LIVE: David Bazan @ Lincoln Hall, Chicago

By Mike Petruccelli

On November 7th, 2014 at 12:03am two things happened to me:

1. I just finished witnessing David Bazan and the Passenger String Quartet play once of the most eloquent live performances I’ve ever seen.

2. I turned 28 years old.

The latter isn’t important as much as it is shameless self-promotion for my boring and officially uneventful age, but I digress.

As I stepped into Chicago’s Lincoln Hall there were chairs neatly laid out on the main floor and across the balcony above. David Bazan, who is known for his earlier work in Pedro the Lion as well as his recent solo music, has been touring with the Passenger Quartet, a 4 piece classical ensemble headed by Seattle musician Andrew Joslyn. They recently released the “David Bazan + Passenger String Quartet Vol. 1,” an album that features 12 songs varying from Bazan’s career since the mid 90s. This show like many other dates on the tour was sold out, and for good reasons.

Amid the sea of well-dressed indie music fans, I awkwardly searched for an open seat to get a view of the back lined stage at Lincoln Hall, there were jackets already holding spots in the first couple rows but luckily I found a seat front left of stage. After grabbing a quick drink, the opener Casey Foubert came onstage. There was a already half-filled house and people were slowly shuffling in as he played. Foubert, a Wisconsinite and friend of Bazan’s, came onto the stage with a Fender Jaguar guitar while accompanied by a trombonist. Their 30 minute set included an array of slow and oddly arranged songs, many of them with various key changes and jumps in melody. It was the first time I saw a guitar/trombone duo, but it surprisingly good match. While Foubert sang in a very open but soft tenor voice, the lower range of the trombone complimented his melodies. From odd protest songs to songs about wives and children, Foubert had varying topical elements to his music but always kept his execution of his songs very calm, even when going into the higher ranges of his voice.

After Foubert, singer songwriter David Dondero soon followed. He anxiously paced onto the stage followed by local rock poet Thax Douglas who introduced Dondero with a poem entitled “David Dondero #6.” It was a weird and charming introduction, but I missed the bulk of any specifics to the poem itself, mainly because it came out of nowhere. Dondero then went on to play on for the better part of 45 minutes, telling about traveling stories to preface songs and tapping his feet along to the rhythm of the music while playing. He was well dressed and played a Gibson Country style dreadnought guitar (one that yours truly envied immensely). There was an honest American folk styling to his songs but they had a modern twist when concerning the musical elements. For example, his song “The Real Tina Turner” had a riff-like pattern comparable to The Hold Steady, but Dondero turned it into a very intriguing repetitive folk song like Woody Guthrie. He incorporated clever and campy elements into his music, but didn’t lack the substance like many songwriters would. Aside from some nervousness in the beginning of his set, he played flawlessly and had the crowd’s attention for almost an hour, an impressive feat for a solo artist.

David Bazan took the stage with the Passenger String Quartet around 10pm. Before they played, there was another intro from Thax Douglas who read a piece entitled “David Bazan #4” and once again, I didn’t catch any of it mainly because it was very short and quickly spoken. Immediately following the poem, the musicians went straight into “Hard to Be” from Bazan’s solo album “Curse Your Branches.” The swell of the quartet’s strings against his voice quickly became familiar to the crowd, and the intensity from the five musicians onstage was very apparent and almost overwhelming at times. This wasn’t going to be a quiet evening and it was stated up front with no hesitation.

David Bazan played in his usual attire- a black shirt, jeans, and a pair of tennis. His charm, like his voice, was also on point this evening. During the three Q&A sessions he had between songs, he answered questions about hitting a deer with his van, his side project Overseas, and where to find his favorite sandwiches in the U.S. For a performer who sings mostly sad, dramatic songs, his sense of humor is really one of the best parts of seeing him live. Throughout the night, he moved between a small guitar and a synthesizer and the changes between songs were very quick, playing fourteen songs + Q&A in the span of an hour and fifteen minutes. However, musically, he was also equally charming. As he sang the familiar songs like “Bands with Managers” or “When They Get to Know You They Will Run” Bazan did what he does best: sang with his heart through his rough, but focused baritone voice. He was relaxed, but energetic, singing most of the set with his eyes closed, but being extremely personable during the question breaks. My favorite moment of the evening was not a particular song or lyric, but when he sang out “Ohs” in the ending to “Strange Negotiations,” the closing song of the night. The strength and stamina in his voice mixed with the sorrowful composition by the quartet was by far one of the most impressive things I’ve seen live in a long time. His notes cut through the sound of the quartet and guitar, but it was never overbearing or forced.

Alongside him was the Passenger String Quartet lead by violinist, Andrew Joslyn. It was a very unique experience watching their accompaniment throughout the evening. Certain songs like “The Fleecing” and “I do” showcased Joslyn’s compositions in a very particular fashion, swaying from long notes to plucked strings, adding different styles and dynamics throughout the songs. It gave a new perspective to Bazan’s work; it heightened the main emotions of his music but in a way that wasn’t too contrived, like in a movie or TV show death scene. At certain parts it would sound very dark and ominous, but then dramatically switch to more percussive, lighter elements. Sometimes there would be immense build ups like in the song “Bands with Managers” when David sang “But you don’t believe when I say, it won’t be alright.” The quartet would bring the obvious elements of power to his lines, intensifying every word and feeling Bazan would sing. On the contrary, in songs like “Priests and Paramedics” which is one of the more dramatic songs lyrically, the quartet would hold back, playing to the subtle, cryptic elements, and not being the main focus of the music but rather a subtle overtone to the song. This mix of stylistic choices in composition made every song unexpected and different. It was a reimagining of the music, but still familiar and natural, but most importantly very elegant, evoking a who new range of emotions to Bazan’s music.

During one of the Q&A sessions David mentioned that there would be a volume two of work with the Passenger String Quartet. There was a taste of this when they performed his recently released songs “Little Landslide” and “With You.” Needless to say, I’m very excited to hear what’s in store because this was one of the best shows I’ve seen in 2014, not to mention, a really kick ass way to start a birthday. It’s exciting to see elements of two completely different styles of music mesh together so well that you can’t decide if you like the original songs themselves, or their newer interpretations. On a recording level, the originals are the originals for me, but when it came to hearing them live, this was probably the best I’ve ever heard them. Either way, if you get a chance to see David Bazan, quartet or not, do it, you will not be disappointed at all.