Dear reader, to seal our compact I must confess a lack of credentials. Prior to the night of Saturday, June the 29th, I had (a) heard of but never heard Camera Obscura (opener); (b) not once taken leave of my chance, Starbuckian encounters with the music of She & Him (headliner) to exercise my rights as an able but increasingly recalcitrant consumer with iTunes and YouTube accounts; and (c) never visited the Aragon Ballroom (venue), oxidized icon of Chicago’s varied musical landscape. I am, without a shadow of a doubt, an outsider, an interloper; but perhaps there is value and a mite of insight in this perspective.
First, you must appreciate, dear reader, the surprise with which I’d entered the Aragon’s lobby. Wedged between public transit tracks and branches of commercial banking, its doors—I had assumed—could yield no more than a chute for drug-addled urban professionals eager to replace the memory of Ticketmaster surcharges with overpriced Coors refreshment. My, how mistaken I was! What luxury! What extravagance! The lobby immediately flared into a wide berth of chiseled ceiling, mosaic tiling, and designated concession areas. Dear reader, I read your thoughts as you these words. Insidious plot! Corporate price-gouging trap! Stay your contempt and trust your humble reporteur: outsize prices rarely fail to confer magical qualities upon the goods to which they are affixed. Indeed, a seven-dollar Coors Light, released from tap and encased in translucent twelve-ounce plastic cup, tastes of nothing less than ambrosia.
I ascended a grand staircase. Gummy wooden handrailings extended like tiger paws. I found myself in a hall large enough to accommodate King Kong. It put me in mind of the Alhambra, vestige of the Moorish occupation of Spain. Perhaps the Alhambra as imaged by P.T. Barnum, if I must give the scene a bit more cultural context. Breezy arcades lined the room’s perimeter, turrets breathed warm light from either side of the stage—and all of the walls caked in garish reds, yellows, and cerulean blues.
As I savored my dearly acquired ambrosia and carved a place for myself behind an overly affectionate couple, Camera Obscura took to the stage. The Glaswegians were at first all snare and 80’s-redolent keys. All wop and no doo, I should say. A problem of the technical variety, no doubt, that I trusted the sound engineer to sort out in due time. But as the set dragged on, I couldn’t help but pursue the theme. How to pithily describe Camera Obscura in this Twitterfied age of ours? Rhythm without the blues? Rock w/o the roll? Perhaps wop without the doo is sufficient enough.
Lest you think, dear reader, these are the words of an incontinent crank with none of the enlightened tolerance of the Continent, allow me to balance the scales a bit. CO competently paid homage to an earlier era of rock ‘n’ roll history, with Smiths-like pathos and Love-like brass. In short, their music was pleasant, but perhaps excessively so. Like a gentle wave that washes over one’s squibbly toes and recedes, leaving one cold and nipped-at by the bitter sea breeze.
During a particularly hushed moment between songs, a young woman in the crowd screamed, plaintively. Had she been the victim of a purse-snatching? Spilled ambrosia? Frotage? She was, as you may have already determined, dear reader, simply a fan of Camera Obscura. And so the set dragged on, with the languid rhythms and tender vocalization that could only have come from Albion’s hinterlands.
She & Him provided much-needed energy, which had (thankfully, since I’d passed on a second round of ambrosia) a somewhat inebriating effect. Ms. Zooey Deschanel (She), fey and enchantingly demure, crossed the stage in a high-waisted frock even I thought adorable. How can such deliciously husky sounds emerge from such a tiny frame? I wondered. This is Ms. Deschanel while nestling into the foundation notes, the warm folds of a song. But there are moments in which she ventures into more strident registers, as in a torrid yet still somehow inert rendition of “I Put a Spell on You.”
Mr. M. Ward (Him), meanwhile, was a veritable whirling dervish, unleashing virtuosic rockabilly riffs that reminded your humble reporteur of the complex patter of rain on cobbled London roads. Like all compelling entertainers, Mr. Ward, by some occult formula, harmonizes and effortlessly cultivates a set of contradictory traits. He is elfish (barely taller than Ms. D.) and saturnine as he concentrates on the guitar’s fretboard, and yet also debonair—a hoary-templed Robert Downey, Jr., one might venture to say. And, as though receiving radio transmissions in an underground bunker somewhere in the Pampas, one feels the urge to lean in as M.W. croons of soda-fountain liaisons and moonlit automobile drives. (Nota bene, dear reader, if you are a bachelor in search of ever more creative methods for ensnaring the fairer sex: if my experience bears any representative insight, women outnumber men, conservatively, by a ratio of 10:1 at She & Him concertos. However, the vast majority are either shoring up one-half of an overly affectionate couple, pining for Mr. W., or both.)
Prom-night lighting studded the stage and much of the audience. Songs of the stars and the moon, star-crossed lovers and moony eyes, poured continuously. I drank deep of the narcotic cocktail. And yet my thirst was never wholly quenched.
Ms. Deschanel sipped from her bottle of Crystal Geiser and opened her impossibly blue eyes. “I like this room,” she said. “It looks like EPCOT.” Thus in one offhand remark Ms. D. captured the essence of what I—what we all, possibly—had been feeling. This place was no Alhambra. The Moors had been purged from Spain hundreds of years previously, and their mosque become a cathedral. We humans of the twenty-first century traverse one elaborate funhouse hall of mirrors, an endless series of simulacra. While the world outside does whatever it will, we stand in this cavernous facsimile, swaying to love songs.