12:37 AM CDT, September 21, 2011
A year ago, Kids These Days was a callow Chicago band for whom playing Lollapalooza was little more than a dream. The band’s MC, Vic Mensa, still wanted to attend the festival, but he didn’t have the money. So he tried to jump a fence to get in – bad move. He ended up losing his grip and falling backward off the fence onto a transformer.
“I still have scars,” he says, displaying his left forearm. “When I touched the transformer, 15,000 volts shot through me and my arms shot out in front of me. I was in shock. There was a hole in my elbow. If the charge went up my arm toward my head instead of out my elbow I wouldn’t be alive.”
He spent four nights in a hospital recovering, then was on a plane to New York for a meeting with a record label, followed by a return trip to Chicago to perform a show with a protective sleeve on his damaged limb.
All in a week’s work for Mensa, who is one of seven members of Kids These Days, a multi-culti band that didn’t have to jump a fence to get into Lollapalooza last August. This time, the group was invited to play a prime late-afternoon slot in front of thousands of fans and made the most of it. Their typically ambitious set brimmed with winding, expansive, horn-spackled arrangements that touched on rock, hip-hop, Latin music, jazz and blues.
It was quite a turnaround for Mensa, personally. “I almost died trying to get in here last year,” he said from the stage. “It’s amazing to be up here.”
In an interview a few weeks later, he’s had time to reflect, and the moment is no less dream-like.
“It was a triumphant moment for all of us,” Mensa says. “There was a big group of all our friends, and they were showing us some genuine feeling and appreciation. When I saw that, all hesitation went away.”
Singer-keyboardist Macie Stewart was equally inspired. “I didn’t really realize how big a deal Lollapalooza was until I got there and 15 minutes before we got on stage saw the crowd,” she says. “I was nervous but really excited. It pumped me up seeing all those people there.”
The celebratory set, punctuated by several Mensa stage dives into the audience, came two years nearly to the day that Kids These Days played their first show at a West Side bar. Most of the band members, all 18 and 19 years old, studied jazz and improvisation at the Merit School of Music in the West Loop while attending various high schools, including Whitney Young, Lane Tech and Oak Park High School. Weekend rehearsals were held in the basement of singer-guitarist Liam Cunningham’s home, and the band slowly pieced together a sound while developing a personal bond.
“I didn’t have any idea what we’d sound like,” Cunningham says. “It was more thrown together in terms of genre.”
Originals like “Hard Time” grew into extended, 20-minute pieces, then were trimmed back. James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” fed into George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” and Common’s “Be” blended with Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia.”
“We take songs we know and make them into our joint,” Mensa says. “It’s like live sampling.”
Some of the transitions aren’t completely smoothed out, but the band’s ambition is matched by musical chops and exuberant charisma. Three band members share lead vocals, each with distinctive style: Mensa as feverish rapper, Cunningham as robust blues shouter, and Stewart with a more sultry jazz-pop approach. Trumpeter Nico Segal and trombonist J.P. Floyd play a key role with solos and counterpoint melody lines, and drummer Greg Landfair and bassist Lane Beckstrom navigate the band through the twisting arrangements.
Nailing down that sound in a recording studio took some patience. Earlier this year, the group recorded a five-song EP, “Hard Times.”
“We didn’t know how to record as a band,” Cunningham says. “We had a lot to learn about picking tempos, arrangements, deciding the right rhythm for the guitar part.”
Now the group aims to record an album, “Trap House Rock,” amid a more ambitious national touring schedule. Everyone in the band is taking a year off school to focus on music.
Cunningham says while the band is happy with its progress the last two years, “We have a lot more to explore.”
Kids These Days at the Hideout Block Party with Mavis Staples, Booker T. Jones, Andrew Bird, Jon Langford and White Mystery, noon Saturday at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, $25 or $35 (door); ticketfly.com.
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