In case you pay no attention to the music world beyond the Billboard Top 40—highly unlikely if you landed here—guitars are far from dead. Last night, I got a look at two hard-rocking bands that can fill an arena with thousands of screaming fans and make you feel like it’s Stillwater’s heyday all over again. (That’s 1973, for all of you non-Almost Famous acolytes.) Cage the Elephant and Portugal. the Man put on one god damn hell of a show, albeit in very different ways.
There was an opening act, Morning Teleportation, but unfortunately I missed most of their set. I’ll instead offer you a review of the UIC Pavilion restroom, and you can put two and two together.
The bathroom was much cleaner than you’d expect for a rather large arena, built for efficiency without sacrificing too much comfort. The black door of the stall wasn’t much to look at, but its blandness was offset by the mosaic of color on the floor: specks of pale orange, turquoise, blue, black and gray mingled together in a dazzling display that kept me blissfully distracted from the task at hand. The highlight, though, came when I reached for the toilet paper and discovered that it was double-ply! We’re not talking Charmin Ultra soft, but I felt awash in relative luxury. Just about the only complain I have stems from the overeager automatic flusher, which went off about six times even though it was only needed twice. I dislike wasting water.
Fortunately, I did catch the entirety of Portugal. the Man’s set, and I was surprised by its intensity. Their most recent album, 2013’s Evil Friends, blends chill, hip-hop influenced beats with John Gourley’s distinctive, gentle voice and driving guitars. In concert, though, there is no chill in the music. The band takes on the persona of a dance group and gets the people going, particularly on songs like “Hip Hop Kids,” “Atomic Man,” and “Purple Yellow Red and Blue.” Particularly on that last one, I was reminded most strongly of a Glass Animals show I attended in October, which basically devolved into an orgy on the floor. Portugal. the Man didn’t quite go that far, but they did cause everyone in the building to bounce to the beat, and those with romantic interests on hand did their thing.
One aspect of the performance that confused me was the presence of a hype man on the stage the entire time. The guy looked like DJ Khaled, but obviously lacked the Snapchat status and hitmaking prowess. Perhaps he was there to make up for Gourley’s lack of energy on stage; the singer/guitarist hardly moved or emoted as he delivered his lines, and when it came time for him to shred on a solo, he would turn his back to the crowd. Bassist Zach Carothers and the hype man worked together to keep things up, but with Gourley seeming so passive, it was hard for me to get into the performance.
That said, the best part of Portugal. the Man’s set came when Gourley wasn’t singing. A medley of “All Your Light” and “The Home” devolved into a ten-minute jam session punctuated by a ravaging cover of The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” that thudded with distortion and badassery. It was a welcome break from the admittedly catchy vocal hooks and dance-y beats that permeated the rest of the set but, by that time, had grown a bit stale.
Then, it was time for Cage the Elephant—or, should I say, the Shultz Brothers show. Matt (singer) and Brad (rhythm guitar) dominated the stage with their personalities. In his white pants and tight Hawaiian t-shirt, Matt looked and acted like a modern-day hipster Mick Jagger. For good measure, he stuck the mic down his pants during “In One Ear,” accentuating his bulge and inciting some old-fashioned hysteria amongst the girls in the front row. Perhaps the most amazing thing about his performance was his ability to consistently deliver great vocals despite prancing all over the place, sweating through his shirt from the effort. A lesser athlete would have been left breathless by his antics. It certainly helped, though, to have “breaks” of sorts built into the set. Ballads like “Telescope” and “Trouble” came in at precisely the right times, just after rollicking strings of rock that had both the band and the audience ready for some more solemn sing-alongs.
The dynamic between the instrumentalists was fascinating to watch. Brad Shultz effectively functioned as a second frontman, despite not having a microphone. He sang along with nearly every word of every song, strumming dutifully, but his real purpose was crowd engagement. At one point, during “It’s Just Forever,” he exited the stage itself and walked through the audience, reveling in the groping hands as he somehow continued to play without mistakes. I’m shocked that not a single troll decided to turn his tuning pegs. Meanwhile, guitarist Nick Bockrath, a touring member of the band, stood far back on an elevated platform, only leaving to strut down Shultz’s walkway when it was time for a solo (as it was on “In One Ear” and “Cold Cold Cold”). And when Matthan Minster eschewed his keyboard in favor of a six-string and turn Cage the Elephant into a three-guitar band, the rock n’ roll swagger was palpable.
But probably the moment that struck me the hardest came at the end of the show. The band had just finished its encore with a raucous performance of “Teeth,” and all but Matt Shultz left the stage. With guitar feedback still ringing out the entire time, he meticulously grabbed every set list attached to the stage, balled them up, and threw them one by one into the crowd. He didn’t say anything, but at that point, he didn’t have to; his stunning showmanship had done all the talking.