Seeing Big’n play live is like attempting to navigate a kayak around the fringes of a waterspout. The sound comes in waves and threatens to capsize listeners, the monstrous wind’s shriek is less a siren’s song and more of a demonic growl, and the water chops at the minuscule vessel like a pig that knows karate, to paraphrase one of the few jokes provided by lead “singer” William Akins.
On the eve of its sixth anniversary celebration, The Burlington in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood proved a more comfortable host than the fraternity house basement where Big’n had previously laid assault on collegiate ears. There, condensation had moistened the black walls and the sweat flying off the band formed a sort of salty salute. Tonight, the atmospheric conditions were pleasant inside and out, but the tension and rage coming off the stage was just as palpable and intense.
Big’n find themselves in the early stages of an improbable renaissance. Formed in 1990 in Joliet, Illinois, the band started off in the shadow of Akins’ older brother’s band, Shorty, so the name may have been an ironic choice. Shorty would later morph into Chicago band U.S. Maple, and Big’n broke up, perhaps after one too many of its trademark onstage fistfights in 1997, for good, one would have thought.
Enter France’s Julien Fernandez, a big fan of the band’s when he was in his mid-teens, and who now had the scratch to start a record label, Africantape. He released Dying Breed: A Collection of Rare and Unreleased Songs in February 2011 and financed a new EP produced at Chicago’s Electrical Audio, released that May as Spare The Horses, much to almost everyone’s surprise. Tonight Big’n were back with a vengeance with a capital “V,” kicking off a short US tour before they play France, with fellow Joliet natives Bear Claw and and reunited local trio Pinebender.
Back in the 1990s, France would have been least likely to welcome a band like Big’n, but clearly times have changed since the days of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel, Stereolab and Air.
Live, Akins as a frontman, although he resembles Conan O’Brien’s shorter, angrier cousin, comes off as a punk-rock Joe Cocker. He began the evening with his mic at chest-level on a flexible stand, bending over to scream into it with his face wrenched up and red like an abused baseball mitt badly in need of oil. Throughout the band’s set, he strode angrily about the stage to Todd Johnson’s blazing silver Fender in his legs-sprawled low stance, past the pounding machine gun drummer Brian Wnukowski (of Haymarket Riot) and repeatedly banging into their new bassist, who he introduced only as Fred and occasionally placed in a headlock. “If I had a dime for every time we had a new bass player,” Akins observed wryly, “I’d have two fucking quarters to rub together.”
Although Akins began the set in a country-plaid blue shirt with a hole in one elbow, by the time he left the stage to get another beer during Big’n’s last number, he was down to a green t-shirt and soaked in sweat, as were the rest of the quartet.
Highlights were hard to pinpoint as most of the numbers bled together, as part of the same vortex, but they led off with “Razorback” and included “Like A Killer,” “Young Pig” and “Seaworthy” from the Spare the Horses EP in the set. Each “song” was a barrage of debris whipped into a frenzy, a maelstrom of chunky, distorted guitar and bass and clattering, pummeling drums.
Big’n were preceded to Burlington’s stage by fellow Joliet natives Bear Claw who’ve been around since the late nineties. The trio traded vocals between the guitarist and drummer, and featured post-hardcore sound with healthy inflections of angular math-rock. Bear Claw hopscotched easily between time signatures and cymbal-heavy drumming. On the finale, the guitarist severed his surviving guitar strings and with his lone remaining string echoed the soundings of a harpooned whale while the drummer provided the depth charges and the bassist focused his clear fretboard on the simmering cymbals. The guitarist dry-humped his guitar against his amp until the whale was ready to surrender his blubber.
Openers Pinebender put on a pretty killer set in its own right, emphasizing sludgy power chords and brain-case rattling drums. A trio featuring a twin guitar attack, their dynamic, dueling solos on their final, lumbering but powerful number provided another of the night’s highlights.