The Selmanaires, the Black Lips and Deerhunter: 48 hrs. in Chicago

Atlanta rockers put the dirty South on blast

The nighttime streets in Chicago's hip but sketchy Logan Square are alive Friday, Sept. 28. Thug gangsters chill out on stoops in front of rows of brownstones that stretch as far as the eye can see. Zombie crackheads patrol the sidewalk, asking for change or cigarette butts. Somewhere nearby the Black Lips and the Selmanaires are about to play a show at Logan Square Auditorium. The following night Deerhunter will headline The Wire magazine's Adventures in Modern Music festival at the Empty Bottle in Ukrainian Village, and word is both shows will sell out. This is a big weekend for three of Atlanta's favorite sons in Chicago. But how will they really fare outside the safety of their hometown?

If you believe the hype you read in Pitchfork – and Creative Loafing – the Black Lips and Deerhunter have already blown up, and the Selmanaires are hot on their tails. This weekend the stars are aligned, and all three bands are in the Windy City to confirm or deny the question: Has the South risen again?

Chicago maintains a strong presence on all fronts of punk, indie rock and experimental music. It is the epitome of a rough-and-tumble, blue-collar metropolis teeming with arts, and it is far from the Dirty South.

The Sex Pistols' manager, Malcolm McLaren, chose Atlanta as ground zero for the unveiling of British punk on American soil in 1978 because of the South's rowdy reputation. If you have ever seen a Black Lips show, you know that the scene McLaren was looking for is alive and well and living at the Drunken Unicorn more than 30 years after the fact. But Chicago is a different city. Will the crowd here go as unapologetically nuts as the kids in Atlanta? Will they hurl beer cans at the band? Cause property damage and witness the torrent of blood, spit and post-vomit make-out sessions that oozed from the stage at the Black Lips' record-release party for Good Bad Not Evil at MJQ Concourse on Sept. 11?

A well-lit corner shines like a beacon outside the auditorium, and clusters of fashionably unfashionable natives mill about; lounging at outdoor cafes and marveling over vintage bicycles chained to street lights. In the alley a rat the size of a football zips past a group of kids hovering in front of a Dumpster. One of them is lying on his back, sporting a dirty yellow trucker cap with a matching handkerchief tied around his neck. Another kid kicks over an empty beer bottle as he crouches in the corner to puke ... Yep, this must be the right place.

Logan Square Auditorium is a classy, 900-capacity art deco hall. It's well-suited for a 1950s sock hop, not a punk-rock show. The Selmanaires take the stage with a deafening crash on the drums. Within minutes the sparse area around the stage is densely packed, and the crowd is singing along. These people love the Selmanaires, and the crowd is growing larger by the minute.

One youngster is so compelled by the group's throbbing and layered rhythms that he invades the stage to dance around the band for what seems like an eternity. No one comes to eject him, and in a rare show of belligerence drummer Mathis Hunter takes a swing but does not connect. The usually smiley demeanor of guitarist Herb Harris turns severe as he stops playing long enough to point and send the trespasser back into the crowd. After the show, bassist/frontman Tommy Chung admits that at a recent show in Toronto he kicked someone in the neck for committing the same offense. Since then he has vowed to handle such situations with more subtle means. Tonight he shakes his head and keeps playing.

When the Black Lips emerge in front of the packed crowd, they are greeted as gods. Each member of the group is a character who is as distinctive as a member of the Monkees' or the Rolling Stones' lineup, and they are funneling their energies into playing the songs as best they can – save for guitarist Cole Alexander spitting occasional loogies in the air and catching them in his mouth. Guitarist/vocalist Jared Swilley bobs and weaves through each song with an air of professionalism that brings his normal poker face to a fine, mustached point. When the group fires into the slow twang and stomp of "I Saw a Ghost" and "O Katrina!" the whole room shakes. A lighting rig above the stage sways violently, but nobody seems to mind that they could be crushed to death; the show is that much fun.

Deerhunter's show at the Empty Bottle on Saturday night is an entirely different scene at a much smaller room. The venue is only slightly bigger than the Earl in East Atlanta, and is without a doubt sold out. Before the show most of the group navigates the room, along with recently expatriated guitarist Colin Mee. He shrugs and casually introduces himself to one person as a "temporary addition to the band tonight," but the excitement on his face is clear. There is talk that vocalist Bradford Cox is suffering from the flu, but he is nowhere to be seen.

Deerhunter closes the show, and much like the Black Lips and the Selmanaires the night before, the group is in top form. Mee gives off an incredible energy that makes the rest of the band glow as Deerhunter plays an uncharacteristically aggressive set. And if Cox is sick, he shows no signs of his illness – despite claims to the contrary from a Pitchfork reviewer.

The crowd tonight is older, wiser and a little more pretentious than the Black Lips fans. They are wearing a lot less gold lame, but they greet Deerhunter with the same unbridled enthusiasm. And when the band plays "Wash Off" from Fluorescent Grey, the sheer power of the song jams its way into the pleasure centers of every brain in the room with majestic force.

Over the weekend, all three bands unleashed some of their finest moments to date. The Selmanaires didn't assault anyone, Alexander didn't pee on himself and Deerhunter was complete again and unstoppable. The music was the selling point, and outside the safety of Atlanta these bands truly shined.

To see more photos from "48 hrs. in Chicago," click here.

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