Here Be Monsters – Chopin Theater (Chicago, IL)
Jeers and laughter greet Ross Perot’s fall beneath the outsized wheels. The shot glass in the little truck’s bed sloshes whiskey as it crisscrosses Perot’s paper face. Alanis Morissette falls next, followed by Joe Camel, but Garth Brooks still stands with a double bounty on his head. Twenty aggressive drivers pay a buck a chance to knock over icons of grotesque fame and infamy. Paul McCartney, knighted yesterday, tonight is humiliated in a mini-monster truck mowdown to benefit the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Here Be Monsters!
Here Be Monsters is a hard-country scene waiting to happen. Its venue is a performance space joined at the wall to a world-class cheap taco stand in Chicago’s haunted-by-muses Wicker Park. It’s a basement living room-cum-bar that opens into a cabaret with a sizable platform stage. The furnishings and theatrical lighting give Here Be Monsters a poetry-reading ambiance amusingly out of sync with the punk-party mood.
“Musicians like to do benefits. It’s a way they can contribute,” says Monster MC Jon Langford, co-founder of the Mekons and the Waco Brothers. “The problem is nobody wants to pay them anything, not even $20. The national organization comes in and takes all the money.” The solution, he thinks, is for musicians themselves to sponsor benefits, keep the door and use the events creatively to raise money for a variety of causes. Here Be Monsters is that notion in experimental action.
The first Here Be Monsters, held in October, was Hard Country Songwriters Night. In addition to Langford, it featured Nashville’s Lonesome Bob and Chicagoans Chris Mills, Dean Schlabowske of the Waco Brothers and Jane Baxter Miller, formerly of the Texas Rubies. Kelly Kessler joined Miller from the audience, reuniting for one song those lost Texas Rubies harmonies. Lonesome Bob basked in fan light, a favorite of both Kessler and Langford, who covered one of his songs with the Mekons.
In November, Here Be Monsters featured a set by the 10-piece improvisational jazz ensemble Isotope, led by Johnny Machine of Tortoise. The evening’s diversion was a “Name That Pinko Tune” contest with proceeds going to the U.S. Labor Party. A party representative took the stage to stump for new members.
After a December hiatus, the Monsters returned in January, with ambitions to make the event bimonthly. Future plans include whiskey tastings and a Dark Stories Night, but in January, the Mini-monster Truck Mowdown raised money first mutilating, then auctioning its targets, caricatures comically drawn by Langford and co-organizers Stacey Earley and Andy Willis. Soliciting bids for Garth Brooks’ likeness, Langford quipped, “This is the top country artist influenced by both Wings and Bread.” Neither of those influences was evident in the work of January’s featured artists.
Chris Mills opened with a set of new songs adding to the mystery of how he has fit so much life in so few years (he’s 21). In an evening full of great lines, one of the best was his: “You say I keep changing my story, but you keep telling it for me.”
Kelley Kessler followed, filled with longing, she said, for harmony — her own voice at the edge of meltdown adding poignancy and honesty to her domestic poetry. She worried that sitting would make people mistake her for a folksinger, but she was clearly at home wrapped around her guitar, picking out her distinctive and affecting melodies.
“I knew we’d both go through hell,” she sang, “long before you got through to me.” Then she told the audience, “I had to write that song because I realized I wanted to hear it on the jukebox and it’s not there. Fortunately, the world’s full of little gaps like that you have to fill.”
Drag City artist Edith Frost followed with songs reflecting city life in melodies tinged with the not-quite-harmonious truth of them. A Palace devotee, Frost loves risk, but in moderation. Her song “Motorcycle Guys”, a standout, makes it clear you don’t want to know the whole story. Mills joined her for a duet, on which Langford spontaneously accompanied with honky-tonk piano reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis.
Closing the evening was a blasting contrast, Schlabowske’s Mussel Squad. “It’s just something we put together for fun,” he said later of the band, which includes Waco Brothers bassist Alan Doughty. “It’s in the spirit of the original Waco Brothers … the spirit of some of the older punk stuff, with an emphasis on good writing.” Mussel Squad’s final song, which Schlabowske says is “perfectly structured for a punk rock song,” was the Hank Williams classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Here be monsters!