As if fronting local scruffy hard-rock trio Mutts was not enough, out vocalist and piano man Mike Maimone kicked off his monthly residency at the High Hat Club, 1920 W. Irving Park Rd., on March 5, with tongue firmly out of cheek. The show was billed as "Mike Maimone and 'Friends,'" but the title barely hinted at what this gig encompassed.
Looking dapper and disturbingly unscruffy, Maimone plopped onto his piano stool and promptly jumped into a set that spoke more to 1920s barrelhouse and honky-tonk music than post-'60s rock 'n' roll. The man has the keyboard style of Fats Waller and Jerry Lee Lewis combined ( he punches the keys with violence which make the notes sting, but his speed and ease give those notes a smooth velocity and irresistible swing ), and a vocal style that clearly recalls Tom Waits and Warren Zevon before the heartache, regret and hooch were significant in their lives. With him bouncing up and down, smacking the keys and growling like a jolly puppet who just lost its strings, it was pretty hard not to get engulfed in all the fun he was having.
Maimone's early set cover of Ray Charles' "Busted" was wiry and electric, his late set take on Stevie Wonder's "Boogie On Reggae Woman" demented and sly ( I was sorry that he did not take the liberty of changing the gender in the song ... the idea of "Boogie On Reggae Man" sounds too 'hot' to pass up ) and his stripped-down version of Mutts' "Trust" was dramatic and scathing. Then the "Friends" got onstage and the night took a severe turn for the unexpected.
First up was Yoo Soo Kim, vocalist/violinist/guitarist of Chicago band Hemmingbirds, whose quieter and more romantic style tempered Maimone's charming roughness. Elegantly spinning through a heartfelt "Through the Night" and "My Love, Our Time will Come," he brought an elegance to the show by sucker-punching the attentive audience down to a nuanced level. JC Brooks took the microphone for a disturbing, sobering and measured take on "Cold" that was so intensely personal and pointed that it literally charged the room with electricity. ( You could not hear a feather drop. ) Then the three of them ripped through a rowdy mash-up of Mutts' "If It's Hot It Sells," Waits' "Step Right Up" and Hozier's "Take Me to Church," which gave the show a slyly cynical jolly climax that was musically entrancing, joyful and downright hilarious. I did give Maimone, Kim and Brooks major shit for not having more to offer but, hey, there is always a "next time."
Far less fun was Brazilian Girls' nearly sold-out show at Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport Ave., on March 14. After taking a three-year hiatus to start a family, frontwoman Sabina Sciubba and bandmates Didi Gutman, Aaron Johnston and Jesse Murphyfresh from recording a new CDdropped in on a mini-tour to preview new music while rewarding the long-term faithful.
The night got off to a great start with dubstep DJ Zebo as the opener, and his unobtrusive disco delivered with a gentle wash of roving colored spotlights setting the mood for a seductive evening. When his set dragged on well past the hour mark, and with those spotlights as the only illumination in that big crowded room, the energy in the audience turned sluggish and even downright hostile.
By the time Sciubba got onstage the audience was nearly comatose, but Brazilian Girls and the audience tried to click once the main course of the evening got underway. There were some problems that got between the two parties connecting and it almost turned into an endurance test. Although it was mentioned that the new CD will be out in a short while, neither Sciubba nor her bandmates mentioned the names of any of the new tracks, which made it a trifle hard for the audience to connect with the new material.
Worse was that the show was largely backlit, rendering Sciubba deep in the shadows, and though she seemed to have a high old time with her 2015 Charo-"coochie"-siren send-up, it was nearly impossible to see her face. ( For the image accompanying this article, I broke the house rule of not using a flash unit. ) After hours of spotlights being flashed in the eyes of the audience in a darkened room during Zebo's set, it became a burden to actually watch Brazilian Girls cut up.
None of this stopped Sciubba from owning the night even though she spent a chunk of it battling the tulle collar on her clown-like white pantsuit. "St. Petersburg" was lithe and elegant, and gently nudged into camp but "Pussy Pussy Marijuana" turned the night into an all-out free-for-all. Welcoming audience members on stage to enjoy and "partake" in the groove, the song morphed into a jolly free for all with cigar-sized spliffs from the audience being lit up onstage. ( I had to wonder if this crowd collectively packed a nickel bag in a single joint for this particular occasion. ) Clouds of smoke filling the room, and a big sloppy dance jam taking place onstage.
It was actually kind of funny to watch Sciubba wobble through a charging "Don't Stop" after getting bonked with the contact high. Ultimately, the show was a hoot and a clear victory for the band ( yes, this show did make you thirsty for more ... far more ) and the audience ( as I seemed to have the ONLY grumpy face in the merry crowd ). Clearly, with a new CD coming out there will be much more from Brazilian Girls in 2015 ... and I will have to work on not being so "grumpy."
Heads-up: Mike Maimone's next gig at the High Hat Club will be April 2.