photos by Kristie Khan Photography
by Bryce Wergin
Put yourself in the shoes of touring bands — at some point, you play unknown venues in new cities, and you're lucky if you get some fans to show up who are into it. With or without an enthusiastic drunk guy cheering between songs, a cold crowd is difficult.
That happened to Chicago jazz/soul/hip-hop fusion Sidewalk Chalk a couple months ago at the Zoo Bar, but their chemistry with the Lincoln crowd quickly became so thick (more on that later) that they're returning to the legendary blues venue Wednesday, Aug. 8. Lincoln's Dirty Diamonds opens the $5, 9 p.m. show.
It’s hard to describe Sidewalk Chalk’s sound with any sort of brevity. The band fuses together hip-hop, soul and jazz without ever doing it the same way twice. They incorporate elements from old-school soul and jazz with a twist of modern, intelligent hip-hop. It only takes a few lines of lyrics to know this project is based on a foundation of careful and experienced song composition, borrowing elements from jazz and introducing them to fans of hip-hop, and vice versa. Bringing these musical worlds together is one of the things that I find so captivating about Sidewalk Chalk’s sound — you’re never quite sure which direction they’re going to take with a song or how it will balance, but it’s just so tightly composed and refined that you can’t help but dig it.
I saw this for myself June 5 at Sidewalk Chalk's Zoo Bar debut. They were competing with Jazz in June, dollar beers and half-dollar tacos on a Tuesday that those lucky enough to be at the Zoo have yet to forget.
When I walked into the Zoo Bar, I was only planning to say a quick “what’s up” to my brother and go home shortly after. Instead, I found myself intrigued by the sight of a brightly colored, graffiti-decorated bus parked out front on 14th Street and a woman I had never seen at the front door encouraging the runoff from Jazz in June to come in and see the show. After finding a seat, I sipped a beer and checked my phone, debating whether or not I would stay for a couple songs of the first band. Sidewalk Chalk set up on stage, which was cramped for the eight-piece band, but they immediately got the crowd’s attention when they warmed up their instruments by playing an excerpt from Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up,” which started a few heads bobbing and a couple others rapping the lyrics to Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky” (this might have been me).
The band's first song hit the crowd hard with a funky bass line followed by the immaculately structured flow of the band’s emcee, Rico Sisney, and Maggie Vagle's captivating, soulful vocals. By the end of their second song, almost everybody in the Zoo was right up by the stage with their hands in the air, and the crowd’s enthusiasm only grew with each song. I'd never seen more people hip-hop dancing at the Zoo Bar, and I was blown away. They kept the crowd’s attention every second of their set, continuing to play familiar hip-hop and soul tunes between their songs, including classics like Camp Lo’s “Luchini.” The crowd went crazy when the band incorporated tap-dancing from Jumaane Taylor, who added another layer of rhythm onto the already riveting beats being laid down by drummer Tyler Berg. The two blended their rhythms together to ensure stationary feet were nowhere to be found.
The band has been touring pretty much non-stop all summer, and trombonist David Ben-Porat says they’re excited to make it back to Lincoln.
“Lincoln was one of my favorite shows on the whole June leg of the tour,” Ben-Porat says. “I want to see that whole bar jumping again.”
Drummer Tyler Berg says they were impressed by the enthusiasm they found in Nebraska.
“If the rest of Nebraska is like Lincoln then I’m sold," he says. "The Zoo Bar was one of my favorite shows of the tour so far because y’all brought so much energy."
Charlie Coffeen, who plays keys in Sidewalk Chalk, says he wasn’t sure what to expect when first coming to Lincoln, but the city surprised him.
“Someone described the city as ‘a small town with a lot of heart,’ and that was spot-on," he says. "I have a lot of love for Lincoln.”
Sidewalk Chalk is definitely a band on the rise. Their relentless touring schedule has helped to steadily build their fan base, generating hoards of followers on their social media pages and no shortage of blog buzz. Coffeen believes touring is the most effective way to do this.
“Blogs, Twitter, good press — all of these things are awesome and helpful, but touring is still the most effective and fun way to expand your fan base,” he says. “We’ve played to a different crowd every night. We just want to play our music and if it doesn’t go over, it doesn’t go over, but so far the results have been really good.”
The band’s success can almost certainly be attributed not only to how well they interact and play off of the crowd, but also to how well they collaborate together creatively. Bassist Garrett McGinn says this band has given him an energy that he hasn’t felt in past musical ventures.
“I am proud of this band in a way that I can’t feel in most settings due to the fact that [in Sidewalk Chalk] I am creating my voice and supporting a familial force,” he says. “The energy we extend and that which we receive from our audiences has been so honest and reciprocal — it just feels right.”
Those planning to check out the show can expect no shortage of groovy basslines, funky horn parts, insanely refined flow and lyrics, and soaring, soulful vocals. Don’t be surprised if the band spontaneously breaks into a freestyle session, where audience members bring items to the stage and Sisney spits out some lines. Last time, he successfully transitioned between freestyles about a UNL student’s N Card and an old shoe. This session is called “Eye Spy,” and it’s definitely a part of their set to look forward to.
While Sidewalk Chalk’s sound definitely sets them apart from other artists in the hip-hop, jazz and soul genres, I still feel like the most impressive part of their performance is the passion. Every single member of the band pours 100 percent of their hearts into this music every single time they perform it, and I believe the biggest reason for their success is that audiences can feel it.
Bryce Wergin is a contributor for Hear Nebraska. If you're self-conscious about your dancing abilities, come to this show. I guarantee I'm worse. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org