The lineup at the Empty Bottle on Thursday, here May 22, was a musical version of the Trans-Canada Highway: three Canadian artists, each from a different province — Chad VanGaalen of Calgary, Alberta; Cousins of Halifax, Nova Scotia; and Bry Webb of Guelph, Ontario.
The headliner was the delightfully odd Chad VanGaalen, who has been releasing somewhat lo-fi, psychedelic home recordings for the past decade. But he hasn’t toured much, remaining something of an enigmatic figure — in my imagination anyway. A recent press release from his label, Sub Pop, feeds that sense of mystique, noting:
He has never worked in a commercial recording studio. By his hands alone, one line, sound, shape or word leads organically to the next. Over the last ten to fifteen years, Chad has been producing living maps in songs, drawings, modified instruments, animations and performances–shifting forms pointing to another world, infinitely more liveable, maybe hidden just under the surface of our own ever-disintegrating reality.
In Shrink Dust, Chad’s fifth full-length album under his own name, we have a new window into his world. The album is, in Chad’s view, a country record. It is also partially a score to Chad’s soon-to-be released, animated, sci-fi feature, Translated Log of Inhabitants (“It’s like Bob and Doug McKenzie in space,” says Chad).
Always a fan of esoteric instruments, Chad taught himself to play an aluminum pedal steel guitar. His experiments with this instrument unify the album, along with themes of death, transformation, fear, benign evil, and the eccentricity of love. A newfound affection for The Flying Burrito Brothers, and the sci-fi mysticism of the 1980s graphic novel The Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius, also drove the album.
There is indeed a certain amount of alt-country on the new record, but it sounds more like the Shins doing country than the typical sort of Americana that falls under the label.
As far as I know, VanGaalen had never played in Chicago before Thursday’s gig. Commenting to the audience about his drive into the city, he remarked, “The city goes on forever. … But now that we’re here, it’s a very nice place.” VanGaalen also told the audience about playing Frisbee earlier in the day with a Chicago man who seemed to him to be a meth addict. And he complained about his guitar, describing it as “a bad eBay purchase.”
That guitar sounded just fine, however, and so did VanGaalen’s big array of effects pedals, which he used to transform that single guitar into a psych-rock orchestra, with help from a two-piece rhythm section. And VanGaalen’s voice, often rising to a falsetto, artfully conveyed the many memorable melodies he has fashioned on Shrink Dust and previous records.
I was surprised to see how young the audience of VanGaalen fans was — it seemed like barely anyone in the nearly full room was over the age of 23. Where did these kids discover VanGaalen’s music? And why weren’t any of the somewhat older indie-rock fans I usually see at Empty Bottle shows like this in attendance?
With two outstanding opening acts, Thursday’s show was impressive from beginning to end. The evening started out with a set by Bry Webb, lead singer of the Constantines. The songs on his new record, Free Will, are mellower than the Constantines’ rock, almost qualifying as folk, but they still has something of that Constantines edge to them. His set at the Bottle included a nice cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Calvary Cross.”
I wasn’t familiar at all with the middle band in the lineup, Cousins, but the guitar-and-drums duo quickly won me over with songs that rocked pretty hard with soaring melodies — including at least three about lead singer Aaron Mangle’s grandmother. The group’s new album, The Halls of Wickwire, is dedicated to her memory. How Canadian is that!