“When angels trumpet the onset of the Apocalypse, it won’t be the high-tone notes of a triumphant cavalry charge nor a precious baroque flourish. It will be a slow, mournful dirge, a sort of ‘brown note of the soul’ designed to shake the last lingering twinges of humanity from those left behind, a note to confirm that things are about to get much, much worse.” If you’re quiet, you can hear the monster breathing.
Note: The above comes verbatim from the notes I took last night during The Antlers’ set at Lincoln Hall. I present this seeming non-sequitur as a concrete example of the evocative, if perhaps dark, places one’s mind wanders as The Antlers perform. If I recall, I was trying to search for a metaphor for Peter Silberman’s voice, and failed.
The day The Antlers came to Chicago’s Lincoln Hall was a hot, sweaty day. After a historically brutal winter, Chicago has pulled the full bi-polar switch: gone from a barren, unlivable wasteland to a place so abundant with heat and potential, it is dangerous to life all over again. Outside Lincoln Hall, one could hear the echoing bass notes of Pride Parade-after parties. Standing still on a street corner was enough to break a sweat. Overhead the clear skies were heavy with a sort of magnetic gravity that causes thunderstorms to appear out of nowhere, dangerous but also a welcome respite from the heat and gathered grime of the day. While the environment outside threatened to consume, inside a different kind of danger lurked. Bathed in cool blue and purple light, The Antlers wove a sort of methadone cocoon, protecting the audience from the ravages outside, but also leading us into a dark, unsettled place.
The Antlers opened with the same three-song cycle that begins their new album, Familiars, released two weeks prior. Languid and tentative, the new album trudges along at a sometimes ponderous pace, but in the concert setting, the songs blossomed into vibrant life. Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Peter Silberman is backed by two multi-instrumentalists (keys, trumpet, French horn, etc.) — including remarkably coiffed James Dean look-a-like Darby Cicci — and Michael Lerner on drums and percussion. For a relatively limited lineup, the quartet produces a rich and diverse sound. The gently swaying pace of a song like “Hotel” has a hypnotic effect, blurring one’s vision and letting the mind wander to pretty, sometimes dangerous places.
Nothing this sad should be so beautiful. But there lies the unique quality of The Antlers. Over the course of four albums, including their breakout success, Hospice, the group has maintained a consistent output of similarly dark but pleasing music. This is cat nip for those of us prone to melancholy. After the three new songs, Darby Cicci intoned the first twinkling notes of Hospice standout “Kettering”. As Silberman, half-sung/half-whispered the opening lines, “I wish that I’d know in that first minute we met/ The un-payable debt that owed,” a shiver went up my spine. As that song built toward its crescendo, it embodied the true nature of catharsis. From all that dark, from all that pain, expression becomes an act of emptying, of cleansing.
There was a point in time, just a few years ago, when Silberman was walking around, entirely unknown, but possessing that voice, that otherworldly, impossibly emotional but precise voice. On albums he (obviously) sounds great, but he has the sort of range and tone that makes one wonder if it could actually be real. In live performance, not only does he hit the outrageous highs and lows of a song like “Parade”, but he adds emphasis and flourish that improves on the original. As a performer, he is entrancing. Providing lead guitar and vocals, everything flows through him. Despite the emotional power of his music, he is strangely detached. His face is often placid and expressionless, not as if he isn’t paying attention, but as if he’s having an out-of-body experience, somewhere between zen euphoria and the sort of 1,000-yard stare that presumably comes from performing, nay living, such relentlessly heartbreaking music night after night. What his faces hides, his body betrays. Bent at the waist, he swings like a rusted hinge, almost buckling in two as if by force of will he can fire waves of energy into the audience. During subdued musical passages of a song like “Parade”, he sways in time, becoming the soulful melody as much as he is performing it.
The Antlers’ dark performance wasn’t without moments of levity. The sold-out crowd was remarkably hushed and tame through most of the show, prompting Cicci to twice comment between songs: “It’s sooooo quiet in here.” When Silberman (and then Cicci) fumbled the opening bar of “Drift Drive” and affably apologized, the crowd and band seemed to lighten up. Silberman remarked that the performance is the “World Cup of The Antlers,” which prompted a round of cheers and the chant “U-S-A U-S-A,” which Silberman put a quick end to. As the evening progressed, particularly exuberant (drunk) members of the crowd yelled out more and more, but lacking any drunken wit kept repeating variations of “Chicago loves you!” Simple and to the point. As the band finished the set, Silberman offered a quick and earnest thank you to the crowd, mentioning that Chicago has been supportive from the beginning. He also shouted out the young man in the front row wearing homemade cardboard antlers. “He has been wearing them all night,” Silberman noted. “That takes courage.”
The set list was heavy on songs from the new album. In fact, they played the entirety of Familiars, interspersed with Hospice favorites “Kettering”, “Sylvia”, and “Epilogue” and “Drift Dive” from 2012’s Undersea. They didn’t touch critical favorite Burst Apart until the encore, when they brought the house down with inspired renditions of “I Don’t Want Love” and “Putting the Dog to Sleep”. Relying on new material and avoiding more radio-friendly songs, like “Bear” or “Two”, can sometimes be a dangerous choice. But in the case of The Antlers, the new songs have such a unified tone and feel that the performance was sewn together seamlessly. The extra songs they incorporated didn’t distract or disrupt and instead added to the emotional heft of the show. Remarkable live performers, The Antlers more than justify the expense and trouble of attending a live show. Separate from the world, they shaped a new reality, a stolen moment in time safe from the danger outside but haunted by the perils of looking within.
I Don’t Want Love
Putting the Dog to Sleep