By Jonathon Burkhalter
March 26, 2016— The bill for Saturday’s performance featuring the debut of Matthäus was a perfect storm. Between the floating vocals of Hanna Ashbrook and the gritty return of mid-century rock n’ roll via Modern Vices, Matthäus proved promising during Easter Weekend with every sense of the word “rising”.
Hanna Ashbrook played one of her final solo sets before she makes ties with a full band, but her set was nothing amiss without the extra stage members. The somber low-fi strings of her electric guitar bring gravity to her floating, bubbly voice. While she admits that even the happy songs have a sting of sadness, her ability to project raw emotion in an unabashed manner creates an atmosphere of peace and hope. Ashbrook’s style is reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, featuring lyrical ballads in which she reminds guys to hold on to their girl and sends a farewell wish to a begotten lover, separated by a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep." Ashbrook studied music in her hometown at Columbia College of Chicago and is finishing an EP to be released this fall.
Modern Vices is also based out of Chicago. Their charming, noir aesthetic included dressing in late century suits, a few mates sporting moustaches and skinny ties, as well as antique equipment and a cult following that broke out into a mosh-pit behind a row of fans reaching hands out to the shirtless lead singer Alex Rebek and the rest of the devastatingly romantic group. Their sound mixes 50s rock n’ roll with grizzly notes of post-punk, and a great vocal range from the serious tones of Ian Curtis to the same insurrection as Mick Jagger. This group is truly worth seeing live. Their next show is on April 21st at The Empty Bottle.
Matthäus (Matt-a-us) is a new project based out of Chicago that consists of nine men, including one member who came all the way from St. Paul Minnesota, with 13 instrumentalists behind front man Ben Edward pushing the vision forward.
“He is a great guy, but I wouldn’t bring just anyone down here from St. Paul just because I like them,” Edward said of drummer Lars-Erik Larson. Edward claimed that Larson’s ability to fill in with the band despite the distance spoke volumes to Larson’s abilities and the talent of the whole group. From the audience’s perspective, Larson looked like no stranger to the group— often laughing and joking with band mates between songs while Edward addressed the audience. A lighthearted energy radiated from the entire band, complementary to their seemingly jam session style that made it easy for audience members to stomp their feet. However, these guys are no jam band.
Every member of Matthäus has been professionally trained in music, most in jazz, while Edward and Joe Meland, the keyboardist, have been trained in music composition. Their vast knowledge of music was displayed in their odd meters and their ability to establish rhythm then dissect strands of their 13 instrument ensemble into pleasing dissonant noise for non-noise-show-goers. Their style is like the skeletons of classical jazz with the dressings of indie folk, similar to artists such as Bon Iver and Neutral Milk Hotel. They also paid homage to their hometown within the albeit wide realms of their style with a cover of Sufjan Steven’s “Chicago."
Alex Blomarz, who plays saxophone and clarinet in the group, claims the ability for the large group to be so easily in sync with one another is due to Edward’s songwriting and composition abilities. Edward writes the majority of the lyrics and shares composition responsibilities with Blomarz and Meland. While their music is complex and layered, showing off their incredible talent and well employed music education, Matthäus’ lyrics wade into relationships between human and nature, often carrying a sense of solitude and strength while contemplating freedom or celebrating whiskey, bringing their indie folk borderline Southern Rock vibe about.
Between their indie folk and Southern rock sounds combined with their classical music and jazz compositional background, it is safe to say that the big band encompasses quite an array of style under the flag of Matthäus. This attribute widens their palpability for audiences across the board. Matthäus will be taking a short recess to record and produce a new album that should be available when they return to the booking calendar this fall. Until then, find them on Facebook and Soundcloud.