Review: Black Belt Eagle Scout Pours Their Soul to the Subterranean
Not that this matters at all but Saturday marked the first shorts day of the year for me and I wore them with pride and honor as I made my way to the Subterranean for a nice, low-key Black Belt Eagle Scout set. That isn’t to say that Katherine Paul, who performs under the moniker of Black Belt Eagle Scout, can’t throw down and deliver a euphoric and dizzying display of pummeling indie noise, but Black Belt Eagle Scout is an artist I go to more for comfort and unity, to feel one with my natural surroundings and my inner self. Sounds cheesy, I know, but Katherine’s music just be that way. Sorry, I don’t know what else to tell you.
The crowd was pretty darn sparse when Claire Glass waltzed down that spiral staircase and onto her stage for the evening. The Austin, Texas, classical guitarist gave us a bit of an introduction before she started playing and apparently, this Black Belt Eagle Scout tour is her first solo tour ever even though she’s been performing in bands such as Hikes and Mother Falcon for years. Her solo sound reminded me of the delicate indie folk of artists like Tomberlin, Squirrel Flower, Adrianne Lenker, and even Black Belt Eagle Scout to some extent. Her guitar flourished with the sounds of nighttime forest wandering while her reverb-soaked voice echoed on for miles as if it was that of a bird you tried to locate in the sky only for it to be a mile away by the time you finally spotted it. She mostly played songs from a yet-to-tangibly-exist album that she’s currently trying to fund so even though I can’t give you song titles and links, I can at least say that her sound was heavenly and the perfect soundscape for those brave Chicago evening city hikes.
Something surprising that should be noted and shared amongst your grandchildren 50 years from now is the near zero-second wait time between Claire Glass and Adobo. As Claire was finishing up her final song, Adobo joined her onstage to bring the song to a simmering close and then went immediately into their own set. In addition to playing in the band Hikes with Claire, Adobo is a renowned expert in the art of the loop pedal, much like their indie contemporaries Julien Baker and Sidney Gish. However, Adobo almost takes it to a whole other level entirely by looping and layering their own voice while at the same time both tapping out some incredibly groovy percussive beats and laying down some of the most impressive guitar work I’ve heard in a long, long time.
The things that Adobo can do with guitar harmonics… It’s simply next level; I thought I was watching an Animals As Leaders performance at times and had to remind myself that no, this is but one person with a loop pedal, drum pad, microphone, guitar, and amp, and not a 3-4 person band of superheroes. Coming from a similar musical background as Claire Glass (they do play in a band together, after all), Adobo’s solo musical leanings were also quite in touch with those of artists akin to Black Belt Eagle Scout but with a touch more experimental, intricate, and almost… dare I say… happy sounds? Don’t get me wrong, Black Belt Eagle Scout’s music is very often angelic, peaceful, serene, and joyous, but that doesn’t always translate into the happiest of sounds. Adobo, like Claire Glass, didn’t give out too many song titles but did portion out some anecdotal stories here and there. Their last song was definitely their most powerful of the set as they spoke about how the track was a meditation on being mixed-race and struggling to find a place where they fit and feel a sense of belonging. I can’t even begin to understand the struggle of what that must feel like but it was so wonderful to know they felt a sense of belonging while playing for us on Saturday.
One thing I noticed right away as Black Belt Eagle Scout took the stage is that Katherine Paul is much taller than I thought she would be. A very minor and unimportant detail but surely something to note for reference should it ever be of any importance to you in any future circumstance. Before they started playing, Katherine stated that they would be mostly playing songs from their blissfully powerful new record, The Land, The Water, The Sky, which came out in February on Saddle Creek. This new album was the first of their catalog that I really delved into without cherry-picking the singles and running away, and might I say that after having intently listened to their full discography, The Land, The Water, The Sky is absolutely their most consistent offering of meditative and meaningful indie rock yet.
They opened their set with the opening track, “My Blood Runs Through This Land”, and rest assured, they haven’t rocked this hard since “Soft Stud”. The song revolves around basically a one-chord progression but it’s played with power and grace and ends with a triumphant cacophony of indie noise that made all our ears bleed love by the end. That opener marked a trend in my favorites for the evening being those on the heavier side with full band participation, a band that, no less, included Adobo on bass and Claire Glass on lead guitar! More rock-oriented cuts from their newest album like “Fancy Dance” and “Nobody” were absolute joys to head-bob to and provided some much-appreciated variety in a set filled with a great amount of quieter, more thoughtful songs. Katherine introduced the song “Sčičudᶻ (a narrow place)” as a meditation on her relationship with nature and a certain tree from around where she grew up that apparently looks as though it’s staring at her as if to say, “I see you.”
Towards the end of the new album portion of the set, they played two particularly great songs: “Spaces” and “Don’t Give Up”. The former is about spaces that Katherine described as those she can share some sort of meaningful connection with others much like the spaces she shares when performing on tour, a luxury that she’s now beyond grateful for after the pandemic. She then closed the album set with the final song from the new album, “Don’t Give Up”, a song recognizing all the things in her life that push her to not give up and to always be pushing forward. For those who may be wondering what those things might be, they include the land, the water, and the sky; a generously shared detail that so well encapsulated not only the new album but also the show as a whole.
They closed the show with four older songs including an uproarious performance of “Soft Stud”, their best-known song and the first song of the first album, Mother Of My Children, released in 2018. I can’t really say the song is a departure from the core Black Belt sound since it is the very first song off the very first album. However, the song is a uniquely heavy, loud, and anthemic cut of pure emotional indie rock aggression, a superpower Black Belt Eagle Scout only breaks out every once in a while. Katherine graciously decided last minute to play an additional two songs and closed out the set with the beautifully poignant “Indians Never Die” and the reflective “Sam, A Dream”, both taken from their debut album.
‘Twas a great show and a much-needed one for me to get over my fear of the Subterranean and their giant chandelier that terrifyingly hangs over all our heads at all times. It brings me great pleasure to report back that it’s actually not as big as I remembered and there’s plenty of occupiable space not immediately under its reign.