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Thrill Jockey Turns 15

CHICAGO: Tortoise, the Sea and Cake, Fiery Furnaces, and more, come out to commemorate the revered indie label's crystal anniversary.

As the recording industry fights to save itself from the perils ofthe digital age, one could say it’s rare that an independent recordlabel has been, and continues to remain relevant after 15 years. Andlast weekend, the Chicago-based Thrill Jockey — known for putting outexperimental and innovative rock, electronica, and jazz — validatedits weight with an impressive anniversary fiesta chock full of actsfrom the Windy City and beyond. Held at the Logan Square Auditorium, avenue notorious for its gymnasium-like acoustics, the party plowedthrough 18 (and a half) bands on two stages with nearly immaculatesound quality courtesy of the Empty Bottle’s P.A. and engineers.

Tortoise side project Brokeback kicked off Friday (Dec. 14) with lounge-y instrumental surf-rock that could have been pulled from the Twin Peaks soundtrack, followed by gravelly-voiced guitarist Thalia Zedek. Sea and Cake songsmith Archer Prewittthen played a tight five-song set, including “O, KY” and “Second TimeTrader,” opening his eyes only to congratulate Thrill Jockey on itsachievement, and was followed by a set from ’70s-tinged retro-rockers Arboretum. One-man band, the Lonesome Organist,made a surprise appearance Friday evening as well, stopping by withonly an accordion and mini cymbals strapped to his foot, then exitedafter only one song, amidst calls for “More!” from the audience. WindyCity post-rock outfit the Sea and Cake, of course, was the largest draw; the rotating cast of musicians offered songs from their latest release Everybody,while also sprinkling in earlier tunes such as “Jacking the Ball” and”Leeora,” the latter ending their set with an explosive jam session.

Whilethe tide might have turned with the Sea and Cake, four more incredibleacts on the bill, including veteran jazz saxophone player Fred Anderson and Thrill Jockey’s latest signing, School of Language, Field Music’sDavid Brewis’ new project, kept the celebration going. Backed by twoChicago musicians who rehearsed his complicated songs only the daybefore, Brewis came off like a progressive-pop version of Jeff Buckleywith his acrobatic falsetto and angular, dissonant chord progressions.

Fiery Furnacesbegan with a heavy metal jam before launching into their 30-minutesoirée, which was limited to tracks from recent Thrill Jockey debut, Widow City.The seemingly distracted Eleanor Friedberger delivered her barrage ofwords with spot-on pitch, channeling PJ Harvey’s cool rage with aclenched jaw and a piercing stare, while her brother, keyboardistMatthew, and the band’s rhythm section effortlessly kept times inshifty sounds.

And not one to go unnoticed, progressive psych rocker Bobby Conn closed out the night. Offering highlights from his 2007 effort, King for a Day,the glam-pop provocateur played host to nine musicians, all of whomdelivered a cacophonic mix of vocals and instrumentation, as well asstandouts from Homeland and The Golden Age.

The several hundred concertgoers who arrived early on Saturday (Dec. 15) were in for a treat: indie-rock experimentalists Tortoise performed an unannounced seven-song set, including It’s All Around You’s “Salt the Skies” and TNT’s “In Sarah, Mencken, Christ, and Beethoven There Were Women and Men.”

Alt-rockers Eleventh Dream Day played next, providing back up for veteran singer/songwriter Sue Garner, followed by free jazz act, Frequency. In stark contrast, Detroit duo Adult.dropped a 20-minute bomb of raucous electro-punk, heavy in screechingvocals, throbbing bass lines, and twitching techno blips. As a smokemachine accented piercing strobe lights, completing the band’s dark,otherworldly creepiness, Adam Lee Miller and Nicola Kuperus culledtunes from both Gimmie Trouble and Why Bother.

Led by smooth-voiced tunesmith James Elkington, Smiths-esque pop-rock quartet The Zincs drew mostly from 2007’s Black Pompadour,including the smoky surf-rock of “Burdensome Son” and the jangly”Coward’s Corral,” on which lead guitarist Nathaniel Braddock reallyshined. But despite keyboardist/guitarist Fay Davis-Jeffers’ ampproblems, avant-garde eccentrics Pit Er Pat pulled off a showincorporating tribal and reggae sounds with choice Yoko Ono (“Dogtown”)and Sade (“Feel No Pain”) covers. Swimming in a black XXXL T-shirtprinted with gold chains, diamonds and lions, Davis-Jeffers led mostsongs with her delicate voice and melodic organ over Rob Doran’sdeafening bass and drummer Butchy Fuego’s punchy beats.

After a few push-ups and a group huddle, tongue-in-cheek post-rock trio Trans Amended Thrill Jockey’s impressive showcase with an appropriate bang.Songs ranged from the prog rock-tinged “A Single Ray of Light on anOtherwise Cloudy Day,” and the explosive, bass-driven “June” tovocoder-laden electro track “I Want It All.” Their mix of progressiverock, electronica, metal and jazz complete with succinct improvisationperfectly summed up the eclectic label’s sound in one fell swoop.

We asked: Which is your favorite Thrill Jockey band?