Shannon Wright | 3.13.15

To listen to Shannon Wright is to play truth or dare through the vehicle of musical artifice.


Beat Kitchen, Chicago, IL

In your lifetime, you are going to get a good number of recommendations from friends. Of the musical variety, some are going to be duds, and some are going to be doozies.  In my lifetime, Shannon Wright has been a doozie. Her aesthetic has broached so many facets of edgy, evocative, artistically resonant music from the height of Alternative and Independent underground music.

In the span of one of her releases, you might find someone referencing any number of revered artists that could be considered her contemporaries. Elevating her mystique was her enigmatic public persona, and reputation for emotionally exhaustive and catharsis-laden live performances that often left audiences both impressed and intimidated.

As is the case in this modern age of the music industry—though from Atlanta, GA—Shannon Wright has fared far better abroad, particularly in France, than domestically. That’s an honest to goodness shame. Thankfully, she had connections in Chicago, one of which being a former producer of hers, Steve Albini, and her visits to the Windy City have not been as scarce as visits to the Gateway City.  

For her first tour in years, Wright, along with bassist Todd Cook and drummer Kyle Crabtree, takes the stage as an opening act for Young Widows.

I found myself in Chicago, on Friday the 13th this past weekend, 5 days shy of the two-year anniversary of the release of her most recent album, In Film Sound. This is the album this tour is promoting if you look at the 2013 launch as a soft release. The album itself serves as a statement on just how much she’s grown into the menacing sound that powers her most visceral and energetic tunes. That makes the tour pairing make sense, but as fate would have it, this ended up being a unique show for me, outside of being my first Shannon Wright show, and first trip to Chicago since seeing the Velvet Teen and Minus the Bear at the Metro in 2011.

I arrived in town just in time to pick up my navigator, head to the venue a little after doors, and get a bite to eat. Apparently the 4.75 hours of driving straightaways and curves, that ended abruptly once 55 turned into Lake Shore Drive’s snare of gridlock, distorted my perception of time and space, and consuming my appetizers took the entire set of the opening band, Tropical Trash, which we experienced from the other side of a closed door, our booth being the last stop before entering the actual venue from the restaurant space adjacent to it.

Tropical Trash were high volume, high intensity, hardcore and post punk, with dark droning passages here and there. It was like listening to a modern incarnation of the Stooges, if they were raised up on the bands that populated the subgenres the Stooges are credited with inspiring in some circles. The one thing evident through their set was that their focus wasn’t on sounding anything other than agitated. Though interspersed with brooding melodic passages that built tension, Tropical Trash were propulsive and piercing, and a closed door and a brick wall did little to muffle them as they powered through their set. Considering the late hour by our “working stiffs on the day shift” standard, and the physical conditions of my navigator and myself, as well as our obligations the following morning, the likelihood we wouldn’t last until the headliners took the stage was apparent.  Knowing Shannon Wright and band would be the second opening was actually a saving grace, though a shortened set was the price we’d pay for that particular convenience.

Shannon Wright and Co. took the stage around 10 p.m. and the room began to fill. The crowd, which looked to be full of fans happy to see her back on the road after a lengthy absence, crept towards the stage. Wright’s three-piece band mirrored the audience’s demeanor by nonchalantly approaching the stage to set gear in place, get levels, and then walk back out of the performance space through the crowd repeatedly, until finally taking the stage and remaining there. Carrying themselves with such ease and having their personal space respected is a testament to the type of respect and reverence Wright has engendered in her audience.

The emotional vulnerability of her writing and performance forces you to be conscious of your actions and intentions because you have been put in a position of power and trust. To listen to Shannon Wright is to play truth or dare through the vehicle of musical artifice. I find it
challenging enough listening to her recordings and trying to broach them in person, but to see her lay it bare live—there is power in emotional outpouring. It can be a brush back, but then again, people are often hypnotized by it. That’s power. Shannon Wright & Co. owned that power and wielded it with skill.

As far as the repertoire on this tour, the focus was squarely on the brand of heavy and dissonant beauty her three-piece have summoned up more and more over the years. It amazes me that a three-piece band can evoke the very best parts of what was dubbed “Trip Hop” and “Horror Core” twenty years ago when they were popularized by Portishead and Gravediggaz, respectively.

The prominent use of minor keys, the use of space and syncopation to create mood in ways more at home in jazz and the darkest, sparest corners of the folk world, the dynamic range of impressionistic classical music—these things were pulled from the underground and into the spotlight without compromise. They took the brooding of what was then Grunge, and added sophistication and nuance that had only been hinted at. I can hear the breadth of that in Shannon Wright’s most tumultuous songs.

To reduce the songs of In Film Sound to a being a modern incarnation of those subgenres in the form of heavy, art-rock wouldn’t be an accurate description of what Wright’s band conjures up, in the studio or live, but it’s one of the few that broaches doing it’s genre blind
aesthetic appeal justice. The casual observer with no knowledge of either of the aforementioned, or Shannon Wright’s work for that matter, might hear dirge like, metal influenced rock that is elevated when parsed.

The union of the crisp drumming, it’s punctuation, the sweeping lurch of the bass lines that seem to drag you in like a swirling black hole, the way her guitar alternates from precise arpeggios that illuminate the melodies into feedback wrapped broad swipes that seem to emanate static electricity with each burst, and her alto, drifting from a calm near spoken volume with the melodic nuance of a jazz singer to the full-throated breath stealing exorcisms that arrest the heart—is something otherworldly. Arcane, like a séance or some sort of ritual meant to cast out demons in more ways than one.

The beautiful thing that undercuts this is the moments of joy and humor that creep in, like early into their first song, when the bassist was either in the wrong key, or playing the wrong tune altogether, and simply had to stop to spare himself the burden of drifting further aloof. His look to Shannon brought an ebullient grin to her face as she played on. He gathered himself, and rejoined in short fashion.

Her penchant for dancing while playing displayed the natural rhythm she has attuned herself too, and few manage to look as engaging, graceful, and rapt in the moment and song as she does, sans appearing flamboyant or put-on. It all flows naturally, and gives her show a charismatic appeal that makes a great impression. Though more often than not obscured by her hair, her kinesthetic communication through her movement across the stage, often in hurried marches with guitar at hip level, strumming and striding like marching into battle or mounted on a steed in route to joust as the Bassist and Drummer lose themselves and fed off her energy and buoyed her in rhythmic sync.

In Film Sound’s “Noise Parade” and “Caustic Light” set the tone, and fit well with favorites from previous releases like “With Eyes Closed,” “Portray,” and “Little Black Stray,” which was a highlight. My personal favorite from In Film Sound, “The Mire,” closed the set with a revelatory display of dynamic control, chemistry, and cohesion from the trio. The time stretching, slurring outro that closes that song, a sonic manifestation of the title, is, if my weary mind at that point can be trusted, the final sound before the last of many polite thanks from Shannon Wright to the audience, who’d waited patiently for her return.

It was well worth it, and on that note my navigator and myself embraced an opportunity to depart. With brevity lending us aid to recover from the otherworldly sonic collision that we’d just casually witnessed as part of a mass of swaying bodies and bobbing heads, akin to timepiece made up of souls in lockstep with the groove. | Willie E. Smith Jr.

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