(Words and photos by Steve Kozel)
It was a fairly cold Friday night in University City, so I was little surprised at how hard it was to find a vacant parking space in the lot that sprawls behind the shops on the West end of the Loop. The packed lot turned out to be a good indication of the turnout at Cicero's, because the bar and restaurant area were bustling as I entered the club's back door.
Say Panther took the stage second, and featured fewer members than they had the last time I saw them (which, admittedly, has been too long). Pared down to a quartet, with former keyboard and trumpet player Robby Ritter manning the drums, the band's sound unfolded in more simple, straightforward ways.
Oddly enough, the change in personnel and presentation caused me to look at Say Panther in a slightly different light. Maybe it was the cool blue backlighting that lent a low-key, effortless feel to their set, I'm not sure, but I began to hear even their older songs in a different way. This band that I had always viewed as graduates of the Broken Social Scene school of music (a fairly prestigious school, if you ask me) was now bringing to mind a very different band -- one that I would have never compared them to before: Kings Of Leon.
Sure, the fact that three of the four members of the band share a last name (Bishop -- as in, James, Joe and Sam) conveniently parallels KOL's family affair of three brothers and a cousin. And then there's the easy comparison of the classic-rock four-piece make-up: two guitars, bass, and drums. But this new impression went beyond the most-obvious surface similarities -- I was picking up on an unexpected, but concretely similar sound.
Now, to be fair, I would never in a million years expect singer James Bishop to howl the words "Your sex is on fire," nor would I say that Say Panther is in any way channeling KOL's newer, slicker (and apparently sexier) image and sound. But there are those warm guitar lines that roll over and over, and that same sort of cooled-out, propulsive vibe that just begs for highway driving. And, of course, the Bishop boys have that fresh-faced, charmingly modest demeanor that I imagine the Followill boys still had when they were cutting 2005's Aha Shake Heartbreak - a demeanor still full of genuine, wide-eyed determination to earn their slice of the rock & roll dream.
All comparisons (fair/unfair, appreciated/unappreciated) aside, it became very apparent over the course of their set that this newest version of Say Panther (the latest in an evolution that began back in 2002) is more simple, more natural and ultimately, more freeing. A new record of what sounds to be their strongest songs to date is supposedly coming soon (James cheekily blamed the economy for its delay, but noted that a local car commercial predicts an economic revival, so...), hinting that Say Panther is poised to break out of the local scene that has kind of been a chrysalis for them.
Apparently one newly made-over band wasn't enough for the night. As Target Market took the stage, I noticed a couple extra -- and familiar -- faces suspiciously setting up their own gear: Norm Kunstel and Aaron Stovall from So Many Dynamos. Kunstel had his kit positioned against the wall, stage right, facing Target Market's Joseph Winters, whose kit was set up directly across the stage. Stovall's two-tiered synthesizer rig was positioned at the back of the stage, on what is normally used as a drum riser. Any out-loud observations of "Whoa, that's different" would certainly have warranted a reference to Sherlock Holmes or Captain Obvious: Clearly, Target Market was planning on spicing things up a bit.
The band launched into their set, and by the second song, "Highways", it was obvious that they had every intention of having fun with this rare arrangement. The comforted despair and lilting melody of singer Nathan Bernaix's words ("Highway signs will be our only source of light") were playfully foiled by Winters and Kunstel, who grinned gleefully as they volleyed the song's tumbling verse beat back and forth, creating a uniquely tangible stereo effect not often experienced in a live setting. Also bringing a new element to the fold were Stovall's muscular synth tones, which added increased thickness to the song's keyboard lines.
The SMD guest-star contributions were not limited to one song by any stretch - and as the band cruised through and impressively tight eleven-song set, more above-and-beyond moments popped up in each song. Stovall's stand-mounted woodblocks added percussive snap to "Lakes and Streams," and the Death Cab-esque chorus of "Slow Fade" benefitted from the added punch of his backing vocals. The half-time instrumental breaks of "Killer Cars" gained enormous weight as both drummers punished their kits, with Kunstel still managing to toss in some differing rhythmic accents for spatial effect.
The guest players didn't entirely steal the show, however, as Target Market's "core four" still shined in staple moments. Bernaix and guitarist Clay Parker's wiry dueling guitars served up swirling interludes on "Stereo Tonight," which degenerates momentarily into a noisy fall-apart meltdown -- at which point Kunstel teasingly chucked a drumstick across the stage at Winters (maybe he needed one?). "Space Tourist" rode along on a hypnotizing 7/4 beat (think BSS's "7/4 Shoreline"), with a verse melody evoking Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. When the song hit its midpoint, a breakdown sent snare hits shooting in every direction.
As the band's set closed with the serpentine guitar intro of "Words and Wires," lyrics seemed to betray the playfully investigational addition of two more musicians: "Words and wires, they are reminders. We'll shed our old skin for a new existence." I began to wonder how serious the band was about this new line up, and whether its permanence was feasible, or even desirable.
It reminded me of a teen movie cliché, where the guy character sees his cute, but platonic, "girl-that's-a-friend" at the school dance, and she's been all done-up by her hot older sister.
In that moment, his feelings for her start to change - they end up slow dancing, and it's magical. They close their eyes and lean in for a kiss, but the moment implodes when they have a simultaneous onset of weirdness. In the end, they both cherish the memory of that evening, but realize that it would never last -- that it would ruin the great friendship that they share, and that ultimately, that's not who she is, and that's not who he wants her to be.
Earlier in the night, opening act The Jovian Chorus
(fronted by the RFT's Shae Moseley) warmed up the crowd filing into the venue. Cicero's has a unique setup in that the
restaurant patrons who are mingling in the bar area can hear the music
spilling out of the venue's occasionally open door -- and, if they like
what they hear, they can shell out cash for the cover and head into the
show. On this night, haunting and shimmering lap-steel rang out over
the band's knotted verse guitars and epic refrains, creating a luminous
sound that spanned the songcraft gap between Jeremy Enigk and Paul