Hutch Harris of The Thermals has always reminded me of the coolest kid in third grade. He’s clean cut, but with a manic, goofy energy that makes him the kind of guy you want to pal around with. Plus, he still wears the coolest-kid-in-third-grade clothes (last night’s gig at Chicago’s Bottom Lounge featured a tight, rainbow-striped, long-sleeved polo shirt), and he’s still pretty damn cool.
After an extra-long set from fellow Portlander’s, The Shaky Hands (due to illness in other tour-mates Point Juncture WA), guitarist/vocalist Harris, bassist Kathy Foster and newly hired drummer Westin Glass bounced on-stage with a tank full of energy. Without losing a step, Harris kicked into the chords for The Body, The Blood, The Machine standout “Returning to the Fold”. The previously sleepy crowd woke up, fists pumping and sections of the audience singing along. After barely enough time for a breath, the trio stomped into “When I Was Afraid” from this year’s Now We Can See. The tune’s stuttered, crunchy guitar further whipped the people into a frenzy.
One more high-energy new track (“I Let It Go”) and The Thermals were back to their old tricks. “How We Know”, from 2004’s Fuckin A was simple and sublime; chugging away behind the kit, Glass was a seamless replacement in the Thermals’ revolving door of drummers. Not only was he a steamroller rhythmically, his mugging at the crowd, constant waving and hollering, kept the show moving. A few tracks later, the band found themselves back in 2003, roaring through “Back to Gray” from the underrated lo-fi gem More Parts Per Million.
About halfway through their set, Hutch & Co. hit their stride with a five-song stretch of rollicking fan favorites. The opening of “A Pillar of Salt” garnered a huge eruption, listeners bouncing around, clapping each other on the backs and matching Harris word for word. Next came the surfy, lush “Test Pattern”, followed by the raucous “We Were Sick” and “I Hold the Sound”. However, nothing compared to the excitement that popped throughout the room as “St. Rosa and the Swallows” kicked into gear. “Rosa”, much like the other four songs the band had just blistered through, has its share of hands-in-the-air, ecstatic shout moments. As Hutch howled, “I try to remember/If I was ever lonely/If I was ever low?/hell, hell yes I’ve been low!”, the crowd was up there with him.
When Harris sings a line about heartbreak (“Why do I feel so crazy now/why am I losing my mind?” in “Test Pattern”), about the world going to hell (“Stick out our tongue catchin the acid rain!” from “We Were Sick”) or the frustrations of religion and modern culture (“We don’t want to die, or apologize, for our dirty god, our dirty bodies” in “A Pillar of Salt”), you believe him and you agree. Again, it comes back to his manic, childlike charm. He sings about adult topics, but his yowling voice and bouncy attitude keep him grounded, empathetic and utterly likable.
After a full set, the trio ended the night with the outstanding “Everything Thermals” from the “No Culture Icons” single. Full of goofy one liners (“The Thermals know all your secrets”; “The Thermals go right to your head, The Thermals have sex in your bed”), uplifting life mottoes (“They only need skin and bones, and a sweet pair of headphones”) and a quick stab at the drug culture (“The Thermals don’t need drugs to have a good time, The Thermals need drugs just to stay alive!”), plus choppy guitars and a melody perfect for singing along, the song encapsulates everything great about The Thermals.
But they weren’t done just yet. The crowd demanded an encore and the band honored the request, with an unusual two song set. Glass hopped on stage, high-fiving the front row like a giddy teenager. First was a sincere cover of Nirvana’s “Laundry Room”. Before their final song, a sly grin crept across Harris’ face as Foster announced theyd be back in Chicago real soon. This summer, Harris added. Could a Pitchfork appearance be coming? One can only hope. The chorus of “Summer’s ready” for the last song of the encore only adds to the suspense.
Photo support by the very excellent Andrew Sommerfeld.