As any musician who takes the stage with some regularity will tell you—if they’re honest enough to admit it—every so often, through some bad karmic collision of foul serendipity, the stage of the moon, and sheer numerical odds, the band will play a set where everything falls apart, and, regardless of the level of experience or preparation, it all just goes to hell.
After a fine and busy summer—including the previously chronicled record release party in July and the trip to Milwaukee on Memorial Day Weekend, as well as a fabulously fun show with C.J. Ramone at the Abbey, a second road trip to Brew City in late August, and a taping for 848 that will air in the coming weeks—it’s possible that we were getting cocky. Or maybe it was just our turn. Whatever the reason, Friday at Wicker Park's Subterranean was one of those nights.
We knew we were tempting fate when we accepted the last-minute gig proffered by my old pal Tom Schraeder, since the Vortis assault would provide a jarring stylistic detour from his music and that of Chicago-to-Nashville transplants the Clones. But Tom said that’s exactly what he wanted; we’d never played Sub-T before, and we figured, “What the heck; it’s been a long time since we cleared a room!” Of course, we assumed we’d do it through the force of our musical assault.
Actually, that’s not fair to Tom: Through persistent hard work and consistent creativity, he’s built a passionate, adventurous, and very accepting audience that’s growing all the time, though it deserves to be much, much larger. As I recalled when he blew me away with a big-band performance at Lollapalooza in 2007, I first met Tom about 10 years ago, when he was 16 or 17, lived across the street, and sat on his front porch playing Dave Matthews songs and Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” on acoustic guitar. He loved to talk about music and was always hungry to hear more, so out of kindness as much as the fact that I was tired of hearing those Matthews ditties, I loaned him albums by the Velvet Underground, Nick Drake, Paul Westerberg, and others; took him to shows, and generally encouraged him to think bigger and better all the time.
By no means is this to say that I claim any credit whatsoever for his musical journey or his accomplishments over the last decade. It’s all the result of his talent, curiosity, tireless labor, and seemingly unending ability to think outside the box.
When whiny young musicians ask why no one pays them any attention, I often think, “It’s because you don’t work nearly as hard or try things a fraction as ambitious as a guy like Tom.” Since I last profiled him in 2008, he’s toured relentlessly; lived in Austin for a time and started an annual day-long showcase in the midst of South by Southwest to give his friends and fellow Chicagoans another gig before leaving Texas or a stage when they’ve been ignored by festival organizers, and rebounded from a short spell of writer’s block to issue an iPod’s worth of new, self-released music.
Now, in collaboration with Chicago’s Bailout Pictures, Tom has made what he calls “a record in short-film format” titled 92 Days. Impressionistically depicting that period of blockage, the 17-minute movie features local artists such as fire juggler Sylar Brodie, comedian Mark “the Knife” Faje, professional dominatrix Maya Sinstress, and the Chicago Outfit Roller Derby responding in their signature ways to his increasingly diverse sounds, with the relatively straightforward alt-country of his early days now including elements of electronica, hip-hop, and Flaming Lips-like orchestrated psychedelia, among other things.
In any event, Tom, who hadn’t seen Vortis since an early gig at the Fireside Bowl back when the Professor fronted the band, asked it to open the local “film release show” in the midst of his current three-month tour. The invite became all the more welcome when the Clones offered to share drums—and assume the daunting task of hauling them up Sub-T’s steep staircases. (Anybody else ever consider the irony that a club called Subterranean is in a third-floor walk-up?)
Unfortunately, things were dicey almost from the start, with the band’s usual express train nearly but not quite derailing as I started the ultra-fast drum beat from one song with the ultra-fast drum beat from another, then spaced on a transition in another song and inserted an unrehearsed but somehow effective pregnant pause. Next, Louie Vortis inexplicably got his bass tangled up with Tony Vortis’ guitar cord, knocking it way out of tune. Finally came the one disaster no band can recover from.
There are almost always handy substitutes among the gear in the club for busted guitar amps, out-of-tune axes, bum microphones, and faulty keyboards, and all of them can be replaced relatively quickly mid-set. The one thing that can’t is the bass drum, the literal and metaphorical foundation of a drummer’s sound and set-up. Even when three bands aren’t sharing the same drum, a broken bass drum head means big trouble, since there’s just no easy way to replace it without disassembling the entire oversized Erector Set monstrosity and all its attendant microphones; undoing a dozen lugs; replacing the head, if anyone has a $30 spare in the right size handy; redoing the lugs and re-tuning the thing, then putting the whole kit back together again. (Watch a much-simplified version of this process here.)
When I was kid about five years younger than Tom at the age when we met, I bought a ticket to see the Police at Madison Square Garden, intentionally sitting behind the stage so I could marvel at the dexterous power of drummer Stewart Copeland. I’ve never forgotten two things about that night. One is that Copeland so hated his fellow bandmates at that point that he had Magic-Markered the most vile string of curse words imaginable describing them on the heads of every one of the constellation of tom-toms that surrounded him. The other is that early in the show, he broke his bass drum head, and the concert stopped cold for a good 15 or 20 minutes as a trio of stressed-out roadies frantically went through all the steps described above to get things going again.
I've been stomping hard on bass drums for 33 years now, and I've never broken a head before, but there's a first time for everything. If there was no easy fix for the Police, once the biggest band in the world playing at one of its most famous arenas, there certainly was no hope for Vortis when my bass drum pedal suddenly smashed through the borrowed Mylar drum head and refused to come unstuck. We paused as I dug the beater out and tried to plug the hole with a few strips of duct tape, the indispensible fix-all that no band travels without. That held for another song and a half before the pedal once again disappeared into the void like Thelma and Louise. “We’re done, fellas,” I sadly admitted, so we scratched the remainder of our set list and gamely jumped to the closer, our Vortisized cover of Roxy Music’s “Editions of You,” which I figured we could approximate since it’s just a ’50s rockabilly groove revved up and transported to Mars, and it's 90 percent about the snare drum anyway.
Ninety percent ain’t 100, and I won’t lie: It sucked, we sucked, and not even a word like “catastrophe” does things justice.
Wracked with guilt and shame, after the set, I helped the Clones sub out the front bass drum head for the batter head. Despite the longer-than-usual changeover, they smoothly sailed through their sophisticated sounds—think of a little J.J. Cale grit combined with early ’70s Bread or America and a dollop of alt-country; not my thing, but they do it well—and they were rewarded with a half-dozen couples actually slow-dancing in front of the stage (as opposed to running away from it for us). I told Tom to give them our cut of the door to pay for the damage, and I may still owe them a few bucks on top of that. Sorry again, boys.
As for Tom, he got off to a rough start, too: The decision to screen the movie before performing confused people, and it really wasn’t the ideal showcase for a crowd that came to rock. But he recovered as soon as he took the stage, continuing to take chances with an impressive and anthemic new tune featuring a trio of rappers and backing singers, among other memorable numbers, and building from one beautiful, swelling crescendo to another, making the most of the big sound from his relatively big band.
As miserable a night as it was for Vortis, it was as fine an evening for him. But so it goes. We've all been there, and we're never eager to go back.
THE VORTIS DIARIES