Everything Johnny Jewel does has a cinematic quality to it.
The lush, dramatic atmospherics of Chromatics. The theatrical art design of the work released on his record label, Italians Do It Better. His numerous soundtrack credits and movie scores. Actually guest starring in David Lynch's Twin Peaks: The Return. His music and his life itself make for one damn interesting film.
Jewel and his Chromatics bandmates (vocalist/guitarist Ruth Radalet and Minneapolis natives Adam Miller on guitar and Nat Walker on drums) pulled back the curtain at First Avenue on Thursday night with a riveting 80-minute set that evoked driving down a curvy road at midnight with just the full moon guiding your way.
Two digital screen towers flanked the band, as did a large screen that served as a backdrop. A steady stream of lyrics and vibrant images filled the screens, adding to the show’s theatrical aspect. Even the flickering blood-red lights of the custom merch stand called to mind the ominous gloom of the Bang Bang Bar from Twin Peaks. It's like we were all extras for electropop night at the Roadhouse.
The band's sound was dialed in all night, with Jewel (who alternated between bass and various synths throughout the set), Miller, and Walker kicking things off with their Drive soundtrack contribution "Tick of the Clock," which featured a digital clock rapidly counting up and down, adding urgency to the beats. Radalet then made her grand entrance, leading the group through a sultry, intoxicating version of "Lady."
"Kill for Love" ignited the set, with Radalet and Miller's guitars complementing the towering beats that Walker and Jewel were conjuring. It was tender, moody, elegant, and mildly threatening, as all good Chromatics songs are. In addition to Adam and Nat (who are brothers as well as bandmates) returning back home, Jewel was set to celebrate his birthday at midnight, adding to the already special nature of Chromatics first Minneapolis show in seven long years.
Chromatics music stylishly captures the sound of someone with a terrible secret to hide—if they ever dare tell you it will only be in a faint whisper and it will haunt you for the rest of your days. Chromatics songs are a love story, horror flick, art house film, and Hollywood blockbuster all rolled in to one. Their world is a broken paradise they have created to make our scars and bruises worth the pain.
Instead of the stage filling with smoke as "Time Rider" built to a stately close, the screens themselves filled with billowing smoke clouds, adding a modern flourish to the set while matching the moodiness of the track. Miller took over lead vocals on "These Streets Will Never Look the Same," which took on an added significance because of his history with the city. The track's insistent Krautrock beat swelled as Miller sang, "Spent my life inside this room/And disappeared some more each day." It was a touching, vulnerable moment on a night that clearly wasn't just a normal tour stop for the band. Miller and Walker even had tables filled with proud family members in a VIP section upstairs.
The lyrics that rapidly flashed up on the screen throughout the show were in a font that recalled Nike's "Just Do It" campaign, injecting the lyrics with an encouraging, determined air even if they were focused on loneliness and searching for answers. "Blue Girl" echoed the disco decadence of Studio 54 from the vantage point of a desolate woman leaving the messy club after last call looking for a ride home, long after the drugs and champagne have worn off.
"I Want Your Love" arrived toward the end of the main set, and called back to the lengths a young lover would be willing to go for their partner illuminated in "Kill for Love." The subject of "I Want Your Love" sounded lost and alone, as if some distance had come between the two lovers. They longed for the passionate early days of their relationship, despite having doubts if they were worth the trouble.
"Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" ended the main set ominously, with the band giving a nod to a musical influence their electronic-drenched sounds don't readily bring to mind. That affectionate ode continued into the encore, with Radalet returning to the stage by herself for a stunning rendition of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" as a series of flickering candles lit up the screen behind her. It was a magical moment.
The band then joined her, with Miller affectionately addressing the crowd while repping his and his brother's time at Minneapolis South High School and Perpich Center for the Arts. "It's pretty fucking cool playing First Ave,” he said. “When I first started going to shows, this place was a doorway to a new reality, a different reality. And it is a pleasure to be able to play here. Thank you to First Avenue."
The disorienting floors of the Red Room from Twin Peaks flashed on the screen during "Shadow," then a trio of ballerinas of the apocalypse illuminated the screen as the band eased into their final song of the night. The dancers were stretching on the barre with the smoldering ashes of humanity hidden behind layers of smoke. This menacing backdrop, with stormy images of lightning strikes, added to the intensity of the band’s final song, a pulsating take on Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill."
As the band left the stage, the backdrop featured end credits for the evening. "Double Exposure" directed by Johnny Jewel, with Ruth Radelet as "Lady," Adam Miller as "Gemini," and Nat Walker as "Nitty." One last reminder that the whole evening was a cinematic experience with Johnny Jewel as our faithful creative guide.
Tick of the Clock
Kill for Love
Back From The Grave
I Can Never Be Myself When You're Around
These Streets Will Never Look The Same
I Want Your Love
Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) (Neil Young cover)
I'm on Fire (Bruce Springsteen cover)
Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) (Kate Bush cover)