Cap'n Jazz's Tim Kinsella Credit: Alison Green

Near the end of Cap’n Jazz’s riotous Riot Fest performance, frontman Tim Kinsella snuck a glance at the massive video board above the stage to glimpse a supersized black-and-white version of himself. Covered in sweat, his shirt half ripped off, he was holding a tambourine aloft in one hand and a microphone in the other while crowd surfing. “I need to find a real job,” he cracked. Then he offered a dismissive rebuttal: “Pfft.

To see Cap’n Jazz’s two reunion shows over the weekend—a midnight Riot Fest after show at the Bottom Lounge on Friday and a Sunday matinee on the festival grounds in Douglas Park—was to witness both a breathtakingly entertaining nostalgia act in the return of the short-lived but influential early 90s indie band and a mini-psychodrama play out for the 42-year-old Kinsella.

Kinsella long ago graduated from the kinds of shows Cap’n Jazz flourished in before they broke up in 1995—inelegant underground rock played in cramped DIY spaces or dank basements. These days he’s an author, a lecturer, an avant-garde artist, as well as an elder statesman of the Chicago art-rock scene who continues to put out albums with his idiosyncratic post-rock passion project Joan of Arc. In 2017, he’s just as likely to perform in theaters or a museum as some hole-in-the-wall dive bar. That’s why I expected a bit more of a mellow and mellifluous version of Kinsella and Cap’n Jazz this weekend.

Tim Kinsella crowd surfing
Tim Kinsella crowd surfingCredit: Alison Green

Instead the band channeled a ragged, aggressive, basement-dwelling past. Original guitarist Davey Von Bohlen opted to sit out the reunion and was replaced by Nate Kinsella, the cousin of Tim Kinsella and Cap’n Jazz drummer Mike Kinsella. The three Kinsellas plus guitarist Victor Villarreal and bassist Sam Zurich dusted off a host of punchy two-minute songs from their posthumous 1998 “greatest hits” album Analphabetapolothology.

All five members were energetic, but it was hard not to keep your eyes fixed on Tim Kinsella for the extent of both shows. At Friday’s performance at the Bottom Lounge, he managed to summon some inner spastic demon. He manically stomped and stumbled around the stage while belting out the ever-discursive lyrics of “Planet Shhh”: “Halo my little hoola hoop hug/ Squeeze to warm and ribs stab my heart.” He screeched out non sequiturs such as “I’m dying to tell you I’m dying” from “Yes, I Am Talking To You” while twisting a mike stand into his own shirt or flailing around on the floor. Blink and you’d miss Kinsella leaning back to blare a French horn, or slingshotting into the audience to sing while surfing on a sea of hands, or flinging his tambourine into the audience only to ask it be returned: “I need that tambourine back. It cost me $25.”

Tim Kinsella blowing into a French horn
Tim Kinsella blowing into a French hornCredit: Alison Green

Kinsella engaged in similar antics during Cap’n Jazz’s 50-minute Riot Fest set—including a hilarious cover of the 80s classic “Take On Me,” in which he improvised lyrics about how he, not A-Ha, had actually written the song. But as the show wore on, he kept breaking character and letting on that this whole thing was fucking weird (“I don’t know how all of this works,” he bantered. “We were a band and then we weren’t”).

After a bout of crowd surfing, Kinsella shrugged and smirked while climbing back on stage. He later launched into a vague monologue about aging (“You know how it is, you’re at Riot Fest too—you’re old”) that he cut off mid-sentence with another raucous song. It’s unclear if performing weird, personal 23-year-old songs to thousands of people at a large music festival was prompting a minor onstage midlife crisis or if the self-reflection was just a work of impish performance art by Kinsella. Either way the whole set was so raw, powerful, and fun, it made you wish that Kinsella never finds that “real job.”

Victor Villarreal
Victor VillarrealCredit: Alison Green