By Vernon Hester
Depending on how you look at it, much of the fun of going to live concerts is seeing an unfamiliar opener. I have to admit that I’ve seen a shocking number of headliners get their asses handed to them by some nobody (i.e. John Hiatt opening for Graham Parker in 1982, Prince opening for Rick James in 1980, and Weaves opening for Ezra Furman earlier this year) but the situation is actually a win-win for the audience. The downside is that with a fixed set time the opener often does not have the time or room to show fully what they are about.
A recent double bill at Schuba’s sought to correct that for me to some degree. For starters there was Glad Rags, which I had only seen at the now legendary New Year’s Eve blow out at shuttered DIY space Young Camelot two years ago. The headliner for this show was ESSO Afrojam Funkbeat who served as opener for Café Tacuba at this year’s A Taste of Chicago. ESSO was paired with Los Vicios de Papa for that set, and though that show was clearly the highpoint of the festival and that mash up was a revelation, both of them only hinted at their potential.
At Schubas on June 30, Glad Rags hit the stage after openers Dovonns and immediately vexed me. The at one time rock trio has now grown into a mini-orchestra while the music has evolved into a lo-fi, scrappy, hybrid of chamber pop. Ringleader vocalist/key man Glad Matt has the look of a rustic troubadour with his mis-matched ill fitting garments and a violent shriek of unruly blonde hair. But if his look was unique (he has a way with muted earth tones and textures which makes you want to touch him) his gentle croak during “You Think You Know Me” brought to mind an ear friendly less garbled Tom Waits. Then drummer Bean continued the shambling approach with “Social Kapitol” and I felt safe in assuming that Glad Rags with all those horn players, banjoists, and cello players onstage with them were focused on the Waits-Randy Newman school of scruffy charm. Then co-vocalist Maryann opened her mouth and blew that assumption to smithereens with her dramatic reading of “The World Is Waiting for You” which sounded like tin pan alley by way of 1940’s Broadway Theater. The band closed out their [too short] set with “Tick Tock” and “I Can’t Understand” leaving me completely confused.
With the departure of multi-instrumentalist Corey Anderson, Glad Rags has reformed and expanded to include a revolving cast of cello and saxophone players along with Glad Pat on banjo, bass, alto sax, and bongos. With all the differing flavors and styles the band comes off like a shapeless, articulate, happy mess which, I have to admit, is a fresh approach. Obviously continued helpings of Glad Rags is the way to go as they develop in this new form.
ESSO Afrojam Funkbeat on the other hand is all about the beat with layers of funk, Mexican, Spanish, jazz, soul and rock ladled on top with so much action going on onstage and in the audience that trying to label them is wholly unnecessary, futile and silly..
Band leader Armando Perez, looking unrecognizable from his Taste of Chicago gig [a lack of hair product, a stache and goatee, and a sharp red jacket made all the difference] started the set [and the dancing in the sold out space] with “I Want to be With You” which gave vocalist/percussionist Diana Mosquero the chance to set the mood. “IWTBWU,” is the kind of mid-tempo jam that whole generations seem to have forgotten how to make, with its emphasis on groove, a sinuous beat, and Mosquero’s smoky croon. It was the second song of the set, and the last sane moment of the night as the packed house went ape shit on Schubas tiny dance floor.
With the band headed out of town for a tour (this was their last Chicago gig until the fall) the show was all about Chicago Pride and community. Oddly, with so many people onstage (ESSO has nine members) everybody got their shining moment without breaking the group cohesion which made the show even more mesmerizing.
And then of course there was the music, with the rhythms (from bassist Ezra Lange), varied and odd percussive components (provided by Dan Lieber, Jess Anzaldna, and Puerko Pitzotl), torrents of horns (courtesy of Matt Davis and Kevin Miller), Perez’ ringing hard rock guitar squeals, and group and solo vocals aplenty (poet/rapper Logan Lu, Armando, Mosquero, Miller, and, and…well you get the picture) going at it at full blast. It didn’t hurt that the horn section jumped into the melee for a spontaneous cha-cha in the crowd or that the set list seemed designed to kill (“ESSO Strut,”, “Mariposa Negra,” “Mundo Vale”). With all the kinetic energy, welcoming vibe, booty shaking and joy onstage, ESSO Afrojam Funkbeat is hardly just a band but a happening.