Jenny Toomey at Schubas, Chicago, 10/16/01
It was a regular independent music hoedown inside Schubas music room Tuesday night, as Jenny Toomey brought her solo act to Chicago, building out from her indie rock roots with a backing band that showcased not only Toomey’s trademark voice, wit and lyrics, but the challenging interaction of keys, cello, bass, violin, and even some castinets.
Throughout the 1990s, Toomey played and sang in great bands like Tsunami, Grenadine, and Liquorice. If that wasn’t enough, she was also the creative force behind Simple Machines Records, which functioned both as a source for amazing music by such groups as Rodan, Autoclave, and Lungfish, as well as an incubator/how-to manual for anyone wishing to put out records and generally give the Record Biz the big kiss-off. Toomey and Simple Machines partner Kristin Thomson’s 24-page record-making guidebook is at least as legendary as their label’s stellar music releases. And Toomey’s literate punk rock approach to the DIY aesthetic only grew. After A Brilliant Mistake, Tsunami’s 1997 swan song, the rocker and Georgetown grad formed the Future of Music Coalition, a group dedicated to artists’ rights in the brave new world of digital music and even bigger Big Business.
Toomey returns in 2001 with Antidote (Misra), an ambitious double-disc set that offsets the traditional tools of rock with instrumentation like vibes and strings. One thing that hasn’t changed throughout her career though is Jenny Toomey’s self-confident, sardonic, and extremely straightforward view of all things love and life. And Tuesday night in Chicago, those sensibilities were in full-effect, fronting her crack backing band. With Franklin Bruno on keys, Amy Domingues doubling up on cello and electric bass, Jean Cook’s violin existing as fiery monster or sidling accompaniment (sometimes both at once), and Jay Tobey’s understated, genre-bending percussion, Toomey’s new material came off as a potent mixture of moods, and a brightly-toned illustration of just how far independent music has come since the days of Simple Machines’ first few 7″ recordings.
Recorded in both Nashville and Chicago, Antidote‘s songs give Toomey an opportunity to furthur showcase her wonderful pipes, while still putting forth plenty of observation into not only love and relationships, but just what the hell we’re all supposed to be doing here. Touches of her more rocking past surfaced here and there Tuesday, but it was the deeper material that gave she and her band a real opportunity to show off their chops. With Cook’s violin meshing with both the keyboards and the bass, Toomey was content to fill in with her guitar while really relishing her vocals. An appearance by Chicago’s own Edith Frost (also a collaborator on the record) on backing vocals was a real treat, as was The Coctails’ Marc Greenberg sitting for Bruno at the ivories for a few songs. And Domingues might have stolen the show with her cello, playing deliberate lines that followed the ebb and flow of Toomey’s fiery/funny/sad/jazzy vocal delivery.
Mixing instruments not necessarily in concert with one another is nothing new. But sometimes it can seem like a cliché, like in the context of an artist’s first solo work, and especially if that album is a two-disc affair. But Antidote is quite the opposite. Toomey recorded much of the Nashville material with members of Lamchop, that city’s fine collective of musicians that have been melding soul, country, bluegrass, and rock together for over ten years. And she also collaborated with Calexico, another group that has made great music with their stylish cocktail of southwestern and country/western influences. At Schubas’ on Tuesday night, it was actually the more instrumentally diverse material that had the most resonance, which would have silenced any blowhards in the crowd, had they shown up to, say, heckle the band featuring funny instruments. So at the end of the show, when Toomey told a funny story about buying a pair of antique castinets in a junk store, and Domingues produced the very items from her bag of tricks, strapping them to her fingers and taking position with her hands by the mic, no one thought anything was out of the ordinary. And then Jenny Toomey and her band performed a wonderful Spanish-tinged number from Antidote, castinets and all, and it rocked just as much as any rock band would.
Artists have the right to create whatever music they want. And when it happens to be really amazing, that’s even better.