Thee Oh Sees - Thalia Hall, Chicago - Gigs - Reviews - Soundblab

Thee Oh Sees - Thalia Hall, Chicago

by Texacaliago Rating: Release Date:

The musical landscape of rock in the 21st century has changed a lot from prior decades.  The dominate style of music found in popular culture, be it on the radio or TV, has a decidedly poppy/overly-produced style to it, which in many ways is nothing particularly new, but it has led to a lot of people falsely declaring that rock is dead being that it is seemingly absent from the mainstream. 

But for those willing to dig ever so slightly beneath the surface, there is a proverbial goldmine of talented and visceral bands that are arguably just as vital and compelling as virtually any of their more famous counterparts from decades passed.

Thee Oh Sees are kind of the epitome of that idea.  Over the past decade, they’ve released a dizzying number of albums and steadily built their reputation primarily through their legendary live shows.  Duck-taping your shoes before the band goes on stage isn’t the craziest idea, considering the truly unhinged hysteria that typically accompanies an Oh Sees performance, so needless to say my expectations were sky-high to see San Francisco’s finest for the first time, Saturday night at Thalia Hall.

The show had been sold-out months in advance, so the anticipation and energy in the building was palpable.  But before Thee Oh Sees hit the stage, the crowd was treated to a truly bizarre opening act: Grun Wasser.  This was essentially a pseudo-erotic interpretive dance performance set to music that recalled a clubby version of Kraftwerk/Bjork.  It was unusual, but strangely transfixing.  Definitely not my cup of tea, but I had appreciation for the general weirdness Grun Wasser had to offer nonetheless.

Up next were Running, a local Chicago noise-rock band who I had seen earlier this year opening for GOGGS.  Being that I was more familiar with them this time around, I was looking forward to their performance.  They once again delivered their patented wall-of-sound sonic assault that is equal parts frustrating and occasionally satisfying.  Their distinctively unpleasant vibe is once again what stole the show for yours truly, as Running are not particularly interested in delivering a “fun” concert experience (at least in a traditional sense) but rather leaving a broodingly powerful impression on the audience.  When they lock into a solid jam every once in a while, it’s intense and will get you angrily bobbing your head, but they never deliver the type of payoff that their music seems to be constantly building up to (hence the frustration).  Basically they stir up a good amount of tension in their music, but never fully release its potential wrath.  If they can figure out how to add that dynamic to their sound, they may be a force to be reckoned with, but for now, they’re just sufficiently dingy noisemakers, nothing more.

Running’s performance did a serviceable job of adding some additional energy to an already amped-up crowd eagerly awaiting Thee Oh Sees to hit the stage.  After a relatively short wait (less than 30 minutes) John Dwyer and the rest of the band came out to briefly fine tune their instruments before launching everyone into the fray.  And although the band was missing their extra drummer (they performed as a 3-piece), that did nothing to take away from the ferocious intensity of their performance. 

They kicked things off with “I Come From the Mountain” and all hell broke loose from there, as both myself and the crowd at-large proceeded to frantically “dance”, head-bang, and crowd-surf with reckless abandon.  Being in the thick of the crowd at an Oh Sees show is kind of like riding on a boat in extremely rough (but fun) waters.  It’s the type of wave of unbridled energy that characterizes the absolute best live shows, and when Dwyer hits you with one of his frequently unhinged, feedback-laden guitar solos, it’s like being struck by lightning for 10-20 seconds straight in the midst of an already chaotic storm, which takes the intensity level up a few notches into truly manic territory.  Adding to this is the uniquely psych-tinged quality of the band’s assault, driven by Dwyer’s robotic/barked/high-pitched vocals, and the swirling/spiraling crescendo of mind-tingling riffs he lays on the audience with a gleefully demented smile.

But lucky for the crowd (or at least those of us inclined to catch our breath) Dwyer did take a few breaks from the sonic onslaught by stepping over to the keyboard directly behind him to enchant the audience with a couple of melodic, trippy numbers (like “Sticky Hulks” for example).  Moments like those (few as they were) were a welcome relief from all the action and helped round-out their performance quite nicely. 

Thee Oh Sees gave the audience the best of both worlds on the final cut of the night (which Dwyer dedicated to Sharon Jones) with an epic performance of “Contraption”.  Jamming for nearly 20 minutes straight, “Contraption” is perhaps the best song that encapsulates all Thee Oh Sees have to offer, with its driving/propulsive riffs, positively electrifying guitar solos, frantically intense drumming, and in a live setting anyway, adventurously spacey extended jamming to boot.  Despite Dwyer battling at times with his equipment during the song, it was a fittingly resounding way to end a pretty fantastic performance. 

It’s kind of insane to think Thee Oh Sees routinely deliver these type of performances on an almost nightly basis, and have done so consistently over the past several years.  The fact they continue to convey such a uniquely manic intensity in their live shows night after night is a testament to their greatness as a band.  It’s also scary to think that they may not have actually peaked-out yet, either in the studio or in a live setting.  It’s hard to imagine them getting any better live, but, I’d love for them to prove me wrong in the future. 

Thee Oh Sees are a shining example of why rock is indeed not dead, and all those that bore witness to their performance at Thalia Hall Saturday night could come away with no other impression.  Rock is not only alive, but going quite strong, and thanks to band’s like Thee Oh Sees, it’s as good as it’s ever been.

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