The disfunctionality of modern America, the discrepancy between its dream of equality and freedom and the grim realities of social conservatism and economic liberalism, have indirectly provided inspiration for many of its greatest artists.
Chicago, home of the blues, harsh winters and Steve Albini, has produced many such artists from the ranks of its thriving music scene. One of its best kept secrets is the diminutive Bobby Conn, who last night at 103 Club proved himself worthy of comparison with the best.
There was an awkward moment as the band took to the stage, not the entire circus of the Glass Gypsies, but a stripped down touring outfit here to promote the new album King For A Day (Thrill Jockey), the bassist, Jim “Dallas” Cooper, seemed to be having some trouble with a lead but Mr. Conn in his cheeky sailor’s cap grinned and entertained us with some reflections on the state of the nation.
The briefest of technical hitches was resolved as “Dallas” located his too cool for school sunglasses and with a sinuous bassline announced that we were in the hands of professionals and tonight they had brought the funk.
Bobby Conn’s cod virtuoso guitar solos pirouetted around the backing provided by the bassist, drummer (Josh Johannpeter) and keyboardist (Jonny Steinmeier). White glam disco in matching orange parachute pants gave way to joyous red neck rock-outs.
At this point the entire audience was faced with a moral dilemma – whether to keep taking notes (the nature of authenticity/the moral redundancy of the Scissor Sisters/Whether or not there may actually be circumstances in which ELO and Frank Zappa are cool/has Ziggy Stardust returned from the dead?) – or dance.
Consulting my notebook this morning I find the only legible thing I have written is ‘the band wore matching parachute pants,’ reader, I danced. However, I can tell you that the next song they played was Angels from the album The Golden Age,
“We were into swimwear.
We danced to cheap cassettes.
I was pretty dumb
but my gums
grew so numb from the cocaine.”
…..all sung with perfect pitch to the most saccharine and euphoric white funk. As the song peaked with the repetition of “Don’t turn off the lights” and descended key to its revelation of angelic visitation and overdose, the entire crowd were singing every word.
After a comprehensive tour of his songbook as well as material from the new L.P, culminating with Never Get Ahead (Giving Head to the Man) the crowd, stamping for more, we were treated to Whores from a tired and emotional Bobby Conn in purple lurex longjohns, mascara running down his face, who serenaded Miss Sarah Marrs, of Chicago and Prenzlauer Berg – and on the catch line of ‘I’m so proud of being a whore’, everyone joined in.
After more stamping a refreshed band returned for a second encore, “Dallas” switching places with Jonny Steinmeier on keyboards. Launching into United Nations (from Rise Up!), the vitriol of its lyrics was offset by the sheer euphoric energy of the performance, the audience were grinning inanely. If the Sex Pistols had indeed produced the disco album McClaren threatened to in The Great Rock and Roll Swindle it wouldn’t have sounded half as good as this.
The impossibility of describing the complex sound, a pinch of Zappa, ELO, The Tubes, a pinch of The Red Hot Chile Peppers and a whole lorry-load of disco, combined with lyrics so rebarbative they would put Luke Haines to shame, defeats me.
The danger of irony is that if it is pointed out it loses its subversive power but if its true intention remains concealed then it risks being taken literally. The joke can sour quickly or feel like it is at the expense of the audience but what Bobby Conn achieves, through his idiosyncratic dress-sense, ferocious sarcasm and consummate musicianship, is that rarest and most beautiful of things; complicity.
As Bobby Conn writes on his MySpace page,
“The key slides into the lock. Click! It’s a perfect fit. Now open the door to your new condo. Blonde wood floors, granite counter tops, jacuzzi; it’s all there just like in the brochure. Congratulations!”