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Review Tue Nov 17 2015
One of the most interesting facets of Crown Larks' show the last two times I saw them, when they were opening for touring acts at Schubas, was that the band matched the milieu of the evening. Playing before Buke + Gase and Landlady, they allowed complex rhythms to dictate an uneven but sensical flow; playing before Yonatan Gat, they morphed into some raw, primal, shouting beast. So when they headlined The Empty Bottle's Free Monday last night, I knew I'd be hearing a different Crown Larks depending on the tone that had been set by the three preceding bands. But by the time they took the stage, there was no overarching tone, because each band that played dragged the evening in a totally new direction. The only common thread was some measure of devotion to progressive rock.
Wishgift took the stage first and began another trend that would define the evening's music--they were players, not performers. Bassist John Paul Glover never even faced the audience as he fused with his instrument to create a bombastic foundation for the music. Singer/guitarist Davey Hart looked out upon the crowd with a sort of dazed gaze, listing off the long, unintelligible title of each song before letting the throttle loose and shouting out unintelligible lyrics (partially due to the bass-heavy mix, but the mania with which he shouted didn't help). But an appreciation of Wishgift's music, thankfully, wasn't reliant on understanding what Hart was saying. The band's musical prowess was evident from their near-constant rhythmic shifts, moving easily from speed punk-type sections to doom metal breakdowns and occasionally throwing in some whimsical, atonal themes that sounded like Schonberg on PCP. If I closed my eyes, I felt like I was an observer in a steampunk torture chamber.
Wei Zhongle took things in an entirely different direction, maintaining the night's experimental feel but channeling it through different instruments--namely John McCowen's clarinet, which thanks to a variety of effects sounded not much like a clarinet. McCowen and guitarist/singer Rob Jacobs excelled at creating myriad textures and tones, ranging from an oscillating tremolo to a synth-like drone. And when Jacobs would sing, his voice functioned as a third atmospheric instrument, his wicked falsetto mimicking keyboard leads when he wasn't producing actual words. The only reason they could conduct so much sonic exploration, though, was the outstanding bass work of Pat Kuehn, who made his fretless instrument blossom and interfaced seamlessly with drummer Phillip Sudderberg to bring a powerful funk groove to each song.
Tweak Bird, originally from Carbondale but now living in LA, shifted the evening's tone back toward the distorted chaos that had been established by Wishgift, but exhibited something much closer to a pop sensibility--at least, as much pop sensibility as was held by the founders of grunge (drummer Ashton Bird wore a Pearl Jam tank). The defining trait of their music was the dual vocals of Ashton and his brother Caleb, who played a baritone guitar that kept the music solidly in the chuggy lower registers. Singing in unison nearly the entire time, they created a manic chorus effect fraught equally with punk angst and trippy escapism. When they did split into harmonies, the music tended to uncoil from its typical tightly wound, distorted fracas, sprawling out into garage-Floydian soundscapes.
After such diverse sonic statements, I was interested in seeing how Crown Larks would play to the new context. As it turned out, the "new" was the context--they played almost exclusively unreleased material, songs they've recorded for their upcoming second album. When I spoke with the band a few weeks ago for a Transmission feature, frontman Jack Bouboushian told me to expect more structure from the new stuff, and he was absolutely right. For as much as Lorraine Bailey utilized her saxophone to craft flowing, improvisational melodies, the music was certainly not jazz. If anything, the increased chemistry between bassist Matt Puhr and drummer Bill Miller kept the songs more tightly locked into grooves, with less of the King Crimson-esque spinouts that populate their debut LP Blood Dancer. That said, Crown Larks' trademark visceral, jarring sounds remained intact, with Bouboushian droning and shouting as he colored the songs with unorthodox chords and Bailey going nuts on the keyboards and saxophone. The emotional peak of the performance came at the end, as it should, with an intense, jammed buildup to the panicky ecstasy of "Satrap," off Crown Larks' EP Catalytic Conversion.
The Empty Bottle puts on its Free Mondays as a paragon of everything people love about rock music: its rebelliousness, its willingness to get crazy, its ability to reach some animalistic part of the soul. In that regard, the four bands who performed last night fulfilled that mission, and showcased the plethora of ways to make it happen.