Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Rockefeller Chapel

Last summer, I took a ride all the way to Bloomington, Indiana, and back just to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor perform in a fairly small rock club, the Bluebird. This month, the Montreal rock orchestra finally got around to playing in Chicago, with shows on Feb. 13 at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel and Feb. 14 at Thalia Hall. I was at the Rockefeller Chapel concert.

In some ways, the performance was similar to the remarkable one I’d witnessed last year. In their typical fashion, the musicians in GY!BE took the stage without saying a word as a single chord droned. Fragmentary films flashed on the screen. The band played epic and thunderous compositions — including a full run-through of its 2015 album Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. And then after a few more songs (each lasting around 15 minutes) the mysterious ensemble departed the stage.

But there was one significant difference between these two concerts: the setting. With its high ceiling and Gothic architecture, Rockefeller was a perfect setting for Godspeed You! Black Emperor, heightening the sense of drama. I sat about halfway back in the chapel. That was too far away to get a good look at the band, but it didn’t really matter — it was a great vantage point for taking in the majesty of the space and the music.

(Pardon my grainy little pictures from this concert — I was using my iPhone from a long distance.)

SET LIST: Hope Drone / Gathering Storm / Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’ / Lambs’ Breath / Asunder, Sweet / Piss Crowns Are Trebled / Moya / The Sad Mafioso

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Godspeed You! Black Emperor at the Bluebird


The great, mysterious and powerful Canadian band Godspeed You! Black Emperor is not stopping in Chicago on its current tour. This is why I decided to make the trek on Monday night, Sept. 21, all the way down to Bloomington, Ind., where GY!BE was playing at the Bluebird Nightclub. I got a ride from my friend Sei Jin Lee, and we arrived just in time. What an odd thing it is to ride for hours through Indiana, only to walk into a nightclub on a college campus as a band starts playing — not just any band, but one that is making an apocalyptic roar. Was anything else happening anywhere in Indiana — or the whole Midwest — to rival the epic, majestic noise pouring forth from the stage in that inauspicious-looking bar at that moment?

Godspeed You! Black Emperor recently released its second album since coming back from hiatus, and it’s yet another epic by this Montreal ensemble: Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. That new album made up the core of the band’s set on Monday night, and like much of this band’s music, it seemed more like a symphony than just a series of rock songs. The violin melodies are one reason why GY!BE’s music feels orchestral, but it goes beyond that. All of the instruments, including electric guitars, combine to make mountains and valleys of sounds, carefully mapped out in these compositions. The pounding, crashing chords evoked the drama of a battle or a disaster, but melodies soar out of the darkness, sounding like a triumph of the human spirit.

No one in the band said a word. As always, its music had an eerie visual companion —  flashing black-and-white collages created on the spot by Karl Lemieux, who ran strips of old movies through several projectors. The pictures looked like damaged newsreel scraps, postcards and manuscripts — decaying fragments of our world.

Set list: Hope Drone /Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’ / Lambs’ Breath/ Asunder, Sweet / Piss Crowns Are Trebled / (unknown) / Gathering Storm / (unknown) / Mladic

Sei Jin Lee posted four videos of the concert on YouTube.

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Best concerts of 2011

These are my favorite musical performances that I saw in 2011, with quotes from my original blog posts.

1. ALABAMA SHAKES (Dec. 15 at Hideout). “Wow, did Alabama Shakes live up to the hype. This was the most joyous, energetic and lively musical performance I’ve seen in 2011, and a Hideout crowded with enthusiastic fans was the perfect place to see and hear Alabama Shakes. … The crowd was shouting for more at the end — even if it meant playing some of the same songs over again.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

2. CHARLES BRADLEY (Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements festival Sept. 17). “Some of his soul shouts gave me chills. … His feelings clearly came out of real experience as he belted the chorus, ‘Why is it so hard to make it in America?’ As the curtain closed on the stage, Bradley jumped down and hugged everyone he could.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

3. THEE OH SEES (Nov. 23 at Empty Bottle). “Somehow, Thee Oh Sees manage to make everything sound like it’s turned up and sped up a notch beyond expectations. … The fantastic, charged music of Thee Oh Sees … sent the crowd into a writhing frenzy.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

4. WILD FLAG (Oct. 9 at Empty Bottle). This was the second time I’d seen Wild Flag perform in 2011, following a July 23 set during Wicker Park Fest. That was a great set, but the four members of Wild Flag were really on fire on the second night of their fall return to Chicago, lifting their songs to another level as they jammed out with joyous abandon.

5. GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR (March 26-27 at Metro). “The eight musicians … said barely a word to the audience over the course of the last two nights, concentrating intently on their dark, brooding and apocalyptic music. … The visual accompaniment added to the sense that these ‘songs’ (if that’s even the right word) tell stories, despite the lack of lyrics. And no singing was necessary to convey emotion, either. It was music capable of raising goosebumps.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

6. ELVIS COSTELLO & THE IMPOSTERS (May 15 at Chicago Theatre). “It was truly a ‘show,’ not just a typical concert. Reviving a gimmick he featured in a 1980s tour, Costello gave audience members a chance to come up on stage and spin the big wheel, which had about 40 songs or ‘jackpot’ slots on it … Costello put on a top hat and grabbed a cane … (and) guided Sunday’s audience through a diverse set of songs…” (Original blog post.)

7. MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND WITH THE CHICAGO YOUTH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (Aug. 8 at Millennium Park). “How beautiful it was to hear the concert begin with the opening notes of ‘Dragonfly’ from My Brightest Diamond’s 2006 debut album, Bring Me the Workhorse — those swooping, sweeping violins. The concert was filled with terrific moments like that…” (Original blog post and more photos.)

8. SKULL DEFEKTS (March 31 at Hideout). “With his gray beard, (Daniel) Higgs resembled an Old Testament character or a crew member of an old whaling vessel as he commanded the stage Thursday with his unrestrained vocals. The rest of Skull Defekts — two drummers and two guitarists — never let up with their jagged punk-garage riffs.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

9. WILCO (Dec. 13 at Riviera). “This is one exceptional group of musicians, seemingly capable of playing anything. … It felt like the band could play until morning…” (Original blog post.)

10. RICHARD THOMPSON (Sept. 12 at Evanston Space). “As always, Thompson made his guitar sing, often sounding like an entire band — or two or three guitars, anyway. … The dark, quiet songs were especially haunting…” (Original blog post.)

Honorable mentions:
Bill Callahan (Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements Sept. 16)
The Flaming Lips (July 7 at Aragon)
Le Butcherettes (Nov. 4 at Subterranean)
Neil Young and Bert Hansch (May 6 at the Chicago Theatre)
M. Ward (Dec. 4 at Schubas)
NRBQ (Aug. 27 at FitzGerald’s)
Drive-By Truckers (Feb. 26 at Vic)
Gillian Welch (July 22 at the Vic)
Tune-Yards (Pitchfork Music Festival July 15 at Union Park)
Mavis Staples (Hideout Block Party Sept. 24 at Hideout)
Screaming Females (Tomorrow Never Knows festival Jan. 14 at Lincoln Hall)
Soul Train 40th anniversary concert with the Chi-Lites, the Emotions, the Impressions, Jerry “The Iceman” Butler (Sept. 5 at Millennium Park)

Godspeed You! Black Emperor returns

Few rock bands have ever crafted and performed instrumental music with the same power and majesty as the Montreal ensemble Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Nine years after releasing its most recent album and several years since its last tour, GY!BE is playing concerts once again, including three sold-out shows in Chicago — Saturday (March 26) and Sunday (March 27) at Metro, and one more, tonight at the Vic.

The term “orchestral rock” usually refers to bands sweetening their pop sound with the lush sounds of a string section; that’s not what GY!BE does, but if any rock band deserves to be called an orchestra, this one does. When the group reaches the dramatic climax of one of its compositions, it sounds like a cross behind a noisy rock band playing at full-on, feedback-drenched intensity (think Sonic Youth) crossed with dozens of violinists, cellists and trumpeters performing a classical score (think Mahler). Actually, there were just eight musicians onstage Saturday and Sunday at Metro making those thunderous chords. As rock bands go, that’s a big lineup, but GY!BE often sounds bigger than that number would suggest.

The eight musicians — three guitarists, two percussionists, one violinist and two bassists (one electric and one upright) — said barely a word to the audience over the course of the last two nights, concentrating intently on their dark, brooding and apocalyptic music. There weren’t many moments of obvious virtuosity. These players are more interested in blending its instrumental voices together than showing off as individuals.

As they played in near darkness, four film projectors sent flickers onto the screen behind them — visual poetry that matched the music, with images of garbage dumps, birds in flight, medieval churches and fire — including the disturbing image of motion pictures melting in the projector. (It seems appropriate that Wikipedia lists film projector Karl Lemieux as a member of GY!BE, bringing the total lineup to nine.)

The visual accompaniment added to the sense that these “songs” (if that’s even the right word) tell stories, despite the lack of lyrics. And no singing was necessary to convey emotion, either. It was music capable of raising goosebumps.

A recording of Saturday’s concert is posted on archive.org. GY!BE set lists can be difficult to decipher, given all of the band’s multiple-part compositions and its alternate names for songs, but this appears to be what the group played Saturday: Hope Drone / Storm (Lift Yr. Skinny Fists, Like Antennas to Heaven/Gathering Storm/Il Pleut à Mourir + Clatters Like Worry) / Monheim (Murray Ostril: “…They Don’t Sleep Anymore on the Beach…”/Monheim) / Albanian / Dead Metheny… / Floyd (Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls) / Gorecki (Moya) / Blaise Bailey Finnegan III

Sunday’s concert featured some of the same pieces, as well as three other songs: 12-18-99 (a variation or alternate name for 09-15-00?) / World Police and Friendly Fire / The Sad Mafioso.