Saturday night I took to my first trip to the Tonic Room. I was long overdue to hit this venue, but for whatever reason I’ve never made it. As usual there was a strong lineup for the evening, which definitely brought out a crowd. Tonic Room doesn’t have the greatest layout in the world, but the sound is really good and people tend to stick to their own business and get along cordially.
I got there a little late, so Mike Mangione and The Union were already playing. Upon entrance I ran into my first and only real problem with the bar-the door opens right in front of the stage. Great for bands loading in and out, not so much for latecomers who don’t want to walk in everyone’s way to get to the bar.
The show was running about thirty minutes behind schedule, which is fairly typical for a Chicago show. Nobody seemed to mind as Mangione led the band in a raucous set that I thought might literally bring the building down. Luckily the integrity of the building stayed in tact and the other two acts were allowed to play.
I was really impressed by Alexis And The Samurai. They’re natives of New Orleans, and like Todd Kessler, Alexis Marceaux was a contestant on The Voice season 3. The duo managed to create an extraordinary sound using dynamic shifts and arrangements-if you were listening with your eyes closed you would’ve thought it was a full band.
They played some songs off their 2011 album Orange Moon, and I was shocked that they hadn’t found more success so far. They harmonize brilliantly together, and both Alexis and Sam Craft are multi-instrumentalists who can achieve any sonic trick they can think up. My favorite song they did was actually an old Cajun standard about drinking called “Parlez-nous a boire.” It’s a Mardi Gras-worthy party song that really gets the crowd moving.
Todd Kessler’s band started to set up, and here’s where I thought there would be a problem. In The New Folk there are two guitars not counting Todd, bass, drums, and a keyboard. The stage at Tonic Room is about as long as a Honda Accord and as deep as a Vespa. Somehow they managed to get everyone up there and my concerns were for naught.
I saw Todd play a solo show at Uncommon Ground not too long ago, but this was a better show for me. He seems to be a more confident singer when he has a band behind him and some of the pressure is off. And I’m sure he writes most of his songs on acoustic guitar, but they’re meant to be played bigger.
Highlights for me included “First Sip,” which features Todd and backup vocalist Molly Kirk singing beautifully together, “Oh Brother,” (the lead track on the band’s 2012 release Sea Fever), and the sweet album closer “Put You In My Pocket.”
On top of being featured on a nationally televised singing competition, Kessler and Marceaux have something else in common: they care more about making music than being famous. So many people out there just want to hit the big time no matter the cost to their artistic ideals, but not these two. If you haven’t yet, give them both a shot.