Monday, September 7, 2009

'NITES in Chicago: The Calm Blue Sea

Calm Blue Sea in ChicagoYou can take the blogger out of Austin, but you can't take Austin out of the blogger.

I've been in Chicago all weekend, a month late for Lollapalooza but right on time for a fun Labor Day weekend with my lovely and beautiful girlfriend. She lives in Chicago, so I try to visit when time and money permit. We spent Saturday evening at a University of Kansas-themed bar watching Jayhawks football. She graduated from KU, so it wasn't some random decision. I drank a pint of a wheat ale called 312 (that's the area code of that part of Chicago). Honestly, I prefer central Texas' small breweries.

After the game, I needed my fix of live music. And because of my extensive MySpace-checking habit, I knew that one of my new favorite local bands, The Calm Blue Sea, was in town. This post-rock quintet blew me away during Free Week back in January. Their set on the Mohawk outdoor stage was easily my favorite performance of that epic festival of free local music.

I don't know if post-rock bands even like the label post-rock, but basically it refers to bands that use rock instruments to create music that has nontraditional structures and tones for rock music. Usually, these bands don't have vocals, and they often play longform ambient songs that build slowly and swell into large, loud crescendos. The Canadian band Godspeed You! Black Emperor was known for this style. In Austin, Explosions In The Sky helped put the style on the Texas map. I prefer The Calm Blue Sea to their sonic predecessors in Explosions, but really it's just preference. They're not better, necessarily. I just like their style better.

Onto the show: After leaving the bar around 9p, we hopped on the Brown Line of the L (the L is what they call the subway in Chicago, short for elevated because most of the tracks are elevated above the streets). The venue, Miska's, was a small and dimly lit bar populated with about a dozen patrons sipping PBR from short cans (not the tallboys to which we're accustomed in Austin). There was a solitary pool table and a rusty barber's chair. Miska's is in the outskirts of a hipster neighborhood called Roscoe Village. You know it's hipster central when the mannequin in the nearby vintage store window has an ironic mustache. Miska's probably holds the same amount of people as Beauty Bar's indoor area. The sound was average for a dive.

My girlfriend brought her Canon Rebel camera with her to take pictures of the band, something we alternated duties on during the show. Before the band started, I approached the lead guitarist, Chris, to say hi. He greeted me with a big smile as he was excited to see an Austinite in the middle of this national tour. I told Chris why I was in Chicago (so he wouldn't think I'm some stalker fan who follows the band out of state). He waved to my girl, and shared some helpful words.

"I know how hard long distance relationships are," he said. At first, I thought he was giving me the token response that most people give when I mention it. But Chris was talking from experience. "See this," he said, wiggling his left ring finger. There was a wedding band on it. "I had a long-distance relationship for two years with the girl who is now my wife. You can make it work if you're both happy together."

I sat down, completely content and warmed by his words. My girl got her camera out and started snapping photos of the band. The first thing I noticed is that The Calm Blue Sea was playing in an altered lineup. There were four players, not five as I was used to. The keyboards were gone, and they had a different rhythm guitarist. Even in a minimalistic lineup, the band still impressed the bar patrons with their quiet-loud dynamics and grand crescendos. Me and my girl switched camera duties. You can see more of our photos from the show on my Flickr stream here.

I'm interested to see where the band will go from here. This is a pretty long tour, which includes stops in Canada. On Saturday, their sound wasn't as full, understandably, as when I saw them for the first time eight months ago. Still, The Calm Blue Sea is the kind of band I'd like to see on a festival stage at night. Their sound is perfectly suited for something like that: large, romantic, and cathartic. I hope they keep working hard and keep things going. Bands, like relationships, can be difficult to keep alive. But the ones that work and bring joy to the parties involved deserve to be fought for, regardless of the sacrifices that we may be asked to make and the obstacles we may be asked to overcome.

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