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Review Thu Jun 26 2014
This past week, Downtown Sound hosted Bob Mould, a founding member of the lauded rock bands Hüsker Dü and Sugar. Mould is in the midst of a tour supporting his great new solo release Beauty & Ruin. Each Monday, Downtown Sound hosts musical acts at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, and it's one of the more exciting, albeit surreal, venues for a rock concert in the city. The bands that take the stage at Downtown Sound shows are more likely to be found headlining the Metro or the Riviera Theatre, and it's a marvel to be surrounded by the Chicago skyline and a fading sun, picnicking with friends, as you listen to bands you're more used to hearing through club speakers and seeing through dim, moody lighting.
Besides Mould on vocals and guitar, Verbow alumnus Jason Narducy handled bass duties and Jon Wurster of Superchunk and the Mountain Goats was behind the kit; the résumés of the three men onstage includes some of the best and most seismic indie rock of the past three decades. In addition to playing bass for Mould, Narducy opened the evening with his band Split Single. Narducy, along with the rest of the players in his band, hails from Chicago, and there was a large contingent of friends and supporters cheering them on near the front. The atmosphere was tantamount to a great, tight-knit club show played on one of the city's grandest stages.
As Mould's set commenced, the razor-wire combination of bombast and precision from Narducy and Wurster enabled him to smother the field of the Pavilion with frantic stabs of distorted open chords on his Stratocaster, amplified through an imposing Marshall stack. Mould's guitar playing is intense but rarely abrasive, and he can effortlessly wow you with his pyrotechnics without ever sacrificing the song itself.
I discovered Mould's music a bit later than many, chancing across a performance of "The Descent", from 2012's Silver Age, on Letterman a few years ago. I simply could not take my eyes off the screen, and it was this charisma that roped the audience in at Monday's show. That he was so engrossing is all the more impressive considering that the typical crowd at Downtown Sound can be a bit sedate. It's not a critique of the audience, nor is it all that surprising; people come down to the lawn after work to enjoy some great bands and catch up with friends. It doesn't mirror the frenzy of a tiny rock club, nor could it. However, Mould managed to turn heads, regardless. I first noticed it when they played "The Descent" early in the set. It's a sonic starting gun of a tune and pummeled unsuspecting listeners into attentiveness. As I looked around the pavilion, I saw faces peering up from IPhones and friends putting conversations on hold, fixated by the energy onstage.
The setlist was a mix of Hüsker Dü, Sugar and solo tracks, with a slight emphasis on Beauty & Ruin. One particular highlight was "Hardly Getting Over It", a song from Hüsker Dü's Candy Apple Grey. It was one of the few moments in the show where the tempo and volume ebbed slightly, and in case some audience members had been thrown off by the fast pace of the other numbers, it was a potent reminder that Mould is, above all, a hell of a melody writer. Overall, the show was one of the heaviest that I've seen in the Downtown Sound series, and I'm thrilled they went with a performer more aggressive than the norm; though Mould formed Hüsker Dü thirty-five years ago, the gusto emanating from him and his band outstripped many younger bands I've seen. It's inspiring to know that there are performers like Mould who are forging a path into maturity with integrity, proving that's it's absolutely possible to maintain your vitality in punk over three decades into a career.