Indie guitarist Steve Gunn made an anticipated return to Chicago Monday night, but in a slightly different capacity than originally billed. This stop from his solo tour with Lee Ranaldo and Meg Baird had been rescheduled from Thalia Hall and moved to the cozier confines of Empty Bottle.
Billed as a solo show, Gunn’s portion of the evening started with him armed with an acoustic guitar and an array of pedals strumming “Old Strange.” Gunn described the opener as a statement about being gobsmacked by our recent election results and surely many in the crowd could sympathize.
After the opening number, Gunn welcomed local collaborator Jim Elkington (The Outliners, Tweedy, Eleventh Dream Day) to accompany him for the rest of the set to add texture -- via pedal steel and electric guitar -- to compositions from his last few albums. Over the course of the hour-long set, Gunn and Elkington traded licks back and forth while exploring material from Time Off, Way Out Weather, and Eyes on the Lines.
Gunn and Elkington have a history of playing and composing together, and the chemistry between these two was a true highlight. Elkington’s work on tunes like "Night Wander" and "Water Wheel" provided depth and texture to Gunn’s leads and vice versa.
Although Gunn was the main attraction, Elkington’s work on the electric Gibson took songs like "Park Bench Smile" to another level, despite being stripped down, and sans the drums and bass head on the record. Gunn used his mastery of open / alternate tunings and pedal work to mimic both electric guitar and at times, raga-esque sitar sounds.
Although I knew every tune they played during the set, I loved that these stripped down versions allowed the two musicians space to communicate back and forth and the songs, at times, felt very much like a musical conversation. The songs sounded fresh, and I appreciated hearing them in this different setting. The crowd was unlike any other “bar show” I’d been to in a while, as the audience was muted in between songs and clearly respectful of the art being created onstage.
Gunn is often mentioned (not only by this site but also by many others) along indie/folk/jam guitarists like Chris Forsyth and Ryley Walker, and for good reason. These guys are straddling past and present- bringing listeners back to vintage guitar sounds while simultaneously forging ahead by creating interesting, challenging compositions.
Ranaldo closed the show with a solo set of his own, and while my night was over, an industrious audio taper was on hand to document the what I missed. His set concluded with a take on Neil Young's "Revolution Blues", featuring all the night's headliners, which you can listen to below.
With intimate shows like this (as well as Ryley Walker at SPACE in a couple of weeks) available to us, it’s a great time to be a guitar lover in Chicago.
Old Strange *
Way Out Weather>
Park Bench Smile
*-solo, all other songs with Jim Elkington