Fire extinguished

July 5, 2002



Rare indeed is the rock band with the fortitude to call it quits when it's still at the top of its game. But Chicago's Fire Show has opted to end its too-brief career on a high note.

"I find it curious and frustrating that the best music I ever had a hand in making was the least noticed," says Seth Cohen, who formed the group with his fellow guitarist and vocalist Michael Lenzi circa 1998 from the ashes of their old band, Number One Cup. "On the other hand, returning to the reasons we first started playing music--the love of it, the basic impulse to affect people the way other music affected us--has been deeply rewarding and satisfying."

That's been as true for listeners as it's been for Cohen and Lenzi. Recording for the adventurous Chicago indie Perishable, the art-punk combo released a cool experimental E.P. (last year's "Above the Volcano of Flowers") and two strong albums (a self-titled 2000 debut and the new "Saint the Fire Show"). The latter is a fine parting gift that, while it's a little more subdued than the other discs, has the distinction of ending with a delightfully demented cover of "You Are My Sunshine."

As good as the Fire Show's recordings were, its galvanizing live shows were even more impressive. Unpredictable and spontaneous, they often found Lenzi (aka M. Resplendent) frantically hurling himself about the stage as Cohen (Olias Nil) summoned unholy squalls of feedback from his guitar and unnerving drones from a keyboard.

Unfortunately, the band had a longstanding problem with rhythm sections. That and the aforementioned lack of appreciation are contributing to its demise. But the main reason the group is pulling the plug is that Cohen is getting married and moving to England to attend graduate school at Oxford.

The version of the group that's launching a farewell tour with a record release show at 10 tonight at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, has been reduced to the core duo, but that doesn't mean it isn't as ambitious as always. The plan is to start the "regular" set with Cohen and Lenzi on bass and drums. After establishing a groove, they'll sample the rhythm and loop it via computer. Then they'll move to vocals and guitars, playing over their own accompaniment.

But there's more. The Fire Show will open for itself, conducting a lottery to select 30 winners who will be escorted into the Hideout's back room, one at a time. There, each lucky listener will receive a private one-minute concert. As souvenirs, they'll leave with a CD that's been burned right on the spot, and a portrait of their reaction to the music, sketched by a professional courtroom artist hired for the occasion.

That's a lot of entertainment for $8, and a memorable way to say farewell to a great Chicago band.

* * *

The Smashing Pumpkins are arguably another band that bowed out of the spotlight when it was still at an artistic peak. But that doesn't mean that auteur Billy Corgan is immune from cheerfully mythologizing the group.

Crafted with the full cooperation of the Great Pumpkin, the new 50-minute documentary "Graceful Swans Of Never--The Smashing Pumpkins" makes its Chicago debut tomorrow as part of the Sound Unseen Roadtrip, a traveling festival lauding "independent films about independent music."

The six films on the schedule are a mixed bag. Don Letts' "Westway to the World" is a riveting account of his friends the Clash, who for a time in the punk era were prime contenders for the title "the only band that matters." The story unfolds in a straightforward manner via interviews with the key players, but what makes the movie special is the dripping-with-sweat performance footage of the group tearing through anthems such as "White Riot," "I'm So Bored with the U.S.A." and "London Calling."

An exceedingly funny and very American take on the same era is offered in my second favorite film on the bill, "Punking Out," a 35-minute short that tries to answer the question, "What is punk?" from its epicenter, New York's C.B.G.B. circa 1977. In addition to capturing some incendiary live footage of Richard Hell and the Voidoids, the Dead Boys, and the Ramones, filmmakers Maggi Carson, Juliusz Kossakowski, and Frederic Shore find unexpected eloquence and considerable humor among New York punk fans who remind us once more that rock is, above all else, supposed to be fun.

Of the other offerings, many reggae fans consider the 1978 film "Rockers" to be superior to the classic "The Harder They Come," while "Freestyle: The Art Of Rhyme" is a basic but still illuminating look at the roots of hip-hop. I haven't seen "The American Astronaut," which is described as a "space western musical." And while there is a certain hometown pride in seeing Corgan conduct a tour of Chicago sites that were important to the band, the Pumpkins deserve a much better film than "Graceful Swans of Never."

Part of the problem is that we are given only brief snippets of the group's groundbreaking videos and tantalizing tastes of powerful live performances that should have been presented in their entirety. The band interviews are illuminating, up to a point--bassist D'Arcy is noticeably missing among the post-mortems, and her departure from the group is never really explained. But there is no attempt to seek out anyone who could have placed the band in a broader context (the shamefully ineloquent Dave Navarro doesn't cut it), much less venture the observation that maybe, just maybe the Pumpkins weren't always the "geniuses" that everyone here says they were.

The screening schedule for Sound Unseen is as follows: Saturday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State: "Freestyle," 6:30 p.m.; "Graceful Swans of Never" and "Punking Out," 8 p.m.; "Rockers," 9:45 p.m.

Sunday at the Siskel Center: "Rockers," 5 p.m. Sunday at the House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn: "Westway to the World," 2:30 p.m.

Tuesday at the Siskel Center: "Freestyle," 8 p.m.

Thursday at the Siskel Center: "Graceful Swans of Never" and "Punking Out," 8 p.m., preceded by a panel discussion about the Pumpkins and the Chicago scene starting at 6 and featuring this columnist, Joe Shanahan of Metro, Hank Neuberger of the Chicago Recording Company, Norm Winer of WXRT-FM and Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune.

* * *

One more show of note is an appearance tonight by legendary MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer at the Abbey, 3420 W. Grace.

Kramer is touring behind a new album, "Adult World" (Muscle Tone), that, as usual, makes up in the guitar department what it lacks in vocal prowess.

Kramer follows Mother Superior, which kicks things off at 10 p.m. The cover is $12.

Call (773) 478-4408 for more information.