As noted prior to yesterday’s short self-promotional blog blurb and mentioned in my Desert Island Jukebox pick on last week’s “Sound Opinions,” I’ve spent the tail end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 in moving hell. At some point amid all the packing and hauling, I calculated that this was my 14th move since the age of 22, and let me tell you, in the intervening two and a half decades, a lot of crap has accumulated from this job of rock critic, not the least of which are several hundred books and tens of thousands of CDs (plus LPs, 45s, and even cassettes—still!). And the only thing I can think of that’s worse than moving all of them in general is moving them in Chicago in January.
It seemed like a good idea at the time when Vortis took a gig last Friday at Cal’s, a lone outpost of weirdness in the staid business district of the Loop, grungey bike messenger bar by day and even grungier punk-rock dive by night, and pretty much the Vortis definition of paradise 24/7. But truth be told, at a point when every bone and muscle in my body were aching and it took 20 minutes of rummaging through boxes just to find a clean pair of socks and my drum sticks, the last thing I wanted to do was to venture out into the single-digit deep freeze to play the drums.
Still, the show must go on, and Vortis has only once walked away from a gig it committed to play—at the dreaded Rockbox, which had royally screwed over many a local band and was in the midst of doing the same to us and our friends Anxiety High—and the kind and selfless gesture of Darrick Elia offering the loan of his drum set, thereby sparing me the strain of having to carry any more heavy junk, combined to assure that venture forth I did.
Speaking of that Rockbox gig, kicking things off on Friday was a fine local combo called the Bumpus Hounds, cheekily named for the pack of rangy mutts that destroy the family turkey in the classic holiday film “A Christmas Story,” and the third band that Vortis and Anxiety High were supposed to play with on that awful night last year. Resonant of Social Distortion, with hints of rockabilly roots in their straightforward punk, the Bumpus Hounds sounded a little cleaner and more controlled than seemed appropriate for Cal’s—if ever a dive calls for maximum distortion and aggression, Cal’s is it—but the band got the energy flowing in high style nonetheless.
The hardest-rocking dude in Berwyn, the aforementioned Mr. Elia has played with innumerable fine garage combos through the years, and is currently the man behind the mask in the Hamburglars, who already have generated considerable buzz—though it actually sounds more like “robble, robble, robble”—and are about to release their first single. He first paired with his wife Nancy and Brandee Kopta, a.k.a. Mrs. Tony Vortis, a few years ago in a quintet called the Adornments. I was a big fan—their tune “Blogs Are Cries for Help” remains one of the most brilliant anthems of the Internet Age that I’ve heard—but the inevitable personnel conflicts led to them paring down to a trio with a new name: the Demerits.
In the middle of the bill, the Demerits impressed with far less shtick than they employed in their previous incarnation and a much more focused flair for twangy surf melodies underscoring their minimalist but endearingly effective garage pop. What I wrote of the Adornments holds even more true of the Demerits: Think of the B-52’s, the Cramps, and the Violent Femmes crammed into a van on a three-day road trip. Then think of them on acid.
Finally it was Vortis’ turn to take the small corner of the floor by the back curve in the bar that serves as the stage at Cal’s. Darrick sits a good foot lower at his drum set than I do at mine, and I didn’t have the energy to rearrange his kit, so I kept it as it was and as a result kept hitting the knuckles of my left hand on the top rim of the snare drum and banging my right knee on the bottom as I struggled to work the bass drum pedal throughout the set. Little annoyances like that can throw a drummer—good posture is important here if nowhere else in rock—but the Vortis express train derailed only once, and that was when I couldn’t remember the syncopated drum intro to Louie Vortis’ new song “Singalong” because it sounds so much like the syncopated drum intro to Louie Vortis’ older song “Fight.”
“Keep going—next tune!” I shouted to the boys, and we did, and, as usual, about 18 songs flew by in about 20 minutes. Then we doubled back and finally played “Singalong” correctly, followed by an encore of the Ramones’ “53rd & 3rd” with Pete Bumpus jumping in on guest vocals, even though he didn’t know the words as he’d claimed.
It didn’t matter: We came. We rocked. And all was right with my moving-damaged world, underscoring once again why so many of us on the grassroots level of the music world gloriously devoid of delusions of grandeur spend the time and energy and effort, regardless of our state of physical and mental well-being, to rehearse and haul the gear and brave the elements and hang around the club all night to play a set that rushes by in the blink of an eye for a handful of friends. As a cathartic outlet to wash away the pains and troubles and mundanities of so much of the rest of our lives, there simply is nothing better.
THE VORTIS DIARIES
Band photos by Louie Vortis.