Friday, April 30, 2010

Chicago Jam Scene: Sexfist 4.20.10

Sexfist switching venues after such a long & successful run at Red Line Tap is something I had to cover. Going out on weeknights is difficult but the gravitational pull of my new favorite bluegrass band was too much to resist. So I snagged a cab and buzzed down to Wicker Park for a few hours of awesome music. When I arrived at Jerry's, I found Chuck Oakton sitting outside, enjoying the crisp night air. We spoke for a minute about Springfest then he told me that we needed go inside to see the opening band, The Ben Miller Band. He didn't tell me much about them, but it didn't take long to realize that he wasn't kidding.

I was planning to only drink 2 beers so that getting up at 7am wouldn't be so brutal the next day. However, I was stoked to find that Jerry's had root beer on tap, perfect for a show on a Tuesday. But even if you don't have to go to school at the butt crack of dawn, Jerry's has you covered. They have an extensive beer selection and a wild menu of sandwiches to nosh on. Not only is the consumable fare kicked up, but the entire atmosphere & ambiance of Jerry's is a world apart from Red Line Tap. It is a very classy joint with a clean & sophisticated crowd. I definitely love small bars with tons of character (as evidenced by my previous Sexfist review), but Jerry's is a notch up the ladder of venues and will really suit Sexfist's classic & refined style.

The Ben Miller Band hit the stage and I was immediately excited to see that there was a washboard in the band. This instrument is a rare one to see and is only one of this band's unique characteristics. Not only does Doug Dicharry play the washboard, but he also played a trombone, a mandolin, a drumkit, and the electric spoons. He pretty much had the entire musical galaxy on stage and played like a wizard on all of them. Dicharry played the most instruments, but not the weirdest one. Scott Leeper took that title by playing a single-stringed washtub bass. This might be the most simply-constructed instrument I've ever seen at a real show, but the way Leeper played this thing was like it was an artisan-crafted double bass. And to top off this eclectic musical emsemble was Ben Miller, who only played the simple acoustic guitar/harmonica combo... while he had one foot on a drum pedal and the other with a tambourine attached to it! It goes without saying that this is one of the most unique acts I've covered thus far for CJS.

The music was every bit as wild as the collection of instruments would lead you to believe. Leeper was unbelievable on the washtub bass and could produce a deepening shift in pitch that felt like an uppercut to the belly. He would bend his sounds just by moving the handle/neck back and forth a few centimeters, giving tremendous life to his deep, thumping basslines. His plopping bass notes had an amazing rollercoaster quality to them that was incredible to experience.

Dicharry attacked the washboard like a natural disaster and produced percussion that sounded like extreme tap dancing. Then he would grab the trombone and he would add a very colorful, almost macabre feel to the music. Or he'd grab his mandolin pick like a fiend with Miller battling along side. When he busted out the electric spoons I was stoked to learn that they sound just like coconut shells and reminded me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Then he would hop on the drums and kick out a very eccentric drumming style that included what looked like a school bell that he would hit with this odd, backhanded stroke. Dicharry was a madman with every instrument he touched and really blew me away with his musical abilities. But he was equaled in sheer musical genius by Ben Miller, who would play whimsical acoustic & hormonica tunes then bust out some filthy, bluesy slide guitar where he'd drop his capo far down the neck to create a sharp & snappy sound all while stomping out a rhythm with his kick drum & tambourine. These guys flew out of the womb ready to make music-- straight natural talent on a crazy high level.

They played a number of original songs that were extremely well composed and threw down a couple of amazing covers as well. They mellowed out the vibe of Nirvana's "Heart Shaped Box", dropped a dirty slide guitar version of Ram Jam's "Black Betty" and gave me the tingles with an amazing & electrifying version of The Beatles' "Come Together". These songs whipped the crowd into a healthy froth, so when they closed the set with a blistering washboard song, the buttoned-down crowd busted open an uproarious applause. This band is definitely special and I'd love to see them again soon.

By this time I had a nice seat right near the stage and hung out while Sexfist set up. The root beer was delicious and talking with the guys from the band was a treat, as always. These dudes are seriously chilled out and they have a very appreciative attitude towards their fans and the music scene in general. The set up & sound check ended up taking quite a while, which is to be expected on their first night in a new venue. Their gear was honed to a fine science at RLT, but they were definitely still settling in to Jerry's on this festive night. They finally hit the stage right around 11 with a tasty blast of banjo-guided bluegrass. "Turn Me Loose" is a great way to begin a show and really highlights the capabilities of this incredible band. The band was definitely on-point already, but the sound was not and seemed to be changing all the time. A short hile later was a quick "Nobody's Fault But Mine" with Bradley Longwood providing some passionate vocals. "Ain't It A Shame" was up next next with a mellow, bass-driven opening that eventually landed in a sweet fiddle section courtesy of Jeffrey Chestnut.

They continued the bluegrass assault with a great "Mountain Girls Can Love" that had the dancefloor folks shredding. The entire front of the stage was filled in and the dancing was exuberant as Sexfist kept plowing along. They stayed on task even as I could tell they were unhappy with the sound. The levels seemed to be fluctuating all night and at times the crowd noise was almost overpowering the sound. Mr. Oakton kept glancing at the stage mics with suspicion as the sound was all over the map and didn't seem to be getting much better. I mean, it was alright, but definitely not dialed in the way I expected. Mr. Chestnut announced that there was a sad song coming right as I began to yawn, so I decided to head out and grabbed a t-shirt on my way out the door.

I was disappointed that I couldn't stay longer, but felt ok about it knowing that Sexfist was obviously here to stay. They are a seriously talented bluegrass band with a ceiling that seems to be rising all the time. These guys will be hitting the festival scene harder as summer kicks into gear and they spread their bluegrass love around the Midwest. Get out to Jerry's and experience Sexfist's righteousness for yourself-- they would love to kick your ass with bluegrass.



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