STS9 | Riviera Theatre | 3/17

Tue Mar 21 2023

“The cops in this city have no brains,” said the cabbie en route to the hotel. We were in Wrigleyville, not far from the stadium. He went on to regale us with a couple brief tales of injustice from his decades as a taxi driver. “In this neighborhood, the police just sit in their cars with their lights flashing, reading the newspaper!” Less than a minute later, we approached a solitary parked cop car with its lights flashing and eagerly peered inside as we passed. Newspaper, phone, same thing; prophecy fulfilled.

The Chicago Hotel Collection Wrigleyville is what they call a remotely-managed hotel. It probably said that somewhere on whatever website I booked the room through. This was my first encounter with this next evolution of the gig economy. The door to get into the building required you to already have a key card; luckily somebody who was just leaving let us in, and after a few minutes on the courtesy phone and also my phone (plus a bonus $69 “facility and processing fee”) we were in the elevator. The placard outside the room had a Bob Uecker quote on it. I suppose that was supposed to make me feel better.

The venue was less than two miles away so we decided to walk. It was about two minutes into the walk when I started to think walking wasn’t the best idea after all. I thought fondly of past St. Patrick’s Days, cavorting around Milwaukee in a t-shirt. Had it been this cold all day? You don’t notice that scathing wind, I guess, when you’re just hopping between modes of transportation. I felt like it was wiping the flesh off my cheekbones. Wim Hof, Wim Hof, I kept telling myself. It wasn’t working.

When we made our way into Lucy’s, a burger/chicken joint, my body was saying in no way shape or form are you hungry right now but my mind said you need to eat something or you could be in rough shape when this show is over with. Okay, for the same price as a sandwich I can get “chicken pieces” eh? This is the new trend in chicken marketing? I was aware of this ongoing hot chicken craze but I now see it for what it is, a scam purely intended to fool college students into thinking they were eating good food. The chicken pieces were these two pulverized masses of what I presume were once chicken thighs, mostly fat and skin and breading. You’re telling me they put THIS amount of bird on a sandwich? Or is the bun SPECTACULAR? I ate one of the pieces. The cole slaw was pretty good.

The lesson here is to always listen to your body when it disagrees with your mind. The heartburn was already brewing when we walked up to the Riviera entrance. As I approached the metal detector I felt someone tapping my shoulder. “You can’t go in with those spikes on your jacket.” Now, I knew damn well how much good it would do to argue with a pinhead who’s been given a modicum of authority, but I’ve been coming to this venue for over two decades in this same goddamn jacket. Fine, maybe this guy had a child who was tragically killed in a hippie mosh pit, impaled by a quarter-inch stud on the shoulder of someone’s leather jacket; I shouldn’t judge. Nevertheless I argued, fruitlessly, and ultimately threw my spikes in the garbage can. The screws they had been screwed to still protruded menacingly from the jacket as I walked in but there’s no rule against that apparently.

I love Chicago even though I’ve always known it is actively hostile to outsiders. Some nights it really wears you down. Like when after all this you remember that the only beers they sell at the Riv are Budweiser and Goose Island. It’s probably been 30 years since I tasted a Budweiser but I was tempted; I don’t think IPAs are supposed to taste like spoiled grape juice. Then again they WERE invented by the British. Maybe next time I’ll try a Bud. Later on, when a guy in a nearby seat offered me a swig of the whiskey he’d smuggled in in a plastic pouch…no, I didn’t take him up on it, but I definitely sympathized.

Despite the growing list of annoyances, all of my discomfort melted away within a few minutes of STS9 taking the stage. I know last time I wrote about the band ( I talked about needing to learn the names of their songs; something may have changed now, though. There’s a freedom in not knowing. Besides, they have so MANY songs now. Doing a little research reveals that STS9 only played one song Friday night that I’d caught live in the preceding decade-plus, and given the band’s aversion to touring, I’ll be lucky to catch ‘em every couple years. Might just cling to my handful of favorites from the old days in hopes that some day I’ll see them play one of those, but actually not really care.

Because no matter what they play, we are dancing. One thing about STS9 2.0 (2014-present, having swapped in “new” bassist Alana Rocklin) is that they sound more like Phish now than when I first started going to see them (though still not MUCH like Phish, you understand). Crucially, though, there are no LYRICS to the songs. Thus there can be no agenda, and even in the cheesiest moments, nowhere near the potential for cringe. So it was no wonder that I found myself thinking fondly during Friday’s first set about Phish around the turn of the millennium, when you’d go to the show and just DANCE for three hours. Whereas nowadays it’s all those SONGS. STS9 have songs too, but I don’t even need to know where one ends and the next one begins; the music moves the body, and you remember what we said about listening to the body.

The experience was heightened even further upon receiving word that—SURPRISE!—our buddies from Colorado just happened to be visiting family in Chicago and popped in at the ol’ Sound Tribe concert?? This type of thing usually only happens to me at Phish shows! Fuck you Chicago, you can’t even ruin my night. And the funniest part was, it was SO not like old times. We are in no sense spring chickens and the band, though capable in stretches and bursts, does not try to put on a full-scale late-‘90s rave atmosphere any more. There’s a lot more jazzy organic music, and no hype-man presence either. So those intense EDM-style swells and peaks sometimes seem to come out of nowhere, and you get your breathers in the form of mellow grooves and, y’know, improvisational tinkering.

Not being an expert on STS9’s songs, I can only say that it felt like there was more jamming in the first set, which was the more dynamic of the two halves overall. I can think of a couple other drummers I’ve seen who approximate electronic beats with aplomb, but I don’t know of another who even attempts the type of big-time climaxes that Zach Velmer sometimes pulls off in this vein. Like most jambands as they age, Sound Tribe are a little scrappier and looser nowadays, and Velmer is not a metronome. He has diversified over the years and it makes the massive payoff builds all the more triumphant when he nails ‘em. There were several of these Friday night. I thought the second set was surprisingly low-key, with one of the centerpieces being “Itzamana”, a song I don’t think I’d ever heard before but found totally captivating despite its rather contented monochrome. So that means the one that sounded like The Police crossed with the theme from KNIGHT RIDER must’ve been…”Hidden Hand, Hidden Fist”, I liked that one too (and should probably be able to recognize it by now but hey). It used to be that half the songs they’d play in a night sounded kinda like the theme from KNIGHT RIDER. I’m very into variety, myself.

Again I was reminded of the way Rocklin’s presence has opened this band up, particularly keyboardist David Phipps. In a way his role at the height of STS9’s popularity strikes me now as limiting; it seemed to me that aside from Velmer it was Phipps who most prominently steered the band in improvisational waters Friday night. However, I have no real idea, with the sometimes stark stylistic shifts between songs and motifs, how much of these proceedings were predetermined. That didn’t matter at all in enjoying it. Now, I know that in reviewing Phil & Friends ( I noted the “refreshing” lack of guitar heroics. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times during Friday’s second set when I SORT OF wished STS9 had a guitar player who could grab ahold of the jam and give it a good rogering. That’s just my dumb Phish conditioning, I suppose. Hunter Brown does a fine job, and a lot of his focus Friday night was on keyboards anyhow. I’ll try to shake off these unhealthy shreddy desires in the coming years.

In the end, I liked the first set better than the second, not especially how you want to feel when you only get to go to one show; that said, the show was not remotely disappointing. I got more of a free-flowing fullness of purpose out of the band’s set at Sacred Rose last year, whereas Friday at the Riv showcased more variety, more pure joy and more intense peaks. There was one song that hit almost Mogwai-caliber levels of face-peel. And what a glorious encore as well, “Crystal Instrument”. I already wanted badly to go the next night but I knew it was impossible. Plus something was clearly wrong with my throat and I had not been screaming.

When we got back to the “hotel” we heard music bumping in the “hotel bar” and thought what the hell, maybe we’d pop in for a nightcap. However the doors to the bar were locked. We could see several people sitting in there drinking, but we stopped short of pounding on the glass door. Probably for the best, as I’ve been under the weather ever since and I can’t even blame the wooks, nor does it seem likely at this point that the chicken pieces were at fault. The room we stayed in was a nice room but as for the overall remotely-managed hotel experience: a ripoff, would not recommend. As for STS9, I see they played one of those old faves of mine Saturday; I guess I’ll keep chasin’.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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