REVIEW: Saint Motel Live at the Vic Theatre

Photos © 2020 by: Roman Sobus

On February 27th, 2019, Saint Motel performed at the Vic Theatre in Chicago. This was the twenty fifth stop on their Motion Picture Show Tour. The name of the tour derives from their latest 2019 album release, The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: Pt. 1.

The California-based band Saint Motel unofficially came together in 2007 during their college days. Lead singer, AJ Jackson, met lead guitar player, Aaron Sharp, in the film department. Later, they met drummer, Greg Erwin, who was attending school in the area, and began making music together. Since then, they added a bassist, Dak Lerdamornpong, to fully round out their sound. While they are primarily an indie rock/pop band, they’ve had no problem experimenting with other genres like funk and dance on past albums, Voyeur and My Type EP. With their newest release, The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: Pt. 1, they experimented with storytelling as well as sound, formatting the tracks to do their own take on the three part “hero’s journey” often used in literature and film. Their filmmaking past came in handy to create artistic music videos, which ultimately put them on the map. The success of their musical visuals made the band want to take their innovation into a live setting. Upon the release of their album, saintmotelevision, the band planned a multimedia musical experience called Saint Motel Vision, which ultimately never came to fruition. Jackson explained to All Access Music, “We were going to mix all sorts of arts together and have a live variety show thing. We had some amazing local Los Angeles comedies, dance, installation art. We’ve already been talking about our next headline tour, incorporating the concept into it”. The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: Pt. 1 gave them an opportunity to expand and refine this idea for the Motion Picture Show Tour. Standing in the Vic Theater, I saw first hand how they blurred the lines of art form and genre to put on a spectacle for us all.

Saint Motel - The Vic Theatre - Chicago, IL - 2/27/20 - Photo © 2020 by: Roman Sobus

As the house lights faded and the blue stage lights set a dim glow, the speakers all around the audience sang with the dramatic orchestral sound of… the Jurassic Park score. It was one part amusing and one part thematic; much of the theatrical elements of this show were on the nose just like this. The band made their way to the stage in shadows. A drummer, a bassist, a guitar player, a saxophone player, a trumpet player, and a piano player. When the lights come up, you see the back and sides of the stage are covered in rectangular and square screens. In the very top center is a circular screen, a huge red, green, and blue retro film reel. The screens show light up with a snowy mountain scape. An omniscient narrator with a deep, authoritative voice tells us the story of a man climbing a mountain as lead singer, AJ Jackson, appears in the space between the stage and the barricade. He is sporting a puffy winter jacket and holding a lantern in his hand, hiking through the crowd. An avalanche of sorts occurs, “burying” him beneath snow. Still, he perseveres and climbs onto the stage. Once his winter jacket is removed, revealing a black and white suit ensemble, and Jackson is behind the piano, the familiar piano melody of “Cold Cold Man” begins. It was a dramatic way to begin what would ultimately be one of the liveliest concerts I’ve ever attended.

Jackson jams out on the piano to “Diane Mozart”, a rock/pop twist on classical music. The screens show us sparks and static as Jackson belts out “For Elise”. The front of his keyboard is screened and when he ducks down behind it, his crouched body appears singing on the screen, like he is hopping in and out of a music video. Like magic. Jackson begins to involve the audience, having them sing the catchy ad libs back at him, as he struts back and forth onstage. To match the retro 50’s background vocals and production of the song “Sisters”, they plaster American flags all over the screens while Jackson rocks out on the electric guitar.

The lights black out once again and the narrator reappears to continue our story. We are now on a battlefield, smoke filling the air. Out comes the evil dictator, Jackson, dressed in a soldier uniform and a helmet, holding a torch up towards the sky. He stomps around the stage, asserting his dominance as he sings the song “Dear Dictator”, the flames on the screens intensifying the fiery mood. The flames continue on through “Destroyer” until the narrator returns again, taking the form of a single spotlight in the ceiling. Jackson looks up to it for advice. The narrator tells him to “go back to where it all started”. The room goes black and the piano riff begins for one of their first hits, “Puzzle Pieces”. To match this title, different features of the female face scatter across the screens, disjointed. As if “Puzzle Pieces” was not enough for them to “go back to where it all started”, the band jokingly covers the song “Right Back Where We Started From” by Maxine Nightingale. The whole crowd erupted in singing and dancing for this number. Jackson then gets the crowd shouting at him as cars zoom past onscreen during the song “Move”.

Another story rolls out. A starry night sky fills the screens. The narrator tells us a space commander has been in space for 3 years searching for the “mysteries of the universe” to see if we are really alone or if there is life out there. A lit up rafting boat disguised as a spaceship makes its way to the front of the stage, the audience holding it up with their hands. Jackson walks onto the stage in an astronaut suit, helmet in his hands. He climbs into the boat and the audience sails him across a sea of hands. He waves to the smiling faces all around him in delight. Saint Motel turned the rock n’ roll tradition of crowd surfing into something more dreamy. When he gets back on stage, he pulls out his acoustic guitar for the songs “Save Me” and “Old Soul”. The opening act, KOLARS, runs back onstage to join an energetic cover of “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens. They close the show with “Born Again”, which only left the audience wanting more. We chanted in the dark over and over until this familiar, nostalgic sound began to boom through the speakers: the THX audio clip often placed before movies on VHS in the 90s. A sound that haunts most millennial Disney movie lovers to this day. This is what ushers the band back to the stage.

The many screens tell the audience one last story. We are surrounded by lockers at a school. Someone knocks at the classroom door to tell the teacher that guitar player Aaron Sharp’s mom is here and he must leave for something important. Once they walk out, we realize there is nothing important; they just have band rehearsal for a show they are playing tonight. Someone suggests they play their new song “Butch”. As the lights come up and the band begins to play, we realize this last story was an homage to their beginnings as a band. “Butch” rolls into “Van Horn” and then they sing one final song, one of their most popular titled “My Type”. As Jackson begins to sing, he suddenly walks to the side of the stage and begins to climb the wall up to the balcony. It feels rebellious and unplanned, like the exhilarating stuff of teenage antics. He serenades the people in the box seats and those down below. He sings to the upper balcony, then he snakes his way through the crowd on the floor to return to the stage. It was dangerously cool and a total surprise.

Altogether, the band was so tight knit and talented. Each instrument got their individual spotlight. They riffed off of each other and built each other up to create this harmonious sound. You could tell from the way they leaned on each other, jamming, that they’ve been doing this together for a long time. They haven’t lost the love for it one bit. Upon first glance of AJ Jackson, he gives you the cute, nerdy teacher vibe but his showmanship, his crazy stunts onstage and in the audience made him to be this fearless rockstar, larger than life. It was impossible to be bored or to stand still when Saint Motel was onstage. I did not know upon entering the show that I was not just getting a concert, but a musical experience. While their songs are already unique and catchy, hearing them in context of the show with the full band changes the way you hear and enjoy them. I have attended over 50 concerts/festivals and I can honestly say I have never been to a show quite like this one. The Motion Picture Show Tour added a bit of magic to Saint Motel’s music that they didn’t necessarily need, but it enhanced the songs in a way every single fan of theirs should experience before the tour ends. They have restored my faith in the places live music can go with a bit of imagination. If you are interested in catching the tail end of their tour, here’s where they will be and where you can purchase tickets of your own:

Tour Dates:
March 3 – Seattle, WA – The Showbox
March 4 – Portland, OR – Roseland Theater
March 6 – San Francisco, CA – Regency Ballroom
March 7 – Los Angeles, CA – Fonda Theatre
March 8 – Los Angeles, CA – Fonda Theatre