Fine Breeding

Laughs and music shared with 100 or so folks on a Wednesday afternoon? Ah, the delights of the slacker freelancer living in the big city.

second-cityEach year, the Second City runs a 24-hour Christmas fundraiser to buy gifts for needy kids. “Letters to Santa” features local musicals acts interspersed between sets of improv. For just ten bucks, you can come and go as you please, or sit your fat ass in a chair for the whole entertainment behemoth. Since we got here in 2004, I’ve been wanting to catch one of these shows but never made it. As this will be our last Christmas here, I knew yesterday it was now or never.

(C?WC? aside: Seeing this show is just one of many things on my to-do list before we leave Chicago. It’s not an actual list, just a running tab in my head of the places I want to visit and happenings I want to experience before we make the big move. A few others: See Wright’s Robie House; check out concerts at some of the better-known venues I’ve missed; eat at some of the vegan-friendly restaurants we have not yet frequented; rub Rod Blagojevich’s well-coifed mane with my fingers. I’ll try to report on some of these things as they occur, and I promise a photo of the Blago stroke.)

I wasn’t sure when to go to the event. I would have preferred going in the wee hours of the morning, when madcap hilarity was sure to ensue, with the players, some of who improvise for 8 or 9 hours straight, running on fumes. But I was fast asleep, so I missed being part of the audience led onto the streets around 3 am Wednesday, joining a parade led by the comics. Since I had to go to Old Town, home of SC, on Wednesday evening anyway, I decided to head out for about 4 pm. As luck would have it, the musical act that hour was the Breeders.

Kelley and Kim and a band that didn't play with them

Kelley and Kim and a band that didn't play with them

In 1993, the Breeders released one of the best kick-ass singles of the 90s: “Cannonball.” I bought the album Last Splash based on that song, and liked others on it  as well – “One Divine Hammer” in particular. If you don’t know, the Breeders were formed by ex-Pixie Kim Deal and Tanya Donnelly of Throwing Muses (which, post-Donnelly, later came out with another of my favorite singles of that era, “Bright Yellow Gun.”) Donnelly soon split to form Belly, and Kelley, Kim’s twin sister, joined the Breeders. Their output since then has been sparse, but they did release a new CD this year, Mountain Battles. Local musician/producer extraordinaire Steve Albini had a hand in that, as he did in earlier Pixie/Breeder recordings. (He also performed at the benefit, which featured Jeff Tweedy in a solo set as the climax of the day’s events.)

I didn’t know what to expect from their show at Second City, since I haven’t kept up with their music. The two sisters played mostly alone, though on a few song a drummer with single floor tom accompanied them. Kim played both electric and acoustic guitar; Kelley was mostly electric except for playing a few notes on a violin. With a few exceptions, their sound was more folk or even country than rock, which might have been more a reflection of the size of the “band” then where they’re at musically. “One Divine Hammer” rocked nicely, and one of their new tunes, “Here No More,” had some very old-timey, bluegrassy harmonizing. In between songs, they let fly with sisterly insults and anecdotes. It felt more like watching two talented friends entertaining you in their living room than seeing a concert. They closed with “Cannonball,” which, unfortunately, suffered from the arrangement of just two guitars, and some loose musicianship. You’d almost think they’d never played the song before. Still, I was glad I caught them.

In between the Breeders’ mini-sets, the Second City troupe did its thing. I don’t think these were the A-listers, though there was one woman I thought I had seen on stage before. By the time I left, there must have been 20 players. Since some of them might have been dead tired from performing so long, and some might not have spent much time together before on stage, the humor was spotty. Though the guy who played a teen sleuth (and who also did a fine Christopher Walken impression) was good, as were the improvised songs and some of the bits. On the other hand, the descent sometimes into doo-doo/pee-pee humor was a little beneath a group that has obviously been doing improv a while. I’m not against crude jokes, but in this situation it felt like weak attempts to get cheap laughs.

Still, I had a good time, the money went to a good cause, and I got to do something I will never be able to do anywhere else I live: see a cool band and improv on a Wednesday afternoon. It was a nice break from work and all the political ill-winds blowing through the city this week.

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~ by mburgan on December 11, 2008.

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