Concert Review: Teddy Thompson and the Grey Race, Schubas

Everything started late, which was a bit of a frustration. They didn’t start letting people in until about 8:45, and the show didn’t start until 9:15 or so. The crowd was really diverse and skewed towards older (late 30s and up) people. There were very few other people my age there. Kind of strange, though it made for a nicer atmosphere. Quite honestly, people my age kind of tend to be jerks at concerts.

Anyway, sometimes it must suck to be an opening band, seriously. (Despite that, I’d totally do it in a heartbeat, seriously.) There were maybe… 30 people in the room when The Grey Race went on. I felt a little loser-like standing in the very front, but there were no seats left (I had one, but lost it when I got up to go to the bathroom) and everyone else was congregated in the middle or back, drinking and talking.

Oh well, sucks for them, because The Grey Race rocked the heck out. They’re a trio on the album, but were a quartet for the show, and their performance was really really good. Very alt-folk-rock-ish, a good mix of loud and chaotic and softer songs. A lot of reviews compare their lyrics to Elliot Smith, which I can see. They’re very … witty yet self-deprecating at times. I’d heard a handful of their songs on Myspace and liked them, so I was vaguely familiar with their music before going in. They definitely didn’t disappoint. They’re all standout musicians – reviews talking about Jeff Hill routinely note that he’s one of NYC’s best, most sought-after bassists, and I believe the rest of the band is similarly decorated (I’m only familiar with Jeff because of his work with Rufus and other assorted Wainwrights), and really, just watching the rest of the band play really gives away how talented they all are – but they work together seamlessly. No competing egos on stage there, they’re just there to play great music, and it totally works.

“Was anyone here last night?” Jon Darling, the lead singer, asked at one point in the show. No one responded. “Good,” he said, “that means I can tell all the same jokes.” And then proceeded to not actually tell any jokes. Jon later was introducing a song and mentioned that they made a video for it, which was on Youtube. “No, it’s not anymore,” the drummer said. “I think the label took it down. Lack of interest or something?” Oops. The drummer might’ve been wrong, I haven’t investigated Youtube yet to find out, but Jon was mildly outraged in his restrained New Zealand-ish way that the video might have been yanked for some reason. The drummer, who makes hilarious drummer faces, by the way, mentioned when pimping the CD that the packaging was all biodegradable, because “ten years from now, we don’t want anyone to remember that we did this.”

Anyhow, they closed out their set around 10 or so and got ready for Teddy Thompson to come on. The place was getting a little more crowded then, but even by the end of the show there was still a lot of room to move around in the front, which was … kind of mind-boggling to me. There was no one pushing, no one breathing down my neck, no one shoving up against me to get closer. It was just so crazy and different from what I’m used to. I kind of liked it, though I missed that sort of wacky energy that’s nice to feed off of. Jon from The Grey Race comes back up to tune guitars – that’s when you know it’s a low-budget indie sort of gig, when the band members do all that stuff themselves! (Well, the fact that it’s at Schuba’s, where there is no backstage and the band members simply walk through the crowd to get on/offstage should tell you that, too.)

In the intermission, some guy came around and switched out all the set lists, and then went and turned on a bunch of bright pink neon lights situated around the stage. “Beware the light show!” he said when he moved past me to turn on the lights right in front of me. It was… really, excessively bright. Ow.   After a while, the whole of The Grey Race came back out with Teddy for his set – that’s dedication, doing your own opening set and then doing back up for the rest of the show. The show was really very good. I’ll admit my musical tastes have spoiled me; the kinds of artists I tend to love are the ones who release albums that actually represent what they sound like live. The whole singer-songwriter thing, people who cut their teeth performing live in unforgiving clubs and bars. That sort of stuff. Nothing’s more disappointing than finding out your favorite band is so over-produced in the studio that they sound completely different – and usually worse – live. Anyway, as much as I love fantastic performances, I also love performances that are flawed. One criticism of Rufus, for example, is that he messes up so frequently – forgets lyrics, misses chords, mixes up verses, etc. I read a review on a blog once that said effectively “I didn’t pay £40 to see him forget the words”. But to me, that’s what makes the artists human. They’re not perfect. They’re not machines. They’re going to forget words and chords and mix things up. As much as I want heroes and people I can look up to as a musician, it’s also nice to have the reminder that they’re just like us. Only usually with more money.

So color me terribly pleased when Teddy spent the first several minutes on stage trying to tune his guitar. “I think he’s using the wrong guitar,” the drummer commented in a stage whisper… directly into the microphone. “No, no, I changed it up, remember?” Teddy responded, going back to tuning.  After trying to tune again, then stopping (“This song’s in the same key, isn’t it?”), he went into What’s This?!! (which is my favorite song from the new album, partly because of the extraneous punctuation in the title and partly because it has the line what’s this, what’s this, am I happy or something? Oh shit, oh shit!) and In My Arms (the first single from the album, not to be confused with Rufus’ completely different song called In My Arms, though to add to the confusion, Rufus is in the video for Teddy’s In My Arms playing the pipe organ, and it’s all just really music-cestuous and I love it, the end).

More after the jump…

He did most, if not all, of the songs from the new album. “There’s a new album out next week,” Teddy said. “It could have been this week, but it wasn’t. Instead it’s next week, when it could have been this week, but it’s next week. So we don’t have it yet for you to buy, because it’s not out yet. But we have free … free … buttons? Pins! Pins! We have free pins. With guns on them. Go get your free pins.” His convoluted long-winded last week/next week/this week spiel about the album boiled down to: the label said it’s coming out next week, and that’s that.

Apparently Tuesday would have been the show to go to for a chance at the LOCAL GIRL SHOW YOU GOOD TIME?!?! gig; Teddy mentioned that they all went out after Tuesday’s show. “Some of us are still awake. Some of us are still drunk,” he said, eyeing Jon. No one answered when someone in the crowd asked where they went, so there go my hopes of figuring out what a potential hot spot is for cute folk-rockers when they’re in Chicago. Someone also kept calling out for him to play “Separate Ways.” Teddy pondered this for a second, then leaned in to the mic. “No,” he said. “Shan’t.” (In a fact that I always forget, he was born/raised in London, and thus more prone to saying great things like shan’t. For some reason I never expect him to sound British. I sort of expect him to be Canadian, simply because of his association with the Wainwrights.)

He’s a fabulous guitarist, though I don’t know if you could have expected anything else, growing up with famous folk-rocker parents. Watching him play is really fascinating and it makes me want to pick up the guitar again and try to learn to play more than the few chords that I know. He makes these very serious, angry guitar-playing faces when he’s playing. Very focused on his music, the words, the everything. But the second the song’s over, he’s just very serene and smiley and calming. Seriously, watching him talk between songs was relaxing. The complete difference in his countenance was fascinating.

Teddy didn’t talk a lot between songs, (“I think I’ve said all the important things I had to say,” he said towards the end of the set) though he seems to take a page from the scatter-brained Rufus Wainwright book, starting sentences and stories and anecdotes and then changing his mind or getting distracted and not finishing. At one point Jon picked up a ukulele and everyone sort of snickered. Because it’s a ukulele. “That’s my ukulele,” Teddy said. “I lost mine,” Jon said, tuning it. “It’s so small, it’s easy to lose,” Teddy pointed out.

Aside from songs from the new album, he did So Easy (which on its album has Rufus and Martha on backing vocals), and a few other older songs. There might have been something from Up Front & Down Low (his country covers album), but I haven’t listened to that one enough to know. There was one song – I think it may have been the last song, actually – that they got a minute or so in to, when they just stopped. “We messed that up. We’re going to start over.” I couldn’t tell what they messed up, but something did sound different when they started up again. One song —and I’d be able to pick it out on listening to the album again – started with all these scattered futuristic noises, complete with Startled Posing on Teddy’s part. You would have had to be there, it was adorable. Teddy did a song from the new album called Turning the Gun on Myself, and quipped about how uplifting the subject matter was. After another slow song, he paused while fiddling with his guitar. “Well, that sure shut you up,” he said.

His encore was Everybody Move It, solo acoustic, followed by a reprise of In My Arms. Everybody Move It is what I head described once as a “folk rock party song”, and the solo acoustic version gives it a whole new feel.  It turned it into a sad folk rock party song, somehow, by having it be this pared down thing. I liked it! When he did In My Arms again, he talked about how it was a throw-back to another era, when girl groups in the 60s really only ever had three songs to sing at a concert, so they’d just keep performing the same three songs over and over, and their encore would always be their single, because it was the song people knew.