Thursday, June 9, 2011

Show review: Wildbirds & Peacedrums, Laughing Eye Weeping Eye at The Empty Bottle, 6/7

By Gene Wagendorf III

Miriam Wallentin of Wildbirds & Peacedrums
My evening at The Empty Bottle Tuesday began with Rebecca Schoenecker, the gypsy behind Laughing Eye Weeping Eye, offering me a songbook. The soft, manila paper contained the evening's set list- complete with lyrics for a few sing-a-longs and an adorable picture of a winged aardvark. A few moments later the band took the stage, urging the crowd to move forward and join them in their first number, "There in the Valley." Schoenecker worked a seesaw melody out of her harmonium and softly chanted while bandmate Patrick Holbrook kept time with some shakers. From there Laughing Eye played a few more fragile sounding numbers, once taking a moment to remind the audience to participate.

Those band/crowd interactions felt akin to being in a first grade classroom; the teacher asking students to pay attention as she reads aloud, speaking earnestly and yet impersonally. Schoenecker's introduction to the next song- "this next song is about the aardvark, a very scary creature"- felt like it should have come complete with a storybook illustration. Oh, wait... The song's plodding tune was complimented by some well hit vocal notes and the rattlesnake tambourine work of Holbrook. The set had an oddly religious feel to it, exemplified best by what, for me, was the show's high moment: an idyllic number called "O'er the Mountain." The clap and sing-a-long tune sounded more likely to have been penned on a porch in the Bible Belt than by a couple of arty misfits from Chicago, yet it proved to be the song that got the most participation from the audience with the least instigation.

By contrast, "Building a Fire" allowed Laughing Eye to to show what it can do when not relying on a boost from the crowd. The song began with another stilted riff on the harmonium and exploded in a Lars von Trier-esque orgasm of high-pitched vocals, swirling recorder and some fall-apart tambourine. The band, celebrating the release of their record Where Snakes & Seers Go, finally shared an honest moment with the audience late in the set, when Schoenecker produced an Egyptian harp to a series of "oohs" and "ahs." Acting outside of her school teacher shtick, she posed dramatically with the instrument while reaching up towards the heavens. Her break in character worked well, warming the audience for the beautiful "River of Golden Treasures." The song sounded more complete live than anything else played that night, as the lush harp notes were buoyed by shakers and chimes.

Wildbirds & Peacedrums began their set with a broody, splashy number under appropriately silky blue lighting. Fluid and hauntingly sexual, Swedish siren Miriam Wallentin had the audience in a trance as she lamented "the light, it moves too fast when she's away." She continued her seance in "Tiny Holes in the World," stepping away from the mic for a moment to dance while husband Andreas Werlin bashed around on his drum kit. As he settled back into the groove of the song, Wallentin stayed away from the mic and moved towards the edge of the stage, belting out the lyrics as if she was trying to conjure a full moon in the middle of The Bottle.

No such moon appeared, so Wildbirds moved into "The Lake," a song that allowed the singer to take out some frustration on an innocent steel drum. The pounding crescendo spilled over into the swirling melody that begins "The Well"- a melody that might seem vaguely familiar to fans of The Legend of Zelda, though played at a more rapid-fire pace.

Where Laughing Eye Weeping Eye's set seemed religious, Wildbirds & Peacedrums seemed spiritual. If that's a douchey distinction, well, deal with it. Wallentin and Werlin knew exactly what buttons to press with the audience, when to run their songs into extended jams and when to abbreviate. After tossing the crowd into a whirlwind of cymbals and steel drums they took a step back into a steady and charming ballad, "The Drop." The steel drum ripples and soft vocals have the calming effect of leaning against a cool rock at the beach and lighting a cigarette. The effortless, testimonial lyrics continued in "The Course," even amidst the chaos of dual percussion. Werlin's steady, driving beat seemed to be fighting against the storm of his better half's loss of inhibition, a crashy cacophony that melted into raucous applause.

Wildbirds & Peacedrums left the stage, but the crowd refused to let up until their return. I took a look back during the cries for an encore and noticed that the entire bar area had been abandoned and everyone had drawn a few steps closer to the stage. The duo seemed genuinely touched by the enthusiasm. Wallentin took the opportunity to serenade sans mic once again, pulling at the notes of "Places," the only song played not from the band's 2010 album Rivers. Eventually Werlin joined in to close the tune out with some clunky drumming worthy of backing a Jan Svankmajer short. Switching gears one final time, the singer smiled and began rolling over the steel drum to begin "The Wave." The song was much more powerful live than on record, seductive and hopeful at the same time. Wallentin imploring the audience to "have faith" is one of those memories I'm going to pull out when I'm feeling a little bit down. No doubt I'll smile.


Check out more show reviews:
Javelin, White Mystery and more at Do-Division Fest
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 

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