Review: Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Live at Metro, Chicago)

On the night of March 26th, 2011, I stood on a bustling Chicago sidewalk, coat zipped, hoodie flipped up, and earphones plugged in; a sign above lit up the dirty, old-looking outer walls of the Metro: “Godspeed You! Black Emperor / Eric Chenaux – March 26 – Sold Out.” I’d envisioned this moment for years, but there was nothing like the cold Chicago winds to snap you back into reality; I was there, and just hours away from hearing the opening drones of Storm and Sleep. Understandably, my heart raced. The line of people who stood in-front of me had probably been there for hours just to secure a spot in such proximity from the door. Still, having arrived an hour before the doors would be shoved open had resulted in place nearly forty people back, and I was more than happy with that.

The city roared with a life unlike anything I’d seen before. I’d been to St. Louis, and a few quiet places in Florida, but Chicago had a chilly, somewhat magical feeling to it that sat well with the atmosphere of Godspeed’s music and visual projections. For the millionth time that day, I gripped the ticket with sweaty palms, and hoped for the best.

Then the line lurched, and began a slow movement forward, like a struggling, rusty train. In moments, my ID was under fire from a variety of blue lights emitted from a small hand-held device. The man holding the device glanced at me, muttered, “You’re clear; move on.” and handed my ID back. I flashed my ticket to the next clerk, and ascended the stairs that lead to the performance hall. As expected, the venue was small, with a main floor that went about fifty feet back from the stage, and a balcony that overlooked the area. Being the die-hard fan I am, my eyes locked on an area about ten feet from the stage, and I rushed towards it, setting my feet firmly and claiming the area as my own. Amps, guitars, violin, double-bass, and drums were all sitting in a semi-circle, with a plastic chair front-and-center for the opening act, Eric Chenaux. By the time Eric came on, the room had filled to capacity and beyond; surely a fire marshal’s dream. For those wondering, Eric wasn’t very good.

After a thirty minute set from the opener, the lights dimmed, and a low, droning note began to play over the loudspeaker, which was soon joined by a visual projection of the word “HOPE” being written, erased, and rewritten over and over on the walls behind the stage. We went crazy; it was the opening bit to Godspeed’s classic, Dead Flag Blues. One by one, all eight band members entered the stage, each picking up and instrument and adding a layer of sound to the thunderous applause. By the time the third guitar player, Efrim, had joined the band, the sound was so loud the floor was threatening to give out beneath us. Yet we stood in shock; undoubtedly, our dreams of seeing a band that was on hiatus for nearly a decade were coming true. Then the sound dropped down to a low hum coming for a series of four projectors in the balcony, and the film came to a halt; the room was dead silent for several seconds.

Then the very first chords to Storm, the song that starts off Godspeed’s legendary Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven, were played; those beautiful, hopeful notes brought the crowd to an all-out round of clapping and hollering, while the single guitarist holding these notes sat in his chair, facing away from the crowd, and looked bleakly towards the ceiling with his eyes closed. The second guitarist kicked in, the bass, then the drums; all building up a sound that could only really be described by the projections of blooming flowers and blurry sunrises that graced the screen. This continued on and on, while the crowd began to settle into place and begin their various rituals; two people left of me nodded their heads, one person stared at the ground, and another moved her body back in forth as the sound developed into waves of instrumental genius.

And just like that, the sound became suddenly much more dark and gloomy, with the projections becoming much darker in nature; quick glances of pages from a book on religion, death, and the afterlife. Each member, still sitting, worked their instruments through the various changes of emotion with finesse that could only be obtained after years of performing live. Although I was worried about their eight-year break affecting their sound, it was clear that this simply wasn’t the case; the show could only get better. And it did.

The visuals disappeared, we clapped, we yelled, and the room went silent again. Seeing as how the band is from Canada, a fan yelled out “Thanks!” in French, only to receive an unexpected “We don’t speak French” from Efrim. Godspeed is known for limited crowd interaction, so there was a shock among the crowd that was universally felt. Within moments, the room had defaulted back to silence, which was only broken by the voice of a elderly man over the loud speaker seconds later,

It was Coney Island, they called Coney Island the playground of the world. There was no place like it, in the whole world, like Coney Island when I was a youngster. No place in the world like it, and it was so fabulous. Now it’s shrunk down to almost nothing…you see. And, uh, I still remember in my mind how things used to be, and…uh, you know, I feel very bad. But people from all over the world came here…from all over the world…it was the playground they called it the playground of the world…over here. Anyways, you see, I…uh…you know…I even got, when I was very small, I even got lost at Coney Island, but they found me…on the…on the beach. And we used to sleep on the beach here, sleep overnight..they don’t do that anymore. Things changed…you see. They don’t sleep anymore on the beach.

And with that, the song “Sleep” began. Two of the guitarists replaced their guitar picks with screwdrivers, which would stay that way for the rest of the set.

Two hours and seven songs passed, which had given the room enough time to heat up and our legs to grow tired. But for whatever reason, none of that really mattered; most of us had waited years for this night, and the discomfort was entirely worth it. There was, at this point, a feeling of connectivity among the crowd. These songs, in one way or another, had influenced us as people, and the fact that we were there experiencing and interpreting each track in a unique way, well, it was just a really intense moment.

The concert ended much like it began, but in reverse: Each member left the stage, one-by-one, with their instruments blaring. The resulting sound was that of an earthquake, both sonically and physically, but was probably the only way to properly end such a night.

Not surprised the band didn’t do an encore (it was a long set anyway,) we shuffled down the steps at a turtle’s pace; kicking away empty cups and napkins. When I finally got down to the main floor, I saw another mass of people near the exit, who, instead of entering the night, had bolted into a small store run by the Metro staff. Except there was a small table set off to the side, with a number of albums and t-shirts strewn about. A familiar face stood in-front of several boxes containing more merchandise; Moya, one of the most well-known members of the band.

As we piled around the table, the staff attempted to bring some kind of order to the room, but gave up after they saw everything was functioning well even in the chaos. I bought a t-shirt ($20 well spent,) took one last look at the room, and entered the frigid night air of Chicago. Except it wasn’t that cold. Well, it probably was, but nothing seemed to really matter at that point.

Each bar I passed contained just a few drunken stragglers, some of which stumbled onto the sidewalk as I passed, but I kept my gaze forward and waltzed back to the hotel happier than ever.

I highly recommend this band to everyone. Their music is comprised of long, cinematic instrumentals, but fans of rock, metal, and classical should all walk away impressed by the band’s range. I highly recommend their album, “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven.” I guarantee you’ll love it.

You can find a recording of the concert here.

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