Review: Protomartyr with Kelley Deal Delivers a Raucous Set for an Enraptured Thalia Hall

Protomartyr have been kicking around the indie-rock and punk scenes for over a decade now and their story is defined by more of a slog than a meteoric rise-and-fall. They’re booked by festivals sparingly, with their small but feverish fanbase turning out to small-ish rock clubs. And yet their growing discography has become a beloved body of work amongst critics and moody post-punk fans. 

Quantifying a band in terms of its hometown can be fraught, even downright lazy, but it’s hard to listen to Protomartyr’s music without projecting our impression of Detroit, Michigan onto their harsh soundscapes and morose lyrics. These are four guys who grew up in a city that lost half its population within their lifetime and might not have enjoyed pre-Trump optimism like their Brooklyn or LA-based peers. These bleak realities do much to explain, or at least contextualize, their sound and persona. 

To many fans, it makes them more endearing and fortunately, their songwriting and musicality have allowed the band not to be defined by it. Sure, they play a specific type of gloomy punk, but they’re far from some rust belt oddity that lesser bands could stagnate into. 

While the crowds have never exploded in size, they have been steady and the musical growth of Protomartyr has been slowly leveling up with each release. Every few years, a facet is added to their repertoire. They developed an eye for more dynamic jams on 2015’s The Agent Intellect. In 2017, sincerity and tender moments cut through their trademark sarcasm on Relatives In Descent.  Mid-pandemic, the four-piece expanded their sonic qualities to include woodwind and brass instrumentation on their spectacular Ultimate Success Today. They have beefed up their live show quite a bit in recent years, adding Kelley Deal from The Breeders as a touring musician and collaborator. 

You could probably describe this particular cold and rainy November Wednesday as “Protomartyr weather,” and the Thalia Hall crowd’s energy was muted to start. Opening the night were local four-piece , which cut a nice contrast to the headliner’s sullen sensibilities with their kinetic brand of art-punk. Spread Joy’s spastic banter between songs and refreshing lack of polish energized the crowd, especially with some delightfully unhinged vocal deliveries. 

The four Detroiters (and Breeder) took the stage shortly after and started the set with the very, very slow-building “Day Without End.” As the opening track rumbled and expanded, the band added layers and volume until the track’s intentionally anticlimactic conclusion. As with every Protomartyr show, it felt good to hear Joe Casey’s speak-sing-shout vocal delivery in person again. 

The ferocious “Cowards Starve” immediately followed, drawing a burst of approval from a crowd in need of a pick-me-up. Greg Ahee’s inventive guitar playing weaved and wailed in between Casey’s vocal outbursts, while the seriously-tight rhythm section propelled the song to unexpected heights.

“Tarpeian Rock” was one of the oldest songs of the night, which was a welcome revisiting of their signature lo-fi garage rock. It’s a quick jam, and mainly featured Casey listing things he dislikes, including “dogs dressed as children,” “rich crusties,” “credit card users,” and “most bands ever.” It’s a fun track that encapsulates his ultra-wry humor. 

“June 21” stood out because it was one of the instances where Kelley Deal featured prominently on vocals. Her duet with Casey was the closest thing Protomartyr will ever come to sounding pretty, and probably left fans wishing she joined the band on earlier records. Her vocals were hardly the only contribution. Anyone who saw Protomartyr’s early shows would be astounded to hear the shimmering textures and melodic cacophony she adds to the band’s live show. Wednesday’s performance demonstrated what a massive addition she has been for this band. 

“The Devil In His Youth” is probably the closest thing Protomartyr have ever come to making a party track, with (almost) Strokes-esque guitar melodies jangling under impassioned vocals. “Processed By The Boys” is one of the more spirited tracks off of the most recent record, and acted as the set’s high-point. It’s a dystopian anti-anthem brooding over border politics and looming fascism, something only Protomartyr can pull off.

The encore featured the more raucous “Tranquilizer.” Like so many Protomartyr songs, the synth-washed arrangement bubbled and built for a minute or two until the bludgeoning percussion, guitar, and bass came crashing down on the enraptured Thalia Hall crowd to end the show.  

While Wednesday night’s show was hardly a major leap forward and the furthest thing from a letdown, it still showcased a number of Protomartyr’s newer musical flourishes that show how the band has justified their popularity over the years.  The show was but another chapter in Protomartyr’s frequent touring through Chicago, which Casey referenced multiple times, although he did go so far as to call Detroit transplants as “turncoats.” It’s a short trek from their similarly windswept dystopian hometown, and for fellow Midwesterners bracing for the frigid walk home, a welcome reminder that we’re not alone. 

Protomartyr photo by Trevor Naud

This review of Protomartyr's show at Thalia Hall was written by guest author Patrick Daul. Patrick Daul is an avid music fan and concertgoer living with his wife in Logan Square. When he's not standing towards the back of the crowd at his favorite vanues Empty Bottle or Thalia Hall, he's either cycling along the 606, hanging with his nieces and nephew, or enjoying a beer at one of Chicago's breweries. 

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Patrick Daul