The Vaselines heal Chicago


Kelly Wenzel

The Vaselines

By Arts & Culture Editor

When is enough actually enough? Bands like The Rolling Stones have been playing for more than 50 years and U2 has been at it since 1976, yet both bands are still touring and releasing new music. The last few years have produced several reunions, mainly with the ongoing boon of the festival circuit in America. Scottish indie rock band The Vaselines, who played Jan. 21 at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave., is one band that has orchestrated a successful reunion. Some bands reunite only to fail—this is not the case for The Vaselines.

Back in 2008, founding members, the group started as a duo, Eugene Kelly (vocals/guitar) and Frances McKee (vocals/guitar) reunited for the third time since the band’s 1989 split and have lasted longer than their original run, producing more music within that time frame. 

The Vaselines took to the small stage, perfectly fitting the Empty Bottle’s dive bar motif, adding to its watering hole, exposed brick, banged up wooden bar and pool table. Although the bar is relatively small, the band of Scots was able to pack a couple hundred eager fans to see the group on one of its last tour dates for the 2014 album V For Vaselines.

Energized by an exciting performance from Philadelphia-based band Amanda X, the audience was ready to see the indie rock heroes who inspired the likes of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.

Kelly and McKee took to the center stage with their backing band consisting of Michael McGaughrin (drums), Scott Paterson (guitar) and Graeme Smillie (bass). The group led with “The Day I Was a Horse” from their first full-length album, 1989’s Dum-Dum, which showcases the playful back and forth, duet-style songs between Kelly and McKee that make The Vaselines, well, The Vaselines.

Kelly and McKee continued their playful banter throughout the show, with McKee often making jokes at Kelly’s expense and frequent audience participation. She even asked the audience if anybody in the crowd would “shag” Kelly because it was his birthday the previous day. At most shows, banter with an audience is an absolute no-no and immediate buzzkill, but McKee’s cutesy “girl next door” persona won the audience over every time, usually to the point of laughter.

This playful nature with not-so-thinly-veiled sexual innuendos was not limited to comments in between songs. Some of the band’s material, though serious in its sound, veers into immature, tongue-in-cheek lyricism with songs like “Monsterpussy” from Dum-Dum and “Sex with an X” from the 2010 album of the same name. The group played the two tunes, both of which have the sing-along quality of children’s songs, inspiring the audience to join in during the chorus of “Sex With An X,” “Feels so good, it must be bad for me/ Feels so good, it must be bad for me/ Let’s do it, let’s do it again.”

McKee actually broke a guitar string during the performance of the song but continued.  The brother-and-sister-like bickering ensued afterwards when Kelly gave Frances his guitar, opting for the untuned one offstage because he questioned her guitar tuning abilities. 

The highlight for many in the audience—which consisted mostly of fans the same age as the band—was when the group brought back Amanda X to play bicycle horns, accompanying The Vaselines in one of their most well-known songs—thanks to a 1992 cover by Nirvana—“Molly’s Lips.” 

A fan favorite, this song provoked the strongest response of the evening from the energetic crowd who sung along with the two bands, swaying in the way one does at a rock show and recording the performance on their phones. McKee sounded just like the original recording of the song but added extra emotion when the bicycle horn would come up from behind her to play into her microphone, startling her each time. 

The Vaselines continued to rouse the adoring audience with more than 20 songs from all three albums of its nearly 15-year career. The band ended its foot-tapping, head-nodding, smile-evoking set with yet another quintessential Vaselines duet, “Son of a Gun,” also made popular by a Nirvana cover. Though they did nothing peculiar with this song, The Vaselines made the performance one of those experiences fans will hold onto for the rest of their lives—hearing a beloved band play its best material. 

Though they’ve never reached any monumental commercial success, or regular airplay for that matter, this hardly matters when one of your biggest fans is Kurt Cobain, the man even named his daughter and his only child—Frances Bean Cobain after Frances McKee. The Vaselines are definitely one of the lucky bands who have benefited from getting the band back together, if only for the ability to share in a fun, intimate show with a couple hundred of their  fans, most of have been there from the beginning and that is exactly what they got on Wednesday evening at the Empty Bottle.