Cheer-Accident have just released their 20th album, Chicago XX, whose cover pays terry-cloth tribute to the band once known as the Chicago Transit Authority. In terrible times, it’s important to treasure reassuring things, including brilliant but underappreciated local musicians who just don’t give up. Founded in 1981, this constantly mutating nexus of straight-faced but smart-assed prog rock and distressing multimedia weirdness first played a live show in 1987, and they’re celebrating the release of their latest album 32 years later, with a headlining set at Martyrs’ on Saturday, August 17.
Cheer-Accident, Bobby Conn, Akosuen
Sat 8/17, 9 PM, Martyrs’, 3855 N. Lincoln, $15, 21+
Over the decades Cheer-Accident have perfected an organic dadaism that makes them kin to the Residents, say, or Henry Cow, or Canada’s Nihilist Spasm Band. They’ve always brought heart to their playfulness, and their free-range eclecticism is warm and welcoming—they’re a highly intelligent band but never spill over into off-putting cerebral iciness. This might be because of their flair for hook and melody, or because of their fundamental puckishness, which is never mean-spirited—though it can certainly be confusing or exasperating.
At one late-90s Lounge Ax show, the band used a prerecorded tape to segue from their song “Small World” into a hellish multitracked version of the Disney tune “It’s a Small World (After All),” and during its interminable playback they simply left the stage and took seats at the bar. Another concert at the same venue ended with Jones surprising the night’s guest musicians (and the crowd) by mock-berating everyone with a ten-minute Buddy Rich rant he’d memorized. Cheer-Accident’s bassist for much of the 90s, former Flying Luttenbacher Dylan Posa, once spent at least that long during a Morseland set imitating a lawn sprinkler.
These bizarre, self-sabotaging jokes work, though, because Cheer-Accident back them up with skillful musical assemblage and careful attention to detail—not too many artists can make a chant of “life rings hollow” (on the Chicago XX song of the same name) sound so inspiring.
Cheer-Accident cofounder Thymme Jones, also a veteran of 90s weirdo-rock “supergroup” Brise-Glace, recollects the band’s beginnings as a sort of stream-of-consciousness recording project. Originally a loose collective of as many as nine players in Jones’s orbit, by 1987 Cheer-Accident had become a stable power trio, with guitarist Jeff Libersher (still in the band) and bassist Chris Block (long gone, though he’d also played with Jones in Dot Dot Dot earlier in the decade). Their public debut was at the defunct Igloo (which Jones says was actually quite hot) and featured a ten-minute version of “Filet of Nod,” which ends with a locked groove on their 1991 LP Dumb Ask—the written-out material lasts less than three minutes, but onstage Cheer-Accident play the locked groove for as long as they bloody well feel like. Rumors have propagated of a 24-hour version, but Jones insists that the longest they’ve actually gone on with it is eight hours outdoors and seven indoors.
Cheer-Accident were among the artists given the honor of playing one of Lounge Ax’s last few shows when that beloved Lincoln Park club was shuttered at the turn of the century, and they did it in style. They’re a band for the long haul.
Originally a noisy postpunk outfit with a bit of skronk (elements they’re perfectly capable of drawing on to this day), in the mid-90s Cheer-Accident turned to a much more melodic and mellifluous sound, producing some of the most strangely beautiful music—or just straight-up most beautiful music—to ever come out of the Chicago indie scene. The sudden death in 1999 of guitarist Phil Bonnet, who’d been playing with the band for nine years and a friend of theirs for even longer, nearly convinced them to hang it up. But their 2002 comeback, Introducing Lemon, with guitarist Jamie Fillmore joining the fold, was their strongest yet, even downright life-affirming—and their very next project was a sort of soundtrack album to a lovably scuzzy comic-book tale starring Gumballhead the Cat, in collaboration with artist and writer Rob Syers (which coincided with the launch of the eponymous beer from Three Floyds). Guitarist and drummer Todd Rittmann (of U.S. Maple and Dead Rider fame) and bassist Alex Perkolup (now in Lovely Little Girls) came aboard as Fillmore left, and lineup changes continued apace even during the gap in new Cheer-Accident albums that lasted from 2011 till 2017. Those years of gestation have paid off in the one-two-three punch of 2017’s Putting Off Death, 2018’s Fades, and the new Chicago XX—all masterpieces. Maturity has its benefits.
Cheer-Accident are also a multimedia empire. The cable-access show Cool Clown Ground, which airs at 10 PM on Sundays on CAN TV’s channel 19, is one of the band’s truly distinctive achievements. Launched in 1994 in collaboration with director Fred Kreuger (not that Freddy Krueger), it’s perfectly tailored to make late-night viewers think they’re much more stoned than they are. A mix of theater-of-the-absurd skits, call-in segments that prolong awkwardness and flat-affect aggression until they become beautiful, on-the-street interviews, and other outside-the-studio documentation of Chicagoland weirdness, Cool Clown Ground marked the point where Cheer-Accident’s devotion to their creative aesthetic started to become sincerely frightening.
One episode opens with a deadpan Jones standing on an empty set in a gray suit, steadily shaking a large green-and-red maraca for what feels like hours. He would often appear in character as Phrogclock, speaking in an odd, congested voice and wearing a thick mask of shaving cream that covered everything but his eyes and mouth. Once in the mid-aughts, my partner at the time called the show and put his cat on the phone, and Jones spoke to him—the cat—with the sad tenderness of a world-weary serial killer. It was a high point of our lives up to that moment.
Cheer-Accident were also responsible for one of the most surreal commercials to ever air during a White Sox game—a spot intended to promote their 1997 album Enduring the American Dream. A starkly underlit Libersher, filmed in tight close-up with a black-and-white Pixelvision camera, pleads with his alleged off-camera grandma to help him, using a sloppily slurred put-on voice that makes him sound as disturbing as he looks. “Help me,” he says, over and over. “I’m turning into a parrot.” Fade to black, display band name and album title . . . and then back to the baseball.
Since 2013, Cheer-Accident have maintained a monthly online subscription service that gives fans access to a new song every month. The current selection is “The Last Biscotti” (mastered by Rittmann), and it’s a delight: throbbing drums underline a dreamy blend of light operetta and art-folk, like something you’d imagine playing at a wholesome, sunny summer festival that’s going to end in human sacrifice. And then it really heads somewhere unexpected.
Cheer-Accident are also devoted to archiving and documentation. As the “Past Lives” video collection in the subscription area of their website promises, “None of this is ever going to go away. Every bit from every month will be available for revisiting for all of perpetuity. Happy Perpetuity Perusing!” A bold claim in an age of ephemerality, but I suspect they’ll make good on it, at least for as long as the biosphere holds up. If the Cheer-Accident archives end up one of the few things left to teach the next intelligent species about humans after we go extinct, it won’t exactly create a balanced impression. But it might just make them mourn us more than we deserve.
Despite the band’s healthy online presence, Chicago XX isn’t streaming anywhere, and it probably won’t be for a good long time. This is a deliberate choice by the band—as Jones puts it, “We are attempting to see what it’s like for music to not be free.” The only version they’re selling is vinyl, though it does come with a download code. Artists have learned (or relearned) that fans like to cherish an album as a physical object, and this is one you’ll be proud to hold in your grabby little hands—even if you have to strain your aging eyes to read the inspired liner-note ramble from Jones and Libersher about the band Chicago and why neither of them has given up on the trumpet.
The personnel on the recording include many past and present members, including singer Carmen Armillas, bassist Dante Kester, and multi-instrumentalist Amelie Morgan. The touring lineup consists of Jones, Libersher, and a three-piece horn section drawn from the band’s large pool of friends and collaborators: saxophonists Ross Feller and Cory Bengtsen and trombonist Mike Hagedorn. For the hometown show on Saturday, Cheer-Accident will as usual be joined by as many illustrious guests as they can manage.
Though you can’t listen to Chicago XX except by buying it, Cheer-Accident have so much other material available online that it’s easy to reflect on years gone by and catch up with old favorites. Jones tells me he was delighted by a comment from a fan at a recent show who insisted that the band combine Chicago with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It’s as accurate an elevator pitch as anything I could come up with, honestly, except that Cheer-Accident are far funnier than either. v