Recorded at the Buell Theatre in Denver, Big Room is the second of 12 consecutive monthly releases by Tom Shillue. It was recorded by Shillue himself over two shows with a combined audience, according to his estimate, of 3,600 people. He was opening for Jim Gaffigan.
As The Spit Take’s review of Shillue’s first album of the series, Bigger, Stronger, Faster, appropriately puts it: “This is a project worth following. Shillue is off to a strong start. Now he just needs eleven more 35-minute chunks as good as this one, and he’ll be set.”
Big Room is a 31.5-minute album, but there are only about 25 minutes of onstage comedy, each of the two tracks being bookended by Shillue speaking directly into the recorder. Moreover, while each of the three tracks on his first album is built around its own self-contained story, Big Room’s two tracks are each opening sets for Gaffigan. By virtue of this premise, neither set allows Shillue room to fully explore his stories and tease out the details. Instead, each finds Shillue appropriately hitting on a few key areas, weaving them together the way any good opener should and would.
This is not to say that Big Room is worse than its predecessor, or by any means a bad album. Far from it. It is, however, a different album, and in this way it makes Shillue’s project even more intriguing. His first two releases are decidedly built around two distinct premises, which poses the question: What will his third album bring?
One issue that cannot be ignored, however, arises during Shillue’s note to the listener at the top of the second set. “If you hear me repeat a joke, let it go,” he says before taking the stage. “I’ve gotta stay alive out there.” From a performance standpoint, this is unquestionably valid. But the album is not for the audience; it’s for the consumer, the listener at home. This creates a tricky dynamic, as the purpose behind Big Room seems to be that Shillue is trying to capture the authenticity of an opening set, yet few people want to hear jokes repeated on an album. (To Shillue’s credit, he does not end up reusing material during his second set.)
To this end, Big Room is a singular conception. Shillue taped the album with a handheld recorder tucked into his back pocket, and his intros and outros were seemingly captured with no edited time lapses between taking and exiting the stage. Moreover, his material is certainly strong enough to merit inclusion on a release. What is puzzling, though, is why this 12-albums-in-12-months feat is being attempted. At $1.99 per, it’s hard to fault Shillue for only putting a half-hour of material on each, but perhaps a better approach would have been to create six full-lengths. As there doesn’t seem to be much of a purpose other than being able to say it was done, ultimately the final verdict must not be determined by the realization of this goal, but the overall quality of that realization.