Thee Oh Sees, the Blind Shake and Make-Overs at the Empty Bottle

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The prolific California band Thee Oh Sees released yet another fine album this year, Mutilator Defeated at Last, keeping up its run of catchy psychedelic-tinged garage rock records. Frontman John Dwyer completely changed the lineup of the band playing behind him a year ago, and the lineup had changed yet again by the time Thee Oh Sees came to Chicago for two sold-out shows this week at the Empty Bottle. The band’s current configuration has two drummers and a bassist backing up Dwyer, with the four of them arrayed across the front of the stage, Dwyer standing stage right instead of in the center, with a stack of amps behind him. As he usually does, Dwyer held his guitar high on his torso, with his eyes frequently shrouded in darkness; he stuck out his tongue and spat onto the stage many times. He sang nearly every note in reverb-drenched falsetto, and cranked out a series of searing guitar riffs. The two-drum lineup gave the music a driving intensity, especially on the last few songs, when the percussion seemed to take on more multilayered complexity. After playing more than 90 minutes — a fairly long set for Thee Oh Sees — Dwyer and his bandmates called it a night without an encore. It was a strong night from beginning to end, with noisy, energetic sets by two opening bands, the Blind Shake and Make-Overs.

Thee Oh Sees

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The Blind Shake

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Make-Overs

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Thee Oh Sees at the Empty Bottle

Late last year, it was reported that Thee Oh Sees — a fantastic and very prolific rock band — was taking a “hiatus.” It didn’t turn out to be much of a hiatus, or anything that most musicians would even call a break. Thee Oh Sees leader John Dwyer moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles and promptly released yet another great record, Drop. And he came to Chicago for shows this week at the Empty Bottle on Tuesday and Wednesday. I was at Tuesday’s concert.

But this wasn’t the same Thee Oh Sees. Other than Dwyer, the entire lineup of the group has changed. It’s now just a trio of guitar, bass and drums. Dwyer was as intense as ever, ripping through one piercing guitar riff and solo after another as he sang his catchy melodies in a floating falsetto, adding a trippy, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd vibe to his rampaging garage rock tunes. The new rhythm section was tight and hard-hitting. I did miss some elements of the old Thee Oh Sees lineup, especially Brigid Dawson’s keyboard and vocals — she used to blend her voice with Dwyer’s on practically every word of every song, a compelling and sometimes spooky part of the group’s performances. That’s gone now, but Dwyer and his new bandmates are one hell of a live act.

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Opening act Running
Opening act Running
Opening act Jack Name
Opening act Jack Name

Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees

Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees played a couple of shows last Friday (Sept. 28) at Logan Square Auditorium, along with Chicago’s Bare Mutants as the opening act. And a raucous, good time it was (despite the typically muddy sound for this venue) … making up for the Pitchfork Music Festival’s cruel decision earlier this summer to schedule Segall and Thee Oh Sees on different stages at the same time.

My photos and video:

Bare Mutants
Bare Mutants

Thee Oh Sees
Thee Oh Sees

Thee Oh Sees
Thee Oh Sees

Thee Oh Sees
Thee Oh Sees

Thee Oh Sees
Thee Oh Sees

Thee Oh Sees
Thee Oh Sees

Ty Segall
Ty Segall

Ty Segall
Ty Segall

Ty Segall
Ty Segall

Ty Segall
Ty Segall

Ty Segall
Ty Segall

Also, check out the video of Ty Segall’s wild appearance on WGN-TV’s morning news show on Monday (Oct. 1), which prompted one startler viewer to comment on WGN’s Facebook page: “what in the heck was wrong with that ‘band’ u had on … where the bone head just kept screaming Chicago?????”

Best concerts of 2011

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

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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)

Thee Oh Sees at the Empty Bottle

California’s Thee Oh Sees are one of the best live rock bands at this moment. After delivering strong performances last year at Lincoln Hall and this summer at the Illinois Centennial Monument, Thee Oh Sees were back in Chicago for a couple of shows at the Empty Bottle on Wednesday night (Nov. 23) — and the late show may be the strongest set I’ve seen by them yet.

The prolific band just realized its second album of 2011, Carrion Crawler/The Dream, which was originally conceived as two EPs. Like the group’s live shows, the record is bursting with energy, sounding more intense than the last Thee Oh Sees record, Castlemania. But as well as this great new recording captures the live passion of the band, it’s still no match for seeing Thee Oh Sees on a stage. Somehow, Thee Oh Sees manage to make everything sound like it’s turned up and sped up a notch beyond expectations.

Leader John Dwyer and guitarist Petey Dammit both hold their guitars up high; Dwyer keeps his instrument unusually close to his face as he sings in spooky harmony with keyboardist Brigid Dawson. Practically every line of every song featured Dwyer and Dawson intertwining their voices, giving the’60s-garage-rock flavored tunes a somewhat ethereal mood, even as the two drummers, Mike Shoun and Lars Finberg, unrelentingly pushed the beat forward.

The opening sets by Paul Cary and Total Control were good, but it was the fantastic, charged music of Thee Oh Sees that sent the crowd into a writhing frenzy.








Thee Oh Sees at Logan Square

As I said last month, the Illinois Centennial Monument in Logan Square is a pretty cool place to see a concert. The Empty Bottle’s series of free concerts at this lovely little picnic spot continued Sunday (July 24) with the great psychedelic garage rock band, Thee Oh Sees. Like last year’s show at Lincoln Hall, this one featured one catchy riff after another as well as some longer jams — and this time, the band had two drummers. The band played right in front of Logan Square’s tall monument with the eagle on top, and fans climbed into every available space around Thee Oh Sees, dancing and singing along.
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The well-chosen opening act was Chicago band Football, which includes members of various other local bands such as the Ponys, Baseball Furies, Hot Machines, Tight Phantomz, France Has the Bomb and A/V Murder. The guys were all wearing white Indian-style outfits (apparently purchased on Devon Avenue, if I heard right), and they sang indecipherable but head-bopping songs for 20 or 30 minutes, stomping and leaping with glee.
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Thee Oh Sees at Lincoln Hall


Thee Oh Sees stomped through a strong set of garage-rock songs Wednesday (Sept. 15) at Lincoln Hall. By the end, it was clear that Thee Oh Sees are one of the best bands today that channel the sounds of the 1960s Nuggets era into their own original tunes. The San Francisco band’s main singer-songwriter, John Dwyer, sometimes held his guitar up high, right next to his face. Other times, he crouched down low. There was something rooster-like about his posture, which he might have learned from watching clips of ’60s bands appearing on TV shows. Keyboardist and percussionist Brigid Dawson mostly sang harmony vocals, but her voice was a key ingredient in Thee Oh Sees’ bewitching sound.

As much as the band stayed within a certain sonic template — mostly keeping the guitars in fuzzy feedback territory — the music ranged from tight three-chord riffs to sprawling psychedelic jams. That same variety is apparent on the latest record by Thee Oh Sees, Warm Slime, which is either an album or an EP, depending on how you define these things. The record starts off with the title track, which runs for more than 13 minutes long — one of those songs that locks onto a cool groove and just won’t let go. It’s almost half the length of the entire record, which continues with six considerably shorter and more concise tunes. www.myspace.com/ohsees

The opening acts included Hot Machines, a Chicago trio with some familiar faces: Jered Gummere, whose other bands include the Ponys; Alex White, whose other bands include White Mystery; and Matt Williams, whose other bands include Lover! and Live Fast Die. (How do these folks have time to play in so many different bands?) Their cranked-up guitar rock was a good match with Thee Oh Sees. www.myspace.com/hotmachines

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PHOTOS OF HOT MACHINES