Live Review: Ezra Furman w/ Daniel Knox at Hideout Chicago

Last Thursday I left the apartment still shouldering a hang-over from 4th of July and headed out on a solo mission toward Hideout Chicago—an intimate and delightfully homey venue in an industrial cul-de-sac on the west side of the city—to check out Ezra Furman performing solo as the headlining act among a lineup that also included comedians, writers, and fellow musician Daniel Knox. The evening’s event was the Lowbrow Reader Variety Hour, a celebration of a new edition of the NYC-based comedy journal of the same name. I stopped by the bar on the way into the seating area to try a “Wooden Leg,” a refreshingly mellow combination of rye whiskey, bitters, lemon, and soda, and caught a glimpse of Ezra entering the venue over my left shoulder.

Unassuming as usual, his slight frame boasted a multi-colored, polka dot dress shirt tucked haphazardly into the least hip pair of jeans I’d ever seen. He always looks dazed and oddly unapproachable; to start a conversation would be to worry that you might snap him into reality and back from space too quickly without an appropriate re-entry process. Despite the urge to approach him, I let him be and walked through the doors to the stage area, taking a seat against the right wall at a two-top table about 10 feet from the stage. It was the perfect spot to take a few point-and-shoot photos of the stage. Forgot to charge my camera battery. Brilliant. Thirty or so people were scattered in pockets around the room under the warmth of Christmas lights, including a surprising number of older people wearing floral perfumes (reminding me of my grandmother) and talking about Deerfield politics (reminding me why I live in the city). I sat back and unfocused my eyes: a pair of cordial twenty-something bros sat to my direct left and discussed the way the other had discovered that Ezra was playing tonight, a hipster couple argued harmlessly across the way, and a fellow who was dressed distinctly like a Vietnam War veteran scribbled furiously on a notepad in front of the stage. It was a calm evening of observation.

Daniel Knox, a Chicago-based songwriter, was the first musician to take the stage and he’s an imposing figure, both in beard size and demeanor, but he’s also not imposing at all. He commanded his 5-piece band from a seated piano at the left side of the stage, odd placement for the principal songwriter of an eponymous group, and he breathed heavy and rubbed his eyes as if too weary with the world at large to even continue. Knox’s band was a gypsy orchestra of sorts and the instrumentation was diverse, including instruments such as the melodica and a large, old-fashioned saw being played with a bow, which helps him avoid the trap of sounding too much like a talented bar-piano player. Clearly a glass-all-the-way-empty kind of guy, Knox’s sardonic wit was distributed evenly between his frenetic, rambling vignettes between songs (“I’ve taken some shit for this song, some nasty Facebook comments going around. I’m not in favor of hitting animals on purpose…but this is a story about a man who gets his finger taken by a dog and then he goes back to get said finger”) and lyrics delivered by a guttural, tenor bellow that gives Knox’s voice a quality somewhere in the midst of Sinatra, Leonard Cohen, and the lead in a theatrical play. I found him very unique, managing to walk a fine line by being sarcastic without being totally detached and gruff while still revealing a deep sensitivity that came through in his music. The highlight of Knox’s set was the wonderful, piano-only lament about an old action-figure store that Knox visited as a kid that would attract prostitutes at night, and the rest of his band seemed glued to Knox during the song too. I’m not sure if my eyes were welling up because I was so moved or because I was so transfixed that I forgot to blink, but either way it was the band’s fault. It was a powerful set.

It was nice to attend a show without the usual pomp and circumstance of extended set changes, but it was funny to watch Furman grab his own guitar and deal with the tweaking and plugging-in process. It was like watching a friend try to work your guitar and amp at a party. Once ready, Furman declared, “This song describes how I think,” and started playing “The Queen of Hearts,” a song off his 2012 solo release The Year of No Returning—a record I expected to hear a lot of at this particular show.Ezra started off wailing away on his acoustic guitar and that’s how it stayed throughout the show, eliminating the possibility of hearing some of his more piano-based songs (“Sinking Slow” is one in particular I was looking forward to). If the production is extensive or if multiple instruments are crucial to the song’s live success, you might not get to hear it from a solo artist. This is probably a good decision on the part of the artist despite having to disappoint some fans. I was able to shoot a nice video of the second song of the evening from my iPhone. You can hear Ezra murmur, in classic self-deprecating form,“[They're] just pop songs…you know? Nothing too artsy,” before diving into “Doomed Love Affair,” a single released by the full band in late 2011 before Ezra left the Harpoons behind to strike out on his own. Check out the video below to get a feel for the show.


While his set list was short (expectedly so), Ezra made it special for his hometown by weaving new material (“The Queen of Hearts” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”) from The Year of No Returning  in with b-sides (“Penetrate”) and even a crowd-pleasing rarity that you’ll only find via a handful of live YouTube videos. The rarity I’m referring to is “Kirsten Dunst,” an ode to Ezra’s self-described “pop culture heroine” made famous by her acting roles in movies like The Virgin Suicides and Spiderman. It’s silly but it’s also expertly rhymed and Furman had the crowd rolling with laughter with lines like, “I bet Toby Maguire never wrote you your own folk song.”

He ended his set with “The Worm in the Apple,” a cheeky, hate letter to New York City off Inside the Human Body, the breakthrough record for Ezra and his band the Harpoons. Since the Lowbrow Reader is a journal based in NYC, there may have been a hint of irony in this choice considering both Ezra and the publication had effectively “moved” from NYC to Chicago in a way. The show was a pleasant evening overall and the discovery of Daniel Knox was worth the $10 in itself. While I do prefer Ezra with a backing band that allows him to fully flesh out his catalog live, I was happy to hear the new record in such an intimate setting and to find that we share the same affinity for Kirsten Dunst.

Click here to check out a video I shot of “The Worm in the Apple”

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