Review: Califone; October 10 & 11, 2009; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Califone - October 10 and 11, 2009

An album and a film, ghostly and eternally tied together: this was the premiere of Califone‘s All My Friends Are Funeral Singers.

After a month of listening to Funeral Singers and being totally, completely geared up for their two performances at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, I was ready for anything—and everything. Both were delivered in a weekend I will always remember.

Flashback. For two electric nights in March 2009, I saw Tim Rutili, Ben Massarella, Jim Becker, Tim Hurley, and Brian Deck reunited as Red Red Meat. The Empty Bottle was a great, rustic dive of a rock club near northwest Chicago, unlike the refined artistic confines of the Museum of Contemporary Art—where I was to see and hear Funeral Singers. I’m wondering now which incarnation I loved more fully. It’s a Ginger vs. Mary Ann type of question. The answer is both—depending on who’s in front of me.

In any case, it was the usual austere set-up for Califone. Singer Tim Rutili sat in front at stage right. Drummer Joe Adamik, looking youthful and friendly with a beard and glasses, sat behind Rutili, but he was positioned at an angle to better see the film as they played along. Jim Becker and Ben Massarella were situated similarly at stage left. All four could look at each other and the screen as they played, and Tim and Joe both had Macs for added musical benefit.

Califone - CarryThe film alone was worthy of the audience’s full attention. In a setting played with live music, however, viewers may feel like they need to see it more than once to fully appreciate it. The guys played along throughout, but only three full songs from the album: “Apelike”, “Funeral Singers”, and “Evidence”. All were perfectly placed; the rest of the time, Califone played at certain points, but it wasn’t as important to see them as it was to watch the film. After the film, the band returned to play 30-40 minutes of new and old material.

The first night’s excellent post-film set included “Fisherman’s Wife,” “Better Angels”, “Polish Girls”, and a couple of others. They ended with the “Where Have All The Good Times Gone?”, by The Kinks. It was sloppy but gleefully played. A couple of the actors in the film were also in attendance.

Sunday night, I took my beautiful, pretty darn hip but cautious wife to the show. The same crowd was in attendance: square, dark glasses with short, mussed, and straight-up hair—and those were the ladies! The crowd was, however, somewhat more adult than on Saturday. On second viewing, the film itself was more interesting and more accessible than the first night.

Each night’s performance had its moments, especially Sunday’s. Tim broke a string during the first verse of “Polish Girls”, and in typical and much loved fashion, he simply stopped and said, “I broke a fucking string, and we will simply not play with five strings. A year or two ago maybe, but not now!” They decided to play a different song instead, which Tim explained, was going to be difficult to play. That song was “Giving Away The Bride”, and they rose to the occasion, giving possibly the best performance of the two days on what is undoubtedly Funeral Singers‘ toughest song.

At this point, Tim decided to fix his guitar string and invited anyone who had a question or some good jokes to come up onstage. I resisted the impulse to oblige, and instead opted to just watch the guys onstage interact. Tim called Ben a “fucking hippie” at one point the first night during a brief interlude, and everyone laughed. These guys have known each other for a long time—Tim and Ben in particular—and it shows in the way they lock in musically when it seems they’re about to completely fall apart.

Tim also left the stage at one point for a few minutes on Sunday, and the rest of the guys seemed, briefly, flustered. Tim returned, declaring, “I’m fixing this fucking string!” Shortly thereafter, Jim Becker left for perhaps five minutes, during which time Tim explained that Jim had a prostate the size of a pea, and therefore had to pee every five minutes or so. When Jim came back onstage, Tim asked Jim where he had been and Jim said simply, “I had to pee…and I got a cup of chicken soup.” Classic response, with many laughs from the crowd.

After the Sunday night show, I had a chance to talk to (but not interview) the band at the autograph table. They seemed in good spirits. I told Tim I thought the film was much better on the second viewing, and he was appreciative. Jim Becker was friendly, but quiet, Joe Adamik, very friendly, and Ben thanked me for coming both nights. They are all good people, just regular guys who happen to be in the great position of doing exactly what they want to be doing.

One of the benefits of being a Chicagoan: great venue, great city, great people, an excellent and challenging film, and one of the most beautifully recorded, written and played albums I’ve ever heard.

Notes to those who will see them on this winter’s tour: my recommendation is to focus on the film. Look at the trailer (above) to get an idea of what’s happening in the film. In Chicago, the audio was excessive, and although I love it loud, hopefully you’ll will have a better aural experience in your venue.



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