TVD Live: The Chills at the Black Cat, 2/24

PHOTOS: JON THOM MOODIE | Led by songwriter-vocalist-guitarist Martin Phillipps, New Zealand’s The Chills haven’t toured in the USA since 1996. That’s a long time. Long enough in fact that when this cornerstone of the Kiwi Flying Nun experience announced a 2019 tour of the States, high expectations were unavoidable. That’s in large part because the current lineup’s recent work, in particular 2018’s Snow Bound, has offered substantial rewards. However, it’s also true that outstanding music by veteran outfits doesn’t always fully translate to live performance bliss, making disappointment a real possibility. How’d The Chills’ February 25th show at Washington, DC’s Black Cat turn out? Dear reader, the answer is awaiting below.

It should be mentioned straightaway that when it comes to geographical sounds, the ’80s New Zealand Flying Nun Records explosion remains one of my favorites. And yet, with the exception of catching David Kilgour (twice), my up-close-and-personal experience with this scene is zilch. Talk about intensifying expectations. Understandably given the circumstances, when the opportunity arose to see The Chills at the Black Cat, my thoughts beforehand focused entirely on the main attraction and not on the opening acts, of which there were two.

Still, my friend and I arrived early, shortly after the start of the first band’s set. They were called Springhouse. It rang a bell, but at my age I’ve encountered more than a few false alarms. The music they played was solid melodic rock, moderately anthemic and more than a touch Anglo, with some interesting guitar textures. Not at all bad.

Then the drummer came out front to play shakers for a song. Once it was over, he was announced to the crowd as what sounded like Jack Rabbit, which I thought was kind of a lame handle. After rolling it over in my head a few times, it suddenly occurred to me that it was actually Jack Rabid, as in the indefatigable publisher of The Big Takeover and oh yeah, Springhouse, I remember them now.

It was all so long ago. I was more familiar with Rabid’s prior band Even Worse, but I did hear Springhouse more than once in the early ’90s (they had a couple of records on Caroline) and as I listened more attentively, those aforementioned bells started resonating a bit more clearly, as did the songs. By the end of their set Springhouse’s rep as being pop-shoegazy really came into focus, as did the fact that Rabid wasn’t the only guy on stage. Altogether, a nice surprise to start the evening.

Next up was NYC’s Brion Starr and his band, whom I most definitely didn’t know. Well, I’m acquainted with them now, and it’s a meeting I’m pretty stoked about. Starr was preceded onstage by his cohorts, who worked up to a crescendo as he made a grand entrance clad in a purple patterned bodysuit. Skintight? Oh yes. Glam? Let’s just say that by the end of the opening number, I was entertaining thoughts of Jobriath with The Stranglers as his backing band; the presence of keyboard (along with the standard guitar, bass and drums) really drove this assessment home.

A bodacious way to begin the set, but quite possibly difficult to sustain, though Starr avoided this potential snag by strapping on a guitar (he would unstrap more than once) to help dish out a batch of tunes that if obvious in their influences went down smooth but with a lingering, welcome bite, like a strong belt of a preferred brand of hooch. And those influences, they really underscored Starr’s creative allegiance to the old, seedy, punky Noo Yawk City.

Let’s see, there was a whole lot of streetwalking swagger a la early solo Lou, a song illuminating the seemingly bottomless inspiration of VU’s “Heroin,” snatches of the Heartbreakers and Richard Hell, plus traces of non-NYC-ers like Jonathan Richman and Iggy Pop. Although I was at the Black Cat in the Nation’s Capital in 2019, for about a half hour it felt like it was 1976 and I’d just dropped into Max’s Kansas City for a hang.

But Brion Starr wasn’t the reason I’d made the trip into Washington, DC on this Sunday night. Waiting for The Chills to hit stage, those expectations began creeping up afresh. Once bassist James Dickson, drummer Todd Knudson, multi-instrumentalist Erica Scally, and keyboardist Oli Wilson settled into place with Phillipps front-and-center, and then commenced with bona fide classic “Night of the Chill Blue,” worries over disappointment began to subside; the playing was sharp, but more importantly it felt inspired, a quality that can prove elusive when dealing with songs that are over 30 years old.

It does bear mentioning that nobody except Phillipps (the sole constant Chill) was involved when the set’s 20th century selections were recorded. Instead, this long-sturdy lineup was integral to the formulation of “Bad Sugar,” the next song of the evening; as the first of three selections from Snow Bound, it quickly underlined consistency of energy and precision between old stuff and new, though much of the fresher material, including two from 2015’s Silver Bullets, emerged in the latter portion of the show.

Along the way they dipped back into ’87’s Brave Words (from whence “Night of the Chill Blue” came) with “Wet Blanket” and “House with a Hundred Rooms” as “The Male Monster from the Id” from ’92’s Soft Bomb unfurled in between. “Deep Belief,” one of the standouts from Snow Bound, capped off this sweet run as leadup to a combo-punch of pure goodness, specifically “Submarine Bells” (the closing title cut from the band’s 1990 classic) followed by a gorgeous rendering of “Pink Frost,” which for many Chills fans endures as Phillipps’ greatest achievement.

I don’t know about that, for “I Love My Leather Jacket,” which arrived in the middle of an encore trifecta of vintage nuggets (the others being “Doldrums” and “Rolling Moon,” both found on the essential Kaleidoscope World comp) is some stiff competition in the department of guitar-pop songwriting mastery. Prior, “Heavenly Pop Hit” from Submarine Bells delivered another highlight, and “Lord of All I Survey,” the pointed (especially given the location of the show) “America Says Hello” and “Underwater Wasteland” all stood up tall amid the chestnuts with nary a trace of letdown.

I’ll add that the sound mix was right on the money. I’ve noticed in club gigs that keyboards and strings regularly get submerged or jump out too boldly, but here, with Scally doing adroit triple-duty on guitar, violin and keys, the last in counterpart to Wilson’s fine work, said instruments were layered into the scheme, absorbed as part of a whole as much as individually heard. Dickson’s bass work was terrific throughout the set, toughening the songs in contrast to their studio foundations. Knudson was also on point; seeing him drumming from a standing position was another of the night’s top moments.

Best of all was soaking up Phillipps’ presence, warm of voice and crisp on guitar as he engaged a suitably enthusiastic crowd with sincerity and total class. Given that I rated Snow Bound as one of the ten best records of 2018, perhaps my worry over being let down was misplaced, but I’ve been disappointed in this sort of scenario on more than one occasion. Not on this night, friends. Long live The Chills.

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