The fifth annual Nelarusky, a concert benefiting Special Olympics, stacked four Chicago bands on the bill this year, with Cold War Kids as the grand finale. The combination of a good cause, great music and a killer headliner made for quite an evening.
First up was pop-rock outfit Katz Company. They played uptempo dance tunes and brought the energy. Leader singer Alex Katz jumped around the stage ushering in their catchy choruses, but the crowd was just getting settled in.
Sandwiched between rock acts was 18-year old pop singer Rachel McClusky. Her voice had some serious power, and her DJ-infused set was an unexpected change of pace.
Chicago’s own Gold Motel brought their blend of feel-good sunshine rock. Lead singer Greta Morgan’s voice sounded like melted honey and they had the crowd shaking their hips with their summery, nostalgic West Coast sound.
It was another local act, Carbon Tigers, who nearly stole the show. An explosive blend of psychedelic and indie rock, they ride tempo changes like waves. On record, lead singer Chris Wienke is reminiscent of Incubus’ Brandon Boyd, but live channels Radiohead’s Thom Yorke with his spacey, haunting vocals. His voice was lifted by delicate guitar work from dual threat Nick Cudone and Matt Irizarry. Highlights included the atmospheric “Rat and the Rabbit” and the thunderous “What I Say,” which had Wienke pounding the percussion and drummer Jeff Simonelli and bassist Aaron Sweatt thrashing away with their heads down.
Cold War Kids stormed the stage to a packed house, bringing their signature blend of heavy soul and tight musicianship.
They started the set with material from their most recent album, Mine is Yours. The record deviates from their earlier stuff with a more polished, pop-infused sound, but live the new tracks sounded raw and aggressive. That’s because the band has serious live chemistry, pounding and ripping their instruments in harmony with frontman Nathan Willet’s howling pipes.
Anthem cuts like “Louder Than Ever,“ “Skip the Charades” and “Royal Blue” had the crowd singing and stomping along. Material from their second record, Loyalty to Loyalty, was more off-kilter and groovy, and included the hard-charging “Mexican Dogs” and the infectious “I’ve Seen Enough.”
It wasn’t until nearly three-quarters of the way through their set that they played a single song from their breakout debut, Robbers and Cowards. Although the crowd was clearly waiting for their older hits, they were never taken out of the show by the newer songs. By making the fans wait, the band built anticipation and made their new material resonate.
Willet commanded the mic like a madman on “Hang Me Up to Dry,” as elastic bassist Matt Maust bounced from band member to band member, knocking over everything in his path. Then they brought down the house with a rowdy rendition of “We Used to Vacation,” as the crowd shouted every word.
For their encore Willet came out on keys, accompanied by one guitar, to play “Fashionable,” a slow-moving b-side from Mine Is Yours. As the song built the rest of the band came onstage, grabbed their instruments, and erupted into a powerful jam session. You could hear a pick drop during the emotionally charged “Hospital Beds,” and the raucous “Saint John” crowned a near two-hour set before the band waved goodbye.
To top it all off, Nelarusky raised $30,000 for the Special Olympics, putting an exclamation point on a captivating evening.