I should have learned from the recent past to pay attention to omens.
Not one month after reviewing a show jam-packed with surprises and unexpected dangers ( Foxing, Tiny Moving Part, etc. in the Dec. 28 edition of Bent Nights ), I found myself at an equally loaded show with three of Chicago's most beloved bands. When Mutts frontman Mike Maimone casually said to me just before the show, "I've been looking forward to this," I should have been prepared for anythingand, like a dummy, I wasn't.
Not only was this Dec. 29 gig at Lincoln Hall celebrating the release of Mutt's new single "Neighbor,"and, for me, a chance to see the much-loved Archie Powell and the Exportsbut this was also the farewell gig for Hemmingbirds, one of the most respected and admired alternative bands in Chicago. Since everyone on the bill had worked together at one time or another, I was expecting a homey-love vibe like The Waltons' Christmas Reunion, but that certainly is not what I got.
The show got off to a quiet start, with Jesse W. Johnson performing an acoustic solo set that gave his pop songs a darker shading and a confessional, more personal edge. Where "I Fucked Up" originally sounded like a lightly humorous take on naughty behavior, this reading came cloaked in regret and misery. "Expecting to Fall" retained its measured pace with this delicate handling and it gained texture from the gravity that Johnson gave it.
For all of Johnson's skill and nuance, the night and vibe got booted into outer space once Archie Powell and the Exports got onstage and proved that the act's reputation was not hot air. What went down on that stage was a breathless torrent of snot rock with Powell's tongue firmly in cheek, and The Exports playing with the fury and economy of Elvis Costello's Attractions. There was a certain snootiness to his attack that was downright infectious, whether Powell was singing through an amplified phone receiver or frantically wiggling his ass. Granted, I had no idea how snotty it all was until I found out that the set list was made up of new unrecorded material. Of course, I should have expected as much since Powell opened his last full-length, 2014's Back in Black, with "Everything's Fucked Up" and closed it with "Everything's Cool." Evidently, being a smart-ass has its charms.
If Powell played a ( mean but ) fun joke on his audience by toying with the unexpected, Mutts happily delivered what could be expected and then some. As a send up of an old time honky-tonk band with a frat house sloppiness and a straight up punk attitude, the trio of Mike Maimone ( vocals/keyboards ), Bob Buckstaff ( bass ), and Chris Pangnani ( drums ) has created an aura that is entirely affable, blunt, and charming in a roustabout way. Where it seemed that Maimone came across as an out, buff Tom Waits without the brutal wear and tear, Mutts has evolved into a cohesive blunt instrument around him.
Opening with "Everyone Is Everyone"with its in-your-face chorus ( "Let's shut the fuck up and go for yourself!!!" )Mutts challenged Powell for the crown of class cut-up. "Shake It Up" and "If It's Hot" came surprisingly early and hard ( and, yes, Maimone ranted the song while atop his electric piano and no he did not hurl himself into the audience ), but there were more surprises. "Terranant" got a grim, goth treatment that planted the song in three feet of sludge while the new "Neighbor" with an assist from vocalist Jennifer Hall was served with a roof rattling gospel intensity despite songs coiled structure. Then came the finish, a melee with Hall, Powell and some of his Exports and various friends crowding the stage for a sloppy rip through "Let's Go."
After all the thunder and frivolity, Hemmingbird's set of sublime art-rock felt like a welcome refrigerated breeze. Kicking the set off with "Half A Second" and "Mess of Things," vocalist Yoo Soo Kim, bassist Timothy Cap and drummer Zach Benkowski actually managed to seduce the rowdy crowd with their low-key, shimmering, elegant art rock. The set list came with obvious choices and obscure deep album cuts ( "Line of Bones," "Stay," "Toxic House," "Falling through the Aether," "Slippery Slope" ) and one gooey sweet moment ( a still sincere "Through the Night" that Kim wrote for his wife while they were dating ), but despite the onstage cameos ( a positively humbled Maimone, Johnson, and members of Mutts and The Exports ) the set was slightly melancholic and gently sweet. It was a great send-off, if not a fitting end to 2016.