When you hear of a music festival in Chicago, your first thought might be of a warm August day in Grant Park — not a cold, blustering winter evening with the frost-bitten audience crammed in a small venue. But, that’s the setting in which Ezra Furman (and his band the Boy-Friends) took the stage at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall in the middle of January.
Tomorrow Never Knows is an annual music festival that is hosted by the sister venues of Lincoln Hall and Schubas, but takes place all over the city, uniting independent venues and hosting both musical acts as well as comedians. Proving that Chicagoans will venture out of their cozy, comfortable apartments in the dead of winter, local boy Furman and his band of boys (and friends) didn’t let the crowd down.
The night kicked off promptly at 9pm with Dream Version. The local indie pop band dabbles in punk, surf, rock, dance, and combines all of that with the unique voice of frontman Alec Jensen to create a sound similar to Nude Beach. The polite, Midwestern crowd stayed true to their typical “opening band I’m unfamiliar with but am enjoying anyway” fashion and politely bobbed their heads with the music — all up until the last song of their set, “Romance.” Finally, everyone seemed to loosen the zippers on their jacket, and decided to settle in and stay awhile.
Confidence is the best way to describe the second band to the stage. Weaves proved they weren’t around to gather their polite head bobs and move along, and demanded the attention of the yet-to-be-warmed audience, by utilizing the intimidation factor and referencing weather. Lead vocalist Jasmyn Burke let the audience know very early on that Weaves is from Toronto, and how lovely it was to be in the “warm and beautiful weather” of Chicago. Burke, as talented as she repeatedly proved that evening, can’t completely overshadow the rest of the characters that comprise the rest of the soul-rock band. Zach Bines (bass) had some stellar hair and rocked out to every song, Morgan Waters (guitar) would put his money where his mouth is — or, his guitar where his mouth is, rather — and Spencer Cole (drums) looked to be having the time of his life every time he stole the attention to the back of the stage. At the end of their set, Burke abandoned the stage to join the audience on the floor, and eventually, brought the entire crowd to their knees. Literally.
Finally, Ezra Furman and the Boy-Friends took the stage. But not without some dramatics — a haunting organ, and Furman peeking around the curtain is what kicked the set off. And, looking back, it really shouldn’t have started any other way, anyway. Furman, known for identifying as gender-fluid, was sporting a floral dress for the band’s set, and brought the topic of feeling helpless, being pissed-off, overcoming obstacles, and giving standards set by society the middle finger between sets.
You might be more comfortable with bands who will give a little bit of insight on the song, say something nice about where they are, and carry on with the tunes. But Furman took advantage of every time he would need to take a couple minutes to tune his guitar and go into a short monologue about society and non-conformation, and sticking up for yourself. One of the song-monologue highlights of the evening was that surrounding a song off his latest EP release (Big Fugitive Life, Bella Union Records 2016) “Little Piece of Trash.” “It’s okay to feel despair and helplessness for a minute… or one-fifty,” Furman declared before the band broke into the aggressive cords that start the short song. With lyrics including,
I’m going down town
Where nobody wants to know your name
Where everybody is trash
And the cigarette ash
Blowing from a burned-out cigarette flame
I’ll mix it with the yuk and I’ll mingle with the grime
the song is an ode to how we might view our self-worth, and what we think others probably think of us. “We can’t afford despair,” Furman started to say after the song about self-worth concluded. “The game has changed. It’s not political. There’s no preaching to the choir — because they’re not listening. They’re out protesting. And now, a song for for people more vulnerable tonight…” and cue the breakout of “The Day of the Dog.”
Watch: “Little Piece of Trash” (live) – Ezra Furman
Creating a nice mix of recreating the studio sound onstage on popular songs such as “My Zero” and “Ordinary Life,” and changing up a couple of favorites like “Teddy, I’m Ready” and his letter to congress, “Lousy Connection,” Furman kept the crowd engaged and enjoying the evening, whether they knew any of the words to the songs or not. It’s easier to get behind something when you not only agree with the message behind the music, but after a soliloquy of how thankful we should be “That water falls from the sky to feed the earth and we don’t even have to do anything about it!”
Although Furman & The Boy-Friends didn’t play popular songs “Restless Year,” “Wobbly,” or “Haunted Head,” it didn’t feel like we were missing out on much after the last note of punk-rock was played, the band graciously thanked the crowd, and the Chicagoans re-bundled to head back out into the even more blustery, cold night. But somehow, even though the temperature was lower, walking back to the elevated train felt a little warmer than it did when I was walking out of my apartment. Maybe it’s just due to the fact that it’s been awhile since there was an inspiring show to go to. Or maybe it’s because Ezra Furman, his band, and the opening combo of Dream Version/Weaves just really know how to put on a stellar performance.
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