Saturday, February 27, 2010

You Missed Out: Rocky Votolato and Josh Caterer


Chicago is my favorite place in the world. I feel so lucky to be able to wake up in this city every day. Of course, I don't mean to discriminate against the Northwest, because I've only heard the kindest words about Seattle and Portland. It's just that I've never been there before (although a mini-vacation in March will soon fix that).

But I get the feeling that Chicago and those Northwest cities are actually very similar to each other. Neither have the best weather, but both have great music scenes. Neither are really in competition, but I've lost many Chicago friends to the clutches of Portland. And I really like the way both cities' basketball teams play unselfish, scrappy ball (not to mention the unchanging, classic logos and red and black jerseys). I think there's some sort of bond between Chicago and the Northwest, or at least a mutual respect.

Tonight, I got to see the mutuality in action, as one of Seattle's finest singer-songwriters played a show with one of Chicago's hometown heroes. And the parallels kept coming from Josh Caterer's acoustic solo opening performance onto the headlining Rocky Votolato.

Both of these musicians have been in the music industry for quite a few years now, and they've each had their ups and downs. Josh Caterer flirted with major commercial success in the 90s' with the Smoking Popes, until he found Jesus and abandoned his former rock and roll aspirations due to "Christian" convictions (You know, like the guy who burned all his secular records after he got saved). And Rocky Votolato gradually suffered from a severe depression, a dreadful and dark existential crisis that threw him into hopelessness. But tonight in the warm atmosphere of a sold-out Schubas Tavern, both artists appeared to be more content and comfortable than they'd ever been before.

Chicagoans are so accustomed to Josh Caterer, the crowd talked over his entire set. But at this point in his career, that's just fine for Josh. He's not a worldwide star, but a Chicago staple. And in this town, local love is even better than widespread fame. Instead of telling the crowd to shut-up, like Chicago's hometown zero Mike Kinsella (Owen) might, Josh played on. Nobody was brought to tears by his set, but nobody wants that anyway. It was just comfortable.

The crowd decided to hush up for Rocky Votolato, who rewarded us with a five-song encore (I think this was the first time I've witnessed such a feat). He introduced the opening song on his new album True Devotion by saying how his new record is really about coming to grips with what he really cares about in life, which is not what a manager or scene thinks he should look or sound like. The result is a totally honest record about acceptance and humility.

Two men took turns standing alone with their acoustic guitars on a small stage. Their journeys are more similar than they know. Both of them singing lyrics that could be attributed to either a girl or God, both happy to revel in ambiguity, they're far from being washed up or played out. They're finally in just the right spot. Instead of demanding that life be a certain way, they're going with what they've been given. And they're not complaining.

Josh recently reassembled the Smoking Popes, and is no longer afraid of the music damaging his Christian faith (thank God he came to his senses!). And Votolato, though undeniably more positive now than he was on past records, still plays requests for songs about heading towards "sweet darkness." These men have learned that life isn't black and white, and that there's no need to fear either blinding light or total darkness as long as you remain in the gray. It may have taken these two a few years to arrive at their contentment, but it sure looked like it was worth it tonight.

*Also published at Burnside Writers Collective

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