Highly Suspect at Pabst Theater

By Finn Hewes

6 Nov, 2019

I skidded and slid through the snow flurries blurring the interstate between Evanston and Milwaukee, sipping on some cheap ass McDick’s iced coffee. I’d seen Highly Suspect before, but have been absolutely fiending to see Slothrust, the openers, for years — at least 5 years — since I stumbled across their 2013 album Of Course You Do.

Taking in the beautiful ornate moldings of the Pabst Theater, and noting the weirdly small standing room area near the front of the stage (which held about twenty-five 30-somethings, mulling about in anticipation). The rest was seated. Kind of weird, but I’ve seen weirder for sure. Anyways, beautiful. 

And then it was on. Slothrust (pronounced “sloth – rust,” not “slow – thrust”) took the stage and lit into it. The Boston-based garage/grunge trio was fronted by Leah Wellbaum, who sported a goddamned chain wallet and made it look good. She was the epitome of a badass female rocker, giving a performance that oscillated between reserved, calculated motions reminiscent of the infamous Happy Hands Club scene from Napoleon Dynamite and a boot-stomping, shit-kicking throwdown. I think her foot cleared her head not one but seven times, and she made it look easy. All that being said, the guitar didn’t seem to have as much bite as their studio work and felt almost drowned out at times underneath the black tar basslines and thumpy kick drums. Her voice was great: confrontational at times, conversational at others. 

They played some songs from their latest EP release, Peach, before throwing on a deep cut, with “Beowulf”. This was what I came for. Heavy as a mac truck with moments of levity and innocence expertly woven in, along with Leah’s unique cantor and delivery, WOOF! Too damn good. Other notable songs from their set included their 2017 cover of “Sex and Candy,” 2016’s “Pigpen” and “Horseshoe Crab” (in C#???), 2018’s “Planetarium,” and then back to 2013’s “Crockpot” to close her on out. As a band, they play these basic chord progressions over really weird, challenging, up and down tempos without missing a beat. It’s quite nice indeed. I will say that some of the breakdowns felt a touch rushed. I feel like they could have benefitted from just a bit more breathing room, but that’s just me.

After a brief intermission and set change, Highly Suspect took the stage to ravenous applause. The show, or production rather, was a lot more elaborate than the show I caught two years ago at House of Blues in Chicago. They brought out what looked like tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of lighting equipment. They had elevated their already commanding stage presence to a level that signified to me that they were ready for large arena shows. Their sound has evolved too. They’ve kept the grit, the punch, the passion and have polished it up with increased production value, fuller trust in their synth game, and more electronic elements in general have been incorporated.

Their set list was interesting, fluctuating between old favorites and new songs. And that’s all that I can call those — new songs. Everyone I spoke to in the crowd that night voiced the same hesitations about the new album. MCID, which stands for “My Crew is Dope” (gag), marks a definitive shift in the band’s trajectory. The 16-track album includes features from Young Thug, Tee Grizzley, Gojira, and Nothing but Thieves. Personally, I dislike it. It feels too produced, a bit scatter-brained, and overall disorganized. Bordering on sellout territory. Not the Highly Suspect I knew and loved. But it definitely makes a statement — the group hasn’t stagnated. They’re expanding and expounding upon their sound, collaborating with other artists in the industry and outside of their genre, and still writing deeply emotional and personal lyrics. Many of the audience members knew every word, just five days after the album drop, which is impressive in its own right. The band has definitely amassed a large, dedicated following. I wasn’t the only one seeing them for a third or even fourth or fifth time, and that’s all that I’ll say on that note.

Their set list included oldies, like “Bath Salts,” “Bloodfeather,” “Lost,” “Round and Round” (a sensual, oozy-bluesy slow jam), and “Seratonia”. Of course, they dipped into MCID, playing “These Days,” “Arizona” (my favorite new track by far), and “Upperdrugs” (the song that inspired like half of their new merch… gratuitous? Who’s to say…). All said, it was a great show by two amazing bands to keep an eye on. Goodnight Milwaukee.