Live at Schubas
They came to us as something of a revelation in 1997, via the high-octane Chronicles and "Holiday" 5-song EP. After mostly ignoring fiery punk, post-punk, and hotter indie rock bands in America for two decades, major labels suddenly deemed such groups as possessing commercial potential, after all. Poor, ignorant sods; Nirvana's Nevermind had blown away their phony, unthreatening, perpetual stable of staple hard rock, boogie metal, and banal pop to kingdom come (not only artistically but in sales!). Ergo, in the major label feeding frenzy that followed on indie labels, and genuinely spirited and rebellious guitar bands, Epic/Sony snapped up Verbow, an indeed explosive Chicago foursome that boasted unusual subtlety to boot. Although it must be said the group were neither Johnny Come Lately's nor bandwagon jumpers. Singer/guitarist/leader Jason Narducy and cellist Alison Chesley had been playing the Windy City for years as Jason & Alison, even releasing a 1994 LP, Woodshed. And Narducy's own service to the cause stretched back further, to the original, hallowed early'80s Chicago punk scene of Effigies, Naked Raygun, Strike Under, Da, Big Black, Articles of Faith, and more, in his band Verböten-who even appear in the killer retrospective 2009 documentary, You Weren't There: A History of Chicago Punk, 1977-1984. I.E., punk passion had long burned in Narducy, and he was thus primed to pour it into his new band with Chesley, bassist Luke Rothschild, and drummer Mark Doyle. And what an eye-opener Chronicles was! I recall in my review that year for my own Big Takeover comparing it to a good cross between the recently-departed, flat out incredible Sugar (whose frontman, Bob Mould, had nicely stepped in to produce the album, making that reference elementary) and Nirvana, praising the "howl and engine-purring zap of Narducy's guitar-crunchy hooks" and marveling especially at the band's "tasteful cellist Alison Chesley, who enlivens track after track with her grieving scratch, only making Verbow more special." Given this unique approach-let's face it, loud, hard, exciting rock bands still don't apply stinging cellists, do they!-as well as the strength of Narducy's songs, full-throated voice, arrangements, and the searing ensemble play, I concluded that "Chronicles is the work of one of America's best new bands, a 'chronicle' of great pleasures that unfold on the wings of cello strings, lending layers of delicate beauty onto a hard-rocking, senses-ringing U.S. band on the rise." Hype that wasn't. That the group were able to follow-up their debut with an equally inspired second LP, White Out, deftly sidestepping the dreaded "sophomore slump," did nothing to change that estimation. But Epic failed to promote Verbow with the intensity their product deserved-just another nail in the coffin of majors' entire flailing enterprise-instead letting the band go after White Out. Surprisingly undaunted, the group went through a complete lineup overhaul, with only Narducy remaining with a new rhythm section and no cello. This trio soldiered on quite well (it says here) another two years until calling it a day in 2002. Fortunately the story doesn't end there (apart from the fact that Narducy has done yeoman, visible work touring with Robert Pollard and as a full current member of the today's prominent Bob Mould Band, where his bass and backing vocals come in handy), as this live album you hold attests. It's a great idea at that; It might even come as a shock for those who never caught the band on tour just how primal and vicious they were on a stage, but here's the proof. It's 12 songs recorded at the same club, Chicago's Schubas, three years apart, six each with both lineups. Indeed, Narducy says that was the idea, when asked about the rationale for this release. "We were noisier and louder than our albums," he agrees. "So by releasing these live recordings, I feel like it's showcasing the side of the band that had dirt under it's finger nails-the side that was full of piss and vinegar." Recalling the earlier of the two gigs presented here, on March 13, 1998, Narducy remembers, "Chronicles had come out in June of '97 and we'd been on the road since May of '97. This show was our first hometown gig of the year. We had just finished a tour with Frank Black and the John Doe Band." So emotions were clearly running high. And the energy is as rapid-fire as a Ramones set of that time. "When I listen to this show now I remember our commitment to blasting through a set, hardly ever stopping," he laughs. "This was probably a result of often being the opening band for more established artists; and also a holdover mentality from my years with Verböten." And here's a key question. As heard on the first six songs, how the heck were Verbow able to make Chesley's strings so audible through the heavy din, as I recall from seeing the band live? Narducy shakes his head. "Alison was playing her cello through a distortion pedal and stacked amplifiers." In fact, the recording is so good, and the playing so aggressive, that if this live LP is your introduction to the band, you are actually well served. The previously unknown "Savior's Line" in particular showcases the band at it's howling best, with a stomping, crash-cymbal-destroying rhythm, a soaring chorus melody, blasting guitar, and the quieter, moodier breakdown parts that made Verbow stand out from their other punk-inspired outfits. The same could be said of Chronicles' two best songs, the single "Holiday" and rocker "The Chronicles of Agent Kidd," both harder, meaner, and quicker than on record. That they remained so viable, exciting even, without their unique cellist, as the trio with drummer David Suycott and bassist Lennie Dietsch, is fairly remarkable when you think of it. And lest ye doubt that assertion, try out the last six songs here, again, at Schubas, in July, 2001. "I picked this show because the energy was so strong within the band and with the audience," Narducy elucidates, correctly, to these ears. "It really did feel like a celebration that night. I'm not one to listen to my own music very much, but I could listen to this [later lineup's] performance of [Chronicles'] 'Man In Mile High' over and over." Make that two of us. "What David and Lennie are doing together makes me feel fortunate to have played music with them," he continues, in tribute mode. "It sounds fluid and inspired to me. 'Down The Gun' exposes our Who influence to the nines. And at the end of 'I'll Never Live By My Father's Dreams'-the title of which is directly stolen from an Articles Of Faith song ["My Father's Dreams," which can be found on their posthumous Core EPs collection!]-you can hear David and Lennie end the song without me because I had fallen into the drum kit and struggled to get my guitar untangled from a cymbal stand. It was that kind of night." Nay, it was that kind of band. And if live performance is the true document of any working band's full measure, than let's just say Verbow, unsung as they were, will go down in history as one of the greats of that whole fertile "years that punk broke." Settle in to listen to this, and pretend you were in the front row, and get carried away by the tidal wave of energy and passion, everything loud and furious but well-crafted rock 'n' roll can be at it's best. - Jack Rabid, editor and publisher, Big Takeover Magazine, March 27, 2010.