On Friday, the wife and I drove for four hours to see Philadelphia's Work Drugs and Wilmington, Delaware's Teen Men at the Underground Lounge in Chicago. The trip was a first-world nightmare: We got off to a really late start, hit some crazy traffic, and couldn't find a parking space when we arrived. I was in a state of low-grade panic for about three-and-a-half hours and was exhausted by the time we got to the club.
"Dude," you might be thinking, "relax. What's the big deal?"
The big deal is that I've been wanting to see Work Drugs live for two years, but they seem to rarely play west of Philadelphia. On their current tour to support their new album, Insurgents, they actually scheduled a few dates in the Midwest, and I didn't want to miss it. We could have seen them in Columbus, Ohio, or Chicago, both of which are approximately equidistant from us, but we chose Chicago.
I've seen tons of shows in Chicago, but I had never been to the Underground Lounge. It's an interesting little club. Set below street level on West Newport Avenue (hence the "underground" part of its name), the club is small, dingy, and frozen in time. Old arcade games like Ms. Pac-Man and Zaxxon blinked in a small room off to one side, and on the ceiling, textured wallpaper that was supposed to simulate the look of old-fashioned metal ceiling panels threatened to fall down in places. The club had no beers on tap, only 16-ounce cans of Old Style and Miller Lite. Or, if you wanted to pay a premium, crafty stuff like Daisy Cutter Pale Ale (an outstanding APA from Chicago's own Half Acre Beer Company) and Milk Stout Nitro (from Colorado's Left Hand Brewing Company).
On the drive to Chicago, we listened to the new self-titled EP by the opening band, Teen Men. It's the band's only release so far and you can download it for free on Bandcamp. On the basis of a single listen, I thought that guitarist/vocalist Nick Krill was a good singer and that their percussive grooves reminded me a little bit of Vampire Weekend and Talking Heads. "At least the opening band won't suck," I said.
When Teen Men took the stage at the Underground Lounge, though, I was really impressed. Teen Men is a side-project of the long-running Spinto Band, and it shows—these guys are polished. The group played along to video footage that was synchronized to their music and projected onto a screen behind them, and they hilariously wove their "teen men" credo into their banter and imagery. I laughed every time they projected their cheesy lightning-bolt "Teen Men" logo onto the screen. Their harmonies were tight, the songs were good, the visuals were interesting. Well played, gentlemen.
After a short break, Work Drugs appeared in multicolored Risky Business sunglasses, looking kind of like the Sha Na Na of chillwave. This show must have said something about the harsh economic realities of being an indie band today, because even though Work Drugs wages an aggressive social media campaign and has an international following for its prolific output (something like seven albums, an EP, and several singles since 2011), only about 30 people turned out to see them in Chicago on a Friday night.
From a concertgoing standpoint, I'm not complaining—it was great. We sat five feet from the stage and watched the show in complete comfort without being packed like sardines or jostled by drunken idiots. But it made me wonder how Work Drugs and Teen Men could possibly make money on this tour. Now that physical media is all but dead and bands are supposed to make up for lost album sales with concert revenue (because everyone who downloaded your album for free is supposed to support your live shows), what happens when the fans don't turn out? Probably 99% of bands will end up being hobbyists who subsidize their art with day jobs and create music for others on their own dime as if it's some kind of charity work.
On record, Work Drugs lays down cool dance beats with puzzling lyrics that invite you to sing along, but onstage, the band banged out full-band renditions of their tunes with a traditional guitar-bass-synth-drums combo. They played a lot of my favorites—"West Coast Slide," "License to Drive," "Rad Racer"—but they didn't play "Daddy Bear" or my absolute favorite Work Drugs song, "Art of Progress" (video link below).
Work Drugs would be good for dancing, but too few people were in attendance to get any dancing going. The band closed with "License to Drive" and didn't play an encore but hung around to talk to fans for a while. I told the drummer that we drove four hours to see them and he said, "Why would you do that?"