I came to know indie bands Grizzly Bear and The National at nearly the same time. So in my mind, the two bands are practically inseparable, even if they don’t sound nearly the same.
Needless to say, I was more than a little happy both bands released new albums this year. I was even happier to learn both bands were on tour, and would be playing within two weeks of one another. There was just one catch:
The shows were in Chicago, and I live in St. Louis.
I wasn’t the least bit surprised to learn neither band would be coming to my town. I have no doubt in my mind that, with rare exception, St. Louis is where top-shelf “niche” shows go to die. If I want to see more of my favorites, I have to hit the road. So that’s what I decided to do.
I had already been to Chicago twice in 2017. The first time was a vacation with my daughter, the second was for Progtoberfest. It didn’t take long to see Chicago had a terrific music scene. And it was a mere five-hour drive away.
On November 29, I was in the car, heading north. That evening, I was at the Riviera Theater, ready to see Grizzly Bear live for the first time.
The Riviera is a wonderful room with a capacity of around 2,500. It was stately and well worn, but had a terrific vibe. Compared to my hometown concert venues, the Riviera has the class of the Fox Theater with the intimacy of The Pageant. It’s a great place to see a concert.
The room appeared to be nearly sold out, and Grizzly Bear made the effort worth our while. They were everything I could hope for, and then some. Their music is perfectly understated, getting its point across without overwhelming the listener. The vocals — handled primarily by Edward Droste and Chris Taylor — were lush and beautifully harmonic in the studio. It was a sound that reminded me of The Beach Boys, as Pet Sounds is one of my all-time favorite albums. I wondered if Grizzly Bear would be able to have the same vocal impact on stage. They were.
The band was promoting Painted Ruins, which is a marvelous album. I had been introduced to Grizzly Bear via their previous album, Shields, which I absolutely adore. In particular, I love a song called “Sleeping Ute” from that album. So when I heard the first chords from that tune being played in front of me, it was impossible to contain my cheers.
Grizzly Bear put on display all the reasons why I love them as a band. Their music is accessible, but not simplistic. It takes no effort to just sit (or stand at this particular gig) and let the music wash over you. I would’ve kicked myself had I missed this show.
Two weeks later, I was back in Chicago and headed to the Civic Opera House to catch The National. The show sold out almost immediately, and I found myself on the outside looking in. But my friend Joe Stulce at Planet Score Records did me a solid, and I was in! I am forever grateful.
The Civic Opera House is every bit as stately as it sounds. It’s a bit bigger than the Riviera, seating maybe 3,000 or so. In fact, it was right on the outer edge of the size venue I prefer. Luckily, my seats were only about a third of the way back, and in the middle.
There was another great vibe here, and a room designed for the classics seemed fully capable of handling a band with a little more “edge” to it.
The National has a darker, more brooding sound than Grizzly Bear. Thanks to the deep, raspy voice of Matt Berninger, the band’s tone has a bit more grit to it. The music could be lush and spacious on tunes like “I Need My Girl” (a personal fave), or loud and punk-ish, like on “Turtleneck,” which nearly melted my eardrums. The National was promoting their latest album, Sleep Well Beast, but had no problem diving deep into their back catalog.
As it happens, this show was the last of The National’s U.S. tour for 2017. Well, they went out with a bang! The band played every song like their lives depended upon it. And while the Civic Opera House had a seat for everyone in attendance, nobody sat down while The National was on stage! Once again, I was saved from having to kick myself for not being there.
Apparently, this traveling for concerts thing is going to be a habit. I will get my first Vic Theater experience next May, when Steven Wilson takes the Chicago stage. I’m already pinging with excitement.
Good music, I’ve found, is worth traveling for. Yes, there is the added expense of transportation, meals, and lodging (I’m too old to be driving back home overnight after a show). The key is to make the trip an adventure. There are more than enough record stores in Chicago to keep me busy for quite some time. So I have that going for me, in addition to everything else that city has to offer.
My friends still look at me like I’m crazy when I say I’m driving (or taking the Megabus) 600 miles round-trip over 10 hours to catch a 90-minute show. To me, it makes perfect sense. The great music doesn’t always come to me. So I have to go to it! No longer will I allow something as trivial as a band not coming to my hometown prevent me from checking them out whenever I can. Mind you, I also drove to Nashville to catch John McLaughlin. Worth it!
I don’t know where 2018 is going to take me, but I’m pretty sure there’s gonna be a lot more mileage on my car.