Sharp Darts: Microshows | Music Column | Chicago Reader

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Sharp Darts: Microshows

Epic concert experiences in tiny spaces from David Bazan and Condenada

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The flyer for the show I saw on April 4, with Puking Pearls, Condenada, and Modus Ponens, had an address in a part of Wicker Park that was expensive even when the neighborhood was barely gentrified, with a "#2" at the end. I was pretty sure I was on my way to the sort of loft where I wouldn't be able to afford the rent if I wanted to. So it was a pleasant surprise to arrive at a plain-looking brick two-flat with a couple of punk rockers hanging out in front, suffering through a chilly smoke break. Apartment punk shows are always a treat, and that's even more true now that they're getting so rare in the city.

At the top of the stairs a volunteer asked me for a three-dollar donation for a homeless women's shelter, then let me into a two-bedroom apartment that had been temporarily cleared of most of its furniture and converted into an art gallery. The artists being shown were all women, and the crowd, which topped out at around 50 people, was nearly half female. And probably half the women there were in one of the bands.

Modus Ponens opened with a passable set of dancey, bluesy rock that reminded me of the Gossip, but I spent most of it watching the place fill up—people were dressed in everything from stylized street-punk gear to vintage evening wear—and texting my friends to tell them that they might still be able to make it to what looked like it was gonna be an epic show. I looked up from my phone to see that the Latina wearing the best denim vest in the joint—tricked out with studs on the shoulders and a Poison Idea back patch—was the front woman of Condenada, who promptly tore into the first in what would be a series of pummeling, frenetic hardcore rippers.

There's a pernicious but still frustratingly widespread notion that woman-made punk is by necessity an amateurish endeavor that should be evaluated more generously than the stuff guys make—the musical equivalent of the ladies' tees on a golf course. Condenada are a powerful argument against that prejudice. Their wickedly tight take on classic hardcore—folding in bits of shriekier 90s strains along with touches of thrash and crust punk—could stand up next to anything Fucked Up plays, and they're just as good at provoking stupid-fun slam dancing.

I managed to take a few photos where you can actually make out what's going on, but even in those there's always at least one blurry figure caught in motion. By the end of the set the drummer had taken off her shirt, and the crowd demonstrated that she hadn't violated any scene protocols by basically not reacting at all. The room had turned into a smelly sauna, and the windows were dripping with condensation. Puking Pearls got upstaged a little even before they went on—which is saying a lot, since they ended up inspiring the first all-female mosh pit I'd ever seen.

The last time I saw David Bazan he was playing the first of two sold-out shows at the Metro with his old band, Pedro the Lion, so when I went to see him on April 5 it was strange to be looking not for a marquee and a line of fans on the sidewalk but for a building whose distinguishing characteristic is a sign advertising a fireplace showroom.

Bazan has a respectable audience among indie kids, thanks to his talent for pairing sumptuously melodic guitar rock with emotionally devastating lyrics, but he's a full-on star in the Christian-rock world—until recently those devastating lyrics have been deeply infused with Christian themes, though in such an abstract way that you might not notice. He's popular enough on that scene to have earned high billings at major religious-music festivals, like Cornerstone in downstate Illinois.

In 2005, though, Bazan announced that he'd lost his faith, and in light of that it'd be easy to assume that he'd gone from the Metro to an out-of-the-way studio in a disused northwest-side industrial corridor because his Christian audience had deserted him. But that'd be selling Bazan's religious fans short—in stark contrast to the ugly, reactionary public face of evangelical Christianity, they're by and large compassionate and forgiving, like Christians are supposed to be. One of Bazan's Cornerstone dates was in 2006 2005—after he'd come out as an atheist.

Bazan decided that his current tour, a monthlong string of shows in houses and small unconventional spaces, should be modest, to make direct personal contact with his audiences easier. He and his manager arranged it themselves, promoting and selling tickets strictly online. His Chicago show sold out—meaning about 40 people came—with tickets priced at $20.

Bazan's forthcoming Curse Your Branches (Barsuk) will be his first proper full-length as a solo act; it's also the first where he sings mainly as himself, instead of as different characters. I haven't heard it in album form yet, but judging from the songs he played at the show, it's a wrenching breakup album in the tradition of Blood on the Tracks and Here, My Dear, a heartbreaking, bitter indictment of a relationship gone wrong. But he's not dumping a lover—he's dumping God.

Bazan sang in the strong, weary voice he's been growing into for his whole career, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar—no microphones, no amplification, as naked as a performance can get. It was quiet enough that you could hear the beeps of digital cameras over the music before people got too embarrassed to shoot. Bazan did his usual question-and-answer sessions after every other song or so, and his fans' struggle to get past safe musical matters and ask the tough spiritual questions that were clearly on many of their minds redoubled the tension in the room.

During the show Bazan alluded to the presence of tasteful, evocative electronic embellishments on the album, which could add another emotional layer to his drop-dead beautiful folk-inspired ballads. It might end up being one of the most powerful records that comes out this year. But after seeing Bazan play it that night, I almost don't want to hear it on disc—part of me wants to let the live version stand undisturbed in my head.v

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