The Abbey Pub isn't sold out, but the crowd is far from meager. A couple hundred revelers shuffle closer to the tiny stage of the Chicago nightspot as the New Amsterdams unveil their strident set opener, "The Smoking Gun," taken from the band's new third effort, Worse for the Wear. If the song, a swaying rock ditty getting a refreshing blast of live energy, resembles the Get Up Kids, it's with good reason.
Clad in a black T-shirt and jeans, Kids front man Matt Pryor strums a shopworn Gibson acoustic and leans into the microphone. "An empty house will leave you fatherless," he sings as several videotapers in the audience take aim, capturing every note through the lenses of discreet sliver Handycams. The number winds to a finish, and the audience claps approvingly.
"Stay on the Phone!" some wise guy calls out, presumably looking to score a few extra hipster points by requesting a Kids tune.
"Don't worry, we'll be here till the end of the set," Pryor fires back with a sarcastic grin before breaking into "Here's to All of Us," another new song.
"I like parts of it," Pryor says later about life on the road. "I love the hour that I get to be on stage, and I love hanging out with my friends, but the traveling gets a little weary. I have a wife and daughter at home. In a perfect world, I'd just play in Kansas and have everyone come see me. My own little Branson in Kansas. I gotta get a Vegas review, like Celine Dion."
This tour marks a first: Whereas the initial Amsterdams outings consisted solely of Pryor and his acoustic guitar, he's backed on this trip by a three-piece band consisting of Kids bassist Rob Pope, Hot Rod Circuit guitarist Jay Russell and drummer Bill Belzer.
"The songs on the new record really had to be done with a band," Pryor says. "But it's less of an overall production" than a Kids tour. "We're just rolling out in the Winnebago, cooking oatmeal on the stove."
"Picture in the Paper" gets a big response from the Abbey crowd. The tune comes from the Amsterdams' sophomore effort, Para Toda Vida, an album Pryor recorded quickly and alone. The strategy resulted in a bleak set of tunes with dirgelike tempos. This time around, Pryor was confident enough with the material to take his time and get it right. Worse for the Wear is the first real Amsterdams album.
"The first two records were done in my manner of impatient recording: 'That's fine, keep it,' " Pryor explains. "I did the demos for this record, and my wife told me she felt that it was good enough stuff that I should actually put some effort into it and not just have it be thoughts on paper, put 'em on tape, put it out. If you like it, great. If you don't, I don't care. This one, the idea was, 'Let's see if people actually like this.' "
The sessions proved to be a family affair. Pryor recruited the Pope brothers to handle rhythm duties, and producer Ed Rose tackled additional guitar chores. Working with his fellow Kids wasn't problematic for Pryor, who remains the chief songwriter and creative force behind both acts.
"It seems like we're really starting to hone in on each one having their own personality and what that personality is," he says. "The New Amsterdams stuff is mellower, for lack of a better word, instrumentation-wise and tempo-wise. The thing that the Get Up Kids have realized is that we really like being a rock band. When we toured on Wire, we had a hard time really doing the big rock thing where you just sweat till you collapse."
On stage at the Abbey, the Amsterdams sweat their way through a raucous cover of the Afghan Whigs' "When We Two Parted," a gem from the Amsterdams' 2000 debut, Never You Mind. As the applause dies down, Pryor addresses the college-age audience.
"Has anyone ever heard of a band called Big Star?"
A dozen people -- maybe -- clap.
"Stay on the Phone!" a kid in the crowd hollers.
Pryor ignores the Kids request. "Behold as we butcher a Big Star song," he says, and the band blasts into a rollicking take on "The Ballad of El Goodo."
Pryor's never been one to take requests, but he's even more reluctant to discuss the forthcoming Kids effort, partially because everybody and his mother has already asked him about it. Twice. Posting recently on the Amsterdams' message board, Pryor offered a typically ambiguous nondescription: "It doesn't sound like any other record we've ever done, but it's hands down the best record we've ever written."
"That's really vague on purpose, just to get people to stop asking me what it sounds like," he explains. "'Does it sound more like On a Wire, or does it sound more like Four Minute Mile?' Well, it's definitely not gonna sound more like our first record than our last record. There's more guitars on it, there's more rock on it, but there's still a lot of stuff that could've been on On a Wire. So, it's trying to find a healthy balance -- coming to terms with your own identity."
Toward the end of the 60-minute Abbey set, the Amsterdams exit the stage, leaving Pryor alone with his guitar. Requests are yelled from around the room, with the loudest ("Overdue") getting a roll of the eyes from Pryor. But then he smiles and breaks into an impassioned version of the Kids' "Stay on the Phone." The audience sings along happily, and the concert ends in ebullience.
"This is the first CD I've bought in a long time," an attendee says to his buddy, who is also clutching a copy of Worse for the Wear as they make their way toward the exit. That remark would probably thrill Pryor, who posted the entire album on the Amsterdams' Web site. The Recording Industry Association of America claims that midlevel indie bands are the hardest hit by file-sharing music "thieves," but Pryor insists that the new technology only helps him pay the bills.
"There's a guy at Interscope who kept telling me" that file sharing was bad for business, Pryor says. "And you don't want to bite the hand that feeds you, but I just don't agree. I could see how it could hurt Metallica's record sales, but as far as I'm looking at it, the more people that hear my music, the more people are gonna come see the band play. I'm a professional musician, and I make my living from touring, so I want to get as many people into the club as possible. And also, it brings music back to just being music and not being all about the bottom line. I want my records to sell, but also I make music because I enjoy making music."
That's an understatement from a musician who has one day off in the first 17 on his current tour.
"If you ain't playing, you're still payin'," Pryor says with a laugh. "I don't know how this tour's gonna do. It could just tank. It's a gamble. Fuck it -- let's go. Do it old-school. On the old Get Up Kids tours, we were like, 'Can we have a day off?' And it was like, 'No We still gotta eat on that day off. We're not making any money if we have a day off.'"
That seems to be a motto of sorts for Pryor (who is now opening for Evan Dando and will tackle another headlining tour later this fall) as well as for the rest of the Kids. (James DeWees and Ryan Pope just toured as part of Reggie and the Full Effect.) Then there's the Kids' album to finish, and there will be tours to book, press, television appearances, etc. The year is barely half over, and 2004 is already filling up fast.
"I have until the first of the year, and then we all have to go back to work at the day job," Pryor says a bit wistfully. "Rob and Ryan are referring to this as their summer lifeguard gig. I'm just along for the ride. I'm having fun."
The New Amsterdams open for Evan Dando on Friday, October 3, at the Engine Room, 1515 Pease. The Love Scene is also on the bill. For more information, call 713-654-7846.
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