James McCartney has a lot riding on him. You would too if your dad was Paul McCartney. Where most would coast on their family legacy, I truly feel that McCartney eschews that simplicity in favor of living up to the legacy his surname brings. He does however, do it in his own humble manner. There isn’t a flashy presentation or gaudy light show during his performances, just James McCartney and his guitars. No long diatribes, no ego, no holier than thou attitude; just a pure rock performance that puts his songs and his skills on display. McCartney stopped by Chicago earlier this week and did that very thing for a very enthusiastic crowd at Schubas.
Opening up the night was Chicago band Mooner. Before the show I had listened to some of their songs and felt that they were right up my alley. Their songs are very ’70s rock-influenced that often sound like long lost hidden gems of the era. However, I was not prepared for how great the band performs together, cranking up their sound for an even better experience. If anything this shift from album to live fits in with the allusions to their influences. Elvis Costello always sounds way more punk live than on record. Their set opener, “Alison,” burst at the seams with rocking pains of unrequited love that hooked me, but it was “Shapeshifter” and its endlessly catchy guitar riff that pulled me in.
While they definitely fed into those ’70s rock comparisons by pulling out a Cheap Trick cover in the middle of the set, Mooner can’t be completely defined by their influences. They aren’t a case of sound-alikes but rather a group misplaced in time. Not that I’m complaining, the world needs more of this unrestrained rock with a little country charm sprinkled in today. Their first full length album, Masterpiece, fills that need quite well. Mooner ended their set with “Name Your Shame,” further cementing the wonderful quality of their entertaining set.
Before he got on stage, I already had a feeling that James McCartney wasn’t going to be about pretense or ego. Since his start a few years ago, nearly everything I’ve heard about his shows have lauded his skills but lamented his humble and quiet attitude between songs. So when I saw him come in through the side entrance of Schubas, a rucksack at his back and a pair of guitar at his sides, it confirmed his casualness. There no ego coming off of him as he set up his pedals and looked around the room for a friend. He acted as any other musician, not even the headliner of the night, and it instantly made me like him.
McCartney barreled into his set sans his final pedal, starting out with his latest album’s opener “Too Hard.” The first half of McCartney’s album likens itself to a ’90s grunge sound. This emerged raw and chaotic, missing a little something before McCartney adjusted and let the song work for itself. “Waterfall” followed and everything seemed to fall into place. It became clear that the rest of the evening would likely follow the order of The Blackberry Train seeing as he began to cull his setlist directly from the back of the album’s jewel case.
Between songs he quickly and quietly ruminated about not really knowing what to say or how to interact with a crowd. It was never more than a sentence or two and if drifted away from the mic, barely capturing his voice. In a sense he felt that patter wasn’t needed, much to the chagrin of a few audience members. Instead McCartney was putting all his energy and showmanship in his musical performance, which I was completely fine with.
McCartney’s shyness and quiet voice vanished as soon as he was performing. There were moments where his voice rose up and intensely snarled, pushing his emotive lyrics out not unlike a veteran rockstar. “Paralysis” in particular comes to mind, where the songs eponymous repeating chorus roared through the crowd. While it would have been grand to see him perform with a full band, I think intensity of his solo performance made up for it. Toward the end of the set, McCartney switched out his electric guitar for an acoustic one. It was here that that songs really benefited from just having him on stage. “Prayer” and “Peace and Stillness” in particular were executed flawlessly and full of a very calming beauty.
He ended his set on one of the more rocking and downright ecstatic songs, “Unicorn.” It was McCartney at his loudest and most unabashedly fun. As applause rang out, he softly spoke into the mic, “that’s me done” and put his guitar down. It took the audience a little by surprise, not necessarily because it was a short show. I’ve seen and heard that reaction, but here it was more due to how quietly the announcement occurred and the very fact that everyone wanted more. McCartney left the stage to a belated applause for more, but settled in the back to talk to fans and friends. As I walked out of the venue, looking back at James taking pictures and talking to fans, I was glad that most people focused more on his musicianship than the lack of his onstage banter.