I’d never thought I would see people cheering over a melancholic harmonica solo, but here I was, cheering with them.
Last Wednesday night, Slaughter Beach, Dog and Advance Base played their second sold-out Chicagoland show at SPACE in Evanston. Located right between Northwestern University and Loyola University, SPACE’s crowd of approximately 250 was full of college kids dripped out with silver nose piercings, dyed hair, flannel button-downs and Slaughter Beach, Dog T-shirts. (You know, the stereotypical Midwest emo uniform.) Everybody was excited and nobody was on their phones. Standing there in that crowd, I felt the people here could’ve been good friends with me if I had made some different choices four years ago.
The opener, Advance Base, is a solo project of a Chicago-based singer-songwriter, Owen Ashworth. He meekly entered the stage with his Omnichord — an expensive synthesizer that functions a lot like an electronic harp — and geared up for the set. He was solo up there, and he had the beard and build to make him look like the loneliest lumberjack in the world. He sang in a conservational tone like he’s some wayward soul you’d find in a dive bar somewhere, who tells you the stories of his travels over a beer and a cigarette. It’s only fitting that he sings about places, filling his charming electronic discography with odes to Dearborn, Milwaukee and our very own South Bend. (Check out “Rabbits.”) He describes his own work as heavy-hearted and nostalgia-obsessed. He’s right. He’s a man in his mid-forties with an Omnichord and a dream, and I admire him for it. At least, he’s still making music.
Advance Base’s performance was bittersweet and incredibly appropriate for the Slaughter Beach, Dog crowd. The band’s history is tinged with sadness. Two of the band members, frontman Jake Ewald and bassist Ian Farmer, used to be in a popular band called Modern Baseball with their friend, Bren Lukens. They were just like your cool college friends, but they finally made it big. Modern Baseball was a significant name in the pop-punk/midwest emo/indie rock scene in the 2010s. They have a million monthly listeners on Spotify and even have their own documentary. The band had been together since Ewald and Lukens met in high school but eventually went on hiatus in 2017 when Lukens decided to take a break for mental health reasons. I assume they miss Lukens as much as the fans do.
Since then, Ewald and Farmer have moved to work on Ewald’s originally independent project, Slaughter Beach, Dog. The band does fantastically on their own and takes a left turn from Modern Baseball’s legacy of angsty college rock. Most of the songs written by Ewald now are about domestic bliss and growing into your late 20s. They’re a band that makes me feel excited to grow up, even if it comes with growing pains.
Slaughter Beach, Dog started and ended their setlist with the first and last songs of their 2020 album, “At the Moonbase.” Both songs are, to some extent, meta and self-referential. Ewald writes about his life as a musician, which allows him to play with the crowd while he performs. In “Are You There,” Ewald sang, “Is there anyone in the audience currently living in vain?” Somebody screamed yes.
In “Notes from a Brief Engagement (at the Boot & Saddle),” Ewald sang “I look at the drums / I look at the crowd / Adjust my frames and they slide back down” as the crowd watched him do exactly that the entire night. In “Notes” he also sang about the “beautiful, beautiful kids from the college” with some winks to the audience. The dynamic between the audience and the band was symbiotic and playful, and enhanced the live performance.
Other crowd favorites were “Gold and Green,” “Acolyte” and “A Modern Lay.” They’re some of the more popular songs out of Slaughter Beach, Dog’s discography. “Gold and Green” is a cute tune about gardening. Ewald’s voice raised to a falsetto in the line “following sister stomping plastic,” sending the singing crowd into a high-pitched chorus. “A Modern Lay” is a barroom-piano-driven “escapade through the great American bedroom” that acts as a brief anthology of love stories. “Acolyte,” my personal favorite and the most popular, is almost like a marriage proposal, but it mostly just describes a simple and blissful life. Most people knew the lyrics and sang along, even in the parts where Ewald whistles.
When the crowd wasn’t singing, it was because the band was playing an unreleased song. “Float Away” was catchy and quintessentially Slaughter Beach, Dog. It’s a teaser for the upcoming album we’ll never release, Ewald joked. I’m hoping they actually do release it. It’s a banger.
After the band had finished performing “Notes” and walked off-stage, fans shouted for an encore. Only Ewald conceded. He asked the crowd what he should play and was quickly overwhelmed by shouts of song titles. Many of the people around me begged him to play “Intersection,” a song that Ewald originally wrote for Modern Baseball and recently rerecorded on a live album. He grabbed his acoustic guitar and harmonica, looking like a modern Bob Dylan underneath the spotlight. He sang “Intersection.” Ewald’s lyricism shone through with this stripped-back acoustic performance, letting the guitar take a backseat to gutting lines like “I should not say I love you / but I feel it all the time.” He paused for a moment, let the words sit there in silence, then blew into his harmonica to cheers from the audience. I stood there, stock still, with my mouth open like an idiot or a baby bird.
Ewald told us earlier tonight that he got a video of his baby nephew from his sister. She was singing to her baby, and he had huge moon-like eyes and a little bit of drool coming out of his mouth. He’s just like you, Ewald joked. His nephew was awed by the transformative power of music, just like we were.
“That’s what music’s all about. That’s why we’re all here,” Ewald said. “We’re all arrested by beauty.”
The rest of the band came back onto the stage for the encore, picking up the pace with hits “Your Cat” and “104 Degrees.” The encore feels different. Ewald is beaming a million-dollar smile, his wedding ring glinting from the stage lights as he grips his microphone. He nods to his old friend, Farmer on the bass, shaking his head to the beat. The keyboardist is killing it. The drummer and the guitarist are golden. Suddenly, I am singing along, “and at once / I am entranced,” and I feel the joy coming out of all of us like we’re radioactive. If you’d bottled that air, I promise you’d bottle happiness. The way they all head-bang in unison, you can tell they used to play in a rock band. They still do.
Contact Claire Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.