I had been patiently waiting for over four years to finally see Alex Cameron and his much-ballyhooed business partner Roy Molloy live in the flesh. On Tuesday night, my dream finally escaped into reality when they made a rather impromptu pit stop at the Empty Bottle on their way to Washington, DC for their first of many shows touring the US with 80s punk icon, Billy Idol (it’s real, look it up.) They wanted to make it painfully clear during their show that this last-minute Chicago pit stop was in no way reflective of their dire financial situation and was only out of love for the Chicago people seeing as how Mr. Idol skipped right past us on the way to the east coast. Either way, money or not, Tuesday night’s show was one of my absolute favorites since moving to Chicago two years ago and may we please get into the why of that incredulous statement.
Opening for Alex Cameron, Roy Molloy, and their all-seeing, all-knowing MacBook was Chicago’s own folk superstar, Tenci. Anyone who is familiar with Tenci’s work knows how different they are sonically to a renowned synth-pop artist like Alex Cameron so I was a bit surprised to see them opening but those are always the shows I like best; when you have openers and headliners sitting on polar opposite sides of the musical spectrum, it makes the concert all the more interesting and engaging.
I know it’s a tired comparison to compare any small-time indie folk artist to Big Thief because Big Thief did not invent modern-day folk rock but Tenci did remind me a great deal of the folkier side of Big Thief, especially in the vocals and the sometimes dissonant and wildly uncouth guitar melodies that we all love. Where Tenci sets themselves apart is in their rather unique vocal delivery and articulation and more importantly because they had a saxophone. Hearing the saxophone on a lot of their songs gave their already bonafide twangy country sounds a nice city energy that went a long way in giving them a distinct sound, a sound that can easily be found on the song “Forgot My Horse’s Name” off their 2020 debut, My Heart Is An Open Field. In addition to songs played off their two albums, Tenci closed with a new song that was honestly my favorite song of their whole set. The song featured a great amount of dynamism with the added Midwest emo flair showcased in the rhythm section and really got me excited for their next release, which is hopefully soon!
As I alluded to earlier, Alex and Roy came to the Bottle with nothing but a handful of dreams, a pocketful of change, two oversized suits, and a laptop with all their backing tracks so the stage was rather sparse. With that being said, however, I’ve never seen a better show there. From the second they were on stage, the crowd was absolutely ablaze and Alex and Roy were nothing but bright, shiny smiles. Every song brought bigger and bigger applause and even more passion from Alex and Roy. The energy, laughter, and vibes were nothing short of infectious and really made for a perfect night.
Going chronologically through their catalog of hits, Alex and Roy started with three songs from their 2016 debut album, Jumping the Shark. I’m the least familiar with this album but hearing songs like “Happy Ending” and “Real Bad Lookin’” live really changed my mind. Moving on to my favorite album of his, Forced Witness, an album with the rare spectacle of being a complete no-skip record, Alex introduced the album with a performance of “Candy May”, one of his most well-known songs and one of my personal favorites. The performance was flawless and was the first instance of goosebumps that would soon pop up again later on in the set with some of my other favorites. When the time inevitably came for Alex’s biggest song, a duet with Angel Olsen called “Stranger’s Kiss”, no Angel Olsen could be found in the immediate vicinity of the Empty Bottle, so he enlisted the help of a brave, gutsy audience member. I honestly can’t remember the last time I ever saw an audience member on stage for a song during any band’s set and it was absolutely thrilling and so much fun to see one of us up there representing the fans! She was obviously really nervous and messed up more than a few times but that didn’t matter at all with all the crowd cheering going on.
Taking a quick intermission, Alex handed the mic to his business partner and saxophone extraordinaire, Roy Molloy, so he could give his much-anticipated review of the stool he had been sitting on this whole time. Apparently, it’s a tradition for Roy to review whatever chair he is given to use on stage and he sure had a mouthful to say about the 30-year-old Empty Bottle legend. He ended up giving the chair a 4/5 stars, knocking off a star due to obvious wear and the fact that some parts were missing causing it to wobble a bit. After he had his fun and properly entertained the crowd in what was obviously the best chair review I’ve ever seen on stage, Alex came back for the Miami Memory portion of the set and began with “Far From Born Again”, one of his danciest, ear-wormy bangers.
After ending his pre-encore set with the title track off Miami Memory, Alex and Roy gracefully attempted to shield themselves from view by hiding behind the curtains that adorn the back of the stage since they had no green room to find shelter in for all those “One more song!” chants. The curtains didn’t leave much to the imagination so I guess you could say it didn’t go so well but it was the thought that counted. After their brief stay behind the curtains, they played the one Oxy Music song of the set which luckily went to “K Hole”, quite possibly my favorite Alex Cameron song of them all with its slow infectious grooves and almost tear-worthy chorus. As a surprise to me, “Marlon Brando” off Forced Witness was the last song of the night. Alex noted before playing it that it was a musical thesis on the beautiful fragility of the human condition; a song not only about all the distasteful run-ins he’s had with people he’s met all around the world but also all the beautiful ones that he’s gone onto cherish, an all-encompassing juxtaposition that he feels paints a pretty good picture of humanity as a whole. You wouldn’t really get all that from the song since the lyrics are so tongue-in-cheek and sarcastically poking fun at toxic masculinity but you don’t really need to understand it when the song is as fun as it is.
The exact same thing could be said of an Alex Cameron show in general: You don’t really need to understand him or his music when the show is as fun as it is. The jury is still out on whether this was my favorite show I’ve seen so far in Chicago but it is without a doubt the most fun I’ve had at a concert in recent memory. If he’s in your area, please do yourself a favor and see him even if synth-pop or New Wave really isn’t your thing; I promise you’ll have a fantastic time.