Superchunk Jumps Back to Life


Until Sunday’s show at the Taste of Randolph Street, it had been a long time since I’d seen Superchunk. I’d seen the band only once before — on Nov. 8, 1991, when the still-young group from Chapel Hill, N.C., opened for the Mekons at Cabaret Metro in Chicago. Don’t ask me for details about that show. I remember barely anything about that performance by Superchunk other than the fact that I liked it. Ah, if only I had been blogging then — maybe I would have jotted down at least a few thoughts about it.

In the 19 years since that show, Superchunk built a loyal if small following of fans with its fuzz-drenched guitar and bright pop melodies. Lead singer and guitarist Mac McCaughan also formed the band Portastatic — and he started a record label that would become one of the most successful in the indie-rock world, Merge. Superchunk has apparently been on hiatus at times, but the group’s back, with a new album, Majesty Shredding, scheduled to come out in September.

On Sunday (June 20), Superchunk came to play in Chicago for the first time in some years, headlining at the Taste of Randolph Street Festival. The band played with the spirit and energy of musicians half their age. McCaughan was especially exuberant, bouncing up and down almost all night long. Mac likes to jump as he plays guitar, and he never seemed to tire from the gymnastics. Bassist Laura Ballance shook her hair and bounced a fair amount, too, and everyone — including drummer Jon Wurster and guitarist Jim Wilbur — was smiling.

It was the sort of music that made you feel like smiling and/or jumping. In addition to a few songs from the new record such as “Learned to Surf,” Superchunk played most of the “hits” that longtime fans probably wanted to hear: “Slack Motherfucker,” “Hyper Enough,” “Hello Hawk,” “Skip Steps One and Three, ” Art Class,” “Like a Fool,” “Low Branches,” “Iron On,” “Water Wings,” “Driveway to Driveway” and “The First Part.” (If anyone has a complete set list, feel free to post it in comments.) It all sounded quite glorious.
See a video of Superchunk working on the new album.
See a video of Superchunk in concert at the 2009 Merge 20th anniversary celebration.

Also on Sunday at Taste of Randolph, I saw a similarly buoyant performance by another band on the Merge label, The Love Language. Can’t wait to hear their new album, which comes out in July. … And Chicago’s Califone played as well — without nearly as much jumping. Of course, that’s not what Califone is all about, and the band delivered a strong set of the gritty, atmospheric folk rock that it’s known for.

See my photos of Superchunk, the Love Language and Califone at the Taste of Randolph Street.

Califone goes to the movies

The Chicago band Califone’s music has always been cinematic, with lots of atmospheric touches, so it was not all that surprising to learn that Califone leader Tim Rutili was making a movie. On Saturday and Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Rutili’s film, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, screened while the band played along to the soundtrack. Or something like that. You see, Califone has a new album, which is also called All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, but it’s not really a soundtrack. It includes some music that appears in the film, but it also has other songs.

And when Califone played in front of the movie screen this weekend at the MCA, the band was also appearing in the film up on the screen. The film is about a haunted house in Indiana, and the members of Califone play a ghostly house band. The way the film was shown, you could hear some music from from the film, while Califone supplemented that soundtrack with even more music — rattling, jangling percussion and droning guitar, keyboards, violin and banjo. Rutili sang a bit, when the film left space for a couple of actual songs, but most of the time, it was more like Califone was adding emotional accents to the film as it unfolded. The music and images meshed together artfully.

Rutili’s film was pretty impressive in its own right. This is the sort of independent film that probably wouldn’t make it much further than the film-festival circuit, short on plot, heavy on mood, but it’s imaginative and well crafted, with decent acting. Like Califone’s music, the film is spooky and a little rough around the edges. Seeing it with a live supplemental score was a memorable experience.

After the movie and an intermission, Califone came back and played about 40 minutes of music without visual accompaniment, including several of the songs from the new album that don’t actually appear in the film. The band ambled through these songs, taking a couple of long pauses due to a broken string… which led to some humorous stage banter. Rutili remarked that it was an unprofessional set, which Califone can get away in its hometown but perhaps not in other cities. Maybe so, but it made the performance seem all the more intimate.

(Photo from All My Friends Are Funeral Singers by John Adams.)