The Vortis Diaries: An evening with F*cked Up
When you’re playing a three or four-band club bill, every slot has its advantages and its disadvantages.
The headliner is, of course, the headliner, and therefore considered the best or most important band of the evening, though the downside if that’s your role is that you’re probably a little edgy for most of the night before taking the stage. The middle bands can play to the biggest crowd, since some people come late and some leave early, but you have the pressure of a quick turnaround, hastily putting your gear up on stage, and then quickly hauling it off. The openers get to play and then spend the rest of the night enjoying themselves. They may play to fewer people, given the late arrivals, but they have the luxury of leaving their equipment set up in the optimal position on stage after soundcheck and before the set, though the soundcheck almost never happens as scheduled.
Time is a nebulous concept in rock ’n’ roll. Most people involved with the booking of bands know this and assume that musicians generally are irresponsible and/or chronically late, so a stated load-in time of 6 p.m. with a 6:30 soundcheck really means “7:30 and 8:15 or so.”
Vortis prides itself on being prompt, if not early, as well as being relentlessly polite and conscientious, so our band arrives at the Empty Bottle for its scheduled 6:30 load-in at 6:15, only to find that the Hoyle Brothers are in the midst of their every-Friday happy-hour honky-tonk set (doh! of course), and headliners F*cked Up actually will arrive for their 3 p.m. load-in around 7:30.
The Hoyle Brothers playing
Vortis waiting and drinking
The Hoyles set up on the floor and play in front of the stage, so we stack our gear on the elevated area to stage right and I leisurely begin to assemble my drum set as the rest of Vortis starts waiting and drinking. I’m sticking with Cokes tonight, since I want the maximum caffeine/sugar-rush buzz for the punk rock to come, so time goes even more slowly for me, but I’m not complaining.
Laced with sublime pedal steel guitar, the Hoyles do honky tonk as well as honky tonk can be done, gamely entertaining requests from fans, mixing classic country covers with their own material, giving a lesson in western swing dancing, and providing a fine soundtrack for unwinding at the start of the weekend. Plus it’s always entertaining to see the odd juxtaposition of tattooed and pierced Wicker Park hipsters two-stepping and slow dancing beside older folks from the neighborhood who you normally wouldn’t expect to see at the Bottle.
Four hours after we load in, Bottle stage manager Pete tells us it’s time to play, but Tony Vortis is nowhere to be found. He has a pre-performance ritual: After four or five beers and the occasional shot with the rest of the group, he likes to duck out for a cup of gas station or 7-Eleven coffee, with the theory that the coffee stimulant balances the alcohol depressant to achieve a state of perfect equilibrium. Equalized or not, Tony eventually is found savoring his java in the basement green room, and we take the stage about five minutes late—a mark of shame for the rest of us, since, as noted, Vortis takes pride in its promptness.
Most non-musicians and even many other instrumentalists rarely understand the myriad complexities of a drum set: You drummers just bang like heck on the things, so how complicated can they be? In fact, there are about three or four dozen weird little metal parts—connectors and wing nuts and springs and collar locks and washers and set screws—and if any one of these come loose amid all of that pounding, it really can wreak havoc with your rhythm.
Early in Vortis’ set, something happens to my hi-hat pedal that never has happened during 31 years of playing the drums: Inside the upper metal tube that slides into the lower metal tube, the top metal rod that connects to the bottom metal rod that’s connected to the spring that connects to the pedal that allows you to bring the upper hi-hat cymbal together with the lower hi-hat cymbal on the beat with your left foot, as well as to control how tightly the cymbals close when you play them with your right hand (providing either a tight, clipped “chink” or a loose, sloppy “sloosh”), somehow un-threads from its six inches of threaded connection, leaving the damn thing just sort of sitting there like a dead and useless limb, and requiring about four times as much effort from the right hand to get any semblance of that rapid-fire eight to the bar “sloosh” so necessary for punk-rock aggression.
This would have been a three- or four-minute fix, if a drummer was so inclined, and many bands would have filled that time with some friendly stage patter and reminding people to tip their bartenders (who, at the Bottle, are always pleasant and deserving of thanks, as is Pete and all of the stage crew). But Vortis doesn’t do stage patter—I’ve heard way too much lame bloviating through the years ever to allow my bandmates to indulge, though that’s really the only restriction I’ve ever put on them—plus we have something we like to call “the freight train,” though “bullet train” would be more appropriate, since it means that we start with song number one and play through to song number nineteen while striving for maximum speed, ferocity, and efficiency, with no stopping whatsoever, no way, no how.
Vortis rocks as the drummer frets about that damn hi-hat
So I grit my teeth and I deal with it; I drop two sticks (it's about 20 degrees hotter and sweatier onstage than it is in the rest of the club, which is plenty hot and sweaty already), but I don't drop a beat, and the train hurtles forward and stops 25 minutes later without flying off the rails. We came. We rocked. And now we can enjoy the rest of the evening.
Mike Lust of Tight Phantomz
The Tight Phantomz are an excellent Chicago band on the faster, nastier tip of the stoner-rock spectrum. They officially are a quartet, but their second guitarist has another, better-paying gig as what bassist Pete Croke calls “a blues jobber,” so sometimes the group is a trio, as it is tonight. Bandleader Mike Lust is an astoundingly good shredder himself, and when he’s the only guitarist, the combo is at its loudest and most chaotic, as opposed to what Croke calls the “poppier” sound of the four-piece unit. The three musicians take the stage and they slay, and Lust and Croke are exceedingly cool fellows to hang with before and after, to boot.
The Phantomz sell every CD they put out on the merch table, with Tony and Louie Vortis doing them the solid of watching over things and collecting and passing on the cash. Vortis merchandise doesn’t move quite as fast—we sell two CDs, which is satisfying enough (“Hey, somebody likes us! They really, really like us!”)—while at the big table next to us, F*cked Up fills fans’ hands with a steady slew of vinyl and shiny plastic discs, and deservedly so.
Tonight, the band may be holding back a bit—it was slated to play another set on Saturday outdoors at West Fest—as it’s a little more subdued than I’ve seen it before. But a slightly subdued F*cked Up still is more intense than 99.9 percent of other bands, and it tears through a strong set of its classic tracks, with Pink Eyes stripping off his T-shirt about three songs in, and everything ending with the trademark cover of Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown,” though Abraham jokes that the band would have played “Hey Suburbia” by local pop-punk legends Screeching Weasel, if only it actually knew the song.
Even more F*cked Up, sans T-shirt
F*cked Up is a rare exception to the “stage patter sucks” maxim, and Pink Eyes’ story about being a stay-at-home dad when the band isn’t touring is pretty entertaining: Seems he freaked out the hippie/yuppie moms in his Toronto neighborhood during a Mother’s Day Picnic when he pushed his young son on the swings while wearing a Charlie Manson T-shirt. A frantic mosh pit forms in front of the stage, with Chris Vortis in the thick of things, and it lets up only during these occasional monologues. As a result, by the end of the night, the Bottle is even hotter and sweatier than it was earlier, with a thick, humid, and almost tangible cloud of body odor hovering throughout the club—a sure sign of a great punk-rock experience.
In the end, Louie Vortis collects a crisp hundred-dollar bill (sweet!), which joins the $20 we made from the two CDs we sold, and we load out at 2:15 a.m., which means that–if we considered this a job–each of us made $3.75 an hour for the eight hours we spent at the club. But we most certainly don’t consider it work, and really it all seemed to go down in less time than it had taken to find coffee-sippin’ Tony Vortis.
As I said, time is a nebulous concept in rock ’n’ roll.
Cool, arty photos by Chris Vortis, except for the Vortis waiting photo by me and the Vortis playing and in-focus F*cked Up photos by Chris’ love, Kathy.