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Review Fri Nov 06 2015

The Features Earn Their Name At Subterranean

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The Features knew why the crowd at Subterranean last night was there, and it wasn't to hear them talk. Some bands add substantially to their live performance with quirky asides or preachy messages between songs, but those moments need to be perfect to justify their existence. Maybe The Features don't think they could say anything interesting enough to justify breaking up the flow of their set. So aside from the occasional "thank you," they spent their hour-plus blazing through almost twenty fun songs, letting the crowd's energy provide all the auxiliary aspects of the show--and the crowd was bursting with energy.

The first opener to set the stage for the headliners was local outfit Low Swans, who packed a dense sonic wallop but were somewhat neutered by the inconsistent vocals of Jon Scarpelli. At his best moments, he sounded like a good Thom Yorke impersonator; at worst, he howled like a pained dog and often struggled to hold his pitch. Such inconsistencies aren't so surprising when one considers that Low Swans record as an electronic duo and Scarpelli has the benefit of studio production. Discounting the vocals, though, Low Swans presented an interesting sound centered on synthesized beats, electro-violin leads and, most significantly, Scott Simon's outstanding vibraphone work. It's fairly unusual to see a vibraphone used outside of a jazz/classical context, but the instrument added a subtle pearly sheen to Low Swans' music. The violin melodies, though, would have been more effective on an acoustic violin--the cold tones Peter Graef coaxed from his bow clashed with the warmth of the vibraphone. That said, when Graef hopped on the electro-Theremin for the band's finale, he created a warbling intensity that pulled his bandmates up a level and drew significant (and well-earned) cheers.

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I was rather surprised to see The Evening Attraction's Miles Mailn descend Subterranean's spiral staircase alone with an acoustic guitar--"acoustic set" is probably the last idea that comes to mind when I think of Subterranean--but he told the sympathetic crowd that his bandmates had been unable to show up and he would be playing the songs "as he wrote them." Dressed in a wide-brimmed hat and denim jacket, Mailn looked the part of lonesome folk singer and sang it even better. His voice, plaintive and earnest and slightly jazzy over the course of his mostly doleful set, had an incredible combination of power and clarity in the higher registers. Some of that was showcased in the attention-grabbing scatting breaks that may have been replacements for guitar leads in the The Evening Attraction's recorded material. Though the audience was understandably chattier given Subterranean's utter lack of being a coffeehouse, Mailn definitely turned a few heads when he strapped on his harmonica for "The Kids Don't Care," and the desperation of songs like "Making Me Ill" and "Lost Inside My Head" held the front of the room in a trance.

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Finally, The Features set up their equipment--no roadies for these veterans--and began playing without much warning; the crowd quickly realized what was happening and screamed accordingly. The first thing I noticed about the band was its fascinating live dynamic. Keyboardist and texture master Mark Bond remained seated and nearly emotionless the entire time, his focus completely on filling out The Features' sound. Even when he provided background vocals, he merely leaned into his microphone, opened his placid mouth for a second or two, then returned to his station. Meanwhile, drummer Rollum Haas provided steadiness without too much embellishment, as the songs themselves incorporated enough stylistic diversity to keep him plenty busy. Of particular note were his rim-shot-filled performances on "Big Mama Gonna Whip Us Good," which featured an awesome swing-time breakdown, and his shuffling boogie rhythm on "Don't Take After Me." It was left to guitarist and frontman Matt Pelham, who vaguely resembles a bearded Christopher Walken and sports a Caleb Followill-type voice, and bassist Roger Dabbs to bring the energy--and they did so, for the most part, without addressing the crowd.

For the most part, they didn't need to. This was an extremely friendly audience, comprised mostly of fans who knew every word and were not bashful about singing along. To be fair, the catchy wordless melodies that populate songs like the new wave-inspired dance anthem "This Disorder" and "Lions" were certainly composed to be sing-alongs. But even the less club-ready tracks elicited a strong response. The dark, neo-tango "Whatever Gets You By" got everyone clapping along, and the hard-rocking surf tune "Leave Me Alone Tonight" had them headbanging like punks. The most impressive aspect of The Features' set was their ability to guide the audience through multiple style shifts and dynamic changes and keep them fully engaged throughout--even when only one song, "The Message," was introduced by name. My one complaint about the performance is that occasional pauses permeated the room as the band huddled around the single setlist on Bond's keyboard to coordinate what was coming up next, but even that aspect lent itself to a refreshing naturalism that everyone in the room favored.

The Features earn their keep by featuring their music above all. In an age when many artists feel like they need to make the stage a soapbox, it was nice to see the idea of rock band returned to its roots.

 
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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.

Read this feature »

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Transmission is the music section of Gapers Block. It aims to highlight Chicago music in its many varied forms, as well as cover touring acts performing in the city. More...
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