In this time of social distancing and self-quarantine, going to a concert seems unimaginable. Yet just twelve days ago, things were a little bit better, and Irontom and Bear Hands were throwing it down at Subterranean in Chicago. Raucous, rowdy, and resplendent with love, the show was the perfect ray of light before the darkness that was to come.
Rising LA rockstars Irontom were up first. They were phenomenal, but that was no surprise—over the years, their live show has become the standard against which I measure all others. If you’re new to these guys, it might be helpful to know that Charlie Sheen once described them to Rolling Stone by saying, “It’s like Led Zeppelin and the Beatles had a baby, and it was raised by wolves.” Guitarist Zach Irons (son of RHCP’s Jack Irons) and singer Harry Hayes are two of the most dynamic performers on the scene today. While their talent shines through on every record, you can’t fully appreciate their power until you’ve seen them onstage in a tiny rock club, Irons cool and aloof, Harry wild-eyed and perpetually in motion.
As is Irontom tradition, the show opened with an instrumental intro, courtesy of Irons, keyboardist Dan Saslow, and drummer Dyl Williams. Saslow’s synths set the ambience with an eerie melody that sounded like the score to an indie film about seances. Then Irons, wearing a dust mask, cut in with a roaring riff. Williams wasn’t far behind with a steady beat. Last but certainly not least, Hayes ran out yelling, “Chicago, let’s do this!” Everyone’s energy was at its peak—due to COVID-19, this would be the last show of the tour, and one of the last shows before Chicago banned all gatherings of at least 250 people in the city.
The past few months have brought us a bevy of Irontom singles, and that night in Subterranean, the band played almost all of them. First was “Kid Midnight,” a sort of theme song for Hayes’ new alter ego (“Hello, my name is Kid Midnight/The sky is mine, I’m Kid Midnight”). Complete with electrifying solos from Irons, erratic dance moves from Hayes, and lots of crowd interaction, the performance gave us a preview of what we’d be seeing throughout the rest of the night.
Next up was “Call Me the West,” the band’s ode to the idealized image of the swaggering cowboy. With its anthemic lyrics—“I don’t care, I’m obsessed/I am cursed, I am blessed”—it was especially fun to shout along to. We then slipped into a more somber mood with “Black Cat,” a ballad driven by groovy guitars and yearning refrains. We didn’t stay down for long, though—soon it was on to “Big Shot,” Irontom’s newest single. One of Irontom’s hallmarks is their confidence—even if they’ve never set foot in a venue, they play it like they’re doing a hometown show, and they’re never afraid to use every square inch of the stage. “Big Shot” saw them embracing this confidence in full. Complete with carnival-esque keys from Saslow, percussion you could clap along to from Williams, a classic Irons riff, and Hayes’ ever-expressive vocals, it brought out the best of every band member.
One of the most thrilling things about seeing Irontom live is that they almost always play an unreleased track or two. That night, it was “Crave Your Sex,” perhaps the most entertaining musical declaration of lust you’ll hear all year. While its harsh guitars and backing organs harken back to the heavy Irontom Compilation era, the song is just as playful as it is intense. Not too many bands can pull off rhyming “I crave your sex” with “Tyrannosaurus rex,” but Irontom did it with ferocity and finesse.
Before wrapping up, Irontom gave older fans a treat with some songs from 2017’s Partners. (No songs from the Compilation or the early EPs this time—here’s hoping we’ll hear some when the band returns to the road this summer.) The title track was the musical and emotional climax of the night. Leaning against each other in the middle of the stage, Hayes and Irontom were a picture-perfect rock’n’roll duo. When they go down in history like Mick and Keith, or Anthony Kiedis and Flea, you can say you heard it here first.
Later in the night, East Coast indie band Bear Hands took the stage. The New York rockers have quite the impressive tour history. Just last year, they played arenas across America with the notorious Twenty One Pilots. They’ve also spent time on the road with Foals, X Ambassadors, and Cage the Elephant. It was cool to see them in an intimate, no-barricade venue like Subterranean, where they could sing to the masses while making eye contact.
Bear Hands’ style is different from Irontom’s. You won’t find them flailing their arms through the air or bouncing up and down; lead singer Dylan Rau is more likely to stroll across the stage at an easygoing pace, closing his eyes as he senses the vibe of the room. Make no mistake, though—the fans were rapt. Ranging from teenage girls to older men, they packed the room, bobbing their heads to the beat and mouthing the lyrics.
Bear Hands opened with “Back Seat Driver (Spirit Guide),” a single about “[running] away, never to be found”—a wonderful way to usher us into the escapism of the set. As the night went on, the band mainly played songs from their most recent album, Fake Tunes—yet they also revisited some older tracks, going all the way back to 2010’s Burning Bush Supper Club. Their sound was similar to that of former tour buddies Walk the Moon—breezy, synthy, and largely major key.
“Reptilians” was the standout of the set. Before launching into it, Rau asked the crowd, “Raise your hand if you might actually be an alien in human skin.” As more than a few palms shot up, they began the mellow synthpop tune, which sounded like the ideal credits song for a film about Area 51. The stream-of-consciousness verses—“International flights, red beans and rice, gold parachutes”—were strange, but they only added to the intrigue of the moment. The refrain—“Beware the reptilians”—was oddly haunting.
“Giants,” the band’s big hit, felt like the natural way to bring the night to a conclusion. The single took alternative radio by storm in 2014; in 2020, it served as a time machine to a seemingly simpler era. “I know you love me; I am loving you more!” Rau shouted with the sort of ecstasy that is reserved for the singers of indie love songs. As a Neon Trees-esque riff resounded throughout the room, the fans repeated the refrain: “I am loving you more! I am loving you more!” Watching them jump up and down, I almost forgot about the disaster going on beyond the venue’s walls. Sure, an apocalypse was on the horizon—but we were going into it with a spring in our step and a song on our lips, and that made all the difference.