Guest review by Aviv Hart.
You won’t find a single music venue in Chicago that feels quite like Martyrs’ on Lincoln Avenue. There is an inimitable intimacy in the room that is the result of decades of love and elbow-grease put in by the founding Quinn family, who own and operate the venue to this day. This family business atmosphere, as well as the ambiance provided by the candlelit tables surrounding the dancefloor and the meticulously illustrated chalk mural on the back wall, immediately inform any audience member that they have entered somewhere special.
A quick perusal of the outskirts of the concert hall serves as a history lesson of the venue, as signed posters and portraits of a wide variety of former performers adorn the walls. Are you a fan of Southern Blues Rock band Gov’t Mule? How about virtuosic Canadian fiddle player Ashley MacIsaac? If 18-time Grammy winning megastars are more your bag, don’t worry, Adele is a former Martyrs’ performer as well. I bring this up to highlight the incredible breadth of booking that occurs at Martyrs’, which people in-the-know will tell you is one of the best places to catch phenomenal international artists. This is why I was filled with such excitement as I took my seat to watch Chilean singer/songwriter (and pianist/accordion player) Pascuala Ilabaca grace the stage.
The opening number “Canción Quechua” instantly highlighted the chemistry between the performers on stage, as guitar player Juan Nuñez masterfully accompanied Ilabaca on the track’s delicate and serene opening, before drummer Jaime Frez brought the beat in and got quite literally every person in the room clapping along (bartenders included). Ilabaca’s simultaneously effervescent dancing and accordion playing were an absolute delight to behold, as the only thing bigger than her smile was the voice she was so elegantly wielding. The vocal performance progressed from impressive to transcendent when she performed “Sin Mí,” showing off not only the range, but the sensuality of her voice as well. Bass player Christian “Chino” Chiang served as Ilabaca’s sole accompaniment on this track, and wove a bass line that expertly anchored the melodious singing. Chiang also took a soulful bass solo that not only warranted snaps from the crowd, but briefly highlighted his exceptionally smooth musicianship as centerpiece rather than companion.
As Chiang left the stage, Ilabaca stepped behind the keys to perform the deeply affecting and melancholy solo number “El Arado.” This movingly emotive and sorrowful vocal performance starkly contrasted with the jovial energy Ilabaca had given us through the majority of the set by this point, illustrating her effortless versatility as an artist. This point is proven further by her performance on the keys, which brought a jazz-tinged drama to the stage that was nothing short of enchanting.
The full band returned to the stage for “El Perdón,” and with them the buoyant energy returned to the crowd, due in no small part to Jaime Frez’s rim-shot hi-hat drum part and Juan Nuñez’s introduction of the electric guitar. Nuñez really shines during this portion of the set, providing an absolutely crystal clear guitar tone while adding some subtle rock and roll flavor to Ilabaca’s increasingly jazzy keyboard parts.
The set closed with “Sale” and “Sabatanasa,” which each delivered unique and climactic grooves that saw even those seated at the tables on the outskirts of the dancefloor rise from their chairs. As she concluded, Ilabaca looked out upon the crowd with immense joy, as if she was trying to make eye contact with and personally thank each person in the audience. However, the pleasure was all ours. Pascuala Ilabaca y Fauna delivered a dynamic and diverse performance of absolute revelry.
This review was written by guest author Aviv Hart. Aviv Hart is a Chicago music and culture writer, you can find his other work online at dxcegame.com and in print in the DXCEGAME magazine.