The Woes took the stage to a humming and seemingly disinterested crowd. That changed quickly. The band from Brooklyn launched into an upbeat country-blues number that immediately shut everyone up. Lead singer Osei Essed has one of those striking presences on-stage that makes you look like a fool as you grope the bar blindly searching for your drink. Much of the music came from their November EP, The Bird & The Bear, which fluidly moves from between soul, bluegrass, country and rock. Essed's voice has a kind of Tom Waits twinge and an indelible sincerity that fits perfectly into the banjos, pedal guitars and horns that the rest of The Woes expertly manipulate. “World of Stone” moved with the determination of a Baby Huey & The Babysitters slow-jam while “There are Fields” called the audience to slap their knees and sing along. That The Woes come from Brooklyn seems a bit of an oddity considering how authentically southern their stylings are, but that they were playing in Chicago Sunday night was nothing short of a gift.
Local “junk rock” outfit Rambos took the stage next, dedicating their first song to the failed rapture. That song turned out to be a reworking of Bobby Freeman's “Do You Wan to Dance?,” now aptly titled “Do You Wanna Die?” Channeling The Ramones more than Freeman himself, Rambos were able to capitalize on the audience's willingness to move. The first half of the set was a kitschy mix of surf, rockabilly and punk that could have been the perfect soundtrack to a grindhouse blood bath. “Hiawatha,” the band's oldest tune, was the first of several that had the crowd shouting along to the chorus, no small feat for a band without a proper record to promote. Therein lies the charm of Rambos, their ability to instantly convert the audience into booze-fueled acolytes. I wrote in an interview with lead singer Jeremy David Miller that, after seeing them live, my desire to be in the band surpassed even my desire to buy their records. Judging by the crowd's response, I don't think I'm the only one. After the campy ode to bloodsuckers, “Vampires,” drummer Ian Tsan launched the band into “Terrorize,” whose mostly one-word chorus banged off the walls of The Whistler with a kind of chaotic joy.
After everyone in the bar paused to take a breath, Rambos moved from pumping everyone up to cracking them up with another reworked cover. This time the group took The Black Lips' “Bad Kids” and turned it into the comical rally cry “Faggots.” The chemistry between Miller and the porcelain-voiced Julie Meckler is almost hypnotizing during their duet, a great back and forth that could translate easily from a rock concert to a comedy show. Two more goofball dance songs led into the fist-pumping anthem “USA,” a straight-forward rocker that allowed JJ Evans' guitar to flex its muscles. That same guitar introduced “Human Monster” with a dramatic Western-warble that could've been pulled from a Tarantino film. Miller, now donning a homemade monster mask, was again able to ply his charisma, using silly schtick to create a sympathetic character. His personality and the band's almost deceptive musicianship give Rambos live shows an addictive punch. The set climaxed with “Arrows,” one of two songs on the band's self-titled EP. Guitarist Ryan Anderson takes another simple chant-along number and breaks it open with with rambling solo. Just when you think it's about to spill off into jangly excess the notes fall easily back into the song.
Afterward, all five members of the band gathered at the center of the stage to thank the audience and then began their show-ender, a round appropriately titled “Rambos.” The chorus seemed almost apologetic as they chanted “we tried so hard to be Rambos.” No apology was necessary. They succeeded.
Check out more show reviews:
Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Eleventh Dream Day at Pritzker Pavilion
Elvis Costello at the Chicago Theatre
Bare Mutants, Tiger Bones at the Empty Bottle
Colin Hay at Park West
Candy Golde at Double Door