BY MARK GUARINO | CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
Not too long into “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” Frances McKee forgot the words and looked to her musical partner Eugene Kelly for help. He wasn’t any. They laughed and the song ended, soon after it began, which is not unusual for The Vaselines considering many of their songs last under three minutes.
“That was the car crash version,” Kelly explained to the audience at the Empty Bottle late Wednesday.
They have a good reason why the song might escape them al these years later. In 1994, when Kurt Cobain of Nirvana chose to cover the song, and two others from The Vaselines, during a taping of “MTV Unplugged,” not only did the performance provide a new dimension into the iconic grunge band, but it also presented the Glasgow duo to their widest audience outside their native Scotland.
Yet even then, The Vaselines were broken up for a few years and it took 12 years after Cobain’s tribute for the band to regroup to record their second album in 23 years. Now there is a third — “V For Vaselines” (Rosary Music), released last fall, which pictures McKee and Kelly on the cover dressed in black leather and posed against a motorcycle. The portrait suggests a rough trip, but their show, a rare appearance in Chicago, was stuck on sweet.
Think of them as a power-pop Ramones: Songs featuring minimal chords, fuzzed-up jangly guitar riffs, and a race to keep things tight under three minutes, sometimes two. Despite a show that stretched about 70 minutes, the band managed to squeeze in a setlist of more than 20 songs. Breaking from the punk ethos of fast and furious, the songs were closer to rockabilly but without the twang or greased hair; slowed down, other songs had the wistful tug of old-fashioned country music.
What Cobain appreciated about The Vaselines was a kind of childlike simplicity that somehow felt undeniably profound. Part of this has to do with the dynamic between both singers. The lyrics of “Sex With An X” consisted largely of a single line— “Feels so good, it must be bad for me/let’s do it, let’s do it again” — sung in sweet harmony over and over and over again that the line separating ecstasy and agony blurred.
There was the sweetness of 1960s girl groups, with McKee and Kelly talking to each other in lovely call-and-response vocals that contrast the buzzing guitars and crashing drums. On “The Lonely LP,” a song about dating a narcissist, McKee sings, a plea, “uptown, uptown girl,” with Kelly answering, “do you want me or not?” as his vocal partner wordlessly harmonized behind him.
Between songs they were a study in contrasts: Kelly a tall, bald straight man with a deadpan face and McKee a bawdy comic with a mischievous smile. (“I could get pregnant from playing your guitar?” she asked him after they switched instruments. “Yes mum,” he replied.)
The revamped band now includes drummer Michael McGaughrin of Teenage Fanclub, bassist Graeme Smillie and guitarist Scott Paterson. The rudimentary nature of the songs kept heads bobbing throughout the set, although there were moments when Paterson provided rougher edges — no solos, mind you, but twinkling guitar leads that gave the music a psychedelic haze.
There were moments the music roared, particularly “Hairy,” which created a short-lived mosh pit in front of the stage, and “Son of a Gun,” also covered by Cobain, that featured upbeat vocals drenched in feedback and noise.
Displaying their quirks proudly has kept the music fresh over so many decades. Representing a band that has not chased trends, opposed to others who have and are relegated to the casino circuit, The Vaselines could adopt one of the songs they played Wednesday (“I Hate the ‘80s”) as a manifesto for other bands seeking similar longevity. “What do you know? You weren’t there/It wasn’t all Duran Duran,” they sang together. “You want the truth? Well, this is it/I hate the ‘80s because the ‘80s were s—.”