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November 21, 2003

Straylight Run gets to the heart of the Bottom Lounge

On Wednesday night, November 10, I decided to skip a new episode of The O.C. and trek up to Belmont to see the first Chicago show featuring Straylight Run at The Bottom Lounge. The Long Island foursome, taking its name from William Gibson's novel Necromancer, consists of former Taking Back Sunday members John Nolan (guitar, keyboard, vocals) and Shaun Cooper (bass).

Joining them is former Breaking Pangaea drummer Will Noon and Nolan's sister Michelle (keyboard, vocals) who, depending on which one of the myriad of rumors relating to the near breakup of Taking Back Sunday you choose to believe, may or may not have had something to do with Nolan and Cooper's departure from said band. The as-yet unsigned band is currently on a co-headlining tour with the New Amsterdams and, for this show, they were the headlining act.

First up was the Format, two guys from Phoenix who brought along four additional band members for the tour. Lead vocalist Nate Ruess certainly looked the part of an indie rock star, strolling across the stage during the first song with a microphone in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. They played seven songs featuring a unique mix of banjo, electric guitar, piano, and acoustic guitar, while Ruess's wandering voice provided the finishing touch to an excellent set.

The second band to play was Murder By Death, a five-person act from Bloomington, Indiana. This band has an intense yet creepy sound that at times sent chills down my spine, probably due to the presence of a cello. The band played a mix of five old and new songs before promising to come back in December to play their entire new CD, which evidently tells the story of the Devil destroying a small Mexican town. The last song, the entirely instrumental "Medley of Evil," lasted about 10 minutes and was almost overwhelming. At one point, the bassist was playing with two cigarette lighters, producing some very strange sounds that mixed well with the overall feel of the band's music.

The co-headliner was Matthew Pryor's (the Get Up Kids) side project, the New Amsterdams. For this tour, Pryor left his band behind and played a very long solo acoustic set. About 10 songs through, he informed the crowd that Straylight Run was having van troubles, and he would have to play longer. He definitely relished the role, taking requests from the crowd and getting into a conversation with a drunken heckler. He covered both Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me A River" and Outkast's "Hey Ya!" and entertained the crowd by commenting between songs on the stupidity of Jessica Simpson, Michael Jackson's current predicament, and how he wasn't going to play any Get Up Kids songs. Pryor played a total of 18 songs, and the crowd absolutely loved his spontaneous comments between songs, so I would have considered the concert an excellent one if it had ended right there.

After much anticipation, Straylight Run finally made it on to the stage in front of a packed house. I felt a bit nostalgic when I noticed that one of John Nolan's bags still had "TBS" markings. They band members quickly set up and began playing. Their first song was "Mistakes We Knew We Were Making," a song about getting over past mistakes. How many of their songs are influenced by the falling out with Taking Back Sunday is a matter of debate, but it certainly seems like this one is somehow related to that situation. Next, they moved into a slower-paced song with a simple melody called "Red Ross," followed by "It's for the Best" and "Dignity and Money." The latter features a shrieking guitar solo by John Nolan as well as alternating vocals between him and his sister. In fact, one of the biggest problems that I had with the set was that Michelle Nolan's microphone was not turned up enough. Her voice sounded amazing, but it simply wasn't loud enough to overcome her brother's voice and the rest of the instruments.

After this song, John and Michelle switched instruments to play "It's Everybody's Fault but Mine," a more piano-heavy song than the others. Michelle Nolan just strummed the guitar lightly and occasionally sang along as her brother rocked the piano. In fact, a more skeptical person than I might say that Michelle's presence in the band is something of a gimmick, as she doesn't sing that loudly and has her brother play the piano in the songs in which the piano is prominently featured. Their sixth song is currently untitled (Michelle told me after the show that she was working on it), but sounded very mellow and slow, keeping with the general feel of the band. They next played "The Tension and the Terror," a poetic ode to adolescent love. The crowd enjoyed it and sang along with every word. The manager then came and told them to finish the set, as it was getting close to 10, but they still managed to sneak in two more songs: "A Slow Descent" and "Existentialism on Prom Night." Brother and sister again switched instruments for these songs, producing the same effect as before. The guitar was largely lacking in both these songs as Michelle is not as adroit at playing the guitar as her brother and this produced a softer, more emotional feel.

Straylight Run is probably one of the best new bands I have seen. John's lyrics are as heart-wrenching as those of any other songwriter, and they promise the listener a slight glimpse into the inner workings of his mind as he went through whatever crisis predicated his leaving of Taking Back Sunday. The piano-heavy songs and emotional choruses leave the listener feeling both sad and strangely hopeful. One might be tempted to write them off as simply Taking Back Sunday without the screaming, but it seems that Nolan is maturing past the type of emo angst about which TBS screams.