LIVE REVIEW: Chad VanGaalen @ The Empty Bottle, Chicago

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Chad VanGaalen Jonathan Fisher

With his Lynchian aesthetic and fondness for romanticized macabre, Albertan singer-songwriter Chad VanGaalen performed a simultaneously tender and surreal set to a buzzy crowd at Chicago’s Empty Bottle last Thursday.

On tour with fellow Canadians COUSINS and Bry Webb of Constantines fame, VanGaalen’s performance brought a crushing sense of heartfelt sentimentality filled with his signature warble and fuzz-ridden lo-fi recordings, which continue to drive the sound of his most recent release, Shrink Dust. Drawing upon stylistic elements reminiscent of 2008’s lurid Soft Airplane and 2011’s spasmodic Diaper Island, VanGaalen’s latest effort is still peppered with hypnagogic lyrics, wind-in-the-willows whispers and enough synthesized reverb to swallow the entire room.

Lyrics full of allusions to disemboweling deaths and ghastly implications plucked straight out of an Un Chien Andalou-induced fever dream, VanGaalen is brilliant at fusing different melodic styles ranging from gentle, whirring balladry to rambly steel guitar folk. And despite a marked lack references to oozing vitreous humor, VanGaalen’s off-kilter banter in between songs, earnest smile and sweet, rambling stories made up for any disappointment involving a flashier stage presence and more of his renowned homemade instruments.

A true “mixed media” artist in every sense, VanGaalen blends soft acoustic strumming with jammy electronic interludes, creating what many have dubbed a “grab-bag” of melodies plucked, diced and sliced from his many garage recordings. And his live performance held much of the same intimacy and intensity as one of these DIY jam session. Simultaneously grotesque and gorgeous, his wavering vocals projected perfectly across a simmering crowd of what seemed to mostly be composed of long-time fans.

I myself have fond memories of making “Molten Light” mixtapes for high school beaus, and was just one of many audience members singing along to the surprisingly thorough repertoire he performed. Of course, there were songs off Shrink Dust, but VanGaalen made enough room to incorporate old favorites like “Rabid Bits of Time,” “Willow Tree” and “City of Electric Lights” into his set, a rare treat for artists usually more concerned with promoting their latest release. And though I realize that speaks more to my own personal affinity to Soft Airplane, it truly was a genuine, heartfelt performance by a singer-songwriter who has the strange ability to invoke an incredible sense of nostalgia occupied by crust punks and tweed-donning professor types alike.

An excellent show for the devotees of his back catalogue, it pulled off the unforeseeable feat of being both beautiful and bizarre and everything in between. A wistful, touching performance that may have showgoers, old and new, incorporating “Molten Light” and “Monster” into their future mixtapes.

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