With Lollapalooza acting as one of Chicago’s main musical attractions, its pre and post shows featuring festival artists in more intimate settings also draws attention. After a few years of increasingly impressive shows, Nelarusky has secured its place as the kick-off to the city’s musical highlight.
Started by Lauren McClusky in 2007 (she was 16 years old), Nelarusky raises money and awareness for Special Olympics. Each year, the star power improves, and as a result the fundraiser is more and more successful. The 2013 edition of Nelarusky raised a record $42,000 and nabbed its biggest headliner to date – Imagine Dragons. Like years past, the undercard consisted of other artists in town for Lollapalooza. This year the audience was treated to Icona Pop, Brick + Mortar and local musician Kellen & Me.
Kellen & Me
This one man band, armed with an array of loop pedals and backing tracks, set the tone for the evening. It’s not necessary to form a whole band anymore, provided you have the wherewithal to program the songs and sell ‘em live. Luckily, Kellen & Me proved quite the salesman. With minimalist style, he sang thin, reverb drenched melodies over atmospheric swells. The crowd had already reached near capacity by the last songs of his set, a testament to how strong this bill was. His closer included backing tracks of drum samples that kicked in during the last portion of the song, and added extra gusto to his guitar chops. Kellen & Me shouted out to Imagine Dragons, and took his bow in the form of slamming his guitar strings to emphasize the climactic end of his performance.
Brick + Mortar
Brandon Asraf, the bassist/vocalist for two piece powerhouse Brick + Mortar addressed the crowd during the set change. “I know you’re excited for Icona Pop and Imagine Dragons, but you should listen to us too.” To his credit, this is not an unfair request (see the write up of Nelarusky 2012, when Swedish sisters First Aid Kit had to scold the crowd for not giving them their full attention). When Asraf came back on stage to perform alongside drummer John Tacon, they were already fired up and raring to go, though it took the audience a couple of songs to get anywhere near the band’s level. Opening with “Heatstroke” from the new album Bangs, the duo displayed incredible chops. While backing tracks and samples were used, it was more for color than anything else.
Unquestionably, the human element was driving this band.
Brick + Mortar combines R&B vocal delivery with reggae beats, pop melodies and moments of alt-punk power. It’s fair to say that most of the audience didn’t know this band at the start of the night, but wouldn’t forget them soon after. If there was a chance they might, Asraf made them scream “BRICK + MORTAR” in a self-serving call and response; though it’s impossible to fault his reasoning. “Say it loud for me, so that when I head back to New Jersey, and I’m working at the AMC Theater making $7.50 an hour, I can remember that I played to this crowd and they knew my name.”
For all of the genre melding songs and stunning musicianship, Brick + Mortar presented a couple of easy-to-digest choruses to satiate those in the audience actually excited to hear the brain dead chanting of “I DON’T CARE, I LOVE IT” in the inevitable set closer of the next group. The most pop friendly of the bunch being the chorus suggesting “We Could Get High” (advice many would heed once Imagine Dragons took the stage in an hour’s time). In the case of this New Jersey duo, the ability to dumb it down and write the big sing-a-long chorus acts as only another tool in the band’s deep toolbox. Hopefully these efforts will be appreciated as they continue touring and performing to larger crowds, so Asraf can stop ripping tickets and start selling them.
While Kellen & Me and Brick + Mortar used pre-recorded tracks to enhance their performance, Icona Pop used pre-recorded tracks as its performance. After four or five guys toiled over the act’s set up of Mac computers and DJ equipment, the two singers, dressed fabulously in contrasting white and black mirrored dresses, took the Metro stage. Assuming the vocals were not also pre-recorded, the two singers, Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo, have beautiful voices, and started the set with challenging harmonies executed to perfection. However, these voices would soon be drowned out in electro noise and overused beats and bumps all too familiar in the genre.
Aside from a kazoo and three chords of a guitar, there were no instruments. Aside from stomping and hair twirling, there was little stage presence.
The red-haired Hjelt took long swigs from a Miller High Life bottle, though this seemed a premeditated action to show the audience that she was as capable as a down-to-earth party girl as an international pop-star, and while the crowd was into it, by the time the girls got to their hit single “I Love It,” even Hjelt seemed bored. When she sang “I don’t care!” she was quite convincing. The motif of this set was style over substance. This was wonderfully exemplified as the singers left the stage and the stage hands dissembled the DJ table, revealing a plain white plastic table held up by cinder blocks.
It all makes sense now. Icona Pop didn’t have any instruments because Imagine Dragons used ALL of them. As the black sheets were removed from the ‘Dragons set up, an impressive army of percussion was revealed, including a drum originally used to move Viking warriors over oceans never before crossed. Before the Las Vegas based four-piece (with one auxiliary member) began, Nelarusky founder Lauren McClusky took the stage to present the fruits of her team’s labor, $42,000, to the Special Olympics. The audience cheered in support, and then the lights dimmed, and the show started with a bang.
The show began with a drum circle, with each member pounding at one of many percussion stations. Fittingly, towering front man Dan Reynolds took the Viking drum, putting his full force behind every swing of his mallet. This led into the first song, “Round and Round,” one of many single-worthy songs off of the band’s debut album Night Visions. Since Night Visions was first released in September 2012, Imagine Dragons has been on a continuous rocket ride upward. One can’t even imagine the full extent of how this would change a life, but Reynolds offered a few glimpses with his many asides to the audience.
“It’s really nice to be playing small clubs again. We played clubs for three years, and it’s just great to be back and be able to see all of your faces.” He later added, “We’ve been playing a lot over the world. Now that we’re back in the states, Chicago feels enough like home,” which led to roaring cheers.
Imagine Dragons stretched its set into an hour and a half. Throughout the entirety, Reynolds sounded good in his comfortable mid-range, but literally asked the audience for help on all of the higher parts expected of him from his performance on the record.
“Chicago, will you help me sing this one?”
Reynolds may not be the best singer, but he is a fantastic frontman and band figurehead. Nobody on stage commands attention like him, and not just because of his height. He moves with action and purpose, chopping his arms or punching the air above to accentuate his deeply personal lyrics. He offered only a couple of insights into the song’s meanings, including “It’s Time,” and the now “Night Visions” single that grew in popularity on two EP’s before making it onto the debut full length album.
“I wrote this song at a very low point of my life. I never would have guessed that it would lead me to the best parts of my life. It just goes to show that even the most terrible moments can turn around and change your life,” then, as if he became all too aware of his feel-good preaching, he added with a smirk, “but most of the times I guess things can stay terrible.”
For all of the band’s sudden success, Reynolds is incredibly sincere, and seemingly quite emotional. In one of few stripped down moments, only Reynolds and guitarist Wayne Sermon remained, with the honorary 5th ‘Dragon helping on violin. They dedicated a heartfelt acoustic song to a friend of the band’s that recently passed from a long battle with cancer. For this song, Reynolds sang quietly into the microphone. He didn’t ask for help or accentuate his performance with drums. He just remembered his friend and sang. It was a special moment, perhaps lost on the crowd that talked over it, wanting to hear more anthems that they were familiar with. Maybe First Aid Kit was on to something.
The energy picked back up soon after, as Imagine Dragons closed the set with confetti filled balloons for the song “Underdog,” and an extended version of the band’s newest single “Radioactive,”complete with massive group percussion, strobe lights, and the full vocal support of the capacity crowd. After a one-song encore of “Nothing Left to Say” Reynolds and his band bowed, thanked the audience and exited, leaving remnants of smoke and confetti to symbolize the successful party that was Nelarusky 2013.
As the show raises more money, sells out faster and faster each year, and attracts more popular acts, one can only be excited to see what McClusky and her passion will present one year from today.
To learn more about Nelarusky, or to donate, visit www.nelarusky.com