Sometimes this town seems to run on one mind. It’s like there’s a subconscious unanimity that makes every girl wear sun dresses, every guy wear tank tops, and the entire campus hang out on the quad all on the same day. Perhaps it was this same subconscious mind that packed more people into Cowboy Monkey than I’ve ever seen before, or maybe it was just the fact that Champaign-Urbana is actually located in the center of Elsinore’s palm. The kings of the CU music scene played last night at Cowboy Monkey to an 85ºF room completely packed with sweaty admirers. Joining them were Boycut, the brand new Electronic Dance duo made up by increasingly active Joe Meland and Emily Otnes, followed by Chicago’s The Kickback, whose raw, driven rock perfectly bridged the gap between Boycut and Elsinore.
A debut performance can be a pretty nerve-wracking experience, not just for the artists, but for the audience. Having kept up with the single releases Boycut has been putting out in the past few weeks, I really wondered how the two would pull off such complex and intricately produced tracks such as “Pulse”. The answer, I soon discovered, was a lot of reliance on backing tracks. Now, before I go any further, it’s important to note the limited time frame the pair had when preparing for their first live show. When it comes to music that is so precise and layered, a great deal of time and investment is required to pull it off live, and from what I understand, time was not on their side.
That said, the songs sounded great. Otnes’ remarkably powerful and versatile voice held its own against the pulsations of the backing tracks, while Meland’s tastefully added synth pads and hooks to the already densely orchestrated mix. A feature of Elsinore’s Ryan Groff on the group’s imaginative cover of “The Art of Pulling”, in addition to local hip hop artist T.R.U.T.H. were nice variations in the set. Despite the exceptional productions and spot-on vocal harmonies, the “liveness” of the performance was somewhat lost. The addition of a live drummer (with pads), would greatly add to the performance, plus a keyboard and vocoder for Otnes to produce harmonies live. While I think some aspects were lacking, the truth is these two have a ton of potential. There is undoubtedly an audience for their style of music in this town (remember how many people went and saw CHVRCHES?), and that’s a niche that hasn’t really been filled. They have the hooks, and they have the talent. I’m confident they can pull off a killer live show, and I’m very eager to hear it.
There’s nothing quite as inspiring as seeing a bunch of friends on a stage together, playing the living hell out of songs that clearly mean something to them. Dripping sweat, losing voices, and having the time of their lives, The Kickback played a set of incredibly honest rock music. Each song seemed to hold a deep personal connection, whether it was through stories of heartbreak and pain, or having all of their gear stolen from a brand new practice space in Chicago, they had something to say, and they meant every word of what they said.
While their honesty and emotion were enough to carry the show, their musicality and energy elevated the performance even further. I’m not sure there was a moment of stillness on stage. Even in between songs, frontman Billy Yost radiated confident energy that proved he loved what he was doing. Bassist Eamonn Donnelly’s wonderfully tasteful playing complemented the overdriven guitars of Yost and Johnny Ifergan. In addition, their clear comradery drove home the fact that these guys love what they’re doing. An announcement that their debut LP is on its way later this year left me anxious for more, and as I graduate and find my way up to Chicago, I’ll definitely be spending more time watching these guys.
It’s one thing to go to a show and let the bands know how much you love and appreciate their music. It’s another thing to for that love to be reciprocated just as strongly as it’s sent. The mutuality of an Elsinore show is the only reason anyone should need to be proud to live in Champaign-Urbana. After a few months of hibernation spent writing material for the follow-up to 2013’s hugely successful Push/Pull, the quartet completely captivated the audience with a healthy mix of crowd favorites and brand new songs. As usual, their instrumentals were incredibly tight, thanks to James Treichler’s metronomic time, Mark Woolwine’s wonderfully refined melodies, and Brad Threlkel’s grounding basslines. All the while Ryan Groff’s unbelievably beautiful voice soared above it all. Their frequently utilized quintet of horns (featuring Reggie Chapman, Alex Blomarz, Matt Muneses, Kevin Bourassa, and Aaron Romm) crowded the stage, giving even more warmth to their summery tunes.
Despite it being hotter than actual hell in there, the entire audience was happy to sing and dance along, building an atmosphere that resonated throughout the rest of the night. When I wasn’t singing along, I was smiling. When they finished, I already wanted more. Elsinore is awake from hibernation, and springtime in Champaign-Urbana has never felt more alive.