Wicker Park Fest swallowed up Milwaukee Ave. from Paulina to Damen this weekend, drawing throngs to catch the likes of Against Me!, Snail Mail and Porches at the three-day event. Also on the bill Sunday was Ezra Furman, a Chicago native now based in Berkeley, California. Furman has made a career out of blending soul, punk and pop music, with both the Harpoons and the Boyfriends, as well as on his first solo album, this year’s Transangelic Exodus. He played the Beat Kitchen Saturday night for one of the fest’s aftershows.
Furman drew a diverse audience to the Roscoe Village venue, a crowd that all seemed to be intimately familiar with his music. As soon as the band took the stage, Furman in a plaid pink and yellow dress and the rest of the group in all-white, the wooden floor boards shook to the rhythm.
Furman is enigmatic onstage. It wasn’t just because of the wardrobe choices that it was hard to look away from him. The music seemed to snap him, usually soft-spoken in interviews, into (or out of) character. Every note wretched an emotion out of him, triumphant or desperate. It was the kind of performance that made me expect to see him crumpled in a heap afterward.
Rips of guitar tore into moments of peace. “I Wanna Destroy Myself” and “No Place” raged anger and frustration at different targets.
Furman is a songwriter firmly in tradition of some of the great writers of lyrics and melody of the last century, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Van Morrison; but his songs deal with issues unique to his life and the modern age. Furman has been a visible member of the queer community and much of his music deals with the questioning which comes with that life. Though it might seem that someone comfortable enough to wear dresses and jewelry onstage has reached end stage self-assurance, much of his music expresses the insecurity inherent in taking that course. In “Maraschino-Red Dress $8.99 from Goodwill,” which describes buying just that, Furman sings “I was looking over my shoulder/ At the register trying not to be seen.”
The band roared through “Suck the Blood From My Wound,” the lead single from Transangelic Exodus. It burned with saxophone, as did “My Zero,” a song Furman wrote while he was based in Chicago and living in Lincoln Square. “It’s still possible to live in this city,” he told the crowd.
Furman encored with a Brian Wilson cover, “Love and Mercy,” a tender song that had half the crowd shushing the other.
It’s been a mystery to me why Furman isn’t more popular. The set didn’t sell out, and the casual music fan probably wouldn’t know his name, but the show was exciting enough that neither of those facts should be.