Saturday, January 25, 2014

Chris Mills & the Distant Stars; January 25, 2014; Kiki’s House of Righteous Music

Chris Mills played the House of Righteous Music several times in the first couple years I was doing house concerts, but he hadn’t been back since 2008.   The last time in town he wanted to play a club, so I got him a show at the High Noon.  There was a decent crowd for a Sunday night, but after splitting the door between three bands and paying the sound guy, no one made much money.  This time through I think he decided the house wasn’t such a bad idea, though he did joke about it the night before at Schubas.  Half his band had come from Norway, where he makes bi-yearly trips to teach Norwegian school children about American folk music.  Drummer Paal Hausken and guitarist Christer Knutsen seemed to be enjoying their tour through the Midwest, despite the fact that Chris seemed to think he wasn’t showing them the highlights.  A few days earlier they had encountered an idiot who suggested that Knutsen’s sweater said something about his manhood, and “tomorrow I’m taking them to a basement,” Mills laughed.  A sold out basement I added.  Jokes aside, I’m pretty sure they thoroughly enjoyed playing KHoRM.

I’d let a few more people make reservations than I had planned- I had a hard time saying no since I wanted everyone to see Chris- so I asked the band to set up in as small a space as possible.  And they did manage to fit a drum kit, keyboard and multiple guitars into a very small space.  Part of the crowd was thanks to one of my house concerts regulars who was celebrating a birthday, and he had brought a group of friends to continue the party that had started with dinner at his house.  His and another birthday in the room led to one of the best encore songs in the history of the basement, Knutsen and Hausken sang them Norway’s birthday song while Mills and bassist Ryan Hembrey looked on in amusement.

This was only the third night of the tour, and this version of the Distant Stars was adding a few more songs every night.  Knutsen was a fan before he ever met Mills, and knew most of his catalog, in addition to playing on and producing the new record, but Hausken was playing many of these songs for the first (or second or third) time.  Since I didn’t have an opener tonight I told Chris he would have to play longer than usual, he responded by saying Knutsen would play an opening set.  Brilliant, he played a genuinely gorgeous twenty minute set to start the show.  He hadn’t played many of these sweet, heartbroken songs in a long time, but you never would have guessed if he hadn’t told us.  They opened with “Wild Places” from the new record Alexandria.  It’s a slow builder that begins with Mills at the piano before the rest of the band joins in and the song swells to a close.  It’s an effective way to begin and quieted the crowd who didn’t immediately realize the show had begun.  The beginning of the show had some amusing rough spots, for example Knutsen blamed a bad solo on the fact that his boots were too big and he hit the wrong pedal.  At one point early on Mills introduced Hausken as “the only member of the band who hadn’t fucked up yet.”  And yes, he did warn us early on that there would be adult language.

When I saw Mills last year at SXSW the set consisted almost entirely of the unreleased songs from Alexandria and those from his previous record Living in the Aftermath, and that was what I expected from the show at Schuba’s and tonight’s set.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by a show that went way back in his catalog to pull out terrific songs like “Brand New Day,” “Crooked Vein,” “Watch Chain” and the emotionally dark, intense “Napkin in a Wineglass.”  The latter especially was a surprise, I hadn’t heard it live in years, but it turned out to be Knutsen’s favorite song.  Also back in the set were The Silver Line’s “Suicide Note,” the utterly infectious title track (which still may be the best song he’s ever written) and my personal favorite “Dry Eye.”  After running through many of the songs they had played the night before at Schubas, Mills announced they would be playing some songs they didn’t really know “because otherwise Kiki will be mad that we didn’t play long enough,” which was especially amusing given that I don’t think he thought we were convinced they knew the songs they’d already played.  After playing final song “Brand New Day,” the band all ducked down as the applause roared.  Then they slowly rose back up to play the encore, “there’s nowhere to go,” Mills explained.  Traditional set closer “Signal to Noise” followed.  The penultimate track was a cover of Big Star’s “Thank You” which went out to all the folks who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign to release Alexandria,

It was one of those nights where I couldn’t stop smiling.  Is it too early to declare my “show of the year”?  This one will be hard to top.  Thanks for coming back to the house Chris.

Christer Knutsen

Chris Mills & the Distant Stars

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