A couple of decades into their careers, some of the best punk rock artists seem to find that punk rock alone is not enough anymore. Mike Ness and his country albums. Tim Armstrong’s reggae album.
Rise Against is the latest example. Last year they released an album of covers of their own songs played acoustically with a string section and titled “The Ghost Note Symphonies.” This year, they’re taking that approach on a three-city tour and I got to see the opening night in the band’s home town of Chicago April 28.
“We’ve never done this before,” said front man Tim McIlrath to the sold-out crowd settled in on the plush seats of the historic Chicago Theatre.
He also noted early on that “this is the stillest we’ve ever stayed in the first three songs we’ve played.” But it was an engaging show even without the typical punk rock antics.
The band played for close to two hours and in addition to playing numerous songs from the new album, they gave the acoustic-plus-strings treatment to some of their own material that isn’t on the new album and even to Pegboy’s “Through My Fingers” and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio.”
The idea of a string section may sound cheesy, but it wasn’t at all. And their sound was more Lindsey Stirling than Boston Pops.
The band met the three musicians who play violin, cello and classical bass through their long-time record producer Bill Stevenson and as Tim told the audience, Rise Against had the idea of doing something acoustically since they appeared on the “Punk Goes Acoustic” compilation some years ago.
A loud announcement before the show started said the band didn’t want people shooting photos or videos and I honored that request. But I wish I could have taken a picture of the stage set and lighting, which was as unusual as the band’s sound.
On the stage were about a dozen lights that were shaped liked mid-century microphones (the kind on the Mable Syndrome t-shirts). From where I was sitting it appeared that each had its own incandescent coil, which changed color from white to orange-yellow throughout the evening. Each light had its own stand that was about four and a half feet tall, and when the lights glowed orange-yellow, it gave the effect of a dozen big candles or small but tall campfires burning on stage.
The lighting arrangement also prompted Tim to tell someone in the audience that he had been thinking about him or her all day – “not you, but whoever was going to sit there,” he said.
He said he realized that the light blocking that person’s view of him probably made his face look distorted but stepping to the side, he added “I’ll try to go over here sometimes so we can spend some time.”
Tim asked the audience if anyone had come expecting a regular Rise Against show and some had. But most knew what they were getting into, and a substantial minority had traveled to see the show from places as distant as Texas and Arkansas.
He talked about how much fun it was to play for people who are connected to the band’s music and willing to explore new territory with them. He introduced several songs with anecdotes about the band’s early days in Chicago playing the Fireside Bowl.
“I never thought back then that they would ever let us set foot in the Chicago Theatre,” he said.
A few attendees did post videos on YouTube and you can see the lights in some of them. Here’s a link to one of “Ohio.”
Face to Face
Rise Against invited Face to Face to open for them – a band popular with a lot of people connected with Mable Syndrome, including me. Tim said he’d been a fan of theirs since being in their circle pit at the Metro at the age of 16.
Like Rise Against, Face to Face also did an acoustic album last year. Theirs is titled "Hold Fast." But playing in a Chicago Theatre-style venue was something new for them, too. Initially, front man Trever Keith said it was “intimidating” for a punk rock band to play that kind of venue and he asked the audience “Are you comfortable in your seats?”
But after two or three songs he said he felt more comfortable and I thoroughly enjoyed everything the band played.
I didn’t expect it to be fulfilled, but I had a secret hope that the two bands would come together to play “Blind” – my favorite Face to Face song and one that Rise Against has covered. But that may have to wait for another day.
It’s important to note, though, that the full name of Rise Against’s acoustic album is “Ghost Note Symphonies Volume 1.” So perhaps some of the songs they did last night that weren’t on that album will appear on a future volume.
And if they’re taking suggestions, I’m casting my vote for “Blind” with a guest appearance by the Face to Face guys.