The Signalmen, Autoliner, Neilson Hubbard, The Beauty Shop, Absinthe Blind
Metro, Chicago
Thursday, August 2, 2001

It was a University Of Illinois night at Metro on Thursday, as Urbana's Parasol label showcased five artists from its current roster. Unlike many indie college labels that release discs by whoever happens to be banging on guitars in town at the moment, Parasol's roster is surprisingly rich and varied.

The evening opened with The Signalmen, a strong prairie rock band with a sense of humor. Solid vocals, catchy songs, and a set-capper about what happens to a guy who invites the wrong girl to live with him (the fist-raising chorus runs: "Get out, you crazy motherfucker!") got things moving right off the bat.

Autoliner followed, cheering the crowd with its upbeat pop mix that borrows from everyone from The Monkees and The Beatles, to ELO. The trio did an excellent job at bringing the three-part harmonies and wall-of-production sound of its latest CD, Be, to the live setting, energizing the Metro with the pure pop jangle of "Misunderstood" and the falsely celebratory "Weakened." While Autoliner wasn't the headliner, guitarist/singer Brian Leach has probably had the most success of all the acts on the bill, having once fronted Champaign-Urbana's Last Gentlemen in the mid- to late-'80s. Unfortunately, after a long stint of downstate popularity, the band signed to Zoo Records (which at the time also boasted Matthew Sweet), released one unsuccessful album, and disappeared into limbo. Autoliner proves Leach is more than a one-shot talent; this is a sharp pop act that plays well live and on disc.

Mississippi singer-songwriter Neilson Hubbard, who released an excellent disc early this year on Parasol, Why Men Fail, played the middle section of the show. Hubbard was only backed up by his guitar and a vibe player/percussionist, which was unfortunate given the sometimes "airy" quality of his songs. After the driving rock/pop of The Signalmen and Autoliner, his quieter musings were sadly lost in the buzz of an audience eager for more amplified guitars.

But the crowd closed ranks when The Beauty Shop took the stage. Another three-piece, this one features John Hoeffleur, a vocalist with the deep drawl of Crash Test Dummies and the dark attitude of Nick Cave. Their set merged cowpunk attitude with lazy strumming and a wicked sense of the macabre (see "Death March," which talks of licking a corpse's canteen and becoming a ghost — and should be a college radio hit). A quietly dangerous act, they didn't move much on stage, but Hoeffleur entranced the crowd with his twangy guitar picking and wry recitation of "I Got Issues" and a jangly tale of "Dutch Courage." Bassist Casey Smith anchored the right side of the stage, playing Kim Deal to Hoeffleur's Frank Black with her silently enigmatic presence, adding a solid thumping bassline to move Hoeffleur's riffs along.

Headliners Absinthe Blind finally took the stage at midnight, filling the dark crypt of Metro with a warm, buzzy mix of rock, folk, ambience and synthesized space. The dual vocals of Adam and Erin Fein were a perfect complement to each other, filling the air with a dense, powerful, moving harmony structure that was both stately and ethereal. The band is currently promoting their fourth album, The Everyday Separation, and the songs translate better live than on CD. Absinthe Blind may prove the replacement to Champaign-Urbana's last great ambient power band, The Moon Seven Times.

At the end of the night, I was ready to go home with the caravan of downstaters — Champaign-Urbana's music scene is obviously healthy and thriving!