Text and Photos: Bobby Cochran
Tonight, Chicago’s Russian Circles made a powerful return to the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, hot on the heels of their recent Sargent House release Guidance. I’ve always appreciated their unique pre-show practice of playing soft droning sounds before they hit the stage, which sets the tone and builds energy in an unexpectedly powerful way. They opened their set with “Asa,” the first song from the new album. Unlike the last time Russian Circles played here, the crowd erupted into a seething pit once the heavy punch of “Vorel” kicked in. Though this band is typically enjoyed by motionless and reverent audiences, the succession of powerful, heavy-hitting songs drove many in the crowd to shove and push and seethe in response. Can’t say I blame them, either.
Russian Circles have always known how to do a bare-bones but effective light show, and the starkly dramatic spots and throbbing, pulsing glow synchronizes perfectly with the ebb and flow of the music. It’s also impressive and remarkable to see three people creating such sonically complex and varied music completely without prerecorded backing tracks. Bassist Brian Cook plays some keyboards and samples in addition to a Moog bass pedal setup and guitar simultaneously. Guitarist Mike Sullivan employs loop pedals with great effect to double and sometimes triple the amount of guitar layering that most musicians would only attempt on record, and perhaps never attempt to perform live. Drummer Dave Turncrantz dutifully laid the solid bedrock his playing always delivers, giving the other two a platform on which to deliver their powerful sonic drive.
The sound was clean and nuanced, though there was plenty of volume to drive the punters nuts. “Deficit,” from 2013’s Memorial, was next, followed by “309” from Empros and “Afrika” from Guidance, which kept the now sweaty bodies moving and heads banging. The show stopped briefly to accommodate a technical glitch when one of the guitar amps went down, but they resumed with “Harper Lewis” from 2008’s Station. This seemed to bring the feverish energy down a bit, and a reverential calm settled over the crowd for the most of the remainder of the set. “1777” was next, in all its epic gloriousness, followed by “Calla” and the uplifting and mighty “Mladek” closing the set, only to be reprised by an encore of “Youngblood” from Station. I was struck by how many times throughout the show a crowd member would yell out an appreciative “Thank you!” at the end of a song, clearly illustrating how much this band means to its fans. Russian Circles knows how to put on a hell of a good show, and tonight we were all grateful to be there and once again experience that for ourselves.
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