The headlining act at Thalia Hall Friday night has been a band longer than a lot of the attendees have been alive. The first run of Wire’s storied career ended over 30 years ago and they’ve come and gone pretty much as they pleased since then. They’re currently enjoying the longest streak of steady unity, which started in 1999 with the return of drummer Robert Grey. A pivotal band for many popular groups from the 90’s and early 00’s, Wire paved the way for punk acts that wanted to break the mold of using analog technology.
Being such trailblazers, it’s no surprise that when they put on a show they have no problem lining up great special guests. The show at Thalia Hall was opened up by The Fly. I’d never heard of them before, but I’m glad I got there early because they provided the visceral smack in the face that was needed to energize the crowd. The guys in the band all seemed a little bit older but showed no decline in the rage department. Their songs were hard and fast-I don’t think any of them went much over two minutes. They played for less than a half hour and fit in about a dozen songs. (Update: While I recognized Colin Newman as the singer, I couldn’t make out the rest of the band from where I was standing-perhaps distracted by seeing St Vincent just left of the stage. The Fly was, in fact, Wire playing some of their most amped up songs.)
Next up was White Lung. The Vancouver group kept up the pace, ripping off tracks from their great 2014 album Deep Fantasy. Vocalist Mish Way was a bit more talkative, but wanted the stage lights dim. At one point she commented that playing in a band was “the greatest job in the world,” and at another point derided the audience for not moving around enough to, saying “I’d just stand there looking, too. I don’t mind being a spectacle.” She did her share of moving indeed, but I was more impressed with Deap Vally bassist Lindsey Troy’s ferocious riffs and the drummer (unseen from my vantage point) holding a breakneck speed.
The final opener was Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I haven’t bought a JSBX record since 1995’s Orange, and in the time since I don’t think their sound has changed all that much. And they still put on one helluva show. No one ever mixed punk with the blues quite like JSBX, and it shocks me that the success of bands like The White Stripes didn’t benefit these guys more. Jon Spencer himself is a one-man wrecking crew on stage. He used all the space available to him to release his pent up frustrations, and just about leapt into the crowd at one point. My favorite little moment came when he stood in the middle of the stage, feet right at the edge, and said that he had just been cast as the female love interest in the next Incredible Hulk film from Marvel.
By the time Wire arrived in front of our eyes it was after midnight and the people around me were getting restless. A lot of them thought the show was going to feature a set by St. Vincent (not sure why they thought this, as it was billed as “Wire perform The Drill with St. Vincent’s Annie Clark,” but whatever). The setup was large, but minimal-a couple drummers, a few guitars, and a singer. Nothing too fancy apart from the massive pedalboard in front of me and the tablet next to Colin Newman’s mic displaying the lyrics.
After a welcome applause Newman brought out the guitar-wielding icon, who doubles as humanity’s spirit animal, to a ravenous uproar. They launched into “The Drill” and after a minute it was easy to forget that Clark was even on the stage. The drummers were phenomenal, staying in step as the guitars whirled around in a circuitous drone so ominous it became almost nightmarish in its repetitiveness.
The 17-minute version played did have some great moments, like Newman jumping up and down in a circle during one of the many high-octane sections of the song. Watching Clark try to stay with these punk legends was fun, but it was truly transcendent once she found her legs and really let loose. This isn’t the typical style you expect from St. Vincent, but she plays it as well as anyone.
Jon Spencer came out and joined the fun as well, hooting and hollering in the background for the majority of the song before coming to the front to pay tribute to this legendary act. He encouraged some clapping for Newman before bowing down before Clark as she rocked back and forth strumming a staccato rhythm phrase.
The song ended and the band left the stage pretty abruptly. The people next to me exclaimed “THAT’S IT??!!?!?” and rushed off in a sour mood. I hung back, playing some segments over in my head, regretting the fact I had to work the next day and wouldn’t make Wire’s set at Metro. These little festivals are a great way to give fans an opportunity to see the band, and I hope they bring it back to Chicago in the future.
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