I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Bad Books live show on Valentine’s Day in Chicago. Separately I’m a fan of Manchester Orchestra and even more so Kevin Devine, but I hadn’t paid much attention to the supergroup they started in 2010. Apparently I was the only one not paying attention, because the house was already packed when I showed up to the venue. It had grown quite chilly outside, and I stupidly wore a heavy coat which I regretted as soon as I ascended the steps to the main floor. Weatherbox had just finished their opening set and I had to spend some time way in the back until some room cleared for me to get closer.
I wanted to see The Front Bottoms set because I’ve heard their name a lot lately. They took the stage in dresses as their way of celebrating Valentine’s Day. After the initial mention of this by front man Brian Sella, I never really noticed again. Their show was a lot of fun, with most of the people in the audience screaming along to songs like “The Beers” and “Swimming Pool.” I really like that Sella sticks with an acoustic guitar throughout the live show. From where I was standing, he was really the only one I could see. The whole band sounded good, and the system at SubT was a lot more clean than I’ve heard there in a while.
The rockers from Jersey finished up their set and thanked the crowd. The large woman in front of me who kept pumping her fist and coming within inches of hitting me in the face got what she came for, so she left. I was able to move up a little. Then a stream of people started coming my way from the front, so I bolted to the far side of the stage and made my way down. I ended up being the third person deep from the stage, a little left of the middle. There was a couple that I guess I cut in front of, and they were shooting me indignant looks-sorry kids, I’m here to take pictures, not make friends.
Bad Books hit the stage at arond 9:20 (way earlier than I’m used to), and the crowd went into a tizzy right away. Still mostly unfamiliar with their music, I wasn’t surprised that I immediately thought their sound leaned way heavy toward the Manchester Orchestra style. Maybe that’s because Andy Hull took the vocals over on the first song. After a couple more tunes I settled in and realized that Bad Books doesn’t really sound like MO or Kevin Devine’s solo work at all, it’s very much it’s own thing. At one point Hull commented that he is amazed the fans don’t call out for songs by their separate bands. I’m surprised too, but I think people recognize that this isn’t a novelty act or a cash grab-they really enjoy working together.
For a while I was pretty focused on taking pictures, but it was hard to not stomp my feet and shake my head with all the hands in the air around me. Three songs in and the jacket was really starting to get to me. I was the only person I could see that had one on. I was sweating through my shirt underneath, so I decided it’d be best to just leave the jacket on. Thankfully they slowed things down for a song, and I had a chance to cool off without all the bodies around me jumping up and down.
I had no idea how humorous these guys are. They had done a couple funny things on stage in the first handful of songs, but at one point Devine just announced that Andy Hull is allergic to dogs. Hull retorted that Devine is allergic to frogs. Somehow Devine took the joke even further, saying that he “heard that Lightnin’ Hopkins and Paul Simon played a show together and all they did was talk about dogs and frogs.” Then he covered his face with a towel and said, “And of course…” ripped the towel away to reveal his face-“The mysteries of Egypt.” It was one of the single funniest moments I’ve ever seen at a rock show.
Then they announced they were going to play a new song they’ve been working on. Andy said that this was the first time he and Devine had worked together to write lyrics. I thought it sounded familiar, but I knew it was a joke once Devine muttered the words “You and me, we come from different worlds.” That’s “Only Wanna Be With You,” by Hootie and the Blowfish of course. They kinda laughed to each other, and then broke into “Let Her Cry,” which Devine either didn’t know the words to or just didn’t care. They mixed in a little Metallica somehow, and chastised the audience for singing along to Hootie.
Eventually they did play a song by them that I knew. “Forest Whitaker.” This is such a catchy tune. I can’t believe it isn’t more popular. I think if the song had come out ten years ago, Bad Books would be the biggest band around. But then they wouldn’t be playing at SubT, so it’s a trade off I’m willing to accept. Maybe I didn’t know much about the band before seeing them play live, but I definitely became a fan over the course of the show.
It went a lot longer than I expected. They played for about an hour and a half. I really enjoyed a lot of the slower ballads like “Pyotr” and “You’re A Mirror I Can Not Avoid.” I think they would have played all night if they were allowed to. The crowd definitely didn’t want it to end. After the encore I was dripping sweat, so it wouldn’t have mattered to me if they played for another couple hours.
I left Subterranean happy that I’d taken a shot and checked Bad Books out for myself. They really remind me more of Elliot Smith and Band Of Horses than Manchester Orchestra, which is interesting. I listened to both their records today, and I don’t think either can be considered a masterpiece. But they definitely have a strong foundation to build on if they continue this relationship.
You can check out some more pics from the evening in the album on our Facebook page!