It may seem odd. But two of the best non-festival concerts this author has ever attended took place in a theater, and upon a stage, that was designed more so for plays and not music. The first was a Sleepy Sun show in the dead of winter a few years ago, at the Chopin Theater, which sat only a couple hundred people and was half full on that particular show. They played on top of a stage structures which was made for the play currently in the theater and could not be moved, which was wondrously trippy. The second was on a chilly night in late February at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk‘s 2nd stage (which is smaller) for Andy Shauf, The Wild Family, and Wake Owl.
In both instances the audience was in actual padded seats, that were tiered “stadium seating” style, so that you had a perfect view no matter where you decided to sit. In both instances the bands played on an elevated stage, separate from the actual floor of the stage, giving their space an elevated feeling of importance. And lastly, the only lights in the room once the show began were those directed at the stage, with none above the audience (as you would normally find in a bar or a venue with bars in it). Not only does this focus all of the attendees attention strictly upon the band, but it – interestingly so – makes it so the band can not see the audience directly in front of them, which seems to leads them into being mentally isolated which creates a faux sense of privacy, which adds positively to the resulting music. There was also the wonderful fact that at the Old Town School of Folk the walls are draped with sound-deadening cloth which made for stellar acoustics, and the sound system was absolutely world class. This was a show that would have delighted even the most serious of audiophiles among us. While it was clear on this night that these circumstances weirded out the musicians slightly at first, as it’s truly a-typical, one hopes that by the end of the night they realized how it only helped to mesmerize and impress their audience.
Andy Shauf’s “You’re Out Wasting”
Andy Shauf was the first act of the night. Andy is from Regina, Canada, and has released 4 albums. His latest, The Bearer Of Bad News, was quietly one of the better albums of 2012. It was his first in 4 years, and amazingly was recorded entirely in his basement. And while on that album he is often accompanied with percussion, horns, and other lite additives, on this night it was just him and his electric guitar.
In short, Andy put on a truly special show, the best this author has ever attended in which the performer utilized only his voice and a single guitar, with no effects. Andy’s music could quickly be described as Paul Simon meets Elliot Smith, with a dash more of Smith than Simon. The songs often have a serene feeling to them, with reflective – yet not usually jovial – and compelling lyrics and melodies. He sometimes is telling a story, sometimes speaking to someone, and often to himself. The vocals/lyrics are not “music dressing”, they are the seminal instrument he uses to reach the listener.
The sound of his guitar was also astounding on this night, it was an electric but one could hear the picking like an acoustic, giving it quite the emotive potential. There is also the fact that Andy is a drummer, and in fact is the drummer for Wake Owl. This means he has a highly above average ability to stay on beat, and to give songs that consist of unhurried singing and strumming a palpable structure. Halfway through his first song the entire audience was pin-drop quiet, all eyes & ears were fastened upon this opening act that most did not walk into the room knowing. [Scroll to the bottom of the page to play a little clip of him on this night so that you can understand these descriptions better] He immediately earned respect. There was something about this simple voice & guitar interplay, in a room with perfect acoustics, while being able to sit down on a padded chair, that was just heavenly for the audience. And while the spectator’s silence seemed to be odd for Andy in-between songs, as he clearly was trying to ascertain if the audience was enjoying his performance, one hopes he understood that it was a compliment of the highest degree and that everyone was charmed. His song “Hometown Hero”, “Jesus, She’s a Good Girl”, and “Wendell Walker” were particular touching and enjoyable songs from his set.
The Wild Family came on next. They are a new indie/folk/rock band from Chicago who is on their first tour. They didn’t at all come off as a new and young band, but were quite cohesive and “in the pocket”. With a bassist/banjo player, guitar/kick drum player, and another guitar player they created a sound seemingly much bigger than a 3 person group (apparently they also have an upright bassist who wasn’t with them for this show). They have a quasi Mumford & Sons thing going on, but actually came across as even more dynamic than them, in the respect that they were able to move into moments of indie-rock and hard-rock with ease. They are a fun band that displayed a lot of talent on this night and were very well received by the audience. Their tracks “Grows Apart” and “White Shirt” were particularly enjoyable and got the crowd’s attention, especially the energetic ending to “White Shirt”.
Wake Owl’s “Gold”
Wake Owl, the headliners, were the third and final act of the evening. They are are a four piece band from Vancouver who just came onto the scene in 2012 with the release of their debut EP Wild Country. They have been garnering a lot of attention among indie critics and fans and are certainly a band that you will hear more about within the indie realm in the coming year(s). They are comprised of a group of fun loving, talented, and kind musicians. They were constantly interacting with the audience, including asking people to come sit down in front of them for a couple songs, which many in the audience promptly did, creating for an uncommonly amiable atmosphere.
Wake Owl has a very accessible sound, partly due to their intelligible and cordial vocals/lyrics, as well as the fact that their songs each take a different approach and hit a different point on the folk/rock spectrum. They kept things interesting while still having a identifiable sound in each tune – an observation that was definitely more palpably true in this live show than on their album. The highlight was their song “Gold”, which is their first single of sorts as well. Apparently, as told by the band, one fellow in the audience drove down from the Milwaukee show, from the night before, because they didn’t play this song. While you can debate the intelligence of that decision, it was clear that this is a song worth loving.
To be honest, I was eager for this show as I am for most, but it turned out to sincerely be one of the best “venue shows” I’ve attended in a long time. It can honestly be said that I won’t forget this one. And while Andy Shauf’s set might stand out the most in the mind’s eye in the future due to it’s distinctiveness, it was a great combinations of bands, in a top-notch & unique venue that had a synergy with the type of music on this evening. Whoever planned this event did their job extremely well. So, the lessons here, check out a show of any 3 of these acts if you have the chance, you shan’t regret it. And – if you see a theater that normally has plays (or more classical music) but is putting on a concert, you should surely give it a shot, because it turns out it makes for quite the concert experience. Who knew…
Written by Sean Brna
OurVinyl | Editor
Note from the author: Below is a video I took from my camera, which is of good-but-not-great quality (especially the audio). It’s a bit of Andy’s song “Hometown Hero”. I wanted to share it just to give the reader an idea of how he looked and sounded on stage. Notice the respectful silence of the 100+ people in the crowd. Also notice the wonderful sound of his guitar and his picking/strumming style and the wonderful clarity and sincerity inherent in his voice. The lights weren’t that bright on his face as the video makes it seem, and I am sorry it’s not of the whole song, I just didn’t want to be “that guy”, you know?