Music

Live review: Explosions in the Sky @ Chicago Theatre

explosions in the sky

(A photo wasn’t doable last night. Sorry, folks. Have a nice stock photo of Explosions in the Sky with a precious dog, for your troubles.)

A space like the Chicago Theatre feels simultaneously appropriate and off-center for a band like Explosions in the Sky, who for all their grandiosity still maintain a scrappier edge, assisted by their affable stage presence and the fact that their always-in-crescendo musical epics have just a bit rougher of an edge. I’m not talking about “edge” as a matter of weight, either; EITS are absolutely a more polished, cinematic post-rock act than heavier contemporaries like Mogwai or Russian Circles, and they’re not afraid to work gentler than either of those bands at times. I speak of edge in terms of the very slight, almost unnoticeable lack of absolute meticulous organization that music this grandiose tends to flaunt.

But I’m a bit ahead of myself. Opening for EITS were Zammuto, the new full-band project from Nick Zammuto, formerly one half of The Books. (Plug time: Heave was fortunate enough to chat with him earlier in the week.) While featuring similar video content to the Books’ famed found footage backdrops, Zammuto’s set had a much lighter touch. It’s abundantly clear that Zammuto is having a blast working with this new band, evidenced by songs like “YAY,” which maintained an infectious, anthemic buoyancy even when slipping into near-incomprehensible vocoder-aided vocal theatrics.

The stage show matched this attitude, with the setup for “Zebra Butt” involving the sort of sterile, disaffected Huxley-esque wordplay as Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier” juxtaposed with shots of, well, zebra butts. The set concluded with a cover of the Books’ “Classy Penguin,” which sported a montage of home video footage from the Zammuto brothers’ youth (Nick’s brother Mikey plays bass), and a race to keep up with an autoharp rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” renamed “The Greatest Autoharp Solo of All Time.” This was a wonderful set, one that’s likely to win fans in the very near future when they embark on a headlining tour this fall, which will include some dates opening for Gotye.

After a short intermission, it was Explosions in the Sky time. Opening with the triumphant “Postcard From 1952” off last year’s Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, the band went about putting on an excellent set with little fuss. Those who know their songs well enough could recognize a few fleeting moments of musical disharmony throughout, especially on “Your Hand In Mine,” but that made the set even more satisfying. Returning to my initial point about the ruffian nature of EITS, the occasional pops or slips make them even more triumphantly enduring a band, inasmuch as it adds an ever-more-human touch to a band whose music is all about the cathartic ascension of audience emotions. Only a few tracks from Take Care appeared, including “Let Me Back In,” which worked better as a late-set cooldown than it did as a closing track on the album. Also present: “Human Qualities,” which like “Let Me Back In” feels just a bit out of step with much of the rest of the set; as the band’s music has mellowed with time, it’s therefore trickier to work the newer songs into their established oeuvre.

Case in point: Their absolutely thunderous rendition of “The Only Moment We Were Alone,” which boasts one of the best climaxes to any instrumental rock track ever on record (their classic The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place) and was every bit as thunderous live. That actually got them a standing ovation only three songs into the set, a sentiment that would be repeated a couple more times to diminishing returns by a sometimes tone-deaf crowd. (An EITS show is not the place for attempted group handclapping.) For much more of the set, though, said crowd was enraptured by the sheer, tightly played cacophony presented over nine songs in 90 minutes, if a little burnt out on pure, earnest emotion by the end.

The dramatic lighting and wild gesticulating on the band’s part helped; guitarist Munaf Rayani fulfilled the duties of the typical frontman onstage in particular, flailing and occasionally hitting his guitar to send massive reverberations through the entire theatre. At the set’s end, it was Rayani who thanked everybody for “sharing in this thing together.” That might seem like a bit of a corny, new age-y statement, but one night watching Explosions in the Sky live will more than likely convert any jaded skeptics. Should there have been any at the Chicago Theatre last night, this was a set that likely saw some conversions after its end.

Setlist:

Postcard From 1952
Catastrophe and the Cure
The Only Moment We Were Alone
Human Qualities
The Birth and Death of the Day
Your Hand In Mine
Greet Death
Let Me Back In
The Moon Is Down