ARTS

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November 18, 2005

Obscure Brits Art Brut put the charm on Chicago crowd

The first thing Eddie Argos—frontman of Art Brut—did upon stepping onto the tiny stage at Schubas this past Tuesday was take off his shoes. The second thing he did was launch into a frenzied version of “Formed A Band,” which is very much indeed about forming a band (it begins with “Formed a band, we formed a band, look at us, we formed a band”). The third thing he did, after the song, was to ask the audience if they had any questions to ask the band. When the first query turned out to be, “Will you play the rest of the show totally naked?” he deftly replied, “No one wants to see that,” and then asked if anyone was willing to ask them to play the song “My Little Brother.” “Well,” he replied, clearly lying, once the question had been asked, “we weren’t going to, but since you ask, alright. Just for you.” And that’s pretty much all one needs to know about Art Brut to understand what they’re like.

As another group from the seemingly endless crop of new British bands, Art Brut are much more punk and flat-out entertaining than most of their contemporaries, mostly due to Argos and his seemingly endless ability to not care about what others think of him. Anyone who can get up on a stage and sing, “I know I can, I know I can, I’m fine when I am with my own hand,” and then ask for “one more try with me above you,” even if it is just for laughs—as you come to suspect most of Art Brut’s songs are when you see them play—must have some superbly thick skin.

However, one does not go to see Art Brut live for the lyrics, clever and unashamedly sharp as they are—little darts of wittiness and occasionally downright nastiness directed at everyone from Argos himself to the Velvet Underground. Do buy the record, because the words are generally muffled by the rest of his band (all of whom have suitably amusing punk rock aliases, such as Jasper Future or Federica Feedback). One goes for the performance, to see Argos sing about how “he’s considering a move to L.A.” because “there’s not much glamour in the English weather,” (in the plainly titled “Moving to L.A.” of course) and then stand still, arm raised and pointing in the direction of the city, or run around the stage like a child pretending to be an airplane. Most songs are preceded by some sort of introduction, which more often than not delves into Argos’s own life. “Emily Kane,” one learns, is about, well, Emily Kane, a childhood sweetheart of Argos with whom he’d lost touch and who, much like the lyrics of the song wish she would do, actually got in touch with him after the song became a single.

No song is left to stand on its musical merit alone. If it is not an introduction, then it is something else, always in the effort of making the performance something other than a one-sided affair where the band plays, the audience listens and then everyone goes home. “Bang Bang Rock & Roll,” coming in the encore of a fast-paced hour-long set, generally features a lengthened bridge and Argos shouting “Art Brut: Top Of the Pops!” at the top of his lungs. This time around he instead rattled off the names of assorted Chicago bands, each of them followed by “Top of the Pops” and finished the list off with “incredible memory feats: Top Of the Pops!” How many people in the crowd actually knew what Top Of the Pops—a rather well known TV program in England—is, is a matter open to discussion, but that didn’t stop them from shouting along, like Argos wanted them to. Likewise with “My Little Brother,” whose last line, “stay off the crack!” has for a while been followed by a shouted warning of “stay away from Pete Doherty!”—a man nowhere near as notorious here as he is back in the U.K. Argos went so far on Tuesday night as to touch upon the fact that “he’s got a bad album and a crap tattoo!”

And, admittedly, if you know who Art Brut are, as the majority of people present at the concert seemed to do, it seems impossible to think that you’ve never heard of Doherty, but the point remains. For a band whose debut album hasn’t even been released this side of the Atlantic, Art Brut manage to inspire a surprising amount of dancing and shouting and outright devotion in all the kids coming to see them, mostly because they’ve done more than just “formed a band.” The fact that someone asked Argos, tall and lanky and perhaps not what would be called conventionally attractive, to take his clothes off in a small-but-sold-out pub in Chicago is only telling of the fact that whatever record executive decided this punk five-piece from London was worth a flight across the ocean and a cross-country tour made a wise decision, for a change.