In the middle of a Shoreditch-side street, connecting to busier main roads at each end, it’s perhaps appropriate that Sons of an Illustrious Father play this evening’s gig. A bit under the radar (though one of the members, Ezra Miller, is a world-famous actor), to be found off the main drag, where the disenfranchised outsiders gather. OK, this might be a slight over-dramatisation. Still, nevertheless, the band is very much presented as a band of outsiders, playing to a crowd of outsiders, in a venue that identifies as ‘underground’.
One can argue about what an ‘outsider’ or ‘underground’ is these days. Since we live in a time where it’s trendy to be a confessed outsider, nerd or weirdo, we may have to redefine what these terms mean. Can you really be a weirdo when you’re popular? It’s like the cool kids defining themselves as nerds only after ‘nerd’ became socially acceptable. But that’s another discussion.
This evening at the Village Underground, the Sons of an Illustrious Father hold court for a full house. The band, other than Miller, are Josh Aubin and Lilah Larson. They all switch between lead- and backing vocals and all available instruments; bass, guitar, drums, keyboards. The vocals are dramatic and expressive, which works well with the sometimes complicated music; almost a kind of Expressionism, as if translating an Egon Schiele painting into a song.
At one point, the three band members sing an acapella cover of Ella’s Song, ‘We who believe in freedom, cannot rest until it comes…Not needing to clutch for power, not needing the light just to shine on me, I need to be just in the number as we stand against tyranny.’ It’s a beautiful song originally a tribute to African-American civil rights activist Ella Baker, who fought for equality between black and white people. In this evening’s abridged version, the message comes across as a message for activists in general, but perhaps with an emphasis on people identifying as queer being free from the shackles of prejudice. But maybe that’s me reading too much into it.
Another cover is of Pussycat Dolls-hit, Don’t Cha (Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me), transformed into a slightly slower and darker version than the original. The song suits the band, and the band fits the song.
Many of the songs, most of which I haven’t heard before, sound like a band that is trying to cram a bit too much into each of them, which means that they sound a bit all over the place. The three members are good singers and musicians and have a lot of energy and emotions they want to hammer, strum and scream out there. Still, I feel their songwriting and execution would benefit from more structure and reining in all the theatrical energy.
After a while, I find myself a bit bored, which is a shame, because the band have a lot of skill and a lot to say. Highlights for me are when they keep it a bit simpler. An example of this is the song EG (‘I crossed the great horizon, to find that nothing was’), which might be my favourite of the set, sung by Aubin, with a fat, pulsing bass by Larson. Miller’s drumming accentuates the spaces between the words in a slightly jazzy style, which works really well.
The last song (followed by one encore) is US Gay. The song references two tragic gay icons: Matthew Shepard (who was beaten to death in a homophobic assault in 1998 and who has inspired many articles, songs, films, documentaries and discussions) and Valerie Solanas (who wrote her feminist manifesto, SCUM – reported to stand for ‘Society for Cutting Up Men’ though not confirmed – and after feeling humiliated by Andy Warhol, she tried to assassinate the legendary artist in 1968).
The choice of a lesbian being the executor of a violent attack is an interesting upside-down focus, considering we live in a world where women most often are the victims of violent attacks by men. It does give the song an extra sense of uneasy poignancy.
Most of all, the song is an encouragement to live one’s life with urgency and conviction, and the first evocative lines of the song are a perfect way to sum up this concert: ‘If I don’t die tonight, I’m gonna dance until I do, And if you’re not too afraid, I wanna dance with you.’
Sons of an Illustrious Father setlist