When you go to see a band with as varied a song library as Illinois, you never know quite what state they’re going to be in, but when you go see them at a McCarren Park Pool Party, you get them at their most rollicking and jump-jiving. The Bucks County, PA band rocked the McCarren Park Pool (QRO venue review) on Sunday, July 1st with a mix of saloon-stomp, lo-fi smart aleck rap, southern-shake, and straight up alt-rock. While this did mean that the group had to skip some of their moving, sadder pieces, the trade-off was well worth it.
Illinois opened up Canada Day with “Oh Asia”, off their 2005 debut EP, Revenge of Some Kid, a fuzzy barroom bellow there perhaps to match the Party’s general cross-cultural feel (also featured that day were the Phnom Penh-meets-psychedelic rock Dengue Fever, and the Viking-meets-Native American war paint Man Man). It was followed an unfamiliar and possibly new piece, a fun, up-down Confederate hoedown, that might have been a little too gratuitous with the guitar solos. Illinois then got their biggest and most expansive with “One On One”, from this year’s What The Hell Do I Know? EP (QRO review), as its growing, Anglophile guitars literally filled the 5,000 person-capacity once-upon-a-time community pool.
What The Hell? kept on rocking, as Illinois followed “One” with the EP’s next two tracks, “Screendoor” and “Headphones”. “Screendoor” was a return to the burlesque gramophone of “Asia”, perhaps not quite as good as “Asia” on record, but served just as well live. “Headphones” married the expanse of “One” and the vaudeville of “Screendoor”, serving maybe as the best representation of the hard-to-pigeonhole band. The pseudo-conversational bar-talk bop of the middle of the set was kept up with Revenge’s “Old Saloon”, another song served particularly well live. The country twang of “Nosebleed” took that nineteenth century Wild West saloon into the twenty-first century Dirty South, inflecting the turn-of-the-century hootenanny with a little American-accented grime rap.
Not only excellent on its own, the south-of-the-Mason & Dixon flavored hip-hop of “Nosebleed” dovetailed nicely into another unfamiliar southern-rock track that had a little rap. While that number droned on a bit, singer/songwriter/keyboardist/banjoist Chris Archibald won the crowd back, first by asking, “What the hell happened to the pool?!?”, and then with What The Hell?’s closer, “Bad Day”, whose lo-fi, cleverly ironic, low-key, straight-faced storytelling & wordsmithing was reminiscent of Mellow Gold-era Beck. But, mixing it up once again, Illinois didn’t end things there, but rather with Revenge’s wide-open and heartfelt closing anthem, “If You Love Something”.
Even with only two EP’s under their belt, Illinois is already challenging Glasgow’s Texas as the best state band since Kansas (and at least these boys are American!). Playing the open-air Brooklyn indie-party at McCarren Park Pool, the band understandably, but somewhat regrettably, had to eschew their sadder numbers like Revenge’s powerful “Idiot Statue” and What The Hell?’s evocative opener, “Alone Again”. And the possibly new southern-fried songs worked well in the rollicking set, but might not do as fine on recording. But live, all the pieces that Illinois decided to use, from dancehall jam to undanceable rap, fit together like Wrigley and Ivy.