A Bittersweet Bent Knee Bash

This isn’t a review as much as much as it is an emotional farewell. Some concerts are just too personal.

Few bands bring the music with the energy of Boston avant-popsters Bent Knee. I’ve seen this band five times in three different cities. Each time was a thrill for different reasons. But on June 14 at Schubas Tavern in Chicago, I saw the best Bent Knee performance ever. Hands down!

Courtney Swain

What set this show apart? Simple: the energy from the band is normal. But it was the near capacity crowd returning that energy to the band that made the difference.

I was at the very front, leaning against the stage, and I could feel it. The energy came forward and washed over us like a tidal wave. It was otherworldly! And the band picked up on it! Already playing at a high level, Bent Knee found another gear and matched what was coming toward them. It was as symbiotic a relationship between band and audience as anything I’ve ever experienced.

Jessica Kion

The band ripped through its ever-growing catalog, most recently augmented with the album Frosting. As the evening’s headliner, they performed for a solid 90 minutes, at least a half hour longer than the other performances I’ve witnessed. It was time well spent.

Ben Levin

Most likely, progressive rock fans have gravitated to Bent Knee because of the inherent complexity of its music, even as it is projected vocally by the angelic voices of Courtney Swain, who also plays keyboards, and Jessica Kion, the band’s bassist. They bring a layer of soul that keeps the music from getting too technical and leaving people cold. No doubt the complexity keeps them amused, much to our benefit.

Chris Baum

The band wasted no time kicking things into gear with “Invest in Breakfast” and “Hold Me In.” By the time those numbers were finished, it was already clear something was happening. I’ve always thought a good indicator of a band’s impact was to hear the audience sing the lyrics back at the group. Well, guess what? I could hear voices coming from behind me with gusto.

Vince Welch

By the time “Time Deer,” “Queer Gods,” and “Holy Ghost” were finished, the band was on high-intensity cruise control. But they also noticed what was happening in front of them. Courtney took time during the set to mention it. That’s how palpable it was. Every band tells its audience they’re the best they’ve ever played for. But the truth is in the eyes, and it looked like more than one band member was welling up with emotion.

Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth

But there was a bittersweet elephant in the room, and Courtney finally addressed it. It has recently come to light that upon the end of this tour, Ben and Jessica would be leaving the band. Ben in particular has had enough of life on the road, which is nowhere near as glamorous as many musical laymen believe. He’s ready to move on to the next thing. Jessica, his wife, is following suit. One thing is certain: his rip-roaring guitar and her dynamic bass will be missed.

So many bands split acrimoniously and simply milk the clock, as it were, until the end of the tour so everyone can just get on with their lives. Often, they can barely hide their disdain onstage. This was the polar opposite. There was so much love being passed from the rest of the band to Ben and Jessica. And while the rest of Bent Knee will carry on, it was so clear to see how much they are going to miss that third of their group, who are two of the most lovable goofballs you’ll ever see in performance. Once again, emotion ran rampant in the room and we were all welling up, myself included.

Ben and Jessica being Ben and Jessica

The band closed their set with scintillating takes on “Battle Creek” (one of the songs that made me a fan to begin with) and “Lovemenot.” But they didn’t bother to leave the stage before playing their encore, a fact Ben joked about at length. Courtney almost literally had the crowd in the palm of her hands when she sang “Hands Up,” her arm gestures being duplicated in front of her, to say nothing of the song being sung by the same people. No doubt it’s a moment musicians dream about and live for.

Not enough can be said about what was coming from the other side of the stage. Chris Baum’s violin was plugged in and being run through effects, making for fascinating sounds. His vocals were on point, as well. Vince Welch was a study in smoldering intensity while he brought his production values and occasional guitar forward enhancing the band’s mix. And Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth’s drum kit thundered hard enough to melt concrete over a five-mile radius. Bent Knee has always had remarkable chemistry. Which is why it was sad to hear the last strains of “Not This Time” fade from the PA speakers, but not before the crowd went absolutely APE! The perfect end to an amazing evening.

If you’re gonna conclude an era, this is the way to do it. There were hugs all around for Ben and Jessica from a disappointed, but understanding, throng of fans. I’m so glad I got to talk to everyone as they packed up, particularly these two. I’m gonna keep our conversations and selfies to myself. I need to cherish them internally for a while longer.

I almost never say this — come to think of it, I’ve only said it once, about Adrian Belew — but I’ve come to see Bent Knee as family. Every show is a reunion where they can tell me what they’ve been up to since I saw them last. They always have a great story to tell. Too bad this one has a melancholy ending. Still, I’m so glad I could be there.

It would’ve been a real shame to miss it.


Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently working on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell.

Would you like to have your album reviewed? Contact me at cirdecsongs@gmail.com


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