Jake Ewald, frontman of Slaughter Beach, Dog (SBD), stood at the front of the stage and stared into the sea of people in the crowd. Some had been following him since his days with midwest emo band Modern Baseball, some had just started listening to his folk rock project Slaughter Beach, Dog and some had never heard his music before tonight. Regardless, all eyes were glued to him as he cradled the mic. He had pregamed the show with a shot of what appeared to be ranch dressing, already establishing himself as an eccentric performer.
“I got some advice from a shared therapist,” he said between songs. “She said, ‘Nobody’s gonna call you a songwriter until you do.’ Well, I sure feel like a songwriter tonight.”
The historic Thalia Hall in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood was one stop on Slaughter Beach, Dog’s tour to promote the release of their latest studio album, Crying, Laughing, Waving, Smiling. If the lengthy line for merchandise was any indication, it was certainly a hit.
Indie rock band Bonny Doon initially warmed up the crowd with a similar folksy twang and soulful lyricism to the headliner. While their vibe was an excellent fit, the crowd seemed unfamiliar with the small artist. Regardless, they still offered cheers and support when vocalist and guitarist Bill Lennox told the crowd he had sliced his finger open days before the show and “had to relearn every chord he thought he knew.”
Charming imperfection was the theme of the night. Ewald asked if anyone in the crowd had seen them play at “Scuba’s” (a mispronunciation of Schubas Tavern, located in Lakeview) while grasping for the name of the actual venue he was asking about, Chicago Beat Kitchen. Just before “Do You Understand (What Has Happened to You),” Ewald accidentally bumped his face into the mic, countering the cool and collected stage presence he had established for the first half of the show. After playing a small part of a song incorrectly, he even admitted he could finally relax post-mistake.
However, the performance was not hindered by these imperfections. Just hearing the first chord of fan-favorite “Gold and Green” from their 2017 release Birdie was enough to excite the audience, who had previously been swaying and nodding to Ewald’s smooth harmonica for “Bad Beer.”
The frontman then joked, “If you subscribe, like and comment for more,” before the band launched into the slower, yet still irresistible “Tommy.” A disco ball shimmered in shades of red, white and yellow between keyboardist Logan Roth and former Superheaven drummer Zack Robbins.
Guitarist Adam Meisterhans was particularly dexterous on the electric guitar, shredding for several minutes on “Engine” in a way that reminded me of some Pink Floyd song intros. Ewald and fellow Modern Baseball veteran Ian Farmer provided the perfect supplement with guitar and bass guitar respectively, likely due to over a decade of playing together.
The lights went low and Ewald soloed on acoustic guitar for “My Girl,” another popular song from Slaughter Beach, Dog’s discography. Although the crowd was laid back, they were certainly dedicated, singing along to every word.
After the borderline-country bop “Bobcat Club,” Ewald finally gave the crowd what they were waiting for the whole show: “Acolyte.” During the chorus of the song, where Ewald sings a melody of “oohs,” the entire crowd whistled along in tune, creating an ethereal ring with Thalia Hall’s acoustics. The band silenced their instruments for one of the song’s final lines, the crowd’s collective voice filling the room. “I'd say you look tired / sing, my secret choir,” Ewald sang as his secret choir joined in. “Salt my scrapes and sleep tight / sing, my brave acolyte.”
As the show came to a conclusion, Ewald and co. thanked the audience for their love and put down their instruments, exiting the stage. For a solid two minutes, that was the end – until it wasn’t. After relentless applause, Slaughter Beach, Dog returned to the stage smiling and laughing at their little prank. “Here’s two more songs,” Ewald said unceremoniously.
During the encore, the audience received the last must-play song from the band’s discography: “Your Cat” from their debut EP Motorcycle.jpg. The crowd’s singing practically drowned out Ewald for the end, and you could hear the smiles in their song: “Tomorrow I’m driving to Chicago, tonight I am kneeling from the puke / Still doing all I can to understand one more erotic nightmare about you.”
Even after the band’s departure, Thalia Hall was not empty – a long line of people waited to purchase merchandise, as though they were all convinced Ewald would jump out on stage once more for another song. Despite the size of the venue, the band had given a surprisingly intimate show.
With Ewald and Farmer’s first project Modern Baseball still on indefinite hiatus, Slaughter Beach, Dog certainly fills the void with its own unique, folksy flair. If the larger venue is any indication, it’s likely SBD is forging its own path to the heights of Modern Baseball, or even higher.