Mucca Pazza / Baby Teeth / Chandeliers @ The Mansion

June 19th, 2008

First, the venue: this show was held in the Stan Mansion, a 1920s greystone in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood that was formerly a Masonic Temple. Not quite Bruce Wayne’s house, but awfully close. On a tree-lined boulevard and surrounded by greenery, it’s the last place you’d expect a concert at (in fact, some people standing right in front of it asked me for directions there). Since the end of music at the Fireside Bowl, Chicago has been short on unique spaces like this for music, so it’s a welcome addition to the landscape (I haven’t yet had a chance to see a performance at South Union Arts, held in an old church with a giant neon cross, but that sounds pretty cool too). Of course, not being a dedicated music venue, there were a couple shortcomings. The “bar” was in a separate room from the music, they ran out of beer early on, and that led to a long line for a limited choice of drinks. The performance space had the temperature, humidity, and odor of an armpit, and stage lighting was minimal. However, the sound was surprisingly good for the cavernous, boxy room. I don’t think they’ve had many shows there (they’re run by the Empty Bottle people), so I’m sure some things will get smoothed out once they have more experience; I’ll have a chance to check it out again soon, since I see Shearwater there on Tuesday.

And, the music: Chandeliers was a drummer and four(!) guys playing keyboards/synthesizers. So pretty electronic sounding, though I think I did see an analog synth or two in there. Nothing too great. Baby Teeth was enjoyable; drums, bass, and a frontman playing keyboards. Good, simple, groovin’ pop songs, including lots of vocal harmonies from the drummer. The singer had an interesting keyboard setup: he almost always played with both hands, but the left hand was on a full keyboard, while the right played a smaller sequencer thing, often creating two quite different sounds. And sometimes I think he might have been manipulating the sound of one through the other, particularly when he’d do bendy, guitar-solo-type stuff.

I’ve wanted to see the spectacle created by the headliners, Mucca Pazza, for more than a year, but this was my first time. Instrumentally, they’re a 20- to 30-piece marching band, but aesthetically, they’re gypsy punk freaks. The lineup is about one-third brass, one-third percussion, and one-third miscellany (guitars, clarinets, accordion, violin, melodica, cheerleaders, etc.) Their mismatched, rag-tag marching band uniforms and their complete lack of marching are strong clues that the music coming out of their instruments isn’t going to sound like a traditional marching band. Instead, it often has a strong Balkan vibe to it, which means that this little-known Chicago band is (independently?) doing something surprisingly similar to little-known bands Alamaailman Vasarat and Estradasphere. It’s been a while since Estradasphere has done their whole ‘circus’, including their Death Metal Cheerleaders, and the guys in Mucca Pazza can’t match the mind-blowing instrumentalists in E-sphere, but they’re clearly drawing from similar influences. Especially since Mucca Pazza even had some “spy”-sounding numbers as well. They come even closer to the wall-of-sound style of Alamaailman Vasarat; although MP doesn’t have the bass-and-distorted-guitar of AV to provide the weight to their sound, they more than make up for it by sheer numbers.

Mucca Pazza made great use of the space; since only a few instruments required amplification, they frequently infiltrated the crowd, used the balcony at the rear, and one guy even made it up to play his horn out of the little decorative cutout high above the stage. With a band so large, I wondered if it would be difficult for individual members to keep the energy up, since very few of them are ever in the spotlight. But when your band is as large as the audience might be at a lot of other shows, that means that the rest of your band CAN be your audience. And since most of them are surely former(?) band geeks, they clearly enjoyed performing for each other as much as they did for us. So it was a ton of fun for everyone. I don’t know if they ever get this conglomerate on the road (actually they’ll be at Rothbury, along with…Estradsphere!), but if they do, see ’em, because it’s not something that you’ll see every day. Actually, instead of touring, they should just franchise out the concept, since I bet it would be pretty easy to find 30 band geeks in most cities in the country who would want to be part of something like this.

Iron Maiden @ Allstate Arena

June 11th, 2008

I’ve been to 185 concerts in my life, and only three of them had been at arenas/amphitheaters with assigned seating. Even at general admission shows that have seating available, I simply can’t enjoy a band’s performance while I’m sitting down. The last assigned-seating concert I went to was Iron Maiden / Dio / Motorhead, nearly five years ago, and I never really expected to go to another. But then this Iron Maiden nostalgia-tour came around, and I was mildly interested in going, due to the setlist and theme. It was at the Allstate Arena, but when I found out that the floor area was general admission, I decided to give it a shot. I figured, “if I don’t enjoy THIS arena-sized concert, then I should be able to confidently swear off all arena shows for the rest of my life”.

I showed up at around 6:30 for the listed 7:00 show. Not being familiar with these arena shows, I didn’t really know how they schedule them, and wanted to make sure I wouldn’t end up standing way at the back of the floor. Less than a quarter of the floor was filled when I arrived, so I killed some time sitting in the upper deck for a while. Eventually I wandered down to the floor, after finding the place to trade in my ticket for a floor-access wristband. I walked up to a spot that was about the same distance from the stage as I recently watched Testament from at the far smaller Pearl Room. The opening band actually started around 7:30, which was about what I was expecting, though there was still plenty of room on the floor then.

So, Lauren Harris, Steve Harris’s daughter. She’s pretty easy on the eyes, which is about the only positive thing I can say. Her singing ranged from pedestrian to cringe-inducing, her band was straight from Spinal Tap, and her songs were pre-fab. She did this strange running around the stage that made it feel like she was always rushing to hit her marks, but maybe that was just because she had no shoes on. Best part of the set was when a big guy near the front got up on someone’s shoulders, and then lifted his shirt to show her his tits. That earned him a hearty round of applause. Oh, and the other good thing was that we got to see at least one Harris still wearing skin-tight pants in 2008.

So then around 8:30, it’s time for Iron Maiden. There were about 4 separate surges as the crowd packed into the front: once when Lauren finished, again when the lights went down for Maiden, again when the flying-on-the-Eddie-plane video started, and last when the fireworks went off and the band launched into ‘Aces High’. A bit more jostling after that, and I ended up about five rows from the front, where I spent most of the night. Despite the large mass of the general admission audience, it was only about half as intense up there as it was seeing Iced Earth (and presumably Testament) last month, at a much smaller place. My guess is that the combination of a somewhat older audience and the more casual music-love of fan at an arena show combined to help keep a lid on things.

So musically, it was pretty good. Even though I was only 8 when they did this concert the first time around, it really hit my nostalgia-bone perfectly. Especially since it also included ‘Somewhere In Time’/’Seventh Son’ songs as well; those and ‘Live After Death’ seem to be the ones that I remember hearing the most when my brother was cultivating his Iron Maiden obsession in the late-80s/early-90s. I think what I appreciated most was all the atmospheric bits that are included in many of those songs…I’d almost forgotten how important a part that was to even “classic” Maiden songs. Thus, ‘Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’ was easily the highlight for me, and the minute or so of music (and then fireworks) when The Mariner’s curse is finally lifted was probably a top-5 concert moment for me. Bruce sounded great, and the band performs just as well as they always did, which is amazing given their continually advancing age.

But it wasn’t all roses. I derive about 80% of my enjoyment at concerts from jammin’ to the grooves, and for some reason, I had a really hard time doing that at this show. My theory is that there was some massive echoing going on in the large space, so from where I stood, it was really hard to find the genuine beat and lock in on it. Perhaps if I would have moved back it would have sounded better, but then I would have lost the intensity from being right up front, so I stayed.

Maybe another reason I should have backed off is because there was this really annoying group of guys who were baked off their asses up front, constantly stumbling and crashing into everyone. One of the guys apparently annoyed someone else even more than he did me, so Mr. Super Annoyed began beating the crap out of him. Twice I broke up the fight (well, it wasn’t a fight, it was one guy whaling on someone who was essentially defenseless), and received a sharp punch to the wrist for my trouble. I don’t really like seeing people get the crap beaten out of them, even if they completely deserve it, but by the third round I said “fuck it”, and just let ’em go. In short order the offender had a mask of blood covering the left side of his face, streaming from a direct blow to his eye. That freaked the shit out of everyone, which made security notice, and drag him out of there. So, problem solved, but not really the method I would have chosen.

That sort of thing might not be solely due to the size and nature of the audience at an arena show, but I’m sure it’s a contributing factor. Add in the $15 parking, the long exit time, and a bunch of other little things, and it becomes something that’s not really worth it for me. Even things that I thought would be benefits, and are impossible at smaller venues, turned out to be non-factors: the massive spectacular stage show was fun and all, but it still seemed a lot less “huge” than my memories of watching the ‘Live After Death’ VHS 15 years ago. And the atmosphere created by ten thousand screaming fans went almost completely unnoticed; from where I was, with everyone unseen behind me, I could have been at the Metro and the show wouldn’t have felt much different.

In summary: good show, and I’m happy I went, but I’m also happy because now I know that I’ll probably never need to attend an arena show again. I won’t completely rule it out, but the only way I could imagine it happening is if Iron Maiden’s next album completely blew me away, and they were going to be playing most/all of it on their next tour. But I don’t really see that happening, and now having seen Iron Maiden 7 times, I won’t be sad if it’s my last. Especially since it probably was my favorite of the 7, and, they even closed with “Hallowed Be Thy Name”; and what better way to go out for a lifetime?

01. Intro – Churchill’s Speech
02. Aces High
03. 2 Minutes to Midnight
04. Revelations
05. The Trooper
06. Wasted Years
07. The Number of the Beast
08. Run to the Hills
09. Rime of the Ancient Mariner
10. Powerslave
11. Heaven Can Wait
12. Can I Play With Madness?
13. Fear of the Dark
14. Iron Maiden
15. Moonchild
16. The Clairvoyant
17. Hallowed Be Thy Name