Review: Chicago in the Rearview, Plains in Our Hearts

Guest review by Lorenzo Zenitsky.

It’s official, y’all: Plains, the collaboration between Jess Williamson and Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee, came into Chicago’ the Vic like a cannonball and none of us will ever be the same. What’s not official is the fact that I may or may not make another great Plains pun sometime later in this review, but I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself.

When I first arrived at the Vic a handful of minutes before MJ Lenderman took the stage, I was actually a bit worried seeing that only 100 or so people were there with only minutes to showtime; knowing how great MJ is, it hurt knowing that he’d be playing to a smaller audience than he deserves. However, within the first 10-15 minutes of his set, the venue was packed to the brim and I could finally rest easy knowing tonight was gonna be something special.

MJ and his band of rebels came on stage in classic badass fashion with no dimming of the lights and no walk-on music playing, a lesson in some ZZ-Top-style confidence. Their set started with the mesmerizing Neil Young-esque distortion of “Toontown” taken off his fantastic new album, Boat Songs, released in late April. The song went on far longer than its 3-4 min album runtime with cascading guitar solos and pounding cymbal work that made for an intoxicating opening to the night. They immediately counteracted the slow hypnotism of their opener with the upbeat heartache of their 2021 track, “TV Dinners”, which effortlessly burrowed their signature brand of alt-country in the ears of everyone so far in attendance.

MJ kept the banter short and sweet throughout his performance, quietly moving from song to song, taking mostly from his delightfully earnest new album save for a yet-to-be-released-but- soon-to-be-a-Christmas-classic called “Rudolph” that definitely brought the smiles to all the winter worriers in the crowd. Besides jamming on a new song, the biggest surprise of the set came when Boston’s own (but now based in Chicago) Squirrel Flower came onstage seemingly out of nowhere to perform one of my absolute favorites from MJ’s new album, the moody swayer known as “Under Control.” Unfortunately, it just didn’t seem to be Squirrel Flower’s night as she had microphone issues from the second the song started to the second it ended and she mostly just looked like a very sad Bostonian circa pre-2004.

As Squirrel Flower left the stage, MJ and associates drove straight into what would be my, and honestly most of the audience’s favorite song of theirs that night, “Hangover Game”, the first track off his new album. It was definitely his most upbeat and dancey of the set and brought a smile to every damn one of us in the crowd who just could not get enough of his punky, fun, distorted indie take on country. They closed the night with one of the most uproarious tracks from their latest release amusingly titled, “Tastes Just Like It Costs.” You almost know what you’re gonna get going into this song if you’re at all familiar with MJ’s work and the song certainly doesn’t disappoint with its heavy, Crazy Horse-inspired distortion and delightful sing-along chorus.

Even before the lights dimmed and Plains took the stage, the flower-decorated mics and glittery pink country-western backdrop set the mood just perfectly. Still though, watching Jess Williamson and Waxahatchee commandingly take the stage and dive straight into “Summer Sun”, the first track from their critically acclaimed new album, I Walked With You A Ways, was truly a sight to behold. Now, I love their new album and it’s absolutely one of my favorite releases of the year that came as a total surprise when I first stumbled upon it not even a month ago, but to me, the album doesn’t really kick into full throttle until the second song, “Problem With It” and I think the same can be said about this show. With the song being the lead single and their most listened-to track on Spotify, it was quite obvious the crowd was elated as Waxahatchee took hold of the mic to belt out the opening lyrics.

Throughout the night, Plains stayed lovingly true to their new album, playing most of the album in order and giving most fans a false sense of security as if they knew what song was coming next. Oh, how wrong they all were… It didn’t take long for Jess Williamson to clue the audience in on what they both had in store for us all that night with a generous selection of non- Plains songs starting off with “Wind on Tin”, arguably Jess’ most well-known song to date, and for excellent reason. The song oozes passion and mystery, instantly transporting the listener onto a dark, gravel road somewhere in the middle of south Texas where you aren’t quite sure where you are but you really don’t care. With the song over and the audience anxiously awaiting what Waxahatchee was going to pull out of her denim sleeve, the drummer counted the band straight into “Can’t Do Much”, one of many staple hits from Waxahatchee’s absolutely revered 2020 album, Saint Cloud. I can’t speak for everyone at that show, but this definitely made up for Squirrel Flower’s mic problems. (She’ll be at Sleeping Village in January so please go hear what she sounds like with a working microphone!)

After rummaging through some more tracks off their new album (“Last 2 on Earth” and “Abilene” being two big highlights), the band pulled out yet another Waxahatchee number, this time giving “Lilacs”, one of the best songs off her last album and my personal favorite from hers, some love. Seeing her up close and personal, softly whispering to the crowd, “…I need your love, too” was simply such a treat and she definitely got that from all of us in the crowd that night. After “Lilacs”, Plains gave us quite a few more surprises, this time giving us a cover of the all-time Country classic, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys” by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Admittedly, Country is not my genre of choice and I tend to think of Plains as being an exception to the rule as they offer up a great deal more with I Walked With You A Ways. The album glistens with a modern alternative hue solidified, of course, with a strong Country foundation that makes it obvious Jess Williamson and Waxahatchee know how to walk every walk and talk every damn talk. With that being said, even though this song is not something I’d listen to on my own time, I adored their cover and the smiles it brought them while playing it – it almost felt like it was their civic duty to bring us that cover and they played it with much love, indeed.

Remember when I said they gave us quite a few more surprises after “Lilacs”? Well apart from a cover of a bonafide Country classic, Waxahatchee lifted the bag on a new Jess Williamson album to come out in early 2023, and that we would all be graced with a little sneak preview with the song, “Hunter.” Now, if this song is any indication of what’s to come on her new album, then we’re all in for something special. I’m not the biggest follower of Jess’ work outside of Plains apart from a few choice cuts (check out her single, “Pictures with Flowers” featuring Hand Habits, for a real trip), but “Hunter” fit so wonderfully in with the rest of her dark, moody, dusty Country musings that I’ve heard from her and I really enjoyed hearing it live, especially seeing how proud she was performing it. The song’s chorus, in particular, was a highlight for meas it ends on such a cathartic note with Jess so confidently belting out, “I’m a hunter for the real thing”, a line that stuck with me throughout much of that night.

The pre-encore setlist came to a close with two of my most anxiously anticipated songs of the night: the title track to their new album, “I Walked With You A Ways”, and my personal favorite song from the album, “Hurricane.” The title track was my instant crush after my first listen- through and immediately one of my favorite songs of the year. So many of the lyrics, especially in the chorus, were words I definitely needed to hear given some recent personal events in my life, and sometimes hearing those words in a beautiful ballad closing out an album you weren’t expecting to randomly appear in the ether of your musical universe was such a wonderful feeling to experience. On the other hand, “Hurricane” is just an absolute blast from start to finish with insanely singable lyrics that seemingly elevated the crowd to a new Plain of happiness (I’m simply just so sorry about that) with every other line.

Plains disappeared from the stage for a quick minute or two, building up an immense anticipation that burst the second they all came back out on stage, descending their way into what would be a few choice covers of some Country classics and even a brand-new Waxahatchee song from what we can only hope is a new album coming out as soon as humanly possible next year. Now, I know I can’t just drop the fact she performed a new song and not give any description and opinions on it so let’s just get right into that, shall we? “Right Back To You” honestly sent shivers down my spine. Okay, it didn’t quite do that if I’m being completely honest, but it is without a doubt one of the best songs she has ever written across all projects and I can not wait to hear the studio version. Looking back at my notes on the song, I wrote that it was an incredibly fun, moody driver of a song that would be a great companion to getting lost on some mysterious country road, 3 hours away from any known civilization in your mom’s old 2012 Volkswagon Tiguan and I’m still going with that as it’s wholly factual and nothing needs to change about that description. The song was only made all the more great with MJ Lenderman’s guest vocals and guitar work sprinkled throughout.

Remember when I said “Hurricane” brought the biggest reaction from the crowd that night? Well, it’s not like I was purposefully lying to you because it was in fact the song that got the biggest reaction that was written by Plains*,* but it certainly was not the biggest reaction of the night in general. That award goes to the final song of the night, a totally ballistic cover of The Chick’s classic, “Goodbye Earl.” It took the crowd a few seconds to pick up on what was about to go down, but boy oh boy, it was a beautiful sight to behold when they finally connected the dots. Plains could not have ended the night on a more fun and upbeat manner if they tried and I’ve gotta say, this was no doubt one of my favorite Chicago shows in recent memory.

All photos by Julian Ramirez
This review of Plains and MJ Lederman’s show at the Vic was written by Lorenzo Zenitsky.

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