On the Fiery Furnaces’ new album, Rehearsing My Choir, brother and sister bandmates Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger collaborated with their grandmother, Olga Sarantos, to write a concept album about Sarantos‘ childhood in Chicago. So when I found out the Furnaces were out touring to promote their album, I had to wonder: Would Grandma be there?
Then I found out she was 83-years-old, not exactly the ideal age to tour with a rock ‘n’ roll band, even if that band is made up of two of your grandchildren. So with no Grandma Olga to sing her parts, how was the band going to perform any of their new songs Sunday night at the Aladdin? With the help of a music stand and Eleanor‘s astounding breath control, it turns out, but I‘m getting ahead of myself.
Opening for the Furnaces were the Roaring Lions, who were quite frankly awful. Or at least I found them awful. Three drunken girls left their seats to dance to the band‘s brain-damaging math rock. For the unitiated, math rock is a music genre made famous by bands like Shellac and Polvo, and consists of unorthodox meters, labyrinth-like guitar riffs and sometimes a serious amount of screaming.
All were on display as the Roaring Lions assaulted the ears of this non-math-rock fan, the Aladdin‘s legendary acoustics amplifying the band far too well. Add to this the fact that the lead singer of the band was wearing a zoot suit, fez hat and bowtie combo that I had to stare at for 40 minutes.
But then the nightmare ended and the lights came on. While I was furiously scribbling notes about how much I hated the Roaring Lions, the Fiery Furnaces emerged for their soundcheck. While their touring drummer and bassist checked their levels, Matthew bashed away at various guitars and Eleanor flitted about nervously, looking distracted and uncomfortable.
The fairer Friedberger‘s weirdness continued throughout the show, with Eleanor‘s between-songs banter consisting of strung together sentences like,“Thanks
forcomingtotheshoweverybody,“ or “here‘sasongoffournewalbumRehearsingMyChoir!“
It was bizarre, and frequent technical problems with her guitar didn‘t help matters. The first song of the set was “Quay Cur,“ a not-too-difficult song off the band’s often-difficult second album Blueberry Boat, and it rocked. But whoever was mixing the band‘s sound had the bass and drum levels far too high and Eleanor‘s guitar levels too low, but they can‘t be blamed for the mess coming out of Matthew‘s guitar amp. If I had to guess, I would say it was whatever pedal he was using that created a sound I can only describe as melodic sludge. Thankfully, Eleanor‘s strong vocals anchored the song enough so I could recognize the band‘s melodies in the mix.
After “Quay Cur,“ they launched into “Straight Street,“ another only-a-little-difficult song off Blueberry Boat, with the refrain-cum-chorus of “So I walked up the length of the street they called Straight/Cursing myself because I got there too late“ that got the crowd singing along.
But soon Eleanor mumbled “here‘ssomenewsongs“ and the reverent crowd got a little restless. The Furnaces‘ new songs are mini-epics, not unlike many of the songs on Blueberry Boat, with the main difference between them the long, spoken monologues of Grandma Sanatos.
The monologues were spoken live by Eleanor, who needed a music stand in front of her to read her grandmother‘s words. So just as the crowd was bouncing around to some rocking riff, the song would slow down for a piano ballad part sung by Matthew, which would then segue into a midtempo music hall bit with Eleanor speaking as Olga. These songs went on for quite awhile, with the crowd desperately trying to get excited about the energetic parts of the songs while bobbing their heads politely to the slower ones. After playing three long, long songs off Rehearsing My Choir, Eleanor said “Thanksforlisteningtoournewsongs,“ and the band played “Up in the North,“ a song from the band‘s first and most accessible album, The Gallowsbird Bark.
This got the crowd pumped and helped them forgive the set‘s earlier excesses, but I couldn‘t help feeling like there was something awkward and unsure about the relations band and audience relationship. Even as the band looked energized by the crowd‘s enthusiasm, they seemed aware that their new material wasn‘t what people came to hear, while, of course, that was what they were most excited about playing.