Chris Mills/The Faders/Magnolia Summer; June 24, 2011; The Hideout, Chicago
Bottle Rockets guitarist John Horton had been telling me about Magnolia Summer, the other band that he’s in, and how it was different from the Bottle Rockets. From what he said I wasn’t really sure whether or not I would like them since I believe he mentioned King Crimson in his description, which to me is synonymous with nerdy guitar rock. Whether that is true or not, I liked Magnolia Summer quite a bit, and much of the reason for that was Horton’s guitar work. In Magnolia Summer he stretches out a bit, taking long solos that he doesn’t get much of a chance to do with his main gig. The band isn’t breaking any new ground, but they do what they do very well. For lack of a better description, I would call it a St Louis sound, recalling bands like Son Volt with their instantly familiar melodies and lead singer Chris Grabau’s likeable voice.
They were the first band of a very solid line-up on a Friday night at the Hideout. Having played with Chris Mills the night before at Off Broadway, they went on the road to do it again tonight. Next up were the Faders, the new project from Head of Femur’s Matt Focht and Colby Stark. I would have expected they were on this bill thanks to Fader keyboardist Dave Max Crawford (who I teasingly called a ringer due to his impressive Chicago music pedigree) who has played with Mills frequently over the years both as a member of the City that Works, Chris’s “big” band that includes horns and a string section, and in smaller ensembles, but it was actually Faders bass player Dan Dietrich who was responsible. Dietrich owes what a friend of his called “the coolest studio ever,” Wall to Wall Studio where Chris recorded the Wall to Wall Sessions straight to two track in three days back in 2005. This was their second show, though you would never guess, they were tight and polished. It’s Focht’s distinctive voice that makes the band great, much as he was the driving force behind Femur. Stark’s backing vocals and sunny disposition add color.
Many of Chris’s Chicago gigs are one offs, scheduled around holidays and visits back home, but tonight’s show came toward the end of a full-fledged tour. He left New York the week before, heading west playing shows in support of Heavy Years 2000-2010. The retrospective collects tracks from his last three releases, in addition to a few new and unreleased songs, making it essential for completists like me. Inexplicably it omits the title track to his perfect record The Silver Line, despite the fact that in my opinion it is one of the ten best songs ever written (though surprisingly it’s not even my favorite song of his). This made for a more varied set list than I’d heard recently. Though Kiss It Goodbye’s “Signal to Noise” usually makes the set, often as a closer, many songs from his back catalog don’t get played live. He excused the rhythm section to play a short solo set which included the excellent request “Crooked Vein.” The Silver Line’s “Suicide Note” received a not entirely unexpected guest spot from Crawford who stepped to the stage with his trumpet just in time for his distinctive solo.
I was disappointed, as I always am, that Gerald Dowd was not going to be behind the kit, but at least this tour’s “not Gerald” drummer was Son Volt’s very worthy Dave Bryson. A week into the tour he seemed to have settled into the role, and was generally excellent, though some of the songs seemed faster than I’ve heard them before. (Admittedly that may not be his fault.) Long time bass player Ryan Hembrey was of course on board, but for the first time he was standing to the right of Chris instead of on his left. When you’ve seen Chris as many times as I have, that is more discombobulating than you would expect. It was a great set, and there were many times that I found myself blissfully happy to be there, unable to stop smiling. Which was a pretty great feeling, especially when you’ve seen Chris as often as I have.