Sipping on a glass of what appeared to be straight whiskey – no ice – Tim Kasher, front man guitarist of Cursive, led the audience through a staggering set of grippingly off-kilter rock songs at the Pabst Theatre on Sept. 24. Kasher’s homely stage presence and swaggering vocals were reminiscent of Cursive’s self-deprecating side. However, the performance revealed a band with a newfound appreciation for the success they’ve found. The show began with a free improvisation with Kasher noodling around on a heavily filtered guitar and guitarist Ted Stevens accompanying on a clarinet. The piece that lasted all but two minutes seemed to draw the audience’s attention to a new forward-looking Tim Kasher. The short improv eventually led into “Art is Hard” from the album “The Ugly Organ” (2003, Saddle Creek). The song is an anthem for the self-aware masochistic Kasher that serviced as a satirical theme on Cursive’s previous record. As the show progressed, however, the band’s performance proved to be more focused and dynamic than ever. Some new songs were a bit reminiscent of Kasher’s solo albums – released under the name The Good Life – with their exploration into more diverse sounds. Songs like the ethereal “Bad Sects” and the noisy folk song “Rise Up! Rise Up!” showed that Cursive has grown more confident in honing their diverse musical aesthetics. The recently released “Happy Hollow” (2006, Saddle Creek) shows a significant step forward for Cursive. Where “The Ugly Organ” was filled with self-deprecating songs almost undercutting Kasher’s more poignant lyrical moments, “Happy Hollow” is a more candid work, exploring, among other things, religion and complacency in its different manifestations. The band has moved past Kasher’s self-critical leanings in order to allow his poignant imagery stinging metaphors to take the forefront. Images of a preoccupied God, pedophilic preachers, and looming steeples play into a harsh picture of small-town America. The abrasive horn arrangements on the new album fit remarkably well into Cursive’s already rough sound, while adding a menacing, almost sardonic campiness to certain songs. All in all, Cursive has managed to take their rampant aesthetics and hone them into a more mature artistic effort. Nonetheless, “Mothership, Mothership, Do You Read Me?” from their 2001 EP “Burst and Bloom” was a highlight of the show at the Pabst, reminding the crowd that there is only one band that could pull off precisely gauche songs with the intensity of four angry drunks from Omaha. Still unable to escape his anti-rock star persona, Kasher announced the last song while assuring everyone that they’ll be back out in a few minutes to play an encore. Although the band may seem more tenacious with their artistic vision, they still are not ready to leave their humble roots just yet.