Live at Schuba’s, Chicago
With Hannah Winkler, Dustbowl Revival, and Gavin Wilkinson
A long way from the long-lost dreams left broken on a California freeway
Theo Katzman is a kid from New York who went to the University of Michigan and, like so many who go to school in Ann Arbor, stayed. For years he played for My Dear Disco, now Ella Riot, and made a name for himself with them before deciding to set out on his own. And he’s found some success with it: he’s not only toured extensively throughout Michigan, he’s known to play a gig back home without infrequency. He’s been to Chicago before, but it’s been a while. Tonight, though, he is, and brings with him the locally-reknowned Hannah Winkler, as well as Ann Arborites now fled to L.A., the Dustbowl Revival, and local Chicago songwriter Gavin Wilkinson. A delightful line-up on paper, and, indeed, in the flesh.
Here is where I have to admit to only hearing about the last half of Gavin’s set: I hadn’t had time to eat before getting to Schubas, so I had to chow-down quick-like to catch anything at all. Gladly, though, the songs he played were very nice, sort of a combination of rustic 1920s and clever, ironic hipster music. He was followed up by a couple members of Dustbowl Revival and some local friends (front-man Zach Lupaten is from Chicago and went to U of M), who were utterly enjoyable. Three guitars with a mandolin, and the guitars occasionally changed for ukulele or autoharp. They’re not kidding about their name, either: they take that era and make it their own, playing smart bluegrass and jazz and swing with only minute modern twists – the lyrics, for instance. These guys brought the house down. People dancing, drinking, like a regular speakeasy. Scandalous. They also finished with a couple blues numbers, joined by Theo Katzman on drums and (((LOVEMASSIVE))) member Joe Pike on the bass, as well as singer Zach Lupaten’s father on harp – and man, could that guy play! You get the feeling that Lupaten’s talent is not without its roots.
After Dustbowl came Hannah Winkler, again with Theo on drums and Joe playing bass. Hannah has a sort of ethereal voice, with clever chord progressions and smart, thoughtful lyrics, including an e. e. cummings poem set to music. Her guitar sounded robust, sometimes like more than one instrument, and her songs about love and loss and friendship were the kind of contemporary folk balladry you’d expect from a much bigger act. But surely that’s only a matter of time.
And then it came time for Theo’s set. He stripped off his loose-hanging button-up shirt and grabbed his forest green Strat wearing a gray tank top and jeans. Jack Stratton sat down at the drums, and Joe, well, he didn’t need to move too much. The three of them immediately launched into several new songs, presumably on the debut album Theo’s recording right now, each of them very strong and containing what one has come to expect from Theo: good lyrics, nice hooks, excellent chord progressions. Theo writes like he talks, so the colloquial nature of his lyrics make the songs very approachable while remaining catchy and smart. As an example, “Brooklyn” is a song about going home after an absence, in this case one spent in Michigan, which he calls “true like New York but you lie like L.A.” “This long island is a desolate place,” he sings, comparing the city to where he now calls home.
And this trio is exceptionally tight, the whole evening. Jack’s in the pocket, Joe’s laying down amazing little fills and standing strong, and Theo’s playing the hell out of his guitar, and singing like a white soul man. I mean to say, the musicianship onstage was mind-blowingly, face-meltingly good. Three of the best musicians I’ve seen in a long time, and I’ve seen some good ones. It was a real pleasure to watch them play. I mean, some bands, they’re fun to see, but these guys were fun to watch: Jack laying down a beat, head lolling back with a big, open-mouthed grin like Snoopy; Joe standing, bobbing his head, laying down licks; Theo up there, just off-center stage, playing like a madman, singing and grinning from ear to ear. “I’m surrounded by hilarious people so I feel like I have to try to be funny,” he confides in the audience.
After the first trio or so of new songs, the boys launched into one of Theo’s stand-bys, called “It’s Gonna Be Hard For You” – “It’s gonna be hard for you when I’m gone,” he croons, the song a sort of celebration of owning one’s self, of being confident enough to know you have to leave somebody. “It’s gonna be hard for you when I’m there / haunting your headphones, passing through the air.” The things that linger after a lost love’s departure. The things that remind us of them. A poem, a song, a street name. His girl’s been flirting with another man, older, with money. “All I got is music and groceries, but that soul for you is in me,” he tells her, matter-of-factly. It’s a great song, always has been, and it’s enhanced with the current line-up of (((LOVEMASSIVE))), Jack at one point popping into a disco beat, bringing the already-danceable piece to a clip, Joe laying down just the right fill at just the right moment, backing off, holding the line. I can’t say enough good about those two.
Hannah Winkler joined them onstage to harmonize, and the band launched into new song “White Picket Castle,” Hannah’s soft voice adding depth and whimsy to the harmonies. They followed this with another newer song, “Country Backroads,” a song that should and probably will be played on the radio all across the country during summer, which saw Joe Dart masterfully using the musical hook of the song during the climax. A love-song to a girl whom Theo says “You sounded just like a dream I had / where Ryan Adams and Stevie Nix had kids / and they could sing like Aretha,” is sure to put a smile on your face. And then came the set-closer & audience-participation moment, “Feel Love All the Time.” This, to me, is a perfect example of Theo’s colloquial lyrics making a song really work. “Someone called me a fag today / because of the shoes I wear / and they were the only pair / I ever bought myself.” After teaching the audience the chorus, he started into the slow-burner, and when the chorus came in, I don’t think a single person in the place wasn’t singing. A song about being lucky, being born where we are and to whom we are – “You’re a lucky mother if you get to live to 25,” “I never had to grow up without a mom, to grow up without a dad.” It’s so matter-of-fact, and perhaps because of that it can give you a bit of a shiver down the spine. It’s his most massive song, perhaps also his most passionate, and sure to one day be an enormous festival sing-along.
Smiling, thanking the audience (“This is the best Chicago audience I’ve ever had. I feel like ever since you guys got Pitchfork, it’s been like” – at this point he crosses his arms and looks dour – “and I mean, when it comes down to it, it’s cool to be cool, but it’s more fun to have fun, you know?”), and waving, the band put their instruments down and come off the stage, to the warm embrace of friends, family, fans, and lovers. You can tell that these guys love doing what they’re doing, and it’s wonderful to watch. Theo has the drive, talent, and such a massive amount of love and positivity that it’s hard to see him not going far. So the next time he comes down, I’d find the time – if only so you can say “I saw him when.”