A great tradition of Chicago summers is the street festival. Ideally, it involves cheap beer, meat on a stick, and a guitar-heavy, danceable band on stage. The Shams Band, whose resume lists a number of these outdoor engagements, is well suited to the task on their second full-length release, Cold City and the banjo is just a bonus.
The Chicago five-piece trucks in an easy blend of blues, country, and pop, name-dropping local landmarks across the 12-track effort. The title track, a love song to the Windy City, opens with a scene set in the golden drunken glory of an afternoon, the kind familiar to many a Midwestern kid: We sit and dream about the places we will go/ and you dream of California and I dream of Chicago. Its not just lip service, either: Even when they kill me/ there will still be nowhere else on Earth for me, declares lead vocalist Paul Gulyas, adding, If I gotta be a soldier/ then the cold city is my queen. It’s romantic, citified country for indie rockers who think they hate the whole genre (hint: Think more Wilco than Kenny Chesney).
The Shams Band also explores the traditional storytelling mode of country on tracks like Breadwinner, Trunk Whiskey, and Virgin Mary, each of which tells a mad-cap mini narrative. Travel by Sea plays the same card but with a fantastical twist involving pirates and dolphins. All the tracks power forward on a potent mix of guitar and driving, down-home banjo of the sort that invites both dancing and drunken whooping.
But the Shams are most compelling on their more personal tracks. The Des Plaines River is a down-tempo heartbreaker, Gulyas wailing, Take me to the Des Plaines River and drown me, voice rent open over bare guitars. Similarly, the earnestness of the vocals on Love You The Most is winning, Gulyas selling the emotion without being sappy and the party carrying on in the background.
And for those festival sets, theres Thank You Cab, which features a rousing chorus of the lyric, Last night was like the rest/ I got drunk. One can imagine how that will go over under the streetlights. On Cold City, Gulyas sings, Yeah, heaven will be just like this. If your idea of heaven is a cold beer and a hot banjo, then that line sums up Cold City pretty well, too.
Essential Tracks: Cold City, The Des Plaines River