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The Jesus Lizard brought their reunion tour to Chicago’s Metro with Dead Rider (review, NSFW pics)

December 9th was a frigid, miserable night. Crystal clear, ice on the ground, and surprisingly still. In the windless, stagnant night, intrepid photographer Zak Kiernan and I found ourselves parking a half-mile away from the Metro’s parking nightmare Wrigleyville location (for locals, we ended up in front of the Jewel on Southport). I was miserable in my own right, having flown back into the country just the night before, and Zak was, in his own words, “incredibly hungover” from his employer’s holiday party the night before, Leo Burnett’s legendary “Breakfast.” Making incredible attempts to ignore our self-imbued misfortunes, we slipped, slid, and blistered ourselves to the Metro’s doors. It was worth the odyssey — we were to see The Jesus Lizard, after all.

I would be lying if I said I was familiar with opener Dead Rider before I even saw their name on the marquee. Sure, research is my job, but school, travel, and family all got in the way during the weeks before I even left the door. As it turns out, and this is a regular occurrence, I was an idiot. Did you know US Maple guitarist Todd Rittmann started a new band almost a decade ago? Because my dumb ass did not. Shit, I didn’t even know he was in Cheer Accident at one point. Reading this in quick phone glances while Zak was out getting a cigarette piqued my interests, if got me a little excited. I’m too young to have actually caught the more pivotal art punk scene here in Chicago, and so this seems to be my big chance to at least partially experience it.

If US Maple was the quintessential art-rock college capstone, Dead Rider was a post-doctoral thesis in a reputable journal. Having never heard them ever, both Zak and I were pretty floored. After a blues/”dad rock” fake-out, Dead Rider’s sample/electronics-heavy power trio format successfully fused funk, R&B, industrial, IDM, blues, and this wide berth of other genres, but all… rock? I guess the term art-rock truly stands here, if just to make a futile attempt at blanketing all their successes.

The energy onstage was certainly something to behold — Rittmann gallivanted across the stage, messing with Matt Espy’s drums and throwing the occasional handful of confetti and, with arms outstretched, preached to the choir like a wise, punk Tom Waits. Fun was certainly the name of Dead Rider’s game here, and, instead of the usual “intelligent, smarter than thou” fare which so many experimental bands poise, the music experienced that night seemed more like a playground game, with Rittmann, Espy, and the stoic bassist/keyboardist/electronics wizard John Samson playing tetherball with genres and expectations. These are unheralded masters practicing their craft for whoever ends up in front of them, and it was this unexpected sight to behold. Enraptured with his own pent up feelings, Espy felt the need to scream menacingly at the crowd just after leaving his kit. We felt it, too.

Seeing The Jesus Lizard in 2017 seems like this strange sort of oddity. Sure, they had reunited in the past, and yet here we are — a full tour-like romp through the United States which just so happened to coincide with venerable Chicago venue The Metro’s lengthy 35th Anniversary Concert Series. It’s almost serendipitous, and suddenly the much more popular, big-budget venue (they do happen to host a wide breadth of styles, but I digress) is thrust back into its weird punk roots with a legendary cast of characters who, themselves, are rediscovering their own artistic roots within its walls.

At this point, the crowd was thick with aging punks who had either fully given into the proud scumlord lifestyle or successfully hidden their proclivities behind suits and a nice salary. I’d been to sold out shows at the Metro before — it’s almost a given that any show at the venue would be at this point — but this seemed different. Packed. Like sweaty, aged punk sardines, caked in our own oils. There was no escape from our little pocket of beer-fueled claustrophobia near the front-center stage area Zak and I managed to secure, knowing full well we would be in the immediate presence of The Jesus Lizard’s erratic frontman David Yow soon enough.

“You think he’ll get naked?”
“You would ask that, you young asshole. He’s sober now.”
“But do you think he’ll get naked?”
in a mocking tone… “YoU tHiNk He’Ll GeT nAkEd?!”
“Well, if his girlfriend is here he won’t”

Yes, this is a conversation I heard, in extremely close quarters. Tensions were high — the stage was minimally set. A guitar, a bass, a drum kit, a microphone. The Jesus Lizard were never ones for banners or fanfare. They might be playing to a sold-out show, but the aging lords of noise rock remained, well, “punks.” It didn’t matter what the stage looked like, everyone in this trash-compactor crowd knew what to expect, and it was coming.

And suddenly it was. Bursting onto the stage, the four parts of The Jesus Lizard assumed their positions. David Yow confidently strutted to the front of the stage, wearing a new shirt which he didn’t even care to remove the price tag ($4.99) from, and shoved his microphone stand out of the way, completely knocking it over, preferring to hug who I would assume to be friends who had made it all the way up front. You could see he cared, but I think just to play his music. It wasn’t about the crowd — much like Dead Rider, I think David and Co. just wanted to have fun. I am reminded of something he said to the tune of, “It was fun to get drunk and act like an idiot with those guys.” With more than a few beers resting on Mac McNeilly’s drum riser, idiocy was bound to happen.

It did. We earned it.

Exploding with their signature, machine-precise discord, Yow was already crowd surfing. New fans might not expect it, and most fans, seeing Yow’s current state of age, might have resigned themselves to a more reserved performance, but this was not the case. Whereas McNeilly, guitarist Duane Denison, and bassist David Wm. Sims were lost in their own microcosms of inward performance, Yow’s explosive performance was purely ecstatic and self-destructive. At 57, age was a state of mind to the legendary frontman.

“Those first three songs…we made them on fucking purpose.”

“Hey, fuck you. You’re all cocksuckers! …I didn’t mean it like that.”

It was all sarcasm to Yow, this snide vitriol legitimized his presence. Some “reunion” frontmen feel the need to play a part if just for audience nostalgia, but this wasn’t about reclaiming youth once lost. It instantly became obvious that all his energy, anger, and snot was just who David Yow is.

Of course, behind Yow were the cogs and sprockets which truly hoisted him into the air. Though limited to their own places onstage, rarely moving from standalone spots, the instrumental power trio was a sharp source of brute strength. Whereas Yow’s performance was punctuated with these bursts sardonic anger, McNeilly, Denison, and Sims exercised power through the white-knuckle grip of tendon-snapping restraint. It was painful, brawny. Like it was still 1993.

This balance of energies never ceased, even across two full sets and a three-song encore. The audience was in perpetual motion as well, swaying, pushing, dancing, and shouting along in time at The Jesus Lizard’s mercy. Yow’s spastic nature was infectious, and many in the audience crowd surfed and stage-dove right along with him, grabbing at his crotch on the way. Some who made it onstage felt the urge to dance, and, a rarity at these sorts of concerts, were not forcibly removed. This felt like a house show on a massive scale. Asses to elbows, no holds barred. People getting punched in the face (one, who Zak and I met afterward, had a classic “boxer’s cut” on the bridge of his nose and was proud of how much he bled. Of course, he drove from Omaha for this), mosh pits en masse, the inability to leave your spot otherwise.

Yes, David Yow got naked. It was an inevitability here, but he certainly took his time, ending the show mostly (he didn’t fully take his pants off) nude. The image of outward apathy, we all cheered as we watched this aging legend spread his poorly-washed ass cheeks at us and waddle around, genitals poking out of his falling jeans. Sure, it was gross, but the entire crowd was expectedly waiting for this moment. However, this raises a big question. The last time the band reunited, they said it would be their last. As I recall, Yow kept his doodle in his pants then. Now? A full tour, an unexpectedly nude frontman… is this it? The truest tour de force and ultimate concert experience for any Jesus Lizard fan, the show felt like a fitting epitaph. If this is it, I can feel happy knowing I got to witness and be a part of this.

Now back in the cold, at least after braving a rather nightmarish exit (as it turns out, more than a thousand people leaving a building through a storefront-style door is rough), my very sweaty clothes stuck to me and froze. It sucked. It was worth it.

photos by Zak Kiernan

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