LIVE: Steve Gunn Haunts Chicago’s Constellation (10/31/2015)
The New York guitar hero (and former member of Kurt Vile's Violators) charms on Halloween.
James Elkington and Nathan Salsburg
October 31, 2015
There are at least three Steve Gunns. There’s the recorded Steve Gunn, whose intricate melodies and lyrical guitar picking are given subtle shade and gravitas by virtue of their impeccable production. There’s the full-band Steve Gunn, whose live force with his country-rock ensemble blows away much of the recorded subtlety without any substantial loss in quality. And finally, on Halloween, in a black-box theater adjacent to an overpass in Chicago, with Rahm Emmanuel in attendance, there’s solo Steve Gunn, accompanied intermittently by James Elkington’s lap steel and shimmering Telecaster.
Before Gunn takes the stage, Elkington and Nathan Salsburg play a set of duets for acoustic guitar. As they do on this year’s Ambsace (a word which we learn Elkington has learned to pronounce only a few weeks prior), the pair pilot their lines in different directions, with harmony (or piquant dissonance) coming from the rub of their respective bass notes. They shift effortlessly between cranking American primitivism and a nearly baroque high formalism, and if that all sounds a little récherché for a Halloween party, I should also mention that their between-song banter—which finds Salsburg playing the nervous apprentice to Elkington’s comfortable and wizened maestro, whether that’s the case in reality or not—gives their set a casual feeling, even while it imbues the songs with a kind of profundity; you feel both welcomed and awed to know that a couple of easygoing pals can string together something like this.
Gunn, for all of his considerable strengths as a songwriter and performer, doesn’t quite have the same magnetism. An excellent ramble about seeing Danzig as a kid aside, he does his best storytelling through his guitar. With Elkington’s backing, he delivers takes on “Millie’s Garden” and the title cut from last year’s Way Out Weather that become hypnotic in the small space. The former track, which this summer at Pitchfork Fest sounded like a missing My Morning Jacket track circa It Still Moves, comes across on record as accusatory (and, we learn, it is: Gunn explains that he wrote the track about an obnoxious neighbor in Brooklyn). Absent its percussion, though, it feels mournful and more sympathetic. “Way Out Weather,” meanwhile, doesn’t seem like it’s being played in its recorded iteration so much as it emerges from a fog behind which it was always present. Gunn and Elkington build a lengthy, pealing introduction to the song, and hearing it come together like this, as a conscious construction, gives it a sense of muscle and propulsion; when the web of Gunn’s guitar is pierced by the moan of Elkington’s steel at the turn in the chorus, it’s almost enough to make you shudder. FL