Review: The Orwells enthusiastically received despite technical mishaps at Thekla

4th March 20173-stars

“There’s always one show every tour where nothing works and you’re at that right now” says guitarist Matt O’Keefe towards the end of an evening fraught with technical difficulties. However, this being a night equally filled with audience pandemonium and a boisterous Saturday evening atmosphere, O’Keefe’s words highlight that an audience’s perception of what emerged from the stage may often be at odds with that of a performing band; evidently, issues with sound levels and instruments dropping out are secondary concerns when one can lose themselves in the beer-soaked embracing of The Orwells’ rambunctious garage rock.

Frontman Mario Cuomo – a towering figure topped off with the now familiar colossal blonde mane – raises his pint aloft before opener ‘Black Francis’; giving a nod to their Pixies influence, the song’s raucous three chord intro and shrill lead guitar instantly catapult the crowd into an animated mass of pogoing. Taken from February release Terrible Human Beings, it’s the first of several new tracks that would slot seamlessly on to the Chicago band’s previous albums. The Orwells clearly don’t aspire to evolve or reinvent but with the joyous bluster of ‘They Put A Body In The Bayou’ – in thrall though it is to the four chord shuffle of Nirvana’s ‘Polly’ – it feels like the wisest of decisions.

However, it’s the songs from the band’s second album Disgraceland that are received with the most enthusiasm. After Cuomo’s declaring that “this is our fifth time ever on a boat”, ‘Dirty Sheets’ is met with an impassioned sing along while ‘Let It Burn’ induces the first of several instances of crowd-surfing amongst audience members closer to the stage. Also, to the running commentary of “and the crowd goes fuckin’ wild” from Cuomo, the audience do precisely that the moment ‘Who Needs You’ kicks into action. With the intoxicating cascade of its descending guitar lines and the vaguely anti-American protest of its lyrics, The Orwells’ blistering interpretation of The Strokes remains the group’s outstanding tune.

However, problems become apparent with O’Keefe requiring a change of guitar and, subsequently, his instrument goes missing for the duration of ‘In My Bed.’ It returns for the following track but palpably far too loud in the mix and it’s a point from which the group never quite regain control of satisfactorily wielding their sound. It seems, though, to matter little to the majority of the audience; groups of sweaty youngsters can be seen departing for refreshment before returning to the pogoing frontline horde; meanwhile the crowd-surfing begins in earnest during ‘The Righteous One.’

Cuomo, as ever, makes for an intriguing spectacle of stage presence for one to observe. For a start, he is a startling vocalist; his impressive pipes able to conjure a consistently searing bellow or, as with the extra relish he adds to each line of ‘Who Needs You’, a tremendously fierce rasp. Then we have Cuomo’s stage technique; he is full of bizarre trance-like stare-outs, convulsive shakes of his shaggy blonde mane, semi-creepy audience flirtation beginning with leering smiles and culminating in peculiar repeat actions like the turning of his head or poking his tongue in and out.

Despite the group’s sound difficulties – admittedly more apparent from their between song laments than any obvious sonic mishaps – the set is enthusiastically received and a chant of “One more song!” follows the band’s departure from the stage. When The Orwells return, O’Keefe shakes up a can of beer and foam sprays into the front row. “This is your encore because nothing works.” This is not exactly how triumphant gigs end and we’ve caught them on a bad night, but as a soundtrack to rock n roll chaos on a Saturday night, The Orwells will do just fine.

Scott Hammond