Growing up in a town of less than 4,000 people in the late 90's made things pretty complicated when it came to discovering new music. Being able to buy just a single seemed to go out the window with the 80's. It was still another half decade plus until iTunes. If you liked a song you heard on the radio and were interested in more or had a band recommended to you by a friend, you didn't have much of an option other than biting the bullet and plunking down $15 of your hard earned money on a CD.
As you can probably imagine, a lot of teenagers on a limited budget such as myself got a little gun-shy after just a handful of bad purchases. The ability to sample an artist's entire catalogue prior to dropping a dime didn't really exist at the time. MTV was in the full throes of going boy band pop coverage wall to wall. It was tough to branch out into new types of music, especially for bands that didn't get heavy airplay on the 1-2 radio stations you could manage to find in your bedroom. If you had a stoner uncle that lived in your basement that sometimes helped, although his tastes always skewed too Pink Floyd-adjacent.
This is where the 'Cool Guys' you knew came in handy. Usually someone who went to your high school (and usually at least a grade or three older than you), a Cool Guy somehow was always a step or two ahead of everything else. If you heard of a cool band, the Cool Guy would not only have all their old albums, but could tell you about all the bands they were previously in. The Cool Guy was always ready with a new mixtape, with a seemingly unending number of songs that would make you think "how is this so good and yet I have never in my life heard of them?" It's was like your own personal version of the dudes that work at Championship Vinyl in High Fidelity.
I was first introduced to The Dandy Warhols by two of my friends in high school, Kyle and Matt. I'm not sure if Kyle and Matt were two independent Cool Guys that gravitated toward each other or if Matt was the Cool Guy to Kyle, who himself became a Cool Guy like some type of Russian nesting doll/padiwan situation. All I knew is that they were both Cool Guys and I tagged along musically like a younger brother, getting constant musical hand-me-downs passed on in the forms of amazing artists and bands that they had known about forever and I was discovering for the first time. From the first time they exposed me to The Dandy Warhols, I could just tell that this was a Cool Band recommended by Cool Guys. Like the kind of band that was your favorite band's favorite band. Always seeming to be juuuuuuust on the edge of a truly mainstream breakthrough (which in some ways might have made them cooler) (also FYI if you didn't notice already, fair warning that I am going to use the word 'cool' about 500 more times so apologies in advance), you can look at their resume and check off so many of the 'yes, this is what a super cool band would do' boxes that they look like a sure-fire first ballot Cool Band Hall of Famer:
- They're from Portland from before being from Portland was as cool as it now is.
- Were known for a good amount of nudity at their early shows, both the band and the audience.
- Signed with a major label and had an entire album thrown out by the label only to later release that scrapped album, doing all this 4 years before Dave Matthews Band tried to make that kind of thing cool. Also, The Dandy Warhols are able to visit the fine city of Chicago without dumping human poop on unsuspecting passersby 100% of the time, something DMB cannot claim.
- Starred in an indie documentary and railed against the harsh truths that come along with signing to a major label.
- Had their biggest hit on their third album, a classic Cool Band move. That song was used in a Vodaphone commercial, on the tv show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and on the soundtrack to the movie Igby Goes Down, itself a staple of early 2000's Cool Indie Cinema.
- Took the money from the Vodaphone commercial and created their own studio/warehouse space for the creation of albums, holding live shows, and creating all other kinds of art.
And despite potentially hitting their commercial peak in the early 2000's, they certainly didn't hit their creative peak, outlasting many of their peers from the same era and consistently putting out music for the last three decades - the four years between 2012's This Machine and 2016's Distortland was their biggest gap between album releases since their debut in 1995.
Just shy of 30 years since their formation, would they still be just as cool as they were to me in my formative years? I will say that holding a show at Chicago's Metro, directly across the street from Wrigley Field on the night where Bruce Springsteen is there kicking off his US tour is an incredible power move and a very cool way to start.
Kicking things off was Diagonal, a psychedelic six-piece band from Chicago. With any six-piece outfit, the potential for things to get way too cluttered (both musically and physically) is extremely high, especially with a band sporting a whopping 3 guitars. But somehow the band stays out of each other's way in creating a multi-layered reverb-drenched soundscape that at times sounds just as bluesy as it does psychedelic. Acting as a conduit for the layers of sound that seem to encompass every inch of space in the Metro, singer/guitarist Silas Mishler has an almost contradictory presence onstage - he sings with precision and delivers only the tightest of guitar hooks, but can (and does) jump off the ledge into uncontrolled guitar breakdowns and off-the-rails Jim Morrison-esque howls between choruses. The rest of the band (guitarists Dan Jarvis and Alex Brumley, drummer Chris Detlaff, and organist/keyboardist Brad Althaus) is absolutely locked in on whatever Mishler's delivering at a given moment, playing off of his lead and stretching their songs any direction they happen to find themselves going in, whether it be straightforward pop stomp or the mellowest shoegaze fuzz you can dream of.
Making their 10th appearance at the Metro (itself one of the coolest venues in the country), The Dandy Warhols took the stage and did what cool bands with a huge back catalog to pull from do: opened the show with three straight deep cuts. While casual fans more familiar with their more commercial songs like 'Bohemian Like You' and 'We Used To Be Friends' might expect things to kick off on a more upbeat note, The Dandy Warhols have much more psychadelic, shoegaze-y roots than some may expect and put that on full display to start the evening. Leading off with 'Be-In' and following up with 'Ride' (off of their indy debut Dandy's Rule Ok) and 'Crack Cocaine Rager' (a track from their aforementioned scrapped major label debut), the tone was set that any and all songs were on the table, whether they made you shake your ass or simply close your eyes and sway for four to seven minutes.
Covering 16 songs spanning 9 of their albums, the Metro crowd got everything they could have wanted stylistically from a band that sounds like it sometimes has too many influences. Did you want to absolutely fuzz out and be embraced by what feels like a four minute hug from a giant pile of velvet? The Dandy's throw down 'I Love You' at the exact midpoint of the show. Go out on a Wednesday night to rage and dance like the good old days? They've got you covered too, with three straight tracks off their most highly acclaimed album (Thirteen Tales fro Urban Bohemia) to end the set on a high note.
(Noticeably absent from the night's setlist? 'Not If You Were the Last Junkie On Earth', the band's 1997 breakthrough hit. Not playing your first 'big' song is a very Cool Band thing to do.)
So does The Dandy Warhols' coolness hold up after almost thirty years? Absolutely. Their sound is immaculate, barring the slight delay during the second song of the night when singer/guitarist Courtney Taylor-Taylor's Fender Coronado was having a slight malfunction. But in true Cool Guy fashion, Taylor used to opportunity to muse about how he prefers to play older instruments because usually they don't have as many issues as modern gear, a fitting point to make when seeing a band that has been around for three decades whether it was intentional or not. Fortunately, the rest of the night went off without a hitch. Drummer Brent DeBoer and bassist Peter Holmstrom kept every song, from the metronome stomp of 'Styggo' to the dreamy zig-zag of 'And Then I Dreamt of Yes' exactly on point. Keyboardist/percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Zia McCabe acted as a barometer for each song throughout the evening, with much of the audience taking subconscious cues from her, swaying along and jumping in sync with her movements onstage as she constantly danced throughout the evenings sixteen songs, her ever-present electric fan blowing wisps of her hair around constantly, which is a very cool look.
Yes, we're all older. Yes, what is and is not 'cool' is in constant flux. But the thing that keeps The Dandy Warhols cool is that they don't try to be cool, at least not outwardly. They aren't still dressing like they're in their 20's or changing their style to match whatever's trendy in the pop-rock world these days. But aging is cool. It can sometimes change the context of a song that was written decades ago. A lyric like 'All I want to do is get off' sounds a lot more fun coming from someone in their 20's, but almost comes across as a plea for help coming from someone in their mid-50's. But that's alright. Honestly and vulnerability are Cool these days. And haven't you heard? The Dandy's have been honest and vulnerable for decades.
And with a sound that seems like it's oozed into some of your favorite cool bands' sounds over the last few decades (try not to hear their sound when you listen to something like MGMT or Franz Ferdinand), it seems like once again, just like Matt and Kyle, The Dandy Warhols might still be a step ahead of the rest of us when it comes to cool.
The Dandy Warhols are on tour through October 28. Dates and links to tickets can be found on their website.
The Dandy Warhols - The Metro, Chicago 8.9.23
Crack Cocaine Rager
We Used To Be Friends
I Love You
And Then I Dreamt of Yes
The Last High
Holding Me Up
Catcher in the Rye
Bohemian Like You