The new album by Low, Ones and Sixes, is something of a change for the long-running Duluth, Minn., band. The sonic textures are different this time, a bit more electronic and ambient, with some blips and beeps subtly blending into the band’s vocal harmonies and guitar chords. Low played many of the new songs on Saturday, Sept. 19, at Thalia Hall. The live versions didn’t sound drastically different from the studio recordings, but they helped to placed these songs into the context of what Low has been doing for more than 20 years: making music that’s beautiful in its serenity and spareness.
The trio (Alan Sparhawk on guitar and vocals, Mimi Parker on drums and vocals, and Steve Garrington on bass and keyboards) played several songs from other recent albums, and dug further back into its catalog for songs such as “In Metal” and one of my favorites, “Death of a Salesman.” It was a seated show, and audience members barely moved or said anything as Low performed. The band didn’t move around much, either. But as calm as it all looked, the music achieved a fierce intensity.
After introducing the musicians in her band, Angel Olsen omitted her own name, remarking, “I’m still learning about who I am.” Maybe that’s true (as it is for most of us), but Olsen sounded completely confident in her musical identity as she performed Saturday night, Nov. 29, at Thalia Hall. As always, her voice was a wonder to behold, commanding everyone’s attention even when it was just a whisper. There’s nothing fussy or affected about the way she sings — it seems like that remarkable sound just naturally comes out of her. Her vocal style is cool, but it isn’t cold; there’s plenty of emotion pushing to break through even when her singing seems to be placid on the surface.
Her singing also has a timeless quality, with echoes of traditional English folk music and old-timey Americana as well as contemporary indie rock. As a result, Olsen’s performance on Saturday — featuring many songs from her great album from earlier this year, Burn Your Fire For No Witness — transcended genre. She played a couple of songs solo, bringing back memories of similarly intimate performances she gave a few years ago at Saki and the Burlington, back when she was still residing in Chicago.
But for most of the night, Olsen’s songs were shaped into subtle rock songs by her band: guitarist Stewart Bronaugh, bassist Emily Elhaj and drummer Josh Jaeger. For the first time, the band played a delightfully jangly cover of Jackie Deshannon’s classic 1963 song “When You Walk in the Room,” which was a hit for the Searchers in 1964. Commenting on how much she’s come to love playing with this group, Olsen said, “Basically, we’re all in a relationship now.”
The show also featured strong opening sets by the atmospheric indie-rockers Lionlimb (a band featured two members of Olsen’s group, Bronaugh and Jaeger) and the hard-riffing roots-rockers State Champion.
Ty Segall played a rousing rock show Tuesday, Sept. 23, at Thalia Hall, culminating with an encore that paid tribute to David Bowie. It happened to be David Bowie Day in Chicago, with the opening of the “David Bowie Is” exhibit at the MCA, and Segall played a medley of Bowie songs, kicking off with “Ziggy Stardust.” As I predicted in my Newcity preview of the show, there was moshing. Segall’s latest album, Manipulator, is one of his best, and in concert the new songs sounded terrific, if a bit more blunt than they are in the studio version.
In the early 1990s, the California band Sleep helped to create a hard-rocking genre that came to be known as stoner rock: something that resembled heavy metal, but with a tendency toward slower, sludgier and less screamy rock. Sleep disbanded in the late 1990s, but the trio reunited a few years ago. And last week, the group played two sold-out shows at Thalia Hall. The lineup included original members Al Cisneros (bass and vocals) and Matt Pike (guitars), plus Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder. I was there on Thursday, Aug. 28, and Sleep pounded away at its repetitive riffs with just as much force and intensity as you’d expect. (From what I hear, Friday’s show was even louder.)
When Laura Cantrell opened on Friday (July 25) for Camera Obscura at Thalia Hall, it was her first Chicago performance in nine years. Cantrell’s latest record, No Way There From Here, is one of 2014’s finest, and her plaintive voice was stirringly beautiful on Friday night — despite the annoying buzz of chatter from the back of the room.
The Scottish band Camera Obscura also sounded achingly lovely as it played its lilting, melancholy pop tunes during the evening’s main set. Lead singer Tracyanne Campbell said she had a cold, and there were a few moments when she seemed to be wincing as she sang, but her sore throat didn’t seem to affect her vocals very much. Like Cantrell, Campbell has a vocal style that isn’t all that fancy or complicated. And neither of these singers is especially demonstrative. They don’t build up the drama in their songs by pushing or stretching their voices. But there’s something so appealing about the straightforward simplicity of the way they sing.
Although the venue doesn’t officially open until Wednesday, I got a look inside last night, May 16, when Thalia Hall invited some folks to a concert by two local bands, Bare Mutants and Disappears. My first impression: This is a real beauty of a room, with some lovely ornate architectural details and — at least for now — a few touches of decay that seem appropriate for a rock venue. (That peeling paint on the walls up in the balcony may eventually get spruced up, however.)
The sight lines are excellent, whether you’re standing on the main floor looking at the stage — which is fairly high, maybe 4 1/2 feet up from the floor — or if you’re watching from the balcony. The upstairs is cleverly designed, with short, stepped tiers that should make it possible for you to see over whoever is standing in front of you. The stage is pretty large — around the size of the stages at Metro and the Riviera, with lots of space behind the band. And the ceiling is quite high. The room looks like it could hold 1,000 people. There’s a cool bar area upstairs, in a separate room from the main balcony.
On Friday night, the sound of Bare Mutants and Disappears’ rock was pretty good wherever I was standing in the room, though the real test will come over time as musical acts with widely varying styles and dynamics play in the room. Real concerts will also test what sort of venue this turns out to be. What it’ll feel like when it’s filled with people for a sold-out show? How will crowds tend to move around in this space? And how will audience members behave — a factor that the venue owners only have so much influence on?
All of this is hard to predict at this point, but the signs are good that this is going to be an outstanding venue. The schedule so far includes a mix of the sorts of artists both the Empty Bottle and SPACE are knowing for booking: Panda Bear, a double bill of Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle, the Mavericks, Goat, Teb Benoit, Gillian Welch, Camera Obscura — and even an -odd-sounding show called “Green Porno” starring Isabella Rosselini.
I realize now that I failed to take any pictures yesterday of the building’s fabulous exterior, so here’s one from the Thalia Hall website:
And here are some photos I took at last night’s preview concert: