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LIVE REPORT: Wrekmeister Harmonies
Joshua Ford , December 11th, 2014 12:56

Joshua Ford heads to The Bohemian National Cemetery to witness a show that goes "from lightness to dark, beauty to violence". Photo by the author

Arriving through the large stone gatehouse of Chicago's Bohemian National Cemetery, those attending the sold-out performance of Then It All Came Down by Wrekmeister Harmonies make their way down a long darkened path under full moon. Along the way is a fire burning bright with two men reading a Mass for the Dead in Latin. Inside the 100 year old stone structure, they are made to pass through the Columbarium hallway, home to hundreds of encased funerary urns, floor to ceiling, each accompanied by portraits and personal items of the deceased. The hallway opens to the Ceremony Hall, an elegant circular room with high reaching columns, gilded artwork and rows of wooden pews, all capped by a massive dome and lit by candle and large scale projection by analog video designer Nick Ciontea.

Adding up to a full on sensory experience per J.R. Robinson's wishes, it is a rather powerful context that's been skillfully built around the music. Being the third performance here by Wrekmeister Harmonies (though the first in winter, and first indoors at the Ceremony Hall), The Bohemian National Cemetery is a fitting home for the weighty and thoughtful material that Robinson and cohorts create.

Circuit des Yeux begins the evening with Haley Fohr's soaring voice over acoustic guitar. Her work is serious and appropriately melancholic for this occasion. Being at once delicate and powerful, the dark dirges wash over the seated onlookers and are dead on. Her set ends with 'Acarina' from the 2013 album Overdue, building to a dramatic conclusion with her on the floor screaming and flogging effects pedals to a glorious transcendent singularity.  

Ryley Walker follows Circuit des Yeux, with full band behind him. Still reflective, though due to faster tempos he comes off as less dramatic than the other two acts of the evening. Walker's catalog ranges form bouncy folk to straight up traditional jazz numbers, all showcasing his fingerpicking and songwriting skills. It is subtle material, but tantalising and dream-like enough to dovetail nicely with droning hymns of the acts bookending him.

Approximately 15 players assemble on stage for Wrekmeister Harmonies' Then It All Came Down. A string section, vocalists, harmonium, drums, guitar, bass and an electronics section, J.R. Robinson at the helm as all sound check, chaotically. There is a rather beautiful transition from the frenzied sound check, to brief silence, to the ethereal opening of Then It All Came Down with Walker on acoustic guitar and angelic voices laying atop. Inspired by Capote's interview of Bobby Beausoleil, the 40-minute piece travels from lightness to dark, beauty to violence. The crowd follows the players on this journey, with moods changing along the way from a meditative blissed-out state at the droning onset to head bobbling at the brutal doom in the piece's conclusion. As perfectly otherworldly and airy as the first half of the piece sounds, the heavy guitar/bass/drums section comes off as absolutely crushing inside the massive dome.  

The performance sticks very close the LP, quite a feat considering the number and mercurial nature of Wrekmeister's lineup. Robinson is found alternating from conductor, to vocalist with shrieking howls, to guitar, back to conductor. He does a praiseworthy job with this project (cracking his way into tQ's top 100 albums of 2014), not only in writing but also in culling particularly talented musicians for both studio and live manifestations. Even more, he is mastering the art of curating events to be something beyond the traditional rock venue, something as pleasing to see as they are to hear, something to experience.