Let me tell you about a recurring dream I have. I’m in college again, and I’ve walked into a final exam 15 minutes late. The exam hall is full, and as I belatedly look for a seat, each step I take echoes into the university’s ornate and stuffy ceiling. Every other test-taker looks up from the exam to admonish me. For a moment, I thought I was living this dream as I stepped into University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel for the Godspeed You! Black Emperor show.
Due to a mix-up, I was late. At any other concert, you might gently nudge your way between the crowd, edging to the front, hoping to not have cheap beer spilled on you. Here, the 17-and above crowd was seated in pews, giving their entire attention to the band’s hymn-like songs. The 108-year old stone chapel was a perfect setting for the percussion-heavy music of openers Xylouris White, as if I’d accidentally stepped into a church service rather than a concert. Some people even hunched over the pews with their hands crossed, muscle-memory from last Christmas or maybe Easter. I walked down the darkened aisle toward the photographer pit, fully expecting to be hushed by one of the hundreds of concert-goers for interrupting the sermon. The Greek/Aussie duo, who played only a lute and drums, made full use of the chapel’s acoustics, punctuating softer moments with loud drum beats. (Sidenote: check out this amazing picture of them and a dog.) Once the set wrapped, the band members simply put on their coats and gave a small thank-you wave to the audience, and humbly stepped off the chancel.
As I waited for Godspeed You! Black Emperor, I made small talk with a chatty but surly photographer from a major paper, who, rolling his eyes, confided in me, “I’ve never wished for a homicide so bad in my life.” A staff photographer for 30 years, he lamented the poor lighting in the chapel and continually checked his phone to see if he was needed to photograph a crime scene. “They never use the ones of dead bodies, just the same old shell casing photos,” he informed me in a heavy Chicago accent.
While it may not have been perfect lighting for photography, the sound was incredible. Once the band stepped onstage, they sat in a circle, facing each other rather than the audience, to play their lengthy set, which included last year’s Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress in its entirety. I’ve never really wanted to be in a band, but if I did, it would be GY!BE. At certain moments, band members would sit on the ground cross-legged or lean on a chair, sipping on water with a friendly smile. For such an intricate set-up, they seemed incredibly relaxed. Only violinist Sophie Trudeau took a few steps across the chancel as she played, with the rest of the band remaining stationary for the majority of the performance. The group’s trademark background-projection took up most of the space on stage, providing a shifting collage of scribbles, floral scene photography, and the stark scrawled letters of the word “Hope” to accompany their wordless compositions. And there were no audience members attempting to grab a cell-phone video or an Instagram shot; either the University of Chicago really is the most polite audience ever, or the Rockefeller Chapel staff did a great job of making sure that no one’s view was obstructed.
And fortunately, Chicago was able to postpone the homicides long enough so that my new friend could capture photos.