Sometimes a show is worth driving through tornado country for.
On a dark, cold, stormy Thursday evening, I found myself hopping into a car to make the trip from Chicago to DeKalb, warnings about dangerous wind conditions be damned. Suffice it to say I really wanted to see Rambos and Axons, and my partner and her sisters really wanted burritos from their college haunt, El Burrito Loco.
There ended up being no danger in the commute, despite an excess of gorgeous, silent lightning strikes, and we arrived at The House Cafe just in time to find a solitary Rambo setting up some merch. For one reason or another the band’s front-man was the only one who could make the trip, but he proved more than up to the task of going it alone.
Jeremy David Miller took the stage looking like a rock and roll preacher: one part James Dean, one part Johnny Cash and one part Jesus Christ. He opened as Rambos often do, with the lead track from their debut record, Rock and Roll Monsters. Rather than ripping through “Terrorize” at the usually frantic pace, Miller’s stripped rendition was slower, more methodical and slightly eerie. He followed up with a similarly re-worked version of “Human Monster,” and then a song of his own. As with all the Rambos, Miller is involved in several other projects; among them a collaboration with his wife Bekah Rae called The Millers, and solo recordings like 2011’s Lepus, named for the constellation.
When a heckler from the crowd demanded Miller play play a song about rabbits (he was selling handmade rabbit stuffed animals designed for Lepus), the singer connected the hares to a holiday and performed “The Easter Song,” a charming, ambling folk tune that quieted the bustling cafe. Miller kept the crowd’s attention with a story about his newly-adopted nephew, followed by a song written to the child. Bright, tender and refreshingly honest moments like that have become staples of Miller’s songwriting, and they’re well-rendered live thanks to Jeremy’s warm, casual stage presence.
The set picked up pace as the end drew near, with a jaunt through Rambos jangler “Chuck Taylors” and a couple of Smiths covers that actually had the crowd singing along. Miller’s performance of “The Horse Song” rode an appropriately galloping melody, while blood-soaked Bobby Freeman cover “Do You Wanna Die?” had heads bopping and toes tapping. However, the standout of the night was Miller’s sweetly-sexy love song, “Praise The Holy Ghost,” a tune that’s thankfully been recorded and is available on his Soundcloud.
Up next was another Chicago musician, Adele Nicholas, better known as Axons. The MWA-favorite wasted no time in snaring the audience’s attention, building a dazzling pop song from scratch with loop pedals, synths, vocal work and her guitar. A truly dynamic live performer, Axons smartly crafted moments of lush electricity, but kept them reigned in with clever shifts in volume and pace. Wielding her voice as another instrument, she was able to switch between a sharp cry and more softened croon, as well as a range of percussive oohs and ahs for looping.
Things took a slight turn towards punk as Nicholas put an Axons-spin on “Completely Wigging Out,” a track from her power pop band, Puritan Pine. The mash of styles resulted in something similar to Le Tigre, and it was an absolute blast. Also opting to work a cover into her set, she played a ritualistic-sounding take on Cat Power’s “Bathysphere.” Following that, Axons’ 2013 single “Gadolinium” had a snappy, “When Doves Cry”-beat that was drenched in sizzling guitar and a swarm of psychedelic synths. The set was great up and down, but the thing that stands out to me is just how full and detailed Axons’ sound is despite it being a one-woman show. Having been a big fan of their December release Unmanageable without ever seeing Axons live, I didn’t realize the project wasn’t a full band. The moral is I need to get out more, and now I’m even more impressed.
Capping off the night were electro-pop trio Dahlia Revolt. Playing tracks from their recent debut, Rooftops & Graffiti, the group succeeded in mixing dance-able beats with cheery, slightly spacey pop melodies. Drummer Ryan McGinley was hitting his fills and flourishes with a welcome aggression, adding an edge to some almost overwhelmingly sugary jams. Their strongest performance was of a song called “Cubism,” which was a pleasantly fluttering, Postal Service-esque synth romp that swooned to a grandiose close like an alien mothership gracefully settling into a field. Maybe part of that was the cool breeze from someone opening the cafe door, but I contest it was in the music.
I wish I could report that after this wonderful show my companions and I made it to El Burrito Loco and stuffed ourselves recklessly, but El Burrito Loco is sadly no more. And whatever burrito joint that took its place was closed (Ok DeKalb, you’re a college town. There should be so much demand for late-night Mexican food that this place is open 24/7. What’s the story?). Thankfully, The Junction was open, and we were able to get some nostalgia-hangs in for my companions and some food for our bellies.
Couldn’t make this show? Rambos next performs at the Ye-Ye’s Farewell Show on Friday, May 22nd at Subterranean (Tickets). The next Axons gig happens Wednesday, April 22nd at Hideout Inn (Tickets). Also on the horizon: Dahlia Revolt play Martyrs’ on May 1st (Tickets).