Califone played to a sold-out Hideout crowd Sunday night. The set featured some new tracks from the upcoming album Roots & Crowns, but focused on the tried-and-true blues-folk experimentalism that has made them one of the Chicago underground’s greatest darlings.
Tim Rutili, Califone’s mastermind, was an unassuming presence on the stage, unafraid of sharing the spotlight. Onstage he possessed a quiet charm and a concentrated but not overwhelming passion. He switched between his guitar and his keyboard and sang in his raspy, strong but subtle drawl, which is perhaps the greatest living rock voice in the city.
Midway into the set two members of The Bitter Tears lent their brass wizardry to the performance, turning an already solid sound into a wall of thick, chaotic ramblings, harnessed and shaped by the musicians into powerful folk tunes.
Thankfully, a violin for Califone does not mean what a violin in a folk band usually means. Jim Becker spent most of his time strumming and pounding and tapping his various guitars and banjo, but he picked up a violin for certain tracks, such as “Michigan Girls” and plucked away, leaving the fiddling in the barn.
The highlight of the show came at the midway point with the song “Horoscopic. Amputation. Honey.” The performance began innocently enough with Rutili singing softly at the keys and Becker, along with percussionists Joe Adamik and Ben Massarella, backing him modestly. Eventually the song built and The Bitter Tears joined in; each member of the group worked independently to make his own sound. Becker struck his guitar strings, producing hollow, resonant feedback. The trombonist and trumpeter blared random ringing brass notes. Rutili did various sounds on his keyboard and shouted into a pick-up. Adamik and Massarella played diverse, intricate rhythms on various percussion instruments, a sound which culminated in them coming together on a single, solid, pattern pounded simultaneously on two drum kits.
What brings many people to Califone is its blend of traditional folk and modern experimentation. Perhaps the Hideout set could have been made more interesting and lively with a performance that favored the band’s more innovative side; however, concentrating on its blues roots did not make for a less successful show. It highlighted the simple and pure musicianship Califone owns, proving that to be a successful artist all you really need is a guitar and some talent, and perhaps a little honesty.
Download: Califone - "Qtr Horses (live '04)" (MP3)