How exactly does one discover and come to appreciate a musician as ludicrously amazing as Sean Tillman’s Har Mar Superstar? For me it was through a simple lyric from one of my favorite bands, Spoon. “I don’t dig the Stripes but I’ll go for Har Mar” sang Britt Daniel and urged me to go out and discover what exactly Har Mar was. If he was better than the White Stripes, than he must have been something grand. Truth be told, Tillman is an entirely different beast than the Stripes. He seems almost like a mystical being, bestowed upon us to deliver the best new soulful music. Luckily this past Friday at Bottom Lounge was his second stop in Chicago this year to remind us how utterly great of a performer he is.
Sweet Spirit opened up the night with a genre bending sound that took me by surprise. It could have been easy to peg them under a southern rock sound, but there is so much more within their songs that simply doesn’t fit solely in one place. The band blended aspects of country, pop, soul, and rock into an endearing concoction that resulted in wholly satisfying songs. Hell, maybe throw in a little punk attitude in there too and it still wouldn’t fully explain the band’s allure. Songs like “If You Wanna” and “Baby When I Close my Eyes”drift expertly through all those sounds and manage to create really catchy hooks that stayed with me.
Lead singer Sabrina Ellis, who also fronts A Giant Dog, pushed her voice all over the place with tremendous results. At times she sounds raw and unhinged, emitting these guttural screams between gravelly serenading that would make anyone week at the needs. But then she’ll pull out more tender and serene vocals that emphasize her range and prowess. She’s a throwback singer the likes of Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, while embracing a modern pop sensibility. It took me few songs to find a groove with her, but looking back on it was more out of genuine surprise at how interesting she sounds. Along with her impressive band, Sweet Spirit set the ground for the night of extraordinary music quite well.
When it came time for Har Mar Superstar to take over the stage, it became very clear how prepared the crowd was to see Sean Tillman. The noise from the crowd as the large band poured on stage and Tillman made his way center stage was impressive. Tillman was a smiles as he shimmied across the stage, pulling out all the stops for this dance party. His stage presence is so uniquely confidant, think cocky without the negative connotations. He was all smiles as his seductively talked to the crowd before letting his soulful voice take over. It was hard not to be entranced to dance by this man as he disappeared into songs like “It Was Only Dancing (Sex)” and emerged will more energy than he went into it them. Headstands and and wardrobes chages galore only added to the show and Tillman’s top tier performance.
When Tillman wasn’t getting the crowd going with favorites like innuendo riddled “Almond Joy” or the new Julian Casablanca touched “Youth Without Love”, he passed on anecdotes and sage advice to the crowd. These moments ranged from personally revealing truths to Har Mar Superstar antics lined with truth. Whether it was professing himself as a fan of the Cubs since seeing them during his first baseball game ever at Wrigley and then solidifying that fandom a week later while watching Ferris Bueller’s Day off or reminding the audience of the importance of finger banging, the crowd responded with sincere glee. That juxtaposition between Tillman’s natural charisma and the Har Mar Superstar persona played perfectly with evening’s perfectly lined up setlist.
With over a decade and a half of Har Mar Superstar songs, Tillman seems as joyous as ever when he performs. The famously Britney Spears rejected “Tall Boy” is all the better through the Har Mar Superstar filter, becoming a little more perverse and enjoyable in the live process. “Restless Leg” in particular had the crowd going as hard as he was around the middle of the set. After every couple of songs Tillman either added new element of wardrobe or took one off until he ended up shirtless and with an ever lowering pair of patterned leggings. Tillman’s demeanor exudes confidence which elevates everything he does into a territory of coolness previously unheard of. He danced his way on and off stage, rushing into the crowd and eventually finding himself standing atop of the bar to serenade the crowd.
Tillman returned to the stage alone for a single song before the rest of the band reemerged along with Sabrina Ellis. Ellis and Tillman joked around with on another before delving into a duet cover of another Minneapolis marvel’s song, Prince’s “If You Were Mine”. The pair worked the song to it’s lovelorn yet danceable sexual peak, letting their joyful chemistry engulf the song as the band. The crowd joined along, dancing to their heart’s content. Tillman ended the night with “Lady You Shot Me”, raising the already soulful night into the stratosphere. As he belted out the song with all the intensity he could muster, and it was quite a lot, the crowd melted further into the dancing that had underlined the night of pure musical euphoria. If there is anything that could have been gleaned from this rousing performance, it’s that Har Mar Superstar is a fucking pimp and experiencing his live show makes you feel like one too.
All photos by Julian Ramirez