The last time 30 Seconds To Mars played to a paying audience in Chicago, they were headlining a radio station show for Q101 in Tinley Park. Between 1992 and 2012, Q101 was arguably Chicago's prime alternative radio station. Birthed out of the explosion of alternative music led by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, the station evolved for two decades and was one of the truly consistent stations in Chicago. That ended in July of 2012 when the station switched formats. Almost overnight, the station disappeared. Terrestrial radio has had its fair share of struggles over the last decade and the lost of Q101 was massive for a city that had relied on it for nearly two decades to steer the alternative train throughout its many changes. There was a hole that it did not appear would be replaced. Then something surprising happened, the spirit and station was reborn at 87.7 on our FM dial.
Despite my reservations, the channel has flourished and has continued to embrace alternative music like its predecessor in fine form. Just recently, the station sponsored a pair of Christmas shows that featured notable lineups. The superb arena show, named The Night We Stole Christmas, featured nearly five-hours of music on the Allstate Arena stage where more than ten-thousand fans watched five of the best and brightest bands lighting up the alternative airwaves currently. I missed Grouplove due to traffic and will call, but was pleasantly surprised with Alt-J's seven-song set. The band's sleep alt-rock serenaded the crowd, whose attendance was impressive for being a little past seven o'clock. After seeing Alt-J this past August at Lollapalooza, I was not awed and if anything, I felt they provided afternoon mood music for naps. Under the roof of the Allstate Arena, the band flourished by a deeply impressive light show that matched their music rather splendidly. By the time they came to "Dissolve Me" and "Breezeblocks", they had captured the crowd's hearts with a dream-like set. Hailing from Oxford, England, Foals hit the stage with their trippy dance hall grooves with wrist-splitting guitar chords on "My Number". On "Providence", the band's guitars echoed like perfectly shaved ice while the other members constructed songs for dreamy looks up at the stars. Despite only being granted twenty-five minutes to perform, they played with passion and purpose making them stand out. Those who waited to see the two main headliners missed out as both Alt-J and Foals proved they deserved to be on the arena stage.
Queens of the Stone Age took to the stage with little fanfare, plugged in and proceeded to use their instruments liked sledgehammers on a side of a mountain. "Feel Good Hit of the Summer" and "No One Knows" were smoldering. Jon Theodore on drums and stunning bassist Michael Shuman stood out as the band's melodic but molten metal grooves were underpinned by the rhythm section that snarled through the screams of the crowd. As "My God is the Sun" and "If I had a Tail", singer and guitarist Josh Homme pulverized and punished the audience in ways few I believe were expecting them to. Deserving of headlining on their own, they shared the stage but were not going to leave it until an impression had been imprinted on the audience. Several of their Chicago trips in the last few years have been as part of festivals (Lollapalooza, Pearl Jam Twenty) and yet they never call it in or underplay. Their music perfectly conjures up the gravity of heaven while never turning its back on the burning flames of hell. Throughout an all-too-brief ten-song set, the band took a no prisoners approach and altered the course of the show. What should have been a home run for headliners 30 Seconds To Mars, turned into a show where both bands had to amp up their games. Josh Homme is not just the lead guitarist in one of the best bands on the planet, but his vocals elevate the songs to heights most bands cannot reach. As the set closed with "A Song For the Dead", Homme's hips moved and shook like Elvis all the while he devilishly ripped through some of the heaviest and most discordant guitar chords of the last decade.
What I love, and most do not grasp, about 30 Seconds To Mars is their ambition. Most up-and-coming acts these days rest on their laurels or repeat themselves on every record. The Jared Leto fronted 30 Seconds To Mars has improved their craft with every album, every song and every performance. This is War is a modern alternative masterpiece capturing the confusion and chaos of our society in a splashy arena-rock package. The only negative I can give the performance was it was entirely too short at sixty-five minutes. Drummer Shannon Leto was the first onstage with his drum kit setup at the far right side of the stage. Guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Tomo Miličević was next before Jared Leto, with microphone in hand, went to the center with his long hair, facial hair and sunglasses. As his brother Shannon thumped and throttled the drums, Jared meticulously conducted the audience. "Night of the Hunter" and "Seek and Destroy", the latter which was pushed to ten-minutes, featured Leto as one of the great front man in the world. The band has never shied away from melody, yet they still maintain an artistic edge. The best bands do not just distract or comfort but challenge us musically and lyrically while exposing creeds we once felt were unbreakable. On their latest album Love, Love, Faith and Dreams, 30 Seconds To Mars find middle ground between the cerebral and the corporeal. Looking out at the crowd, fists fly to the air, lyrics are sung back and eyes and minds are wide-open ready for anything.
Special note needs to be given to drummer Shannon Leto who is amongst the most impressive men behind the kit living today. He does not fit any standard definition of a drummer as his playing is punctual and precise, but his ambition redefines the sound of his band. Instead of customary drum fills and rhythm, his playing is as ambitious as any I have laid eyes upon. "Conquistador", "Do or Die" and "City of Angels" were in full bloom as the band locked into each other's musical eyesight. Their tales about a world in flames burst to life in the live environment. Some of the finest music videos of the last decade accompany "Closer to the Edge and "Kings and Queens", but they're larger-than-life on the stage. I was not a believer of this band at first, but the videos, the albums and now the live shows are finding their way into my psyche and soul. People who dismiss 30 Seconds To Mars are mistaken, as they are quite possibly the rock world's most ambitious band as they are willing to dare to be grand and great. As "Up in the Air" closed the show out, it did so with more than fifty fans onstage. When the last note echoed throughout the arena, Leto made a point to tell the crowd they would be back at the merchandise booth signing every CD the fans had brought with them. Q87.7 may not be the biggest station in Chicago, but they delivered the best holiday show with a number of acts who could have headlined on their own reminding us that while rock music isn't necessarily the most popular format anymore, it's still the most potent as evidenced by their five-hour holiday show.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMUSIC Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at tonyk AT antiMUSIC DOT com and can be followed on Twitter