At Grapetooth’s Saturday set at The Chapel, there was an air of cultivated bravado that carried throughout the evening. Made up of Chris Bailoni and Twin Peaks’ Clay Frankel, the duo is relatively new to the scene, having only been active since 2015. With only one album under their belt, the two gave it their all with a sense of somewhat misplaced confidence for a show that was relatively fun but more than a little redundant.
The headlining group was preceded by sets by James Swanberg, who graced the stage in a 1950s-boy-band suit, and Los Angeles-based trio Ian Sweet; both openers gave serviceable performances to warm up the patchy crowd. Grapetooth then took the stage in near darkness, with a marquee written in the duo’s signature swirly scrawl announcing its arrival. These dramatics would be short-lived, however, and mismatched the tone of the following setlist.
Decked out in thick, dark wraparound sunglasses, a nondescript flannel and hair askew, guitarist-vocalist Frankel started the evening solo at the front of the stage armed with a harmonica, the only appearance of the anomalous instrument in Grapetooth’s regular guitar-synth-drums setup. This off-kilter Bob Dylan cosplay kicked off what would be a relatively upbeat set buoyed by the band’s bravado and an impassioned crowd of fans (many of whom repeatedly yelled out, “These guys are CRAZY,” even when this wasn’t quite true).
Over the course of the evening, the group cycled through most of the tracks from its self-titled release. The album came out last year and has been slowly leeching its way into the indie scene through a well-cultivated following in the group’s hometown of Chicago. The synth-heavy, near-New Order ripoff “Violent” was performed early, stirring up the crowd with its repeated lyrics of “Are you? / Are you violent?” and “How violent are you? / How violent are you? / How violent are you?” Though incredibly repetitive, like many of the group’s songs, the soaring synth and generally bouncy percussion got the crowd going, helped by the fact that it is one of Grapetooth’s most recognizable songs. The buildup of energy in the cyclical lyrics and melodies made for a danceable tune, though this ebullient energy would ebb and flow irregularly throughout the rest of the set.
Most of the group’s songs are in line with that synth-heavy and up-tempo track. Another of its well-known tracks, “Trouble,” continued in this vein, amped up with shouted lyrics from Frankel and Bailoni. The slowed-down “Mile After Mile,” with its similarly repetitive entreaties of “Was it worth my while? / Was it worth your smile? / Mile after mile / Mile after mile,” essentially landed flat. The group’s tendency toward the danceable was its strength, though even this leaned into excessiveness with the somewhat bro-y crowd.
James Swanberg and Ian Sweet’s Jilian Medford joined the group for “Imagine On,” providing some fun backing vocals along with some hastily choreographed dance moves. The piano-led tune is sprinkled with light synthy riffs, and it made for one of the best songs of the night: not too repetitive nor too forced in its genuinely fun feeling.
Though the band is technically the duo of Frankel and Bailoni, they were joined onstage by a drummer who provided a much-needed anchor to the show, serving as a consistent driving force to the more wily energy of the duo. Frankel was undeniably the most charismatic of the trio onstage, or at least made the most effort, wriggling around with his guitar and evoking some version of a charismatic leading man for the majority of the set. Bailoni emerged from behind his synth setup every once in a while to amp up the crowd, looking the part of a hype man in his puffy tracksuit.
A tipoff to the energy of Grapetooth’s set may be found in the fact that the two describe themselves as “reckless” and “raucous” — a self-declaration that may not have been fully met in this particular performance. There is something to be said for the group’s confidence and bravado, which made for an entertaining evening, but the group still has a way to go before achieving the full new-wave rocker fantasy it seems to have envisioned for itself.
Contact Camryn Bell at [email protected].