Sleeping at Last
Chicago, Ill. • February 16th
Taking in this show at the Park West reminded me of a scene from Pulp Fiction where Uma Thurman’s and John Travolta’s characters converse about “the comfortable silence.” The only thing with this show was that both Sleeping at Last and Josh Caterer of The Smoking Popes were extremely uncomfortable with the introspective spell of silence their songs cast over the crowd.
The scene was set up for intimacy with the center floor, which — usually full of standing fans — was covered with table and chairs inviting fans to sit down, lean back and absorb the meditative melodies coming from both performers. This was not a show to get rocked at or interact with others on a physical level but a show where you sink into each song as a collective mass, taking the music in as it washes over and through your mind and beyond.
Opening as a solo act was Josh Caterer, frontman for the recently reunion-touring Smoking Popes. He entertained with a brief and humorous story about an awkward conversation he had with The Smiths’ maestro Morrissey and then continued, via acoustic guitar, to sing “Racine,” a superb ballad about young love cloaked in metaphor and heart-tugging melodies. He then debuted “a song about his daughter,” which he left up to the audience to decide if he should ever play again in public. It was touching and definitely something you don’t normally hear at a rock concert, but since Josh was interested in outside opinion, it did need a little more sculpting and fine-tuning.
Sleeping at Last debuted with 2003’s Ghosts and quickly gained the interest of fellow Chicago rock icon Billy Corgan, whom the band credits as showing them the ropes in the studio and in the industry. SAL apparently learned just enough, since they landed a song in season 3 of Grey’s Anatomy from their second national release, Keep No Score.
I was amazed at what I saw. Not having seen SAL live since the days before Ghosts — when the trio was playing in basements and small local Chicago colleges — and then experiencing the maturity of this show was such a contrast. I almost got caught up in the band’s growth that I nearly missed the beauty of the show.
Bringing along the all-female string quartet which is featured again on the new album, Ryan O’Neal (lead vocals/piano/guitar), brother Chad (drums) and Dan Perdue (bass) have taken their early sound, which dabbled in both emo and punk, and transformed it into intricate rock portraits that listen like epic novels. You don’t follow along with Ryan’s nearly indecipherable lyrics so much as you follow and connect with the tone of his voice as it travels from abysmal heartache to mountaintop glories.
For most of the show — which was being filmed for a forthcoming DVD — some fans mouthed the words they could figure out, while others air-drummed. The string quartet during “Hold Still” closed the night with a repeated unison one finger string pluck accompanying O’Neal’s soaring vocals, making sure not a soul escaped without feeling sublime.
So I wonder if SAL knows their audience has no choice but to be awed into silence and, when the trio pauses in between songs for an awkward moment of interaction, that it’s not that the songs weren’t good. It’s that they were too good. When it comes to cultural differences, I know in some countries it’s the opposite: clapping and whistling is a sign of failure, and silence — like Mia Wallace explains to Vincent Vega over a burger and fries at Jack Rabbit Slims — is a sign of success and should be welcomed, not feared.