The Smith Westerns’ little boy is growing up so fast.
The band’s second album recently had its first birthday, so the guys closed their tour with the best celebration a Chicago outfit can dream up—a sold-out homecoming at Metro. With big hooks and bigger guitars, Dye It Blonde was simultaneously shaggier and more buttoned-up than the band’s self-titled debut. 2011 was the Year of the Solid Sophomore Album because of efforts like that, a mature second work insisting its creators weren’t about to be relegated to the hype machine’s compost heap.
First supporting act Bleached let it fly with their punked-out girl-group thing, like Danzig’s version of the Ronettes (the bassist fittingly rocked a Samhain T-shirt). But the best comparison is visual, not aural: with photogenic band members up front and gangly guys in back, the California group looked like a co-ed Cheap Trick. Singer Jessica Clavin teetered on leather heels as she held down a four-chord clamor that managed to work the crowd beyond a polite bounce. Buoyed by sister Jennifer’s cross-pollinating jangle, the songs sounded like they took as long to write as they did to play, and that’s a very good thing.
Following band Porcelain Raft didn’t fare as well, churning out fussy would-be anthems too nebulous to grab hold for long. The duo’s dapper singer, wearing a blazer over a white T-shirt that looked older than 95 percent of the audience, good naturedly batted away balloons that emerged from the crowd as he warbled through song after song of staccato U2 imitations. Although their last song showed potential, the increased applause was no doubt driven by a crowd grown anxious.
A bass-heavy Gucci Mane track signaled the start of the frenzy, as the band members ambled onstage through the purple haze of lighting and smoke. Opening with the slow drone of “All Die Young” and concluding the main set with their freewheeling mission statement “Weekend,” the mostly new songs made the seamless transition to a live setting as the boys showed off their skills not only as musicians, but also entertainers.
Singer Cullen Omori and guitarist Max Kakacek tag-teamed the show’s performer aspect. During “End of the Night,” Omori let go of the guitar, clutching the microphone and pointing to the audience in true grown-up rockstar fashion while Kakacek drove fans wild with a screeching solo, guitar neck pointed skyward.
Later, Omori got big cheers just for rolling up his sleeves while Kakacek crouched down to lend the neck of his guitar to rabid first-row fans. The clap-along during “Smile” was another highlight, as Omori wielded an acoustic guitar as big as himself to woo every last audience member. It’s good to see a band have the balls to ham it up once in a while, knowing showmanship isn’t a true threat to precious indie cred.
“How’s your night—are you drunk?” Omori called out halfway through. “Have you been drinking?” Omori isn’t much of a banterer outside of the usual hello-Chicago bits, although he was happy to purr a response to a female audience member yelling, “You’re so hot!” Following Omori’s advice to “go buck wild,” the people absolutely bugged out for “Weekend.” Slightly sped up from the record’s tempo, “Weekend” might as well have been a Top 40 hit for this crowd. Who cares if Omori isn’t a chatterbox? The band bonded with the audience regardless, and when they sang, “Weekends are never fun/Unless you’re around here, toooo,” it’s obvious for whom the song was written.
The relatively brief show (15 songs, including encore) couldn’t satisfy everyone, especially those sweet on the debut—fans of which likely yearned for cuts like the T. Rex homage “Girl in Love.” Also missing was the disco-fied “Dance Away,” its absence curious for being the only Dye cut neglected—at that point, why not just play the whole album?
Such complaints are small potatoes. The band’s sound was full and rich, thanks to two touring musicians ably lending an edge to the gauzy pop moves of the Dye material and buffing the rough edges from scrappy Smith Westerns cuts like “Dreams.” This form of control makes for a more cohesive set—the two albums of material now sound like they came from the same band.
The band teased the audience with two as-yet-unreleased songs, too new to be named and thus christened “Demo 2” and “Demo 3” on the setlist. The former sounded especially promising to those who found Dye too sluggish, as sprightly jangle burst into a fantastic chorus engineered to pull hands into the air.
“This is the biggest room we’ve played as a headliner,” Omori announced before “Still New” to massive cheers. By the end of the show, it wasn’t so much a birthday party for Dye as it was validation of a talented band that isn’t getting any smaller. Only two questions remain. One: When can we expect a Smith Westerns movie? Two: Does Joseph Gordon-Levitt even need to audition for the part of the heartthrob singer?
Check out Pop ‘stache’s exclusive photos of Smith Westerns at Metro.
Smith Westerns at Metro on Feb. 3, 2012, setlist:
- “All Die Young”
- “End of the Night”
- “Demo 2”
- “Only One”
- “Still New”
- “Gimme Some Time”
- “Be My Girl”
- “Imagine, Pt. 3”
- “Fallen In Love”
- “Demo 3”
- “Dye the World”