And Then There Were Two
Since Seth Cohen and Michael Lenzi embarked on their latest project, the Fire Show (under the short-lived name X-Vessel, at Lounge Ax in January 2000), they've released three records, garnered some of the most hyperbolic press of any Chicago band, and toured the U.S. twice. You might imagine that bass players and drummers would be lining up for a chance to be part of that, but surprisingly the duo has been unable to keep a rhythm section for more than a year. Original drummer Eric Roth and bassist Brian Lubinsky had left the group by the time the Perishable label released the superb The Fire Show that fall, and a year later their replacements were already out the door: drummer Bob Bihlman quit in November 2001, and bassist John Klos was starting his own band, Mansion (recently renamed Boas), whose debut comes out in September. Cohen and Lenzi took out ads and posted notices on their Web site, asking for temps to help them play shows after the release of the new Saint the Fire Show (also on Perishable), but to no avail: when the band kicks off its upcoming tour at the Hideout on Friday, July 5, it'll be as a duo.
The month-and-a-half-long trip will be the band's last. In late August, Cohen and his fiancee, Jules Kim, plan to move to London, where he'll study critical theory at the London Consortium and she'll be doing postdoctoral work at the Institute of Psychiatry. Cohen and Lenzi knew Saint would be the band's swan song when they began working on it in February, so instead of trying to recruit permanent band members they took advantage of the flux, using Klos on bass but rotating in five drummers: Roth, Califone associates Ben Massarella, Brian Deck, and Joe Adamik, and ex-We Ragazzi drummer Alianna Kalaba. "It was a really weird process," says Cohen. "We had kernels of ideas for songs, but we didn't want to work it out completely without a drummer." He and Lenzi would meet with the drummer assigned to a given song and jam on those ideas with tape rolling. "We'd just kind of play it out without thinking about an arrangement of where it would go next." Listening back later, they'd sort out the most interesting parts, stringing them together into loose arrangements to give back to the drummer. Generally the songs were recorded two or three weeks later.
The Fire Show's debut used dub effects to electrify a dynamic collection of hooky sound-and-rhythm exercises--titanic grooves punctured sparingly but meaningfully by bursts of angular guitar and coruscating electronics. Now the guitars add color as well as bite, and the rhythmic patterns are wonderfully convoluted, hinting that the songs might implode at any given moment, though they never do. Mournful strings briefly limn Lenzi's harrowing yelp on "The Godforsaken Angels of Epistemology," and the contrapuntal trombone lines laid down by guest Jeb Bishop on a desperate, amorphous cover of "You Are My Sunshine" is all that prevents it from disintegrating completely. The CD also includes about ten minutes of video footage documenting the writing and rehearsal process as well as a bit of live performance.
As recently as May, Cohen and Lenzi were rehearsing with Klos and drummer Danni Iosello (formerly of Sin Ropas) to translate the songs for the stage, but both had backed out by the end of that month. Rather than cancel the tour the duo decided they'd just do everything themselves, once again taking advantage of a bad situation to try something interesting. Lenzi--who was the drummer in Number One Cup--and Cohen will start each song by laying out a rhythmic framework on drums and bass, sample and loop it, and then move over to their guitars and synthesizers. "The technical aspect of it is kind of daunting," admits Cohen.
Record-release parties for Cohen and Lenzi's previous band, indie vets Number One Cup, were big productions--twice they recruited and organized dozens of local bands to each cover a song from the feted album. The Fire Show's Hideout gig, a release party for Saint the Fire Show, is in the same tradition: starting at 10 PM, Cohen and Lenzi, with help from Roth and Klos, will improvise 20 different one-minute tunes for audiences of one, randomly selected from the crowd and squired away to a separate room. As a memento, each of these people will get a Polaroid of him- or herself watching the performance and a CD-R of the unique tune. Afterward Cohen and Lenzi will perform a full set.
The Fire Show return to the Hideout on August 16 for one last Chicago show; their final gig ever will take place the next night in Minneapolis.
Back With a Vengeance
Nashville songwriter Jim Lauderdale was here in March to support last year's solid but underwhelming hodgepodge The Other Sessions (Dualtone), but now he's got two new albums out, and one of them ranks as his best work since the mid-90s. Advance reports touted The Hummingbirds as an all-acoustic outing, but it doesn't depart much from the pedal-steel-saturated modern-country sound he's worked with his whole career. His knack for strong, unpredictable melodies is undiminished, and he seems to have shaken off whatever was eliciting the sentimental treacle that sullied his last few projects. On the other new release, Lost in the Lonesome Pines, Lauderdale pairs up with bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley for their second collaboration. While Lauderdale is certainly competent enough at writing in the old-timey style, the real treat is getting to hear Stanley attack a new repertoire.
Lauderdale performs Thursday, July 4, at FitzGerald's American Music Festival, and on Saturday, July 6, he'll headline a "mostly music" edition of Milly's Orchid Show, the periodic vaudevillian revue hosted by performance artist and filmmaker Brigid Murphy. For the occasion she's moved it from its usual digs at the Park West to Dewey Cannon Park in Three Oaks, Michigan (about an hour and a half from Chicago). Among the other performers are Robbie Fulks, Kelly Kessler & the Wichita Shut-Ins, Jane Baxter Miller, and Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel, plus a marching band, a percussion troupe, and a raft of tap and square dancers. A kiddie parade kicks things off; fireworks follow. Gates open at 6 PM eastern standard time; for ticket info and directions visit www.vickerstheatre.com or call 616-756-3544.
Photographer, musician, folklorist, and filmmaker John Cohen--one of the prime movers behind the 60s folk revival--will speak on Thursday, July 11, at 5:30 PM in conjunction with There Is No Eye, an exhibit of his photos that goes up July 6 at the Chicago Cultural Center. At 7:30 PM Cohen, who still plays banjo in the New Lost City Ramblers, will perform with the local old-timey group the Volo Bogtrotters at Gallery 37 Center for the Arts' Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph. For more info call 312-744-6630.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.