Concert review + setlist: Chris Mills and Magnolia Summer prove you can go home again at Off Broadway, Thursday, June 23

Chris Mills

Last night at Off Broadway, if you leaned over to the next person to ask the traditional St. Louis get-to-know-you question — “Where did you go to high school?” — the overwhelming response would have been “Collinsville.”

Taking the stage at 10:40 p.m., Chris Mills jokingly welcomed everyone to the “Collinsville High School Class of 1992 reunion,” a reference to a group of his former classmates making up the majority of the audience. Never leaving his dry, self-effacing style behind, Mills played to the mostly 30 to 40-year-old audience full of friends, family and well-wishers fully enjoying the comfort of the tables and chairs set out for the evening.

Lapping the field with his beard, Mills, shaggy appearance aside, took the economical approach to this tour bringing only bassist Ryan Hembrey and drummer Dave Bryson along for the ride down his songwriting memory lane. Making few pauses between songs for sake of the late starting time, he blasted through 14 numbers in nearly an hour, with an intense focus on his new retrospective Heavy Years: 2000-2010. Though he left behind the dense pop arrangements (and witty stage banter for that matter) of his last two albums, The Wall to Wall Sessions and Living In the Aftermath, the songwriting brightly shone as a testament to how good these songs are in any arrangement.

Without deviating much from this new compilation, Mills kicked off the show with the first few tracks from the compilation in succession. New song “All Our Days and Nights” led off the evening before giving way to the upbeat, power-pop, two-and-a-half-minute burst of “Atom Smashers,” a song so infectious that listeners found their heads bobbing and feet tapping. Missing the familiar horn and string parts, the flair of orchestral pop in “A Farewell to Arms” was stripped bare. If you looked closely enough, however, you could see Hembrey mouthing the melody as he plucked along on bass. Yep, we heard the parts in our heads and missed them too.

Mills briefly mentioned the current tour from the stage stating that compared to playing the small venues of the Mid Atlantic and South that “this feels like we’re playing Giants Stadium.” Life on the road can be hard and isolating. Getting a homecoming reception of sorts can boost the spirits of any weary musician. Hanging out at the merch table before the show, Mills chatted with and thanked his old friends for coming out to the concert one by one. During the set, Mills gratefully thanked his parents for the band’s meal earlier in the day and the chance to utilize their free laundry facilities asking aloud, “Why did I bring all these quarters with me?”

Sporting a well-known and rightly-deserved reputation in the local music community as a fantastic live room, Off Broadway dazzled with its usual glimmering tones. Many friends who had not previously seen shows at the venue raved about the sound coming from the stage. (Kudos to sound engineer Tom Carlson.) This big advantage allowed Mills to keep the crowd’s rapt attention throughout. At times during the heartbreaking “Diamond,” the reverb from the vocals could be clearly heard and the mix was just right without too much low or high end.

Closing the set with a rousing version of post-modern ode to the Phil Spector sound “Signal/Noise,” Mills left the stage for the merch table in the back of the room where all of his old friends and acquaintances were standing. With the applause still washing over the venue replacing the guitar distortion, he indulged by confirming he would play one more song (the last one they rehearsed) ending the night with the upbeat “Sleeptalking” and sending everyone home on a high note.

Show opener Magnolia Summer plugged in at 9:35 p.m. for its set demonstrating the band’s typical solid effort. Pairing down their sprawling instrumentation, the band played as a quartet this night with a rock/Americana setlist sounding tight and professional. Lead guitarist, John Horton provided his usual stunning guitar leads complementing singer/guitarist Chris Grabau’s songs. The dazzling work of Greg Lamb (bass) and John Baldus (drums) filled the bottom end and blended together effortlessly. The band sounded espeically stunning when building slowly to a crescendo of guitars.

St. Louis is lucky to have a band like Magnolia Summer playing around town frequently, providing deserved credibility to a talented music scene. The band will join Mills in making the trip to Chicago today — Mills will make a brief detour to Rock Island, Ill. to record a Daytrotter session — to knock ‘em dead with their collective chops at the Hideout tonight.

Chris Mills setlist

All Our Days and Nights
Atom Smashers
A Farewell to Arms
Such a Beautiful Thing
All You Ever Do
Suicide Note
Nightmare at 20,000 Feet
You Are My Favorite Song
Escape From New York
Heavy Years
Calling All Comrades
Signal / Noise