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Re: Chills, City Winery, November 14, 2022

Chills, City Winery, November 14, 2022
November 22, 2022 12:01AM
City Winery, November 14, 2022

After a life-threatening illness, a global pandemic, and the difficulties of life in rock ‘n’ roll for over three decades, the mere fact that Martin Phillips of the Chills is still alive and touring should be considered something of a miracle. Not only that, he’s actively recording and writing new music, and the Chills have been remarkably productive over the last decade with a consistent lineup and with a renewed burst of vitality following Phillips’ near-death experience with hepatitis, chronicled in the lovely movie about his work to which I was a small contributor.

I’ve been a Chills fan since at least 1993 since I came across the Flying Nun compilation Pink Flying Saucers Over the Southern Alps, and I lived in New Zealand in 1994 but was unable to see the band as Martin was facing one of his periodic lapses with addiction and health problems. So I never actually saw the Chills until 2017 here in Washington when they reunited for their first tour of America in decades.

That was a transcendent and crowded set at the Black Cat, in front of a audience that had waited for decades to see the band tour again. After the show I spent a long while chatting with Martin and with his bandmates, got a whole host of old Flying Nun merchandise signed, and had an absolutely wonderful time.

Unsurprisingly, the Covid pandemic put any Chills touring on hiatus, but the band has yet another album out with the now-familiar SB acronym — Scatterbrain — and their touring in Washington this time was at the sedate City Winery.

I didn’t know quite what to expect because I thought this might indicate that the band was pursuing a more reflective mode. While the record tour was advertised as the 30th anniversary of the Soft Bomb album, Martin happily acknowledged that it really wasn’t and that he mixed and matched songs from throughout their lengthy discography.

After starting with their long-time show opener and by-default theme song, “Night of Chill Blue,” Phillips led the band through a wide-ranging set list that didn’t skimp on their 21st century material while also going back to the band’s earliest days compiled on the essential Kaleidoscope World assembly of singles. In fact Scatterbrain and Kaleidoscope World each got four tracks in the set, while the band’s American commercial peaks in the early 1990s, the sublime Submarine Bells and the perhaps-fussier and conflicted Soft Bomb, actually had fewer songs and were mostly represented by their singles of the time, specifically Soft Bomb’s “Male Monster from the Id” — a song that anticipated “toxic masculinity” debates by a few decades — and the splendid “Double Summer;” and of course Submarine Bell’s “Heavenly Pop Hit” and a pair of others.

Martin was in fine voice and a warm and gracious mood during the show, although I felt the audience was sadly skimpy. In between songs, he playfully teased an impending double album of songs from the Chills’s earliest recordings in Dunedin in the early 1980s, the time that led to the famous Dunedin Double EP that alerted the world to the strange and beautiful and surprising music being made in an isolated corner of the South Pacific. The band was fine, too, and the stately comfort of the City Winery was a suitable venue for the more orchestrated contributions of Callum Hampton when he switched from bass to trumpet and the violin of Erica Scally. Oli Wilson on keyboards worked to replicate some of the arrangements that was contributed by luminaries like Van Dyke Parks on Soft Bomb. Generally the more delicate Chills material translated better to the setting while the rambunctious “Oncoming Day” felt a bit ill-suited to the venue, although Phillips backed by the drumming of Todd Knudson gave it some much-need punk energy.

In a venue like City Winery, I was sipping on a Malbec while in a comfortable chair, so the scene was a bit overly calm. But given Martin Phillips’ age and past ill health, I was just grateful that he was in such good spirits — two earlier shows in the tour were canceled due to illness and exhaustion. And he was clearly proud of the recent material with four songs from Scatterbrain and one from Snow Bound although Silver Bullets got skipped entirely. (Suggestion for a title in case Martin wants to do a compilation of his 2000s material: Selection Bias.) Given his past health scares he apologized that he wouldn’t be able to meet with fans after the show but I was struck by the fact that almost every fan who attended visited the merch table to purchase vinyl or t-shirts and show their support in that way.

In addition to reconnecting with several of my concert-going buddies I spent a long while chatting with NPR Music’s Lars Gotrich about Low, Ida, and the 1990s indie and Christian alternative music scenes. It turned out that Lars was mostly there to see the Chills’ opening band, Unwed Sailor. I had never heard of them, but Unwed Sailor has a twenty-year history and grew out of a cult-favorite Christian alternative band, Roadside Monument.

Unwed Sailor is mostly the vehicle of Johnathon Ford — who once was part of Pedro the Lion, also the 90s Christian alternative scene, which meant that I would have once seen him on tour. Their music was all-instrumental guitar rock with sinewy overlapping lines that sounded like the Church without ever resolving into pop songs with lyrics. I kept feeling like the songs were about to be engaging; the sound was great but I lack the patience and attention span to listen to instrumental guitar rock. I guess it sounds good in small moments in soundtracks, hence Explosions in the Sky? But I ultimately found them both kind of boring and kind of loud and annoying, so I may not have been the intended audience.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 11/22/2022 02:55PM by zwirnm.
Re: Chills, City Winery, November 14, 2022
November 22, 2022 09:59AM
The Chills came through Austin recently, but I missed them. I was talking a few days later to an old friend of mine who’s a Chills ultrafan, and she says she feels like this tour has been poorly promoted - maybe that’s why the crowd seemed thin.

I heard of Unwed Sailor just recently, and dig what I’ve heard. But I’m more interested in instrumental music than anything with lyrics or choruses these days anyway.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 11/22/2022 10:26AM by Michael Toland.
Re: Chills, City Winery, November 14, 2022
November 22, 2022 11:46AM
If you did not hear about it in Austin, that illustrates poor promotion indeed!
Re: Chills, City Winery, November 14, 2022
November 22, 2022 03:00PM
It's weird, too, because they have an audience here. The Chills did two different music festivals, SXSW and the now-defunct Chaos in Tejas*, and both fests made a big deal about the band's presence, so there were good crowds. If the locals who attended knew the Chills were coming, I'm sure they would've drawn. Maybe they did and I just don't know it.

*Primarly a punk and metal festival, but the organizer/curator also loved the New Zealand scene of the 80s, and always set aside a night for a NZ legend. I missed that Chills show, but I did see the Bats and the Clean in different years.
Re: Chills, City Winery, November 14, 2022
November 22, 2022 01:03PM
This tour reached Seattle last month. I didn't learn about it, though, till after the fact. Whether that's poor promotion, or me not keeping up with the local scene, I'll leave to your discretion.
Re: Chills, City Winery, November 14, 2022
May 23, 2023 08:22PM
I was at the opening NY stop and turnout wasn't great - first show was 75% sold, and second show apparently had the opposite ratio. It was definitely poorly promoted - the only reason I knew about it was because City Winery had a holiday flash sale, which surprised me because I didn't realize venues had flash sales, and when I went scrolling through their picks, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Chills among the discounted shows. It then occurred to me to check for social media accounts, and sure enough they had FB and IG accounts, which I think Martin may run himself. Very nice interactions, but if you're not on social media or following those accounts, you likely didn't see a single ad for this tour.

I didn't even know the Chills until 2020, when I was searching for more music during lockdown, and I've since grown to love their music. Kaleidoscope World, Submarine Bells and Soft Bomb now sit on my shelves (Robert Christgau suggested an excellent new sequence for the last of these in his Consumer Guide review) and I was able to download a copy of the long, long out-of-print triple-disc set of rarities. I feel very fortunate that they toured so soon after I found out about them so late in the game, especially with Martin's history of health struggles. Show was wonderful, the songs were wonderful to hear live - I just wish they had a larger turnout, they played so well and were so nice to everyone.
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Re: Chills, City Winery, November 14, 2022
May 24, 2023 11:51AM
I am thinking that City Winery just does not have inroads in the marketing and publicity world that would reach most rock listeners. They are good for jazz and singer-songwriters and such but I think their demographic skews older (which is fine), richer (ok, sure), and sedate, so they are not publicizing for folks who follow the schedules of rock shows.

I'll be honest; when a Suzanne Vega does a set of residencies at City Winery it makes complete sense and I would love to see her there but the Chills did not seem to fit that venue's aesthetic in the least.
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Re: Chills, City Winery, November 14, 2022
May 24, 2023 12:00PM
Nowadays, if someone I want see is playing nearby, I don't care what the venue is, I'm going. Though seeing Pere Ubu at a BBQ place was definitely a bit odd.
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Re: Chills, City Winery, November 14, 2022
May 24, 2023 02:00PM
LOL. That reminds me, my first exposure to Blondie was at a rib festival in Illinois. Like my family went specifically for ribs and BBQ, and Blondie was playing there. When I got to know their work years later, I thought my memory was playing tricks on me - maybe it was a cover band? - but I found the proof here.
Re: Chills, City Winery, November 14, 2022
May 24, 2023 02:27PM
That is hilarious. But I'm fairly sure I once saw DEVO (or some of the members of DEVO) in a street concert in the city of Portland when I lived there. It would have been a free show the city put together for a summer festival or something? Maybe I'm hallucinating the memory. (Other odd interactions I definitely didn't invent: talking to David Byrne in an elevator, meeting Ben Folds at a bagel shop in Indianapolis, talking with the Decemberists at a tiny Portland venue before a show that was awkwardly scheduled on the Sunday of a three-day weekend, when all of Portland was going canoeing or hiking or surfing or all the things that Portlanders do.)
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Re: Chills, City Winery, November 14, 2022
May 24, 2023 06:46PM
Funny! Reminds me of this thread:

Tho I forget to mention when I saw James Brown c.1991 at one of those "Taste of [city name]" festivals, where local restaurants hand out free or cheap samples and everyone mills around a parking lot with paper plates. Oh, and one of the greatest, most influential musicians of the 20th century is on stage putting on an incredible show for free.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 05/24/2023 06:57PM by MrFab.
Re: Chills, City Winery, November 14, 2022
May 24, 2023 06:57PM
Hah, that's how I saw Stevie Wonder, the Taste of Chicago. Also, IIRC the Replacements final show (before the reunion decades later) was actually at the Taste of Chicago, which seemed fitting given the desultory nature of their final year together.
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