of fog, the group hammered its way through some hard-edged post-punk. A couple of the songs had good hooks, but others sounded like run-of-the-mill rock.

And sandwiched in between all those bands was Bear in Heaven. A couple of the musicians in this Brooklyn band played in avant-garde guitarist Rhys Chatham’s metal band, but Bear in Heaven doesn’t play that sort of drony music. Its songs were ominous and dramatic, however.

On Saturday night, I was at Lincoln Hall for the triple bill of Julie Doiron, the Rural Alberta Advantage and Bowerbirds. Although the show was sold out, the room did not feel quite as jam-packed as I would have expected. I get the feeling some fans were there just for one band or another — and maybe some folks with festival passes were shuttling back and forth between Lincoln Hall and Schubas.

I saw Doiron play twice last year, once with a band and once solo. Saturday’s show was like a hybrid of those, since she had just one musician accompanying her, William Kidman on guitar. She didn’t talk as much as she during her last solo show (it would be hard for anyone to talk that much again), delivering a tighter set of some great songs, including at least one new composition and one very nice cover, Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me.”

The Rural Alberta Advantage were the middle band on the bill Saturday, but judging from the energy of their performance and the fan turnout, they should have been the headliners. This Canadian trio put out an excellent record in 2008 (when I discovered it on emusic), which then got wider release in 2009. Their music reminds me of Neutral Milk Hotel, probably because the band’s singer-songwriter Nils Edenloff sings in a strong tone similar to NHM’s Jeff Mangum. The songs sounded lively Saturday night, thanks to the powerful drumming of Paul Banwatt and the many touches provided by multi-instrumentalist Amy Cole. Edenloff was suffering from a cold, and his vocals were ragged on some of the songs, especially when he belted out notes. I winced a few times at hearing Edenloff’s voice crack, but he deserves a gold star for giving the music his full effort despite his illness. The RAA played a couple of new songs (which sounded like promising additions to the band’s repertoire), and two covers: Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and the theme of the Canadian kids’ TV show, “The Littlest Hobo.”

Bowerbirds finished off the night with a pretty performance of the band’s folk-rock ballads. This Raleigh, N.C., band’s 2009 record, Upper Air, really grew on me over time, with a lot of compositions that stick in the mind. In concert, Phil Moore’s vocals and guitar blended beautifully with Beth Tacular’s accordion and harmonies (though I wish Tacular would sing even more). All that being said, it was a very mellow set for midnight, lulling the crowd rather than rousing it. Maybe the Bowerbirds’ set would have worked better earlier in the evening.

Photos from Tomorrow Never Knows. (I’m still waiting to get my camera from the repair shop, but I managed to get a few photos at these shows, thanks to the kind friends who let me use their cameras.)

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