Last Thursday brought Chicago-native singer How To Dress Well home to close fans and friends. Set in the the Museum of Contemporary Art’s theater, the 250 patrons sat in reverie of an intimate and emotional performance. With only strewn candles on stage and projections of ambient artwork behind Tom Krell the entire set was befit with emotion.
I was eager to see Krell perform in Chicago since seeing him at First City Festival was all sorts of disaster with ear-bleeding sound setups and being in our home city was sure to be more poignant.
He didn’t disappoint.
With perfectly executed sound in a small space, we were flooded with waves of well-practiced art. Alternating between two microphones (the second for reverb) added more depth to his clear vocal aptitude. He’s a clear musician and tuned-in conductor - he maintained consistent eye contact with each of his band mates making for a clean yet casual set. He was home, which gave an air of familiarity and comfort for all of us, making it a more raw performance.
I recently perused roughly thirty different interviews Tom Krell gave over the last few years, and I read in one how his banter on stage is intentional and very much deliberate. Like The Range deliberately traversing duality in shifting dark, introspective music into the dance-oriented sphere, Tom Krell does this as well between each of his songs. [The Range and How To Dress Well performed together this weekend at Hopscotch Music Festival which made Rupa Jogani probably too excited]
Krell’s music is, on the optimistic end, heavily melancholic and introspective but he tears this apart in his onstage banter - at First City Festival he made fun of Beck throughout his set, and in Chicago he poked fun at the person’s phone who kept going off. Making the audience laugh and breaking the tension at the close of each song was the cadence us listeners subconsciously needed. His banter serves as mini interludes. As thoughtless and crass as it can appear to be, seemingly drawing away from the sincerity of his voice, it’s actually a deliberate choice Krell is making onstage.
“…From playing live, I started to become really fascinated about experimenting with massive, dynamic shifts, so for instance whether it was about singing something off mic and then ripping in with a full band loudness. Or if it was about singing like a really, really sad song, and then in banter, cracking a joke and making everyone laugh. I just started to feel really excited by and confident in exploring more dynamic shifts. I left my last tour feeling so confident, and feeling like I was really on the right path. Just thousands and thousands of people like affirming me and telling me, “Keep going, you’ve really touched me in these ways, I really love what you’re doing.” It let me fully trust myself on this record.” -Interview by Jillian Mapes on FlavorWire
The effect works well, mainly for us who know what he’s choosing to do, but it can be lost in translation. I later discussed the show with a friend of mine who found the bantering to be obnoxious and grating since he saw it as taking away from a what-should-be poignant experience. I knew where he was coming from, since bordering that line of duality may not always have the intended effect the artist is striving for.
Even trying to define if How To Dress Well is an R&B act or folk (which Krell sees himself closer to being) can be daunting. I see him as an experimental voice, someone who pushes himself to explore every crevice of his own creative mind. His collaborative work with Jacques Greene or Shlohmo is indicative of this - they take Krell’s voice and manipulate it into a separate sound wave, akin to how Yasutaka Nakata uses Perfume’s voices as a separate musical instrument.
What Is This Heart? is arguably Tom Krell’s mainstay pop album, but it doesn’t change the fact that he continues to challenge himself in the work he puts out.
Go see him live. It’ll always be a thoughtful, intimate performance where the music is first and foremost at the frontlines before all this high-brow shit. After you do, hit me up and we can discuss it.
What You Wanted
2 Years On (Shame Dream)
Very Best Friend
Childhood Faith in Love
Suicide Dream Pt. 1
Set It Right
Words I Can’t Remember
I Look to You (Whitney Houston Cover)
How To Dress Well performing “Very Best Friend” at the MCA in Chicago
Rupa Jogani likes duality shit a lot. Tell her what you think of How To Dress Well and concert performances on Twitter @rjogani