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Review Sat Sep 26 2015

Noah Gundersen At Thalia: Doubting Faith Was Never So Fun

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Last night was Noah Gundersen's fourth time playing in Chicago, by his own count. And though his performances at North Park and SPACE and Lincoln Hall surely must have felt special at the time, Thalia Hall felt like a tailor-made home for his music. The cavernous main floor reflected the hollowness of Christianity in his eyes, and the artfully preserved decaying aesthetic that radiates from the room's flaky-looking walls seemed like a metaphor for the decaying faith that forms the backbone of most of Gundersen's music. But it's those very traits that make Thalia beautiful--perhaps the most beautiful venue in the city--and Gundersen's eighteen-song set matched its setting in anguished beauty.

IMG_5999.JPGOpening for Gundersen was label mate Ivan and Alyosha, fittingly named for two of Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov on an evening rife with existentialism. The band prepared the audience for Gundersen's downer music by running through a set of energetic, engaging, Tom Petty-esque roots rock. It's a crowded genre, but Ivan and Alyosha managed to avoid the pitfalls that lead music to become generic mostly through a vivid stage show that had them traipsing about in ecstasy. At one point, bassist Pete Wilson and guitarist Tim Kim nearly knocked over singer Tim Wilson (Pete's brother) with a double butt-bump, but the vocalist stayed on his feet. Wilson's singing had the psychology of country twang, as if he would have loved to eschew his Seattle origins, but his lack of an accent placed him firmly within the alt-country spectrum alongside bands like The Lone Bellow and The Wild Feathers. And like those other bands, Ivan and Alyosha's strength lies in their vocal harmonies, which often featured four parts and were on point the entire time.

One of the highlights of the band's set was "Tears in Your Eyes," a ballad that belonged in the climactic prom slow dancing scene of a teen drama. Yes, it was melodramatic, and I was disappointed when a stereotypical key change didn't happen at the end, but nonetheless the song worked wonders as a metaphorical handkerchief to dry the crying eyes of the soul. "Be Your Boy," the final song of the set, also stood out as a thesis statement of Ivan and Alyosha's entire performance: riveting guitar solos from Kim and Ryan Carbary, glimmering harmonies, drummer Cole Mauro somehow fitting a tambourine, maraca, and drumstick into a single hand, and a vivacity that Seattle-based bands haven't exhibited since Nirvana was kicking over its amps.

IMG_6002.JPGAll the lightheartedness and unbridled joy that Ivan and Alyosha had brought to Thalia Hall was immediately snuffed out by Noah Gundersen. His performance, in a single word, was dark--from the Hitchcock-style lighting that left him and his band shrouded in shadow to the growling, distorted guitar chords that sprawled out across the canvas of many of his songs. And of course the Schopenhauerian angst Gundersen derives from his movement away from his Christian upbringing doesn't make for happy songs. He was neatly self-aware of this fact; during his quiet performance of "Silver Bracelet," a man in the crowd audibly yelled "Shut up" to his chatty neighbors, causing a ripple of chuckles. Upon finishing the song, Gundersen announced, "You're quite adept at policing yourselves...I'm trying to make you feel sad, for f***'s sake," a statement that ironically drew even more laughter.

This easy and sincere wit, which Gundersen flashed on numerous occasions, was among the best aspects of his performance. He introduced "Topless Dancer" as a song about "Christian guilt and nocturnal ejaculation," adding that "it's crazy how they can take the best thing and make it the worst thing." Before "I Need A Woman," he instructed the audience to put their arms around their loved ones or "do whatever you do to show affection." The overall effect of Gundersen's banter was to make the thousand or so people crammed onto the floor of Thalia feel like they were one of twenty people watching Gundersen at a coffeehouse, and the atmosphere was accordingly silent and reverent. Perhaps because of this, Gundersen was at his most powerful during the segments of the show that featured only him and an acoustic guitar--the performance of "Selfish Art" that began the encore had everyone completely spellbound, as his Springsteen-come-Sheeran voice glided to surprising heights of his register.

IMG_6009.JPGDespite his willingness to poke fun at himself and the audience, every ounce of Gundersen's performance, both musically and lyrically, dripped with earnestness and solemnity. The moping synths on "Ledges" created a sense of fallenness that complemented the song's themes of fallenness, and guitarist Armen Jay's tone on "Halo: Disappear/Reappear" reminisced upon the mournful soundscapes of Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond." The single most poignant moment occurred when Gundersen sang "Empty from the Start," his bald statement of profound doubt in God's existence. But nothing could top the intensity of "Heartbreaker," the final song before the encore. Gundersen sank to his knees as he pounded out guitar chords that swallowed him in a fit of distortion, almost as if he were praying to whatever central tenet has replaced God in his value system.

Amazingly, the audience remained overwhelmingly immersed in the music throughout, even though to do so was to set aside all of their preexisting notions and accept the nothingness of the universe. That's the real magic of Noah Gundersen--his pristine songwriting reaches out in the darkness to guide his listeners through the nihilistic void, and the music becomes their entire world for the time being. And with Thalia Hall providing the perfect backdrop, his message of standing firm and majestic amidst crumbling pillars of faith rang out all the more meaningful.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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