Chris McKay & The Critical Darlings


Monday April 2, 2007
("Unnanounced" special appearance as part of Arch Madness)

Tasty World
Athens, GA


The Critical Darlings are back. If tonight was any indication, you might want to duck and cover.

We got out to the Tasty World upstairs stage sometime after 8 pm. It was totally disorganized and scattershot. We were more or less left to our own devices to mix ourselves, set up and figure out what the heck was going on. Josh was being pulled in 45 different directions and we could hardly get him behind the kit. Finally, we had a few tense but constructive words for one another which seemed to put us back on the same page.

Thankfully, our friend Asa Leffer (who engineered the first album for us on the 3rd floor of this very building) was running sound downstairs. He was my personal savior and miracle man tonight as he solved my shocking ground problems and dug up some more duct tape to get my out of practice kit working right.

We were originally told we were starting at about 9:15. They kept pushing us back so we wound up going on nearly an hour later. As we were never announced as part of the bill (intentionally), this first "secret location" gig started off with only a few friends up front.

It was the first time Danny Esposito has seen us do a full set (albeit a short one). Danny's the guy that I consider my guitar tech. I believe my Hamer must worship him. He is a miracle worker. When Joe was having problems with his Les Paul last week, I hooked him up with Danny and he got everything working great over the weekend. It's amazing what he can do.

We kicked off the new lineup's first performance with "The Only Way". It's the first time we've ever done it. The original, piano led and unfinished version was performed at a few shows way back in the Q-Sign days but this was its first finished airing. It felt good. It was such a natural way to start. For me, it felt even better when it got to the solo and all I had to do was leap around and be me. Joe took over the lead duties. He soared on the solo as the other 3 of us locked in. It feels so different to be on stage these days. I knew it from rehearsal but having it confirmed on the stage is no less of a revelation.

I didn't give anyone any time to breathe between songs as I jumped straight into "Sometimes I'm Sam." Again, this new lineup version seems to have more energy. It's got a different swing and better dynamics. This was especially evident when we got to the part where the faux ending is on the album.

When "Sam" was done, we accepted our first applause. It was so good just to be playing again. People were coming in and seemed to be really listening. This was definitely more of a listening show than a leaping one but unlike some lineups, we seemed just as suited to this environment.

Obviously, this was the first time that this band has played any of these songs but when we bring out something that's never been performed EVER, that's when I'm excited. Tonight, it was "Sadder Day". Right now, it's my favorite song to perform. This may be the first true Critical Darlings song from a complete band point of view. Frank wrote the main guitar rhythm, I wrote the bass part, lyrics, a couple of leads, the melody and the middle 8, Joe tears up the solos and Josh rides the wave, occasionally causing the wave to break in a most glorious way.

The highlight for me is where Joe cuts loose at the end. To hear him tear up that Paul the way he did tonight is infinitely inspiring to me both as a musician and as a songwriter. Much like when I originally performed "Phony", this solo has a beginning, a middle and an end but is completely formless everywhere else. Joe followed the feeling. This is a straight up ballad on the demo but in concert, it expands and contracts with the will of the band (not any one of us can control it).  I'm proud to be a part of it. I'm even prouder that it takes these four individuals to make this particular sound. At the end, Joe played 3/4 while I played a 10/8 harmony and Frank and Josh stuck to 4/4. It was air tight. For the turn around that climaxes the song, Josh channeled Quadrophenia -era Keith Moon. I thought the stage was going to lift off the ground. It felt that good to me. We got a strong round of applause at the end of that one which makes me believe that it's not just my biased thinking. This is special.

We decided to follow up with the "Towel Cape Song" / "I Know Too Much" two-fer that opens Joy . I can't even tell you the last time we did those two together. It's my fault that we haven't. To be honest, "I Know Too Much" is not a favorite. Joe and Josh have convinced me to bring it back and judging from tonight, they're right and I'm wrong. It flowed perfectly. To hear the harmonies at the end of " Towel Cape " fall right into "I Know Too Much" was exactly what the doctor ordered. I was just starting to wake up. At the end of "I Know Too Much" we did the (once) rare, huge arena-rock ending. The original lineup and the temporary one tried it a few times but it never really caught fire. Tonight, it was dead on. I've a feeling you'll be seeing it more often!

Our original plan was to play half of our full-set tonight and half for the "Secret Show" tomorrow, so it was time to go ahead and finish for the evening. We closed out with "Scared Of Myself." It's the first time we've ever ended with it and it felt more powerful than I'd remembered. I screamed my lungs out during the second verse and again, the band brought the dynamics. The quiet parts were soft and pretty and the heavy parts (especially the solo) were hard enough to create sparks if you dropped 'em on the pavement.

It was a good night. It may be the best "first show" I've ever had. I'm proud of the guys for coming through (without enough rehearsal). My only criticisms were small. They are as follows: Joe needs to come out from behind his mic stand - especially during his star moments. And the whole band needs more "eyebrows".

This will come and it will happen soon.

(Totally biased star reviews)

1. The Only Way**** (N)
2. Sometimes I'm Sam****
3. Sadder Day***** (N)
4. Towel Cape Song *****
5. I Know Too Much (For My Own Good)****
6. Scared Of Myself****

After the gig, I was elated at the smiles on our friends' faces. Jonathan said, "Now I see what you've been talking about". Not to take away anything from Mike's fill-in job over the last year and a half (we probably wouldn't have survived without him) but to me this felt like the first REAL show since the 40 Watt gig opening for Cowboy Mouth which was the final original lineup show. Frank, Amanda and Jonathan all seemed to agree with that too. Jonathan also mentioned that he thought it was the most testosterone fueled version of " Towel Cape " he'd heard and he agreed with the band that "I Know Too Much" was a wise resurrection.

The thing that I heard the most about was my tone. Everyone that said anything to me kept commenting on just how great my guitar tone is. I have tweaked it a bit and am happy with it...especially since I'm now competing with a Les Paul through a Marshall half-stack. I'm so happy people are digging it. Danny seemed surprised that my little floor amp stood up so strongly to its competition. So am I.

When I was packing up, Amanda came up to me to let me know that Kamila Thompson (Current opening act for Sean Lennon as well as the daughter of Linda and Richard Thompson ) and the drummer for Sean's band Bill were in attendance. They didn't have time to stick around to wait for tear down but invited me to come out to Sean's show on Thursday night and say "Hi". Apparently, they both had high praise for my tone and playing. They also seemed to like the band. That made me feel great. When the daughter of one of Rolling Stone's "best guitarists of all time" digs your sound, it can't be bad. And that's not to mention the fact that she's a pretty amazing artist in her own right.

We got out of there fairly quickly but all in all, I can say that I'm thrilled with this not-so-humble beginning.

Photos by Amanda Stahl.