Sunday, June 3, 2007

Illinois - The El Rey - Los Angeles - 5.31.07

Admittedly, I tend to get a bit wishy-washy when it comes to music and frequently find that I'm a convert – whether for the positive or negative – after seeing an artist live, despite any prior opinions of the artist's recordings. I've gotten completely sucked into performances by bands whose albums I felt bland; I've fallen in love with front men in mere instants; I've turned my back on an artist I liked after seeing his live show and getting annoyed by his stage presence. In short, there's a gamut of mindset changes to run, and I've been running it for a while. In the case of Illinois, I'd called their most recent effort “vanilla,” and after last Thursday's performance at the El Rey, nearly felt a slight tinge of regret.

Illinois were sandwiched between Blitzen Trapper and the Hold Steady on a sold-out evening, and though I've still not quite grown attached to the recorded pop songs that comprise their EP, their range of personality was, unexpectedly, what made them such a solid live act. It's really fascinating to examine a band in a live setting to pick up on individual personality traits and pinpoint who has what role; Illinois, for one, most notably features a handsome drummer who does not in fact make embarrassing facial expressions, a guitarist whose mouth gapes open while his eyes are closed and head far away, and a vocalist who does triple duty on guitar, banjo and keyboard whilst telling loopy anecdotes and leading cheers. The group offered so many interesting moments separate from the music itself, which, as it turned out, was actually quite decent and full live.

On stage, front man Chris Archibald was a ball of energy hiding in the body of a traditional all-American boy, and used a good portion of his efforts on hyping up headliner the Hold Steady. He spastically waved his arms about and shouted “Are you excited for the Hold Steady?” in a way that should have been followed by a hearty “wheeee!” Several songs later he forced himself to sit still and led our crowd through several rounds of “hip hip hooray,” three times for the Hold Steady, who were watching from a window above the stage, once for genitalia, and once for Archibald's genitalia, which found Archibald rather pleased. He made a casual dedication to an ex-girlfriend, at which point he claimed “she was a Christian” and “I'm kind of one,” a momentary pause separating the two statements. We laughed, but we'd also cheered for his genitalia.

A case of Budweiser sat next to drummer John-Paul Kuyper, who steadily rode the tom and bass drums in his modest-looking kit, while the eastern portion of the stage remained quiet save for the bass and third guitar that got played there. But perhaps the strangest and most noteworthy aspect of the night* should be credited to guitarist Andrew Lee, who, after an entire set of remaining in an invisible box and avoiding eye contact with any person or object, suddenly woke up and literally started pleading with the audience to collectively raise arms and clap along with the final song. His eyes were desperate and wide, his cries actually appeared to contain the word “please,” and at song's end he stood at the very edge of the stage with his guitar to offer a single, compensating moment of connection with the crowd. An unconventional ending to an unconventional set by a band that doesn't taste much like vanilla after all.

...and this is what a member of Blitzen Trapper looks like whilst eating a microphone.

*There were a couple of other incidents, aside from this and the cheers for genitalia. The first was a fight that almost broke out between two guys and a few kids behind them who'd apparently been dropping things on their heads and refused to step outside. The girl with the latter crowd looked scared. The second incident was a conversation between a guy and girl behind me.
From the guy's mouth:
“I've never had a nectarine! I imagine they're good – you know, NECTAR...”
“Most people don't like milk chocolate but I could eat milk chocolate all day.”
“I like the taste of pears but not the texture. Same thing with strawberries, I don't like the seeds.”
I don't know why the conversation about food was entertaining.

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