CONCERT REVIEW: The Microphones at Thalia Hall

I came down to Chicago with two friends to see The Microphones at Thalia Hall on Wednesday. I got into The Microphones and Mount Eerie (Phil Elverum’s other project) a few years back but hadn’t listened to them in some time before recently revisiting them and deciding “I don’t want to miss this” when I saw The Microphones were coming to Chicago.

Opening for The Microphones was Emily A. Sprague, who performs with indie folk band Florist. Her set was entirely Florist songs solo-acoustic; normally, Sprague’s solo material is ambient electronica. While sipping on a delicious Sleepytime-Throat Coat tea, Sprague shared that new music is on the way soon. Her performance was lovely and gentle.

The Microphones started in 1996 in Anacortes, Washington when Phil Elverum began experimenting with recording equipment in the back of the record store he worked at. Soon after, he began putting out records on local labels and became a producer as well. Elverum’s style could be described as fuzzy indie folk that incorporates experimental elements such as black metal, ambient, and noise rock. Seminal albums “It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water” and “The Glow Pt. 2” would be released in 2000 and 2001 respectively, being hailed as landmark works in the lo-fi genre. In 2003, he released the album “Mount Eerie” which would subsequently become the name of his new recording project, ostensibly abandoning The Microphones. While up to that point his music was mostly from personal narratives that heavily touched on philosophical topics such as the human condition, Mount Eerie found Elverum writing more about nature and specifically the Pacific Northwestern landscape, taking on more objective and universal perspectives. He’s released ten studio albums under this moniker, one of the most profound and deeply personal being 2017’s “A Crow Looked At Me,” which was inspired by the passing of his wife Genevieve Castree from cancer the previous year.

Elverum returned as The Microphones two years ago with a new album titled “Microphones in 2020.” It’s a sole 44-minute-long track where he shares nostalgic stories of moments that shaped his early musical career, encompassing everything from going on trips around Washington to recording “The Glow Pt. 2” to his creative transition into Mount Eerie. Instrumentally the song is primarily just two acoustic chords complete with a seven-minute-long introduction; electric guitar, organ, bass, and drums get gradually introduced. When it was released, it was accompanied by a film featuring 761 photos taken by Elverum getting one-by-one stacked as the song progresses.

This song – and album – was Elverum’s set on Wednesday. Joined by a guitarist, Elverum took the stage and commenced the long introduction. Once he began singing, his storytelling quickly conjured the feeling that we’re watching Elverum’s life unfold in third person. There were three primary instrumental shifts that took place over the performance; first, he grabbed the bass and would perform a loud and heavy drone exchange with the guitarist that lasted about five minutes, ceasing singing completely. Second, about ten minutes later he grabbed the bass again but this time he continued singing the whole time. Third – about half an hour in – he turned his attention to electronic organ effects with an ethereal, “wavy” quality. Honing in on the album’s end, he threw in some entertaining ad-libs such as how the song could never end if he wanted unless the cops came and stopped him. Then just like that, he was done.

I had actually never heard “Microphones in 2020” before and was only exposed to The Microphones’ pre-Mount Eerie records up to this point so I had difficulty setting my expectations anywhere. This performance was unlike anything I’d ever seen, and I don’t mean that in a superficial or material sort of way. I mean that from a creative interpretation way, where this concert almost felt like simultaneously a concert and an artistic installation. Elverum walked us through his life, sharing in his feathery and comforting voice details that may seem trivial to an outsider but for him were either monumental in his formative years or would exemplify his perceptive nature that so prevalently has made his past records so compelling. There were some moments where he was almost speaking rather than singing. While he’s no stranger to experimental concepts in music and art, Elverum uses “Microphones in 2020” as an intense rumination on the passage of time, demonstrating to his audience that he is just as humanly vulnerable as the rest of us in the face of the unknown or unpredictable. And he’s been writing music for the past three decades to make sense of it.

I’m grateful to have had this experience and felt like I saw this show at the right time in my life, having been prone to existential dread in the last couple years as many have. Go check out “Microphones in 2020” on YouTube.

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