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April 13, 2010

If it's too loud, you're too old

The Smith Westerns are four kids from Chicago who have memorized every page in the glam and garage rock playbooks. They swagger, they croon about “the kiss of love,” and they are really good.

But when I call them kids, I really do mean kids. Watching the Smith Westerns rock a quick set at Schubas’s on Saturday made me feel old. They seem more likely to win a high school battle of the bands competition than tour America (which they just finished doing) or Europe (where they’re headed in May).

Schubas is a small venue in the back of a bar, and the room on Saturday night was full but not packed, with a certain patient feeling in the air. Right as the band was slated to go on, an exit door next to the stage opened up and a bunch of teenagers walked in. They headed up the stairs to the stage and threw their instruments on. Then they just stood there. For a moment, I thought, “Where are the Smith Westerns, and who do I have to ask to get up there, too?” There were no whistles, no yelling, maybe a smattering of applause from the few who recognized them.

Then the next half-hour rollicked along very fast, never slowing down—a sign that the band wasn’t quite in control of the show, at least in my own short-lived experience of playing shows in a high school rock band. But the band rollicked, too, keeping time to the near-bursting tempo by bobbing along to the music. They were teeny-bopping.

They sort of looked it, too. Half of the band looks like a girlish, teenaged Keanu Reaves, and the other two come straight out of the 70s: The long-haired, mustachioed drummer wore a sleeveless shirt like he was trying to bring Lynyrd Skynyrd back in style, and the guitarist looked just like Jerry Harrison from early Talking Heads footage. Together, the more or less 19-year-olds looked something like the younger brothers of my friends from middle school who you’d never noticed before, but now that they’re in high school (let’s say Ridgemont High), they’re Spicoli: pretty-boy wastoids.

You kind of feel proud watching the Dubs, as they call themselves, even if it brings you back to the first time you realized you were older than a celebrity. (For me, it was finding out JoJo is a year younger than I am.) It’s weird, for sure; you almost get the sense they’ll mean a lot more to people a lot younger than you. They were having a lot of fun, emitting exuberance like first-graders playing tag, but with more self-consciousness.

But if watching the band felt like amateur hour, hearing them play was a totally different story. The Smith Westerns keep all their songs fast, tight, and always about girls. The songs are simple but never stale. Watching them hit their notes is as fun as it is impressive: They can make any sound you hear in a David Bowie or T. Rex record, except they sound like they’re having more fun doing it. They belong on the stage, but I almost wanted to get up there and dance.

The band is playing the Pitchfork festival this year. And with so much unadulterated talent (pun by all means intended), they could be the real deal—with the proper training, that is, so I suggest an internship. And after the apprenticeship with the right band—I’m talking the Stones or the Strokes—the Dubs can make it to main stage.

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