Ponys play solid set, but resemble foals after intense opening acts

By Ethan Stanislawski

Grimy, sleazy, booze-drenched garage punk is back, and it was on full display on Saturday at the Logan Square Auditorium. Despite the relative obscurity of Mannequin Men, The Black Lips, and The Ponys, the venue was packed to the brim. By the end of the show, the crowd was drenched in beer, silly string, and sweat. It was a throwback to the early wild days of punk, and even the most cold-hearted hipster must have warmed to them. Few Chicago shows this year may top this set, which featured two local bands as well as one of the wildest live acts in the country.

Mannequin Men has been a staple opening band at Chicago concerts for a couple of years, but have not been able to make a dent with their studio work. That’s a shame, because their live show trumps just about any flavor-of-the-week rock band’s set. Who needs the Vines or the Strokes to save rock and roll, when an obscure Chicago cult band can plays balls-out rock and roll with the best of them while still maintaining melodic and rhythmic discipline? Vocalist/guitarist K Richard sings like a young Frank Black, plays guitar like Bob Quine and struts across the stage as maniacally as Jack White. Their set only got stronger as it went on, and it won over the fans still packing in to see the headliners.

The Black Lips were drunk when they got there, and they only got drunker as the night went on. Vocalist/guitarist Cole Alexander couldn’t even make it past the third song without throwing up (word to the wise who attend future Black Lips shows: Don’t stand in the front row). Instead of water, he went straight back to another beer, and then played just as hard (and in time) throughout the night. The stage antics that got them banned from Georgia clubs have been limited to a mere re-swallowing of projectile spit (vomit?) and the Hendrix-style teeth-guitar technique, but the real strength of the performance came from the increasingly deft chops of the band members.

While their recently released live album Los Valientes del Mundo Nuevo seemed relatively flat, their Chicago performance accentuated the strengths of that album. The Black Lips need to be heard loud, rude and raw, and no recording of a concert can fully do them justice. The Black Lips performed songs like “Stranger,” “Dirty Hands,” and “Juvenile” like a wasted karaoke singer performing “Louie Louie” at closing time, but it would come as a welcome shock to early Lips fans that they can actually play now—quite well in fact. Their live set is finally realizing the promise their albums have shown, just in time for a burgeoning fan base inspired by a successful set and an interview with MTV at South by Southwest.

Though probably the best band of the bunch, the Ponys were surprisingly the weakest of the three acts. They were wise to wait a while before following the Black Lips (the stage probably resembled a slip ‘n’ slide after their set), but waited just a bit too long, causing some Lips fans to funnel out and some Ponys fans to get frustrated.

It would be unfair to complain that their act was the least enthralling, since the first two acts packed so much punch that it made the Ponys’ otherwise engaging performance seem weaker than it should. Jered Gummere took a while to get up to snuff vocally, but the band played strongly throughout the night, never really letting up.

The energy problem could have been solved by better song selection. “Poser Psychotic” and “Exile on My Street” are excellent studio tracks, but their atmospheric complexity did not translate as well to stage, especially as two of the first songs played. It took awhile before they got into their biggest fist-pounders like “Let’s Kill Ourselves,” “Turn the Lights Out,” and “Double Vision.” Those songs got the crowd excited again, but it still seemed everyone was in a daze from the first two shows.

It was still a remarkable performance. The Ponys’ songs are just too good to ignore. It didn’t even matter that the Ponys’ interaction with the crowd was limited to handing out silly string and party poppers. They barely even looked at the crowd, as Brian Case was the only member whose hair didn’t completely cover his face, and that was just because his hair was too curly for the grunge look—a fate I know all too well. I heard more than one crowd member compare Gummere to Kurt Cobain based completely on his looks. Actually, he sounds like a young Richard Hell filled with Dewar’s—which he was. His frenzied keyboard playing matched the attitude of his guitar work, all the way down to the noise freak-out conclusion. It was a night I won’t forget for quite some time, even though most of the crowd probably didn’t remember it Sunday morning.