For the unwitting punk-rock aesthete, happening upon Sweep the Leg Johnny in a crowded dive bar can be startling. The four unassuming lads from Chicago who make up the band crank out an intense, immense saxophone-fueled brand of post-punk that doesn't lend itself to immediate comprehension. Even for those who quickly acclimate to Sweep's contorted context, tracing the roots of the band's sound is about as forthright a task as untangling post-Cold War foreign policy in the U.S. Still, many have attempted it. The literature on the band is rightly peppered with references to both the righteous fury of Fugazi and John Coltrane's transcendent, lyric freedom. But it would seem that the rock-and-roll side of Sweep's latest disc, Tomorrow We Will Run Faster, more closely parallels the sinewy arrangements of the long-defunct Rites of Spring (whose vocalist and guitarist, Guy Picciotto, and drummer, Brendan Canty, both now play for Fugazi). More troubling, Steven Sostak's scorching sax bridges might owe less to Coltrane than to the raw energy in the "harmolodics" of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time.
Yet even when one combines all of these refined ingredients into one descriptive stew, they're still off-base. For Sostak, entering into exacting discussions of just what city or person has influenced the band's sound seems like a petty exercise. Influence, after all, is best manifest through inspiration rather than mimicry, and Sweep the Leg Johnny can confidently boast a sound unique to its own efforts. The band manages to pull from various genres without aligning with any one. Sure, drummer Scott Anna has been influenced by the Dischord Records/D.C. hardcore sound, Sostak concedes. "You'll get that sometimes, in the straighter stuff we do," he explains, "especially in the drumming, which has that kind of straightahead but still snappy and precise style." From there the discussion can easily become a pedantic and confusing quibble over American musical geography. "The passionate side behind the music definitely has leanings towards more of a D.C. sound even than a Chicago sound," he continues, "although the musical side definitely has the precision of what happens in a scene like Chicago." And so on.
Whatever the band equation, Sweep, whose members are between 24 and 28, plays with vigor and meticulousness, two qualities that often cancel each other out in lesser bands. Though their epics can briefly tend toward the overblown, the guitars, drums and bass maintain an edgy, phase-shifting quality within an impressive stylistic range. On "The Face Perpendicular to the Shoreline," a track from their debut CD, 220.127.116.11, for example, Sweep offers a hint of the languid tempos and vertiginous melodies found in the more accessible fare of its Chicago brethren, Gastr del Sol. Tucked away amid the bruising waves of indie-rock riffing and the corresponding ominous lulls on Tomorrow's "Skin," one finds a snippet of new-wave geometry à la Gang of Four. The sprawling, fifteen-minute "Rest Stop" rises, falls and squalls enough to suggest a decidedly de-mellowed progressive-rock project gone pleasantly awry. The complex "Early October" displays just enough interplay to evoke Robert Fripp's notion of crafty guitars, though Sostak's ax is actually a sax.
Sweep the Leg Johnny, with Automaton Adventure Series and Acrobat Down. October 4, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $6, 303-572-0822
Sostak's avant attack isn't modeled after any particular jazz giant. Rather, he cites an influence in a more humble source. "I guess my band teacher would probably be my hero," he decides after some musing. "But, you know, I have Coltrane records and Miles Davis records, and that kind of stuff is obviously amazing. It's something I definitely am slowly getting into, and I'm even incorporating some free-form stuff in our newer songs."
If all of the genre comparisons get a bit tiresome to Sweep's listeners, they can nearly boil the blood of the band. Yet if they must accept some pigeonholing, it seems Sweep would rather be labeled as polka-deconstructionist than wear the ubiquitous emo-core tag. "Are we emotional when we play music? Hell, yeah. We sweat. We play hard every night," explains Sostak, frustrated by a Punk Planet review that labeled the band "experimental emo." "We try to not worry about it, but when we get press like that, it gets a little saddening. We're trying to define ourselves as more than just this gray area between adult, intricate rock and roll and this punk/emo scene. Finding an audience for that has been really hard for us, because kids aren't always willing to let go of their niche."
Fortunately, Sweep the Leg Johnny's categorical troubles vanish on stage; it's hard to worry about such little matters, after all, while being pummeled by some unknown musical force. Sostak crouches and wails, his veins bulging underneath his fierce skronks and inspired vocals. Guitarist Chris Daly picks through a tsunami of fuzz with an ear for smart repetition and dramatic transitions. Drummer Scott Anna gracefully shifts tempos on his tightly wound kit. Bassist John Brady's bright presence is both an anchor and elastic.
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"The live experience with us tends to be where we get the most praise," says Sostak. It's a quality that motivates the hardworking bandmembers as much as it excites their audiences. Coming off a disappointing Chicago gig at the end of a recent tour, Sweep had an epiphany of sorts in Milwaukee that illustrates the point. "I was still fuming because we just worked our asses off and we couldn't get a ton of support in our hometown," Sostak recalls. "So this girl comes up to us, super-nervous, and she's like, 'You guys are my favorite live band. Will you come play my birthday for me this summer?' She was sixteen going on seventeen, and we did it.
"It made us really re-evaluate why we go on tour," he continues. "When people come and see us live and we put on a good show, we get that feeling where people are seeing this prog-rock ensemble with a punk-rock energy. When it clicks, I think it really blows people away. It's exciting to be a part of that."
Sweep has managed to build a small but smart following nationwide based on its incessant touring, an approachable demeanor and sheer intensity. The band will also release a third album on Chicago's Southern Records next May. As tempting as it may be to conclude that its live formula owes much to the creative improvisation that the mighty saxophone implies, that's not the case. Sweep is not a free-form band -- yet. "It's pretty damn structured," says Sostak. "There's some pretty interesting time stuff going on in there, and overlapping. I think that's where people feel the avant stuff...A lot of the European press has been comparing us, especially in England, more to prog rock. I think that's probably more where we're at than a jazz thing," reports Sostak. "It still flows as a rock song as opposed to an improvised thing."
Prog rock, jazz, punk, emo -- if Sweep the Leg Johnny is caught in label limbo, that might not be such a tragedy for these young Chicagoans. "We're in an interesting age bracket, stuck in that middle ground between the young punk scene and the old Tortoise-type scene," Sostak explains. If the bandmembers continue to follow their current musical trajectory, one can only expect more refinement of their own innovative sound, whatever the hell it is.