It only takes a couple seconds of looking around the Bottom Lounge to spot him. Purple and white cowboy hat, black leather jacket, flashy red and white patterned shirt, hoop earrings, horn-rimmed glasses, pencil mustache. Sure enough, there is Kirin J. Callinan, Australian purveyor of experimental pop and showman extraordinaire, hawking his merchandise at a rather improvised-looking table in the back hallway near the bathrooms, several of this show’s excellent posters adorning the walls around him. In true Callinan fashion, his merch table is as unorthodox as his music and persona; upon it lay two CDs, one of each of his two full-length LPs, and a selection of stamps with several pads of red ink bearing such phrases as “Big Enough,” “The Homosexual,” and “Return To Center,” the name of his upcoming LP of ‘80s pop covers. Rather than selling T-shirts, Callinan is stamping his variety of provocative taglines on people’s clothing. On the surface, this seems an odd place for Callinan to be on a Thursday night, far from home in Chicago, IL, sandwiched on a bill in between two bands from Oklahoma who certainly make music more standardly conventional than his. But Callinan has built an entire career upon his status as a perennial outsider; he only feels at home when thoroughly out of place.
The flamboyant Australian man dressed as a convincing-enough space cowboy is not the only artist to take the stage this night. First come Planet What, a self-described group of “Tulsa grunge/trash surf heathens.” Fronted by two women, Kylie Slabby and Jeanette Derubeis, the band begins to play a series of grunge and surf-tinged garage rock songs with plenty of punk attitude to go along. Their stage arrangement is anchored in the center by the semi-manic presence of their bassist, the two frontwomen on either side of him unleashing a gutty dual vocal performance that’s just dissonant enough to give the music an effective edge without sounding sloppy. Their guitar tones start heavy and seem to only get heavier, and by the end of their set their music has devolved almost all the way into an Electric Wizard-like doom metal. Their guitars fuse together into a chainsaw-reminiscent sonic blast capped off with the bassist’s violent destruction of his instrument at the end of the song, almost seeming to take the rest of the group by surprise.
Following Planet What’s memorable start to the evening, I make my way up closer to the front of the crowd for the performance that I expect to steal the show. Situated in front of the stage right vocal monitor are two young men that appear roughly my own age, strangers to me and seemingly also to each other. We strike up a conversation, and it quickly becomes clear that my two new compatriots are both completely unfamiliar with the work of Mr. Kirin J. Callinan. I assure them that they are in for a hell of a show, and do my best to describe what maybe they should expect from him, although this of course proves a futile endeavor.
Soon enough, Callinan takes the stage, but not before bringing out with him two almost identical guitars and an absolutely massive pedalboard covered in various pieces of equipment. It would be a fool’s errand to attempt to accurately recount all the finer details of a Kirin J. Callinan performance in this piece, so I’ll just stick to the highlights. Callinan’s set is something of a slow burn, as he starts with some of his more subdued material, gradually building in intensity and removing articles of clothing as he goes. His mannerisms on stage are strange but compelling, and the audience is rapt with attention throughout. Around the halfway point of the set, now down one cowboy hat and leather jacket, he performs an emotional and electric cover of The Waterboys’ “The Whole of The Moon,” departing into the crowd to sing along with various audience members. He follows that with the title track to his 2017 record, “Bravado,” featuring a mind-bending guitar solo and a hearty sing-along from the crowd. Eventually, he reaches “Big Enough,” his infamous semi-viral duet with Alex Cameron, for which he strips down to just a Freddie Mercury at Live Aid-style tank top and re-dons his cowboy hat. Both Kirin and the audience do their absolute best Jimmy Barnes impressions, unleashing screams upon the inside of the Bottom Lounge that visibly confuse a decent portion of the staff. Callinan closes his set with an a capella number he calls “The Toddler,” dancing to no music and singing about being, well, a toddler, “no longer a baby but not yet a boy.” Somehow, Callinan twists this comedic non-song into a spirited call and response with the crowd, one last demonstration of his immense charisma and knack for crowd control before calling it a night. I look to my two new acquaintances to gauge their reactions to their first ever exposure to Callinan; both men are completely awestruck and blown away by the performance. Kirin J. Callinan can be called many things, but boring is certainly not one.
Somehow, after two rather exhilarating sets of music, we’re still not done yet. Next up is the main event, the Norman, OK-based indie rock outfit BRONCHO. Notably one member short, BRONCHO comes out for this show as a three-piece, featuring guitarist and singer Ryan Lindsey, bassist Penny Pitchlynn, and drummer Nathan Price. In stark contrast to Callinan before them, BRONCHO has absolutely no interest in crowd interaction whatsoever. They emerge onto the stage and immediately launch into a torrid series of jagged, angular, no-frills garage rock tunes, spruced up mostly by Pitchlynn’s melodic bass work. The band takes nearly no breaks at all, starting each song immediately after finishing the prior one with the exception of a few fervent sips of Coors Light in between tracks. The mic picks up more of Lindsey’s aggressive gum-chewing then it does any sort of speech or crowd banter. Lindsey and Pitchlynn bear a striking physical resemblance to Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, and their aloof yet defiant dispositions on stage are similar as well. Following Kirin J. Callinan is a difficult proposition for even the most entertaining of acts, but BRONCHO prove themselves up to the challenge. The band seems to almost deliberately perform in such a way that their songs all seem to run together, the stage shrouded by a thick veil of fog and flashing lights through which their music can cut. Sometimes, a monotonous set can be a drag, but BRONCHO’s music live is imbued with a ceaseless drive and a general brazen tunelessness that would make Lou Reed proud. The energy is infectious, and the crowd slowly comes around to their performance. About 30 minutes in, the mosh pit begins in earnest. Around 45 minutes in, the author of this piece removes his baseball hat, lets his hair down, and almost considers jumping in himself.
After the final set, I have the chance to speak with Kirin J. Callinan briefly. He is leaning across the merch table as I approach, gripping a concertgoer firmly by the shoulder as he presses one of his many risque stamps into the middle of the man’s chest onto his shirt. He is dressed completely differently from before, now sporting a deep blue button-down shirt and a black and yellow beret atop his head. We shake hands, I purchase one of his CDs, and we talk for a few moments. Unsurprisingly, he is affable and friendly, easy to talk to and seemingly eager to interact with fans. I ask him a few questions, ending by inquiring what he would like to say to any readers that have never heard the name Kirin J. Callinan before. He responds with merely a glint of a smirk in his eyes: “I try to remain humble, so all I would say is that I am the greatest live performer that ever was and ever will be.” After the show he put on tonight, I might be hard-pressed to dispute the claim.