Last week happened to be a particularly crappy one for all three members of Vortis—sometimes, work just sucks—so it was with even more angst and pent-up frustration than usual that the band pulled up to Memories for a quadruple bill on Friday night.
The group hadn’t played at this Portage Park watering hole for a couple of years, dating back long before MP Shows recently took over the booking. The bar was under other ownership then, and it was most remarkable for an exceptionally seedy cast of regulars and several gaping holes in the plywood-platform stage that threatened a broken ankle if the guitarists attempted to move within a foot of their microphones in any direction. My enduring memory of that last night at Memories was that someone swiped my drum stool after the set; these absurdly named and ridiculously overpriced “thrones” are the most annoying yet essential piece of gear a drummer has to buy, so that cast a pall over things for this percussionist.
Physically, the joint hasn’t changed much. The plywood has been patched, but the cheesy black-and-white head shots of nostalgic stars of the past—David Niven, Roy Rogers, the guy who played Mannix—still decorate the overhang above the bar, presumably justifying the establishment’s name, while the Cicero Avenue street sign still occupies a prominent place in the center of the room. (Nothing like pride of place; Northwest Side is in the house!) But Memories always was a perfectly serviceable place to drink; the room sounds pretty good in a no-frills, faster-louder way, and MP certainly is raising the bar with the bookings. So if it isn’t Pancho’s or Cal’s, it thankfully ain’t Ronny’s, either, as the spectrum of primo dive-bar hang-outs goes.
“Hi, we’re Vortis,” Tony Vortis said, kicking off the second of the four slots, and 18 songs and 22 minutes later, the three of us emerged at the other end of the supersonic funicular ride, sweaty, spent, and sated. (In other words: We came. We rocked.) More than usual on this miserable, cold, and rainy evening, the brevity of the band’s discourse with the audience struck us as a particular strength: Why waste time yakking when there’s rocking to be done? Wham, bam, so on, and so forth; no time for B.S., thank you, and good night.
Partly, the band’s adamant avoidance of needless banter is an aesthetic statement—you know: Let the music do the talking!—and partly it’s a result of its history; it would be hard to top the more memorable monologues/lectures delivered by its original front man F.T., a.k.a. the professor, who still defines the group, for better or worse, in the minds of those who haven’t seen it in the last few years. Mostly, though, I suspect that my band mates are yielding to my personal disdain for stage patter, which is a result of having spent three and a half decades sitting through what must amount to weeks of it during more shows as a fan, critic, or player than anyone could count. And I maintain that the pointless, lame, or annoying chatter has by far drowned out the entertaining or effective talk, probably by a volume of 95 to 5. (Notable exceptions: Robyn Hitchcock. Wayne Coyne, before the “Happy Birthday” shtick of the last decade. Courtney Love. Jonny Langford on well-lubricated nights. And… um… the list is starting to drop off in a big way right there. ’Nuff said?)
Our peers in performance on this lousy yet surprisingly well-attended night—a lot of folks seemed to have steam to blow off; the last few weeks before spring always are like that—perfectly illustrated the pros and cons of the issue. As the penultimate band of four, the Night Brigade proudly flaunted its Southwest Side roots in terms of its blue-collar visual and musical aesthetics: The five musicians looked like plumbers, played like punk-rock monsters—the Dropkick Murphys are an obvious point of comparison, if not an influence, though with less useless blarney on top—and they took a no-nonsense, “Just the facts, ma’am” approach to their onstage utterances, which were short to the point of being negligible, the better to keep the focus on the raw, rousing rock.
At the opposite extreme was the opening act, Dirtbox Racers, who describe themselves as “thee Chicago Punk Rock band for the most energizing, entertaining, drink-having, party-throwing, in-your-face show in the great Chicago Area.” Hyperbole aside, those of us in Vortis might have granted that there was a shred of truth in there—the grunge and grit flowed with maximum garage-punk attitude, and the drummer scored big points for hammering a beautiful clear RCI set (acrylic drums being a particular love of mine)—but the show squandered whatever momentum it gained when it broke down for long stretches between almost every song. Vocalist Quattro ranted and rambled with nary a line worth hearing, much less remembering or quoting, and a third of the way through what could otherwise have been a jolly good time, we all just wanted to shout, “Oh, shut the hell up, already!”
Falling somewhere in the middle between no-patter Vortis/minimal-patter Night Brigade and the woefully loquacious Dirtbox Racers was the headliner, Hotlips Messiah. The band’s veteran front woman Traci Trouble clearly had imbibed as much as Quattro; more, probably, given her longstanding punk street cred and the fact that she’d had three more sets during which to drink before taking the stage for her own performance. Granted, most men in attendance took a certain sophomoric joy in hearing a sassy woman gleefully spouting creative streams of profanity and cheerfully wallowing in sexual innuendo (that is, when it wasn’t just blatant and specific). Yet as entertaining as this was at first, midway through her 45 minutes at the mic, Ms. Trouble’s endless chiding of the band’s hapless guitarist (whose ax just wouldn’t stay in tune in the damp, steamy bar) and the boasts about her plans for after the show (as enticing as those sounded) just distracted from the group’s fabulously filthy, Farfisa-driven “Nuggets”-style roar. “Maybe that was ‘T.M.L.,’” Traci said at one point, joking that “instead of ‘too much information,’ we give you ‘too much lewd.’”
T.M.I., indeed. Rockers of the world, ask yourselves before you speak: “Is whatever the heck I’m about to say really more entertaining than the song I’m about to play?” If the answer is “no,” get to it; who’s really going to care if the guitar is a little out of tune or it takes half a verse for the bassist to catch up? If the answer is “yes,” well… might I suggest another artistic endeavor, such as stand-up comedy or politics?
(Night Brigade photo by Jill Weaver; Hotlips Messiah photo by G. Thomas Ward; Dirtbox Racers photo uncredited on their MySpace page. Louie/Cicero cell-phone photo by me, poster below by Tony Vortis with illustrations from a pamphlet about “Getting Your Vasectomy.”)
THE VORTIS DIARIES