The Vortis Diaries: A road trip to Madison
Every musician wants his or her music to be heard by as many people as possible, and to that end, one of the big advantages for bands in Chicago is that the city is within easy striking distance of so many other Midwestern burgs. With relatively little effort, a group with any ambition can soon build a reputation that’s regional instead of merely local, and from there, world domination is that much closer in reach, even if only in one’s dreams.
Beyond the benefits of expanding your audience, however, there is an indescribable excitement to solving the Tetris-like puzzle of how to stow your gear in the van; gassing up and laying in the requisite store of pretzels and beef jerky; plotting out a course on Mapquest but leaving to chance where you’ll crash for the night, and watching the highway roll by through a bug-splattered windshield.
In part, it’s the Beat ideal of the cross-country quest for kicks. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty may have been grooving to bebop on their journeys, but no book ever has described the fundamental allure of the rock band in a van better than On the Road. Yet there also are more timeless aspects to the romance of touring. This is no aimless wander or casual meander: There are elements of the military campaign, especially in the hurry-up-and-wait challenges of getting a group of people to move in the same direction at the same time; the crusade, in the agnostic Merriam-Webster sense of “an enterprise undertaken with zeal and enthusiasm,” and the quest, with the gig at the end of the road standing as no less than the Holy Grail.
It’s been seven years since Vortis did any significant road-tripping. Back then, when the professor still was in the band, we undertook a trio of long-weekend jaunts to Cleveland and Columbus; Detroit, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Grand Rapids, and Iowa City and Minneapolis. Though the group has talked about it every summer since, it’s failed to make it happen again for one lame reason or another—until now.
The logical extensions of last weekend’s trip to Madison would have been Milwaukee and Minneapolis, but the Madison invitation, proffered by our friends the Cathy Santonies but originally booked by a band from Rockford called the Proles, arrived too late to make either happen. This was to be a one-gig mini-trip, then, but it felt like a brief tour nonetheless. Any band will tell you that any show involving more than a 90-minute drive always does.
The Lothórien Housing Collective
The Lothórien Housing Collective—“Madison’s largest residential housing co-operative since 1973”—is one of those institutions unique to this contrastingly progressive and regressive college town. A massive, sprawling, and vaguely Gothic old house situated on the banks of Lake Mendota, it’s located in the midst of UW’s fraternity and sorority row, but it’s filled with an alternative population of multiply-pierced punks, hirsute hippies, grungy bicyclers, and aging academics. Proudly declaring itself “LGBTQ-friendly,” it’s run by a council of “elves” who invite visitors to “join us for vegetarian & vegan food (mostly local/organic) everyday at 6 p.m.” A large bowl of conch shells sits near the front door, and an elf apparently blows one daily to herald dinnertime—or to warn that Madison’s finest have arrived on the premises, and it’s high time to, er, cleanse one’s co-operative dwelling space.
Proud of our status as the prompest (and politest) band in punk, Vortis arrived in Madison early enough to spend an hour in a frustrating and very Chicago-like Friday-afternoon rush-hour traffic jam, aggravated by the fact that every other street seemed to be closed for summertime construction, and that hordes of SUV-driving helicopter parents had descended upon Badger U to deliver their sweeties to the dorms. It was rush time as well as move-in week, and it would be hard to imagine less surreal or more distasteful spectacles than the gaggle of aspiring sorority sisters we saw on one lawn being forced to stand in anatomy-defying poses until they toppled over, or the band of brothers barbecuing on the regal veranda of another house and tossing out the rudest of invitations to any female passersby.
Madison was ripe for some rock in opposition, to be certain, and none of the bands on the bill at the Lothórien disappointed.
Living and Wrestling -- and wearing no shirts
First up was a young quintet from Milwaukee called Living and Wrestling that delivered a short but sweet set of aggressive screamo distinguished by the fact all of the band members had taken their shirts off within about 10 seconds of striking the first notes.
The Proles (in a photo from their Web site)
Meanwhile, at the other end of the night, the Proles ended the festivities by tearing things up with some searing old-school punk marked by the appealing sweet-and-sour combination of dual lead vocals from bassist Megan and guitarist Logan, with whom I'd bonded over a mutual conviction that as men of a certain heft, we are deeply opposed to removing our shirts in public anywhere but the pool or the beach -- though pants might be a different story.
In between, the Cathy Santonies delivered their usual take-no-prisoners helping of ferocious but melodic anthems. The quartet had been plagued by two questions during its three-hour drive to Madison. The first was why the Chicago press seems to have such a hard time describing its music. The second came when Mojo and Radio Santoni stopped at the Taco Bell on I-90 at what they rechristened the “Mr. Belvidere Oasis,” in honor of a best-forgotten ’80s sitcom. (Named for the “bad girl” in “Full House,” the group has an inordinate fondness for these).
The fast-food restaurant had posed a riddle as part of a free-grub promotion—“What is black when you get it, red when you use it, and grey when you’re done with it?”—but the Santonies hadn’t been able to answer it on the spot, thus losing out on a free cardboard-tasting gordita. (Vortis didn’t fare any better when the Santonies asked us, but one of the elves solved the puzzle: charcoal.)
My answer for the more substantive query is that the band represents a unique and unlikely mix of seemingly disparate sounds that unexpectedly combine to work as perfectly together as chocolate and peanut butter. The group actually is spot-on with its description of itself as “a subversive mix of riot grrrl and cock rock”—Bikini Kill crossed with the Runaways—and the only combo I can recall mining similar turf is L7, which critics also had a hard time pigeonholing. Simultaneously angry and celebratory, punk-minimal and metal-excessive, super-smart and wonderfully stoopid, the Santonies were a highlight of the night in Madison. More importantly, and as I’ve said before, in my contention, they’re one of the best up-and-coming bands in Chicago.
A pleasant crowd of freaks and geeks eager to mosh and rock in opposition
As for Vortis, it was second on the bill and played to about four dozen people who nicely filled the Lothƒ³rien's big common room. We came. We rocked. And the gig instantly made the list as one of our all-time favorites, thanks to the frequent eruptions of chaotic moshing, the towering dude who alternated between lovingly giving us double-barreled middle-finger salutes and screaming along with Tony and Louie Vortis even though he didn't know a word of any of the tunes, and the opportunity to play for a near and dear friend from Madison who'd never had the chance to see us before.
The band got $20 from the door and sold $15 worth of merch, which was ideal, since the trip cost a little more than $35 in gas. Unfortunately, the merch bag wound up being excluded from the Tetris-like re-load at the end of the night (though it was recovered by the Proles, who promised to bring it back to Chicago on their next road trip).
It was our Madison friend who recommended breakfast at another local institution before we hit the road back to Chicago on Saturday morning. Bennett’s Meadowood Country Club is an odd, defiantly libertarian, and proudly gonzo bar that resembles the oldest of old-school Wisconsin supper clubs—dark wood paneling, coolers full of PBR, stuffed fish mounted on the walls, and all the rest—but which proudly hosts “Porn in the Morn” breakfasts on the weekends.
Surrounded by blue-collar construction-worker types and fifty-something couples enjoying a hair of the dog Bloody Mary, I relished a good mug of strong coffee and a “Smut Muffin” (two eggs over easy with four strips of bacon on an English muffin) in the midst of a dozen television screens flashing different scenes from ’70s porn films. In some weird way, it was the perfect complement to the collegiate horror show of the previous afternoon, as well as the ideal farewell to Wisconsin’s capitol city, and exactly what was need to fuel the drive home.
Tony Vortis tuning before the gig
Photos by me, Louie Vortis, and Anna Lewis.