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Stage Buzz – Live Review: The Presidents Of The United States of America

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014
House of Blues
Chicago, IL

Chris Ballew spends more time in flight than many species of birds. He may not have wings, but his shins are obviously built from springs. Whether bounding across the stage, pogoing, scissor-kicking or jumping for sheer joy, Ballew was airborne. Clearly, this is a man who has fun on the job.

It didn’t take long for the good feeling to spread through the House of Blues. The evening was the rarest type of rock show – one where a ticketed concert became an all-inclusive party. Spirits were sky high onstage and off. Ballew shot grins to his bandmates during a howling opening cover of the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams.” Sideburn-toting rock-and-roll guitarist Andrew McKeag and powerhouse drummer Jason Finn returned the gesture early and often. Everyone in the room was soon doing the same, while joining the profane sing-along during the final verse of “Kitty.”

The Presidents are currently touring in support of their new album Kudos to You. New material stacked up well against the trio’s two-decades-old favorites like “Lump.” The saucy rave-up “She’s a Nurse” charged full speed ahead like the great, lost Knack single. “Good Morning Tycoon” was a bouncy pop pleasure. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, as Mary Poppins once told us. The song’s sun-shiny cadence veiled an anti-greed message inspired by the 1964 Shirley MacLaine film What a Way to Go.

Finn shifted gears, stopped on dimes, and called down thunder on his three-piece drum set. During “Back Porch,” he moved into a nimble country shuffle as Ballew and McKeag squared off for a frenetic musical battle of blazing “Dueling Banjos” licks. Ever the magnanimous bandleader, Ballew declared McKeag the winner. McKeag earned his crown with full-bodied solos on his three-string guitar, elevating the energy of familiar songs like “Volcano.”

Even a show-stopping flub couldn’t dampen the mood. While presenting “Crown Victoria,” a new song about splurging for the biggest luxury car in the rental fleet, Ballew zigged when he should have zagged. Rather than try to hide the error, the band made a big goofy deal of it and counted straight back in. “It’s an open rehearsal,” said Ballew. The fans were with them all the way, and began singing the brand new chorus with gusto.

Ballew tried to close the gap even further during “Mach 5,” passing his microphone stand across the barrier and into the crowd. After the stand came back collapsed to its shortest height, Ballew ran it up to its full eight-foot length and sang from atop a rickety wooden chair. Naturally, he began jumping on it soon afterward. One assumes that the band is heavily insured against physical injury.

The band closed its main set with “We are Not Going to Make It” from their 1995 debut. The audience echoed every giddy “no no no.” Ballew declared that the band only needed to hop a plane from Seattle to Chicago to feel that it all might work out. The song concluded with the famous “Love is All Around” coda used as the Mary Tyler Moore theme song. “We’re going to make it after all,” the band sang joyfully.

The band gave nods to Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades” and played the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Ballew strutted like AC/DC’s Angus Young during “Peaches.” “Ghosts are Everywhere” was dedicated to Morphine’s late bassist Mark Sandman, who introduced Ballew to the two-string bass. When the Presidents returned for an encore amid a soccer chant of “P’U-S-A! P’U-S-A!,” Ballew began rapping the lyrics to Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” Finn called that nonsense off immediately, possibly before having to pay royalties to the Freddie Mercury estate.

After the show, Ballew was overheard talking to friends and fans. “We get paid to do this,” he said. “Can you believe it?”

– Jeff Elbel

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