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Marc Sultan & Magic Milk's Garage Rock Explosion At The Empty Bottle

By Eric Hehr in Arts & Entertainment on May 27, 2012 7:00PM

Marc Sultan performing at The Empty Bottle. Photo by Michael Sullivan.

By the time Marc Sultan took the stage at The Empty Bottle this past Thursday, the infamous Chicago dive-venue was packed. Earlier in the day, Rolling Stone had released an article on Sultan's latest solo album, The War on Rock 'n Roll (released by In The Red Records), which was recorded all in one take in Brazil. But such mainstream press wasn't the reason for the large crowd at The Empty Bottle, as Sultan has been developing a grass-roots, die-hard fanbase since the late '90s when he was performing with Powersquat and The Spaceshits.

An eclectic mix of twentysomethings swarmed the stage; equipped with thick-rimmed glasses, sleeve tattoos, and retro attire that blurred the line between the costume design of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders and Albert Magnoli’s Purple Rain. The crowd waited patiently in-between swigs of PBR as Sultan ran through a quick line-check of his minimalistic stage set-up, which included a microphone, a toy-sized electric guitar, and a bass drum and snare drum hooked up to beater pedals at his feet. While most musicians spend their sound-check trying to achieve the most well balanced sound from the house PA, Sultan’s check was an assault of noisy feedback and howling vocals. However, instead of adjusting these obvious imperfections and sonic flaws, Sultan gave his “ready-to-start” cue to the sound guy, calmly introducing himself to the crowd amongst an eruption of applause from the ecstatic audience.

After having spent the past two hours drinking heavily and getting warmed up by the evening's appropriately billed openers, the crowd was ready for a solo of Sultan’s distinct blend of grimy garage rock attitude and enduring doo-wop nostalgia. But before we get to that, let’s get back to the evening's openers, which included Chicago’s own garage-rock aficionados, Magic Milk.

Magic Milk performing at The Empty Bottle. Photo by Michael Sullivan.

In the raunchy spirit of the evening, Magic Milk opened the night with an assault of dissonant noise as front man Kenny Alden impenitently took off his pants, announcing to the crowd that this would be his last performance with Magic Milk, as he had recently joined Metallica. The three piece—which also includes Nick Spiese (bass) and Maggie Laleman (drums)—proceeded to tear into a fast-paced, energetic set that kept the relatively sober crowd bopping along from start to finish. One of the highlights of Magic Milk’s set was Laleman’s carefree, bubbly performance behind the drum kit. Laleman, who looks like she fell straight out of a 1970’s John Carpenter slasher flick with her long, straight blonde hair and nostalgic girl-next-door aura, pounded away at her drum kit with a ferocious sense of unwavering optimism as Spiese and Alden controlled the front of the stage, plowing through an explosive barrage of gritty, garage rock tunes. Magic Milk set the bar high for the rest of the evening, and unfortunately the next band up, Outer Minds, struggled to meet the high standard set by the raucous Magic Milk.

After a mass exodus to the corner of Western and Cortez for a smoke break and a trip to the bar for a second/third/fourth round, the expanding crowd returned to the Empty Bottle stage as Outer Minds began their set. While Outer Minds live show had a definitive influence from the musical sensationalism of late 60’s acts such as The Who, their songs lacked a cohesive sense of authorship—and any drummer with a Keith Moon complex usually walks a fine line between dynamism and annoyance. In the case of Outer Minds, the aforementioned applied. However, in Outer Minds' defense, they kept the tipsy crowd engaged from start to finish, ending their set with a somewhat contrived destruction of the drum set.

Outer Minds performing at The Empty Bottle. Photo by Michael Sullivan.

The evening’s headliner, Marc Sultan, took the stage after a second mass exodus smoke break and trip to the bar for a fifth/sixth/seventh round. Sultan, who by this point in time is a living legend in the modern garage rock scene, has a catalog of recordings that has been estimated to number in the low seven digits. Besides being a prolific musician, Sultan is also somewhat of a trendsetter and tastemaker in his respective genre, combining the traditional merits of slipshod garage rock with the bittersweet wistfulness of golden-age oldies. This distinct hybrid was epitomized in Sultan’s notorious run with The King Khan and BBQ Show, in which Sultan performed underneath the alias BBQ. Since striking out on his own as a solo artist, Sultan has released a handful of albums that explore areas of punk and psychedelia in addition to his on-going absorption with garage rock, including this spring’s The War on Rock ‘n Roll.

Sultan's set at The Empty Bottle was a dive bar cocktail of music from his extensive career, including some of his bottom shelf material as well as his top shelf, 100-proof garage rock classics. A highlight of the night was Sultan’s rendition of The King Khan & BBQ Show classic, “Waddlin’ Around,” which had the jam-packed crowd singing along at the top of their lungs, momentarily drowning out the unyielding feedback and brittle distortion coming from the stage. Sultan also busted out an angsty rendition of The Rolling Stones' 1966 hit, “Out Of Time,” encouraging the crowd to sing along.

While Sultan's set included many highlights, it also included just as many—if not more—pitfalls. One of which was Sultan’s experimentation with the aggressive underpinning of grind-core contrasting with the melancholy melodiousness of doo-wop. Numerous times throughout Sultan’s set, he would go from a Frankie Valli-esque falsetto into a deep death metal growl, blurring the line between Napalm Death and The Flamingos, all the while changing the tempo and feel of his one-man band instrumentation to accommodate the shifting dynamics. While such an unorthodox blend of musical genres was initially intriguing, it grew tiresome and shticky by the thirteenth and fourteenth time it happened.

Marc Sultan performing at The Empty Bottle. Photo by Michael Sullivan.

While there is an unwritten “fuck you” attitude to the spirit of rock ‘n roll that artist such as Sultan have based a career off of, there is also a harmonious undercurrent to rock ‘n roll which Sultan seemed to have lost as he screamed indecipherable howls into the microphone, pounding away on his snare and bass drum like an inebriated machine gun, thrashing away cacophonous chords on his out of tune guitar. Perhaps the primitive rawness of Sultan's live set was a response to the current state of music, which Sultan has openly expressed dissatisfaction in on his website:

"Fuck all of these ‘bands’. Seriously. When you decide to make a gothic swing/ska dubstep album, I will STILL be RIGHT HERE, sleeping on floors and playing my heart out to a rock’n’roll beat. All of you who are playing to ‘make it’, to mirror the mainstream: enjoy your slumming, but do NOT fuck with me. You may not even realize how much I affected and influenced your own music (seriously, you may wanna actually take a listen to my catalog, or listen to stuff, in general, more than 3 years old), cuz your information was disseminated in the same way your band’s name and music is: stupidly, ruthlessly and wrongly, immediacy being the name of the game. You will soon find something else, running with daddy’s money onto the next thing, glowsticks in hand. I sometimes almost regret being a dick at shows or to certain people - it isn’t fair or right of me. But then I realize most of the people and acts people like are smiling on the outside and shaking and lubing your hand, while stabbing at your very soul."

Whether it was an act of pure expression or cultural retaliation, there’s only so much of that type of emotive musical chaos that one can take without the proper balance of actual tuneful musicality, and Sultan struggled to find the proper balance during his hour-long set. However, the audience of die-hard fans didn’t seem to mind, and the exulted crowd exited with ringing ears and double vision: the only way one should leave a garage rock show.

Sultan's live/one-take album, The War on Rock N Roll, is out now for free download on Sultan's Official Site.