Siberia, New Orleans, Louisiana
July 20, 2017
Opportunities to see Chicago’s high-energy rockers High Spirits are few and far between. It’s not that the band don’t tour. They do. This was actually their third leg supporting last year’s superb Motivator album, and there’s already a fourth run (alongside Pennsylvania trad/doom legends Argus) scheduled for Europe in September. But with work and life responsibilities, as well as the band members’ geographic dispersion, High Spirits typically convene for small batches of 6-10 shows at a time. Well, fortune smiled when one of the nine dates booked for this leg happened to be in New Orleans, just 140 miles from home for me. So Jen donned her white jeans and black t-shirt, and we hit the road for the Big Easy after work on a Thursday afternoon.
We’ve always enjoyed attending shows at Siberia. Yeah, it’s a small dive bar with a tiny stage and iffy sound, but the place has got character, as well as the most delicious Slavic Soul food you can imagine. We arrived at around 8 p.m., ordered some dinner, had a beer, and caught up with the High Spirits guys. This was their seventh show in seven days (out of the nine total), during which time they’d worked their way from Minneapolis through Des Moines and Tulsa, then a cluster of dates in Texas before finally reaching NOLA. Everybody seemed to be in good (notice I didn’t say “high”) spirits, enjoying the tour and having fun being on the road playing music. It was also great to see our friend John Littlejohn, who plays drums for Savage Master and had driven 10 hours from Louisville, Kentucky, just to see this show. We had ample time to talk because, as is par for the course for Siberia, this was going to be a late night. The sole local opener didn’t start playing until 10:30 p.m.
At around 11:30 p.m., High Spirits’ tourmates BIBLE OF THE DEVIL took the stage. I must admit, I’ve not followed the band’s career closely but I knew they hadn’t released anything in awhile, so I wasn’t even sure whether they were still a going concern. Not only are they still very much a going concern, but Bible of the Devil are a highly entertaining live band. Vocalist/guitarist Nate Perry is a ham, with funny one-liners (like when he introduced the song “Legions of the Oriflamme” and said it was from a concept album but hastily added there was no time to explain as he ripped into the opening riff) and a propensity to come out into the audience to play his leads. Also, it was bassist Darren Amaya’s birthday, so there were smiles a-plenty onstage. The band’s brand of hard-rockin’, old-fashioned, simple twin-guitar metal went over well live, and they looked to be having a blast, notwithstanding the small audience. I’m not familiar with their material, but I understand Bible of the Devil aired several new songs in their nine-song set. It’s always a good sign when the new stuff melds seamlessly into the old stuff. All in all, they put on a fine show. Both musically and personality-wise, Bible of the Devil seemed to be a natural fit to tour with High Spirits. Approximate Setlist: Judas Ships, Night Oath, Guns Germs Steel, Still on Top, Flee, Love at the Speed of Night, Hard Club, Legions of the Oriflamme, Cocaine Years Cocaine Tears.
Just after 12:30 a.m., our five heroes in their traditional black shirts and white jeans emerged from the backstage area and walked to the stage. As his typical greeting, frontman Chris Black announced in his matter-of-fact way, “My name’s Chris, these are my friends, and the first song for tonight is ‘Flying High.’” Just like that, bam, the High Spirits gig took off like a rocket. I’ve seen dozens of bands, including more than a few killer bands, work the Siberia stage, which is always a challenge given the very limited real estate available. I’ve never seen a band absolutely attack that stage the way High Spirits did. The easy thing to do would have just been to stand still, play the songs, and stay out of each other’s way. But that’s not what High Spirits do. There’s bearded bassist Bob, a blur of spastic energy careening from side to side and front to back across the stage, straddling monitors and periodically stepping off the stage to the nearby bench against the adjacent wall. Then there’s guitarist Scott, who rocks with a ferocity that belies his mild-mannered offstage demeanor. Even the usually stationary guitarist Mike got into the act, moving about far more than he has when I’ve seen the band previously. The net result was guys bumping into each other constantly, and having to untangle a spaghetti mess of each other’s guitar cables after every song. When High Spirits call themselves “100% high-energy rock,” they’re not kidding, and nothing – not the small stage, the meager turnout, or the thick-as-molasses Louisiana heat and humidity – was going to deter them. Better still, High Spirits have amassed such a catalog of incredible songs that their live shows are like an ESPN highlight reel: “Torture,” “Full Power,” “Another Night in the City,” … damn, they just keep on coming. “Nights in Black” is always one of my favorite parts of the set, not only for the lyrical depth that resonates very strongly with me but also because it gives the band an opportunity to stretch out and spread their wings a bit, including a stellar solo from Scott and even a mini-drum feature from Ian at the end, with his band mates crouched down and looking back at him. Life-on-tour song “Down the Endless Road” was dedicated to Bible of the Devil, appropriately enough, and “Thank You” was the band’s way of saying just that to fans and venue staff. All too soon, High Spirits kicked into their namesake song, which I feared would be the last tune of the night. But during the last audience a capella singalong of the titular phrase, Chris said something that made my heart leap: “If you keep singing, we’ll keep playing.” We did, and they did, treating us to an icing-on-the-cake run through “When the Lights Go Down,” one of the very strongest tracks in the High Spirits arsenal, to close out the night in perfection.
In fairness, it wasn’t a flawless High Spirits gig. Guitarist Mike was having a hell of a time with his rig, dogged by technical issues that caused him to leave the stage at one point (prompting bassist Bob to quip, “Uh oh, Mike’s quit again”) to get a new pedal and ultimately a new axe. And truth be told, one or two of the band members (I’m not saying who) were a bit worse for wear after spending a few hours on the streets of New Orleans, whose dark magic is notorious for ambushing unwary touring musicians. So maybe these weren’t the most pristine, tightest versions of these songs I’ve ever heard. But you know what? It didn’t matter. The energy was there. The songs were there. And the love was there. I dearly love High Spirits, and am already eagerly anticipating my next encounter with them, wherever and whenever it may be. Setlist: Flying High, Torture, Full Power, I Need to Know, Another Night in the City, I Need Your Love, Down the Endless Road, Nights in Black, Thank You, High Spirits, When the Lights Go Down.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~