Review: With a little work, this could be one of the better spots to see a show in Chicago. Walking by the South Union Arts Center, one might think it a run down squatter’s church. That summation could be entirely accurate, except the current “squatters” pay rent and welcome others into their space. The outside of the building screams “demolition project” while the inside softly whispers, “look what I made.” Perhaps if the roles were reversed, Saturday night would not have seemed like such a solemn event.
The old church, complete with movie-theater style pews and pulpit, now serves as a makeshift art gallery and concert venue where many touring bands stop to preach their own musical gospels. Spackled cracks and gurgling old radiators decorate the echoey space, which makes the already holy experience of a live concert that much more vital. One can almost see the sweaty preacher acting as god’s translator right behind the sweaty musicians on stage… Well, they would have been sweaty if the heat at SUA hadn’t been turned off.
SUA’s 150 seat performance area enhances the immediacy of the acts on stage. A full crowd makes the space seem packed without losing the intimacy while a small crowd hovers on the border of intimate and empty.
In spite of all of South Union Arts’ positive aspects, it suffers from inadequate publicity and advertising. One gets the feeling that someone wants to keep this place a secret from all of the UIC students just down the street. In my opinion, I don’t think the UIC students, with their shiny new Maxwell Street bars, would care. South Union caters to the fringe hipster artist element that seems to be thriving just down Halsted in Pilsen, but everyone I have talked to from that area doesn’t seem to know that South Union Arts even exists.
Venues such as South Union are vital to have in a city as culturally rich as Chicago, however I don’t think the “if you build it, they will come” ethic is the best strategy for survival. SUA may have a large e-mail list and over 2000 Myspace friends, but anyone who is on Myspace (you all are) knows that for every 100 friends you have, only one will read your bulletins.
I guess I was part of the minority this time, since the crowd for Saturday’s show topped out at around ten people. I may be wrong, but I think I was the only attendee who didn’t have a personal connection to one of the musicians. A newspaper review or hip-happenings columnist may use the low headcount as an opportunity to criticize the musicians’ draw, but I count myself lucky to have been in the audience of an intimate show. Both acts handled the circumstances with grace and gave it their all, despite the low headcount and technical difficulties of the South Union Arts’ sound system.
Paleo took the stage first. From the looks of the slender musician with drab thrift store clothes draped over and around him in layers, you would expect nothing more of him than a neo-hippy who plays in drum circles under highway overpasses in some city you’ve never found yourself in before. Instead, Paleo plucked and strummed a creaky acoustic guitar and weaved folk stories with his soft and sweet voice and erupted into primal sandy howls to drive the point home. What could have easily been a bad open mic outing turned into a lyrically complex and sonically grabbing performance by a talented songwriter and passionate performer. Paleo (aka Dave Strakany) explores the bittersweet elements of life with a joy and drive seen in very few singer/songwriters these days. Currently working on what he calls the “song diary,” Strackany is in the process of writing one song per day for 365 days, all while on tour. The shifting themes and mood of each song gave a feeling of a solitary troubadour who absorbs his passing surroundings better than most absorb the water they drink. It is a happy relief when one realizes that there are still people like Strackany out there absorbing and relating the experience of travel and human drama from town to town with a poetic tongue and sincere voice.
Closing the night was a band from Detroit called The Silent Years. Only knowing that they were from Michigan, I didn’t know what to expect and prepared myself for another White Stripes clone, but when the five members took the stage and the lead singer announced “you’d think we’d be pretty disappointed that only ten people came out tonight, but we’re not and we love you all,” they convinced me to stay and listen. Melodic layered indie-pop that occasionally strays into sound collage experiment, then picks itself right back up-beat is what followed. With lyrics that are alternately contemplative, sanguine and sad, the band played together as if the audience were a full stadium of adoring fans, proving that these kids have the drive to become something important. The lead singer’s voice has a depth and scope that makes you think that Jeff Buckley has come back from the river and made me glad I weathered the cold Chicago night and the South Union Arts Center’s lack of heat.
Unfortunately, one attendee that couldn’t weather the cold was SUA’s sound system, which began gurgling during the band’s first song. The last time The Silent Years visited Chicago, they played at The Cubby Bear on the north side, which is anything but melodic and accommodating to a touring band. My hopes is that this band doesn’t eschew Chicago and its harsh mistress of luck, because the rest of Chicago could use a dose of their earnest strain of indie-rock that seems so scarce these days.
I felt sorry for the musicians and the circumstances of the night, but lucky that I was there to witness what turned out to be a great, if flawed show. I urge you to seek out their work. Links are below.
-South Union Arts Center: 2.75 / 5
-Paleo: 4 / 5
-The Silent Years: 4.25 / 5