Sarah Neufeld & Eartheater played Virgin Hotel
by William Lennon
Chicago took a weird and wonderful ride at the Virgin Hotel on Thursday night with help from tourmates Eartheater and Sarah Neufeld.
When Eartheater, AKA Alexandra Drewchin, took the stage, some of those less familiar with the Guardian Alien member’s work seemed initially put off. (“Now’s your chance to come a little closer…” she offered between songs, trying to draw the audience in. “I’m not scary.”) But within ten minutes, Drewchin’s spell took effect and she was in full command of the room, swinging the neck of her guitar like a dowsing rod. Drewchin used loops and samples to create an overwhelming but enticing world. Sometimes, the music felt like something stirring in a primordial lobe of your brain, old and angry and evolving between your ears. Sometimes it felt like a pattern repeatedly reorganizing itself and dissolving back into chaos, oscillating back and forth between music and noise. A few times the set even seemed to operate on horror movie logic, complete with jump scares, and near the end Drewchin used a voice modulator that made her sound like some sort of Miltonian demon.
The strange mood left behind by the Eartheater set was sticky. It hung around after the music stopped and was still present as Sarah Neufeld took the stage. Neufeld is somewhat better known than her opening act due to her membership in Arcade Fire, but it’s safe to assume that many in the audience were unsure of what her set would actually sound like. After all, Neufeld plays the violin, an instrument associated with classical music, but is also a decorated member of one of the most popular rock bands of the past decade. Those who hadn’t heard her solo work before the show couldn’t be sure which side of herself Neufeld would embrace-the composer or the rock star? Any doubt ended though when Neufeld walked on stage and played what can only be described as the violin-equivalent of Van Halen’s Eruption. It slowly dawned on the transfixed audience that they’d been trying to attach a sticky note to a hurricane.
Neufeld sang on a few of the songs she performed, but her vocals (like the drums which joined in near the start of the set) were merely there to prop up the main attraction, the shifting and overlapping textures of her violin. One of the coolest moments of the night came during a song called The Glow, when Neufeld discarded her bow and plucked the strings of her instrument to make it sound like some sort of pygmy harp.
“Violin gets easier when you drink whiskey.” Neufeld informed the crowd as she stepped aside between songs for a sip, proving herself as charismatic as she was talented.
Watching Neufeld perform is a thrill. By turns the music seems to enrapture, energize and physically drain her as she plays. The rest of the set flew by in what felt like minutes, leaving the loudly cheering audience thrilled.