By Molly Lubbers
9 Nov, 2019
Rarely have I been to a show that achieved the level of cohesion yet individuality than Harley Poe at the Beat Kitchen on Nov. 9. The line-up was perfectly matched. They had a common thread of folk elements, yet there was still a twist to that genre as each band took the stage.
The show opened up with Billy Liar, a one-man band that captivated the audience with moments of somber melancholy and constrained rage. At the beginning of his set, I felt myself take a breath I couldn’t let out until the end. His voice reached an ethereal lightness, with the crowd floating up with it; later, the grit in it would ground us again. I can actually say he achieved a howl, something that many singers try and fail at. His music stayed lodged in my chest as I waited for the next act to begin.
After the show, I caught up with him about his new album and musical journey; you can read more here.
Next was The Homeless Gospel Choir, whose singer Derek Zanetti said almost every time before they played, “This is a protest song.” Together, the band created a wall of punk-rock sound that felt good to hit full-on. An undercurrent of folk simmered underneath, but the way they played was all punk. The members threw themselves into the music; one guitarist’s hair almost never stopped covering his eyes, while another curled her body around her instrument. Meanwhile, the drummer drove his sticks down with abandon, and the bassist leaned back, as if she was being enveloped into the music. Their utter earnest shined through. But what was most notable was THGC’s engagement with the crowd. Zanetti paused between songs to talk about politics, the punk community, or personal experiences; his varied expressions brought laughter and smiles; he even ended the show by going into the crowd to mosh along with people.
To read about Zanetti’s outlook on THGC and more, click here.
After THGC finished, the euphoria of the show coursed through me, and I started to prepare for the headliner. As I did, I chatted with a woman beside me who had a Harley Poe tattoo. She wasn’t the only one in the room anxiously waiting for their set to begin. Though I’d seen pictures, as red lights shined on the band, I was again startled.
When I imagined “Harley Poe” on my first listen, I didn’t envision people, but flashes of creatures — flesh dribbling down half-melted candles of bodies, long claws extended past fur. Their music is sometimes characterized as “horror punk” or “murder folk,” and their songs mix morbid lyrics with an upbeat, half-wild sound.
It was only as they walked on stage that it confronted me: humans were behind this music. Rather than creatures, they seemed unassuming, all in different black t-shirts. That changed as soon as they began playing.
With all the energy and theatricality of a good horror movie poster, a burst of fast, charged folk music electrified the crowd. Their demeanor was loose — not necessarily casual, but comfortable with playing. Singer and guitarist Joe Whiteford was at center stage, grinding out character voices; at one moment, he had a tinny, high-pitched squeak, and at another, a low register drenched in darkness. Beside him, an upright bassist swayed with his instrument and plucked out a backbone to the songs; a washboard player on the other side punctuated the rhythm with scritch-scratches and taps.
It’s maybe bizarre to see folk instruments combined with horror-movie-esque words, but Harley Poe mastered it. Their show was effective not just because their music was about monsters, but because they evoked the feelings of horror. During “Ima Killer,” Whiteford repeatedly whispered “Ima killer” and the crowd responded, “Everything’s gonna be alright.” It built up and up until he punched out the letters “K-I-L-L-E-R” and the song ended abruptly. With this structure, it emulated the suspense of seeing a murderer approach.
Harley Poe also captured those feelings of terror by oscillating between playing fast and frantic to slow and deliberate. No matter the speed, their technique remained highly skilled. Because of that, their playing styles lent themselves to the different songs’ moods.
During “I. Don’t. Care.,” it felt like everyone in the crowd was ricocheting up a rollercoaster, with only the G-Force to hold us in our place. The washboard player began bouncing up and down, while the bassist seemed lost to his instrument, closing his eyes and head-banging. It made my skin feel tight not to move along with the band, and by the increase of moshing, that sentiment rolled through the audience. It even paralleled a trope of horror: a mass panic caused by the encroachment of a monster.
But their set was powerful because it didn’t simply rely on just that type of song. In fact, the contrast of “The Hearse Song” — a crowd favorite judging by the number of people who knew the lyrics — provided a heavy pause that forced a new sense of attention. By lingering on each strum, Harley Poe emphasized grotesque imagery of what happens to a body after death. The pointed words, “The worms crawl in/the worms crawl out,” hit the crowd like a wave of nausea, coupled with a release of throwing up.
There was an inherent charm of the band and the audience taking pleasure from the gross, the weird and the ugly. That’s what made the experience memorable — during the whole show, it was a crowd of people who were willing to be vulnerable or strange with one another. As my first show in the Chicago scene, I was not disappointed.