October Project returns to Chicago for rare show


Liza MinnelliThere are not many concerts that I would skip my 20th high school reunion to see. There are not many concerts, in fact, that I promote at all in this column; I usually stick with CD reviews. But this Saturday, there is a show happening at Schubas in Chicago that I can’t say enough about.

Sorry, Marian Catholic class of ‘84 – I won’t be at the reunion. I’ll be listening to October Project – one of the most evocative bands to grace the stage in the past 20 years – who will be playing Schubas in their first Chicago show in close to a decade.

I encourage anyone who has been entranced by the likes of Sarah McLachlan, Loreena McKennitt, Over The Rhine and other artists who focus on evocative, ethereal songcraft, to not miss this show.

October Project released its first album on Epic back in 1993, showcasing the gorgeously layered chamber-meets-pop songcraft of Julie Flanders and Emil Adler, and the beautifully rich vocals of Mary Fahl and Marina Belica. Another album followed in 1995 before the band lost its lease with the label and went their separate ways.

Sort of.

October Project - Different EyesFlanders and Adler eventually regrouped with some new players and a slightly more rock-influenced sound with November Project, which released an independent CD that placed in the Pop Stops Top 5 releases of 2000. Various issues led to the demise of NP, but Flanders and Adler moved ahead by going backwards…they enlisted longtime friend and former October Project background singer Marina Belica to form OP3, which has now settled into its new incarnation comfortably enough to call itself October Project once again. The core trio, backed occasionally by other members of the original OP as well as new faces, plays periodically around its home of New York City. Not having a major record deal to support six people on the road, however, they do not tour. Nevertheless, the band is coming cross-country to play three shows in Wisconsin and Chicago this week, thanks to the demands of fans who have tried for years to lure them back.

“We had an offer from a fan who promised to do anything to get us to the Midwest,” Flanders says of this mini-tour. The fan helped the band set up an itinerary, and when one of the shows fell through, the band’s other fans stepped in to help. Within hours of asking fans via email for help to find another show to help underwrite the cost of the trip, Flanders said they were inundated with possibilities. The result is the band playing a “house party” in Madison, WI, as well as Milwaukee’s Shank Hall before they hit Chicago on Saturday.

“Fans have power,” Flanders says. “I never really understood how much in those early years. But word-of-mouth has kept our albums selling, and we had 400 people show up when we played a show in Rochester. Over the summer, we did a trip to Texas too, and sold out our show in Austin. Our fans are amazing.”

Chicago’s fans will get the opportunity to see the band perform both new material to be released on a new CD next year, as well as songs from those first two Epic albums and a six-song EP they released with Belica last year. The core trio will be augmented at Schuba’s with the help of a guitarist who recently finished a touring company of the musical Rent, a percussionist and a cellist.

“We’ll be playing with a cellist named Martha Colby, who’s like a human incarnation of Snoopy from ‘The Peanuts,’” Flanders enthuses. “She sits there at her cello with this wild blond hair flying. She’s great to have on stage.”

But the key of the new incarnation of October Project may be the revised relationship between Flanders and Belica. The two were college roommates, and in the original October Project, Belica sang backups, while Flanders sang not at all – concentrating on keyboards and lyric-writing. Now the two have each stepped into new roles with the band.

“Marina has the same range, but her vocals are different than Mary’s, which were dark, rich, chocolatey. Marina’s are bright, translucent – just flawless. Now we’re writing harmony parts for the two of us, where we used to anchor things differently. Back then, everyone used to create their parts at the same time. Now, we’re in the room working a capella finding the relationships between each other. My voice is darker, duskier while the quality of Marina’s is more angelic and ethereal.”

It may be different than the old days, but it makes for a marvelous mix that has won over fans of the band’s original incarnation, as well as a host of new ones.

“We aren’t the same October Project,” she says. “We’re an evolution of ourselves. We’ve been organically growing the new flowers in the garden…it’s the same garden, but different blooms.”
“Marina gives new energy to these songs and some people don’t even realize she’s not the singer on the albums,” she says.

All of the players of October Project seem to have new energy these days. Flanders and Adler have contributed songs to an album by newcomer Sylvia Tosun which has the promise to break big next year, and in addition to having a couple dozen new OP songs ready to record, Flanders also has enough to record her own album. Each project, despite having the same songwriting team behind it, has a distinct personality, she says.

“As songwriters, we create the skeleton,” she says, “while the band is the style, the outfit, the clothes.”

Flanders says she is the more prolific of the writing duo, and has hundreds of lyrics lying around, so there should be no shortage of new October Project clothes in the coming year.

But until next year, you’ll have to come to Schuba’s on Saturday to see them get tried on.

October Project will play Schubas, at 3159 N. Southport Avenue in Chicago Saturday at 7:30 p.m. For more information on the band, check their Web site at www.octoberproject.net.