Rounding the street corner, an intense gust of cold air nearly tore the shirt off my back. Lawrence Avenue had suddenly transformed into an unbearable wind tunnel––a phenomenon many of us Chicagoans know all too well. Wide-legged jeans plastered to my skin, I ducked my head in between glances of the too-slowly approaching glow of the Aragon Ballroom’s marquee. Shuffling inside the venue, I ran my fingers through my likely disheveled fringe, recalling how just hours ago we had our first taste of spring’s return to the city. Of course it was a false alarm, the lakefront’s cruel way of getting our hopes up.
My spirits remained lifted nonetheless. Awaiting the musical sensations of saxophonist Nubya Garcia and indie-beloved Khruangbin, I had a feeling these artists would warm my bones the way the evening air outside failed to do so.
I’m a newcomer to Garcia’s compositions, but the sense her music elicits from me is quite familiar. As a listener, jazz and its adjacent genres evoke feeling and movement in perhaps its purest form. Garcia’s music is creating an interpretive dance in the privacy of your living room, cracking the window open and letting in the spring air from outside, watching the foster cat sunbathe on the rug, enjoying this peaceful moment for yourself while the neighborhood strangers are bustling outside three floors down. Maybe this is the sense of balance captured within “Pace”, as Garcia would come to share during her set.
I sat beneath one of the several castle arches of the ballroom and gazed at the swirling galaxy painted on the ceiling. A disco ball twinkled shades of blue. A man asked if he could sit in the space beside me next to his family. He introduced himself as Ted. We exchanged our excitement about the show, I shared with him my struggle to concisely describe to someone Khraungbin’s music. Impassioned, he gave me a sure answer.
“It’s like medicine.”
I think I’ll leave it at that.
I caught a glimpse at Nubya Garcia before she had a chance to grace the stage. An ornate red jumpsuit cinched together by a Gucci belt descended the staircase from the upper level balcony. Sax in hand, sunglasses on, she was instantly the coolest person in the room–and the crowd hadn’t even noticed her yet. A hazy blue enveloped the band as they took the stage, the crowd awakening with an enthusiastic welcome. Calm, cool, and collected, Garcia is one of those instrumentalists that makes what she does look effortless to untrained ears. The saxophone’s golden melodies filled the entire room, the sound humming in everyone’s chest with every inhale and exhale.
Although Garcia’s compositions included no lyrics, she doesn’t need them. Her truth is enveloped within the individual people her music touches. If her 2020 release, “SOURCE”, is “a life’s worth of experiences into an hourlong listen,” then her live performance only served to pursue that notion. Garcia’s meaning lies in human connection-–here we all were collectively listening to the same songs, yet every one of us was left with our own interpretations based on our own human experiences, on how we connected feeling with sound. Her jazz encouraged us to look within ourselves and how we are tied to the world around us.
Garcia was joined by three undeniably talented musicians: Sam Jones on drums, Daniel Casimir on double bass, and Jahari Stampley on keys. There was clear chemistry and mutual respect between these talents. Garcia frequently glided away from the mic and allowed every pluck of a string, every beat of a snare, every trickle across the keyboard to move through her. Every musician received their respective solo, free to make eyes and ears turn to marvel upon them. It was in these moments that “Nubya Garcia” became more than just the woman who bears the name.
Expressing immense gratitude, Garcia passed the stage to Laura Lee, Mark Speer, and Donald Johnson. Large twin disco balls cascaded over the stage like two planets orbiting within the swirling galaxy above our heads. For two hours, Khruangbin beamed us up into their spaceship and blew us out into space. Somehow we found ourselves in the most eclectic disco in the Milky Way.
The room danced to psychedelic colors and surrendered themselves to crowd favorites like “Time (You and I)”, “Pelota”, and “So We Won’t Forget”. Although the trio omitted playing any of their collaborations with Leon Bridges, the setlist was peppered with classic covers inviting the crowd to take on lead vocals to Sister Nancy’s “Bam Bam”, Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”, and Sir Elton’s “Bennie and the Jets”.
There was electric joy to be found between glimmering guitar riffs and bass lines that just hit the spot. Speer approached the mic sometime in the middle of the set. Addressing everyone from the barricade to the balconies, he encouraged everyone to turn to their left and to their right. Say hello, make a friend, don’t be a stranger. Everyone, even for just those two hours, occupied the same wavelength, erupting in synchronized “bam bam dillas” as if right on cue.
By the time the clock rolled around 11PM, everyone had forgotten about the wind tunnel outside or the fact that we were about to exit the venue to an impending thunderstorm. With a little more warmth in our bones (and some likely still buzzing off the alcohol), a hint of the morning’s springtime returned just before the first drops started pouring out of the sky.
A spoonful of Khruangbin makes the medicine go down.
Words and photos by Weronika Koleda.
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