The Ponys at the Double Door
Chicago, April 29, 2005
The Ponys emerged from the whirlwind of the past year with a new lineup, a new album, and a new direction (sort of) to headline the Double Door for their record release show for their latest, Celebration Castle (In The Red). This time around The Ponys were a leaner and meaner group than in the past. While supporting their first long player, Laced With Romance, which was all over the map in styles and genres but still centered with energy and possibilities, their live shows were an experience to behold with swerving garage rock chords balanced out with Farfisa swirls accompanied by a rhythm section with echoes of new wave and a punch of Bowery punk along with an Anglo element to round off the rough edges.
Last year’s record release at Empty Bottle seemed to be some kind of Chicago bohemian underground happening. It made me imagine what it would have been like to catch a night at CBGB’s at the height of the Bowery explosion. There was something palpable in the air, like anything could happen. The room was completely electric. It was one of those perfect storm situations – great crowd, great bands on the lineup, just enough intoxication, just enough excitement. And at the center of it all was The Ponys proving their worth, owning the room, and taking on the weight of the “next big thing” from the Chicago scene. Walking out of the show I felt anything was possible for The Ponys – Chicago’s newest favorite little band that could.
A lot has changed for The Ponys over the past year: they got caught in a mild swell of critical praise and a growing fan base, sold about 10,000 albums, tours took them across the US and Europe, they lost a key element of their sound and stage show with guitarist-keyboardist Ian Adams. They replaced him with ex-90 Day Men guitarist Brian Case. With a slightly refined sound they were poised to take the stage to debut their new album, new line up, and new future.
With so much that’s happened to them over the past year, a lesser group could have cracked under the pressure and retreated, but they’ve been able to soldier on, throw together a new album with the help of Steve Albini, and plan another tour. Not too shabby. And with the record release show The Ponys pulled off a decent show and still carry the promise of a band with a bright future. Exuberant as always, they still showed the weight of all those changes.
This year The Ponys still held the Double Door crowd in the palm of their hands. But there was a little less electricity about the event this time around. The new lineup is capable and entertaining, but the energy and flexibility that Ian Adams brought to the band was sorely missing. Leaning less on their past anglophile-meets-garage-rock sound, they played a more straight ahead ragged new wave set, echoing influences by the likes of Television, Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen, and the Cure. Though not very original, it came across as familiar and enjoyable. Singer-guitarist Jared Gummere yapped out lyrics with his signature gravely bark among a backdrop of non-stop wall of guitar noise and able rhythm section including highlights from the new album “Glass Conversation”, “Shot The World,” “Discoteca,” and from the previous release “Chemical Imbalance.” But the spotlight was stolen by bassist Melissa Elisa when she yelped out “She’s Broken” toward the end of the set, completely winning over the crowd.
The evening was a snapshot of a band in transition. One that finds their sound and stage show changing, not necessarily by choice but out of necessity. One that showcased a band struggling with its new found limitations but still finding a way to pull it off. If that night was any proof, The Ponys still have a future filled with promise, although this time around they’ll have to carry the burden and expectations of being a veteran act and somehow find that magic element that made them so unique the first time around.
Are they as good live as they once were? It may be too early to tell for sure, but I doubt it. They’ll have to pull some tricks out of their hat not to become another footnote in the Trouser Press guide. [Not that there’s anything wrong with that – ed.] Though, if there’s one band that can pull this off, it’s The Ponys. After all, a few years back after The Ponys’ second ever show (then as a three piece) I settled in at the bar to share a few beers with Melissa and she asked me what I honestly thought of the show, to which I could only reply, “Three chords and a haircut, that’s all you guys are. I just don’t see it going anywhere.” Man, was I way off on that one! They’ve proved me wrong, and I’m sure they’ll do it again. They’re still one of the best things the Chicago music scene has going for itself.