Chicago Bands Go 12 Rounds With Number One Cup

Record-release party features a dozen bands interpreting songs from art-pop group's new album.

CHICAGO -- Though the concert was set up to be staged like a pseudo boxing-match, Number One Cup's record-release party at Lounge Ax actually played more like a laid-back barbecue-shindig for Second City indie-rock.

As has become the tradition for Number One Cup album releases, the members of the indie art-pop band eschewed the spotlight at the show Friday.

Instead, 12 local bands took one song each from the Cup's forthcoming fourth album, People People Why Are We Fighting? (Flydaddy), to perform the songs in the order they are listed on the album.

Number One Cup played spectators throughout the evening.

The stage's boxing-ring motif came complete with ropes and a card girl, who held up signs to announce each group at the beginning of each "round."

But fans looking for a knock-down, drag-out battle of the bands were disappointed. The show -- with performances by local stalwarts Eleventh Dream Day, intellectual rockers Menthol, the atmospheric Ashtar Command and others -- was a laid-back, congratulatory gig, in which the featured bands saluted Number One Cup more by their simple participation than with inspired interpretations of the new album's tracks.

Eleventh Dream Day, locally hallowed underdogs of rock, landed the evening's rare savage blow, with their rip-roaring take on "3 Stars" (RealAudio excerpt of original version). Singer/guitarist Rick Rizzo cared enough not only to learn the words to the song (openers Califone proudly relied on a crib sheet) but also to deliver the words with such passion that it seemed he'd penned them himself. Behind him, Janet Beveridge Bean pounded the drums with more muscle (yet less finesse) than Number One Cup's Michael Lenzi musters.

Not that Number One Cup -- who planned the unusual release-party before guitarist/keyboardist Seth Cohen broke his neck while playing hockey Sept. 23, thus forestalling their scheduled tour -- gave the bands the easiest material with which to work.

The dozen tracks on People People Why Are We Fighting? feature intricately crafted work, employing a variety of distinctive guitar- and keyboard-textures and patterns that sometimes veer from traditional song structures. The recuperating Cohen, who wore a neck brace to the party, watched from the sidelines. He and the band plan to get back on the road in the coming months.

Hardly any of the bands at the release show rendered their NOC covers with much care, but few in the crowd seemed to mind.

"Everybody [onstage] are friends with Number One Cup," said occasional tape-collagist Aadam Jacobs, who opened the gig with a non-People People soundscape. "I'm very seldom musically creative, but this gives me the reason to do something."

During their take on "Vintage Male Singer" (RealAudio excerpt of original version), Menthol remained fairly true to the original version of the song, but they scuffed it up admirably. They came across as much-harder rockers than they do on their recent, self-titled album.

Other performances spanned the spectrum. The Dishes' reinvented-as-garage-rock "What Does It Mean?" was so sloppy that the song was barely recognizable. But Ashtar Command interpreted "Canada Disappears" as high art, miming with acoustic guitars to the song's keyboard tracks.

While an actual performance by Number One Cup may well have packed more punch, plenty of folks seemed pleased to check out band after band. Perhaps those listeners were content to know that if they didn't like the current artist, another act would start up soon.

"It's really relaxing to see all these bands do one set after another," said Thax Douglas, 40, of Chicago. "Plus, it's a brilliant idea. I bet some big band steals it."