Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Up Close in Skokie: Amid Poignant Songs and Saab Stories, Matt Talbott Invites Us to Hum Along -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Matt Talbott
solo show on "Living Room Tour"
November 17, 2018
Bird Machine, Skokie, IL

Unlike many people from my home state, I did not attend the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

But my best friend, Jordan, has lived in the community for 30 years and his wife is an Urbana native.

So not only have I visited a good bit over the years, I've been slightly more clued into the local music scene than I might've been otherwise.

I remember the Poster Children catching some buzz in the late-'80s/early-'90s and my pals remain avid fans of a local group called Lonely Trailer.

Rising to some post-grunge alt-rock prominence was another Champaign band called Hum.

I can't recall if Jordan introduced me to them or if I first heard the superb single, "Stars," on Chicago radio--and/or possibly read about them in Rolling Stone--but I bought and liked Hum's 1995 major label debut album, You'd Prefer An Astronaut around the time of its release. 

Because of the C-U connection, Hum probably stayed with me a bit more than some other bands that come and go, but I can't say they've remained top of mind in the intervening years.

I don't own 1998's Downward is Heavenward--which I now see that AllMusic.com cites as "the group's best album [and] a lost classic of '90s rock"--and though it seems that there were a good handful of Hum shows in Chicago this millennium, they escaped my purview.

Still, Hum occasionally comes up in conversation with Jordan, and a few months ago he alerted me to the band's singer/guitarist Matt Talbott doing some "living room shows," including one in my hometown of Skokie, a near north suburb of Chicago.

It seems these shows--in this case throughout the Midwest--are organized by an entity called Undertow Music, which pairs artists with fans who wish to host intimate concerts in their homes.

Understandably, one isn't provided the exact address until you buy a ticket, and I didn't firmly decide to do so until the Friday before Saturday night's show.

I can't speak for any other locales, but in Skokie, the "living room" was actually the production space of a small print shop called Bird Machine, run by a cool guy named Jay who has long created posters for Hum after meeting Talbott when he (Jay) was a University of Illinois student.

And as much as I might have relished hearing a stripped down version of the soft-then-loud "Stars," in the promotional information Talbott made clear that he likely wouldn't play any Hum songs, preferring to "keep that music with the band."

I enticed my friend Dave to join me and after meeting Jay upon arrival--following a fine Vietnamese dinner at Pho Phu Linh across Skokie Blvd.--I introduced myself to Talbott as a mutual friend of Jordan's, and was pleased to find him amiable.

Without doing a headcount, I would guess there were about 30 people assembled, some seemingly with an Illini connection.

Just a bit past 8:00pm, Talbott sat down with an acoustic guitar and shared that the bulk of what he would play were songs written over just the past two months, after he agreed--following some prior reluctance--to Undertow's entreaties to do such an up-close tour.

As such, I don't know song titles, and as Talbott has yet to record or release most of the material, not only was video recording obviously taboo, I feel I should refrain from discussing lyrical particulars.

I'll also be respectfully discreet about a personal tragedy the singer shared with the crowd, but it and other emotional matters infused poignant songs Talbott's wife had told him could be categorized as "grief rock." 

One of these was "Thimbles," which he had originally produced within a trio called Centaur.

The honesty and vulnerability Talbott shared added power to his often somber lyrics, and his clear voice was occasionally abetted by electronic echoes and other effects.

Though his own material came off quite well, a strikingly plaintive rendition of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game" was a definite highlight.

Talbott had already done some living room shows, including the night before in Chicago, and he conveyed that despite his initial hesitancy, he's come to love them.

Though off-and-on over the years, Hum continues to be an active entity, with hopes for a new album in 2019.

But the intimacy of Saturday's show clearly let Talbott not only come face-to-face with his fans, it seemingly allowed for his evocative lyrics to be better appreciated sans amplifiers.

And though some nervousness and raw emotion suggested a bit of discomfiture, Talbott's candor, graciousness and humor made for a special night.

Toward the end of the 80-minute performance, he shared an uplifting "Saab" story about a newly-bought, heavily-used car he's taken on the road.

It had broken down a few minutes outside Grand Rapids in recent days, en route to a show in Champaign-Urbana, but his 17-year-old son was able to troubleshoot it back to life over-the-phone. (Jay of Bird Machine featured the Saab in Talbott's tour poster, and the car was parked out front in Skokie.)

Dave concurred that it was a really fine show, and I imagine most in attendance would agree.

Though I go to a number of concerts in football & baseball stadiums, hockey arenas and theaters, with all kinds of lavish accouterments, it was really cool to see a gig in the back room of a print shop in my hometown.

...by a fine musician, good guy and friend of a friend.

And while I fully understand his eschewing the material he created with his primary band, I couldn't help but smile when Matt Talbott--in his only eliciting of audience participation on the evening--asked the audience to, yes, hum along with him.

And thus, I gladly did.

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