Ben Howard’s show at the Riviera Theatre seemed to bring music fans from just about every walk of life: 30-something guys with man buns, women in their mid-20s sporting bohemian dresses, dads with their daughters, and young couples who were all too in love.
It was an impressive turnout, with a line that wrapped around the next block and a packed crowd. Although I was surprised at the amount of people, it makes sense given that this is Howard’s first full-length U.S. tour since 2015 following the release of his second album, I Forget Where We Were. This summer brought Howard’s third LP, Noonday Dream, and his current tour. Known for his reclusive ways and tendency to avoid the spotlight, the crowd was buzzing with anticipation for the night’s events.
Opening the show was Wye Oak, a three-piece band from Baltimore. Their sound was a mix of multiple genres; indie, noise rock, and country influences were all apparent. With instrumentation similar to Howard, they seemed to appease the audience. Although their songs began to get a bit repetitive, they really hit their stride with a cover of Kate Bush’s “Deeper Understanding.” Lead singer Jenn Wasner noted Bush as one of her heroes – and indeed, the song seemed more fitting to her voice than some of her own compositions did.
Once Ben Howard stepped onstage, the environment of the theatre shifted. His 8-piece band, including an orchestral section, was divided by four poles with lights attached to them. Throughout this performance, the lights moved up and down, creating an ocean-like effect. Visuals were displayed on a backdrop; first of a desert surface, and then a holographic display of Howard in real time. The stage production was absolutely beautiful, and there he was in the middle of it all, sitting on a bench with his guitar.
Starting with “A Boat to an Island on the Wall,” Howard played almost straight through six songs off of his new album, pausing only to switch out guitars. He acknowledged the audience shyly, if at all, only looking up a few times. This added a fragility to his performance that nearly made one hold their breath for fear of interrupting his concentration. Howard’s gravelly, yearning voice echoed around the theatre as he strummed his guitar with ease, almost as if it was an extension of himself. He is well known for his “pick and go” strumming technique, which incorporates intricate picking and percussion. Needless to say, watching him play in person was absolutely fascinating.
Although he is only 31, Howard seemed to carry with him a wisdom rarely seen in today’s performers. The whole experience carried a solemn, almost existential weight, accentuated by the lights and visuals. At one point, he even turned away from the audience, playing solely for himself. His set consisted almost exclusively of his new album, which signaled to me a desire to separate himself from his past work, particularly his first release Every Kingdom. Those catchy riffs and love-filled lyrics were nowhere to be found in his set, which is sure to have disappointed more than a few fans. However, he played “Small Things” and the titular track from I Forget Where We Were, which resulted in a chorus of voices and phones in the air. Thunderous applause was rewarded with an encore, during which his two new singles were played along with “I Forget Where We Were.”
Though not what I expected it to be, there is no way I could be dissatisfied with Howard’s performance. It left me thoughtful and perplexed, and the accompanying visuals made me understand his new album in an entirely different way. It was apparent that performing is not something Howard enjoys – he seems to be purely in it for the music and the catharsis that it brings him. I found this to be extremely refreshing, and although it may be viewed as selfish by some, it brought an element of wisdom and delicacy to the night that is often lacking in present-day concert culture.
Marketed as “summer’s last stand,” North Coast Music Festival was not only a celebration of the last rays of summer sun, but also of urban, tourist-free Chicago. From August 31 through September 2, Union Park was transformed into a lively stomping ground for downtown’s resident creatives and music lovers. Stages were filled with a good amount of local musicians, drawing crowds full of passionate listeners. Meanwhile, a curated lineup of artists created colorful installations with hip hop and street art themes.
But let’s not forget that nighttime performances were literal last stands against a never-ending mass of thunderclouds and pouring rain. Attendees missed out on two nights’ worth of heavy-hitting headlining acts. Despite an outstanding showing from those who did perform, the weekend’s exuberance took a heavy hit. However, a miraculous final day full of music brought both heat and proof of the city’s dedication to beating negativity with a good time.
Keep reading for my short notes on the sets I hung out at, and stay tuned for artist interview podcasts from Sonic Sanctuary’s Brennan White.
Iris Temple: My favorite of the day! The Chicago-based duo gave a gorgeous sunset performance, even though it was only seen by two rows of people. A romantic change of pace from the edgier acts. Picture perfect lighting on a small stage, and vibier synths and vocals.
Snails: The complete opposite of Iris Temple, which allowed me to get my trap fix for the weekend. Killer first half, but cut short by the storm. Lots of spirited steppers and aggressive head-bangers, which was to be expected.
Robert DeLong: A crazy person, in the absolute best way. He ran around onstage with a Wii remote, used to control three different electronic setups, followed by a bouncing head of platinum hair.
RL Grime: I saw him in May, before the release of his third album, NOVA, and was thrilled to hear the new set. It went above and beyond my expectations. Some drops fell a bit flat, but hearing the album live with an entire sea of people made up lost ground–and then some.
Cashmere Cat: Unconventional drops, glistening pops and quirky arrangements. A nice change of pace. He opted out of using visuals, adding emphasis on the music, and ended up being an impromptu headliner when gates once again closed early due to storms.
Maddy O’Neal: A female in electronic music! O’Neal’s chill beats and heavy, pared down bass lines were right on brand. Compare to artists like Manic Focus.
The Midnight: So sweet! So soulful! I sat down in the grass with some friends for this one, swaying and vibing out.
Mura Masa: Alex Crossan, the reserved, artistic Brit known as Mura Masa hung back with his instruments, playing everything perfectly and causing a storm of dancing bodies. Crossan was joined onstage by Fliss, who handled most of the vocals and provided a welcome contrast with her power and liveliness.
Jamiroquai: Returned to the city for the first time in over a decade, and frontman Jason Kay proclaimed he would pick up right where he left off. Such a confident and eccentric performer. Truly entertaining and classic.
Special mention for the silent disco, which provided a necessary break from main stages and was the most consistently packed area of the entire park. Featuring local DJs, it maintained an anything goes, basement concert vibe.
Although musician Ian Ruhala – better known as Hala – may be young, what he lacks in age he makes up for in experience. The 21-year-old has been playing and recording his own music from his bedroom since high school. His EP Young Alumni was released in 2015 after graduation and full-length Spoonfed soon followed, produced during his first semester of college. This summer, he recruited band members and embarked on a 16-date tour, co-headlining with fellow indie favorites BOYO.
I crossed paths with Hala at their last stop of tour in Cleveland, Ohio. The basement of a bowling alley called Mahall’s Twenty Lanes served perfectly as the venue, complimenting Hala’s vintage vibe. The specific corner of the basement in which they played was dubbed “The Locker Room,” presumably due to the row of old beige lockers placed behind the band.
Sporting a grey Tommy Hilfiger shirt and a shoulder fanny pack, Ruhala took a seat on one of the vintage bowling benches to discuss his sound, tour life, and balancing college with music.
Ruhala said of his music that although he gets lumped into the “bedroom pop” genre, he doesn’t like to restrict himself to just that.
“I don’t really know how I feel about that term [bedroom pop], but I do record in a bedroom,” Ruhala said. “I don’t know if it’s really poppy. It’s just like guitar-driven rock ‘n’ roll through the lens of recording at home, so lo-fi is sometimes attached – but I don’t know, I’m not purposefully trying to sound like shit.”
This tour being his longest and first time headlining in the U.S., Ruhala said that it has resulted in close friendships between the two bands – and surprisingly, a lot of nudity.
“Everybody gets naked, really,” Ruhala said. “We were in the car the other day and my guitarist was just playing his gameboy and then he felt the urge to get naked, so he stripped down.”
Other tour antics have included (sorta) trashing a hotel room.
“We kind of – not really – trashed a hotel room the other night, but we got really drunk and busted one of the beds,” Ruhala said. “It wasn’t like a Van Halen kind of trashing where things were actually destroyed; it was more like ‘sorry about this clean up that you gotta do.’”
However, Ruhala doesn’t always live such a lifestyle – he is also a college student, having graduated near the top of his high school class. A type A student in high school, he said that he has learned to relax in college and as a result, has been able to focus more on music.
“If you really wanna pursue music, in the moments that you have free you’ll find yourself gravitating toward your instrument and just playing it,” Ruhala said. “That could be at 2 a.m. after you study, it could be during the day, it could be playing a show. There’s always time.”
However, Ruhala said that instead of sitting down and trying to write a song, the songs tend to come to him.
“I’ll get a chord progression or I’ll have a sentence that could be a chorus line, and it kind of just happens. Usually it has to do with experiences and the song will find me. And sometimes you gotta do some weird stuff to find it,” Ruhala said. “You can’t write a song about heartbreak and not be heartbroken; you can’t write a song about drugs and alcohol without partaking in it. You don’t want to be a poser. And that’s what I’m big on, I just want to write songs that mean something to me and I don’t wanna write fluff, you know?”
Recording and production also play a large part in Ruhala’s creative process. Spoonfed was recorded entirely in an attic, which Ruhala said played an important role in the final product.
“I’ve done stuff in a studio with other bands, and I can just tell, when you bring an engineer in and pay them, most of the time they’re like ‘this isn’t my own stuff’ so they don’t really care,” Ruhala said. “I want to give [an album] the time that I think it deserves. I’m not too much of a studio wizard but I’m learning every time I do something, and I feel like if I’m happy with it, then that’s really all that matters.”
As the show approached, The Locker Room filled up with around 30 people. BOYO was on first, impressing the crowd with crisp guitar riffs and moody vocals from singer Robert Tilden. As they played, the band members of Hala placed themselves front and center, dancing wildly as a form of encouragement.
A few moments after BOYO’s set ended, Hala took over, and the members of BOYO replaced them in the crowd. Although suffering from a slight cold, Ruhala delivered great vocals and strummed his Epiphone Casino guitar with ease. Hala played six songs in total, contrasting “Problems” from his first EP with recent single “Keep on Loving” and of course, “What Is Love? Tell Me, Is It Easy?”. Midway through the set, Ruhala announced that his parents were in the crowd, having driven from his hometown of Detroit, Michigan. This just added to the already present feeling that being at his show was like being welcomed into a tightly knit group of friends. It was just the right amount of laid-back and intimate, and one couldn’t help but notice the smiles on the faces of almost everyone as they watched Ian Ruhala and his friends play music.
As for what to expect from Hala’s future, there is another album in the works, hopefully to be released next summer. Ruhala said that it will be recorded with all new gear in a different bedroom, and he is looking to change his direction stylistically as well.
“I just want to genre-hop as much as I can. I want it to be the most confusing and incoherent string of songs, but I still want them to blend in some way,” Ruhala said. “I wrote a country song, a sludgy hip-hop song and then I’ve got some poppier songs and some guitar songs. So I just want it to be a mixed bag of pretty much everything because that’s what I’m listening to right now.”
And what exactly is Ruhala listening to right now? Twin Peaks, Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, and Mason Ramsey (yep, the yodeling Walmart boy).
“I really appreciate [Mason Ramsey]. I don’t get why they’re recording him like they did on ‘Famous’ because if they were to record him in a way that was old school like he is, it would sound so cool,” Ruhala said. “I think probably when he’s like 20 and having a mental breakdown, he will make a fabulous record. And like, it will sound so sick.”
Well, if Ruhala’s prediction comes true and Ramsey does end up making that great record at 20, then I suppose they will have something in common.
From his verse in “LAND OF THE FREE” criticizing America’s current political climate by calling out the president, claiming “Donald Trump is not equipped to take this country over,” to his collaboration with Jamaican Reggae artist Chronixx in “BABYLON,” in which the duo channels the pain of the murder of Freddie Grey and police brutality in America, rapping “Turn on to CNN, look at what I see again; It’s another black man, died at the white hand of justice,” Joey Bada$$ has established himself as an artist unafraid of representing the struggles in this country in his latest album ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$.
Joey’s use of his career and music as a platform to criticize America’s leadership and political trajectory rang clear in his performance at Concord Music Hall on May 23, during which Joey took a break to call Kanye out for his recent support of Trump. Taking moments like these to establish his own views and how they relate to his music is something that sets Joey Bada$$ apart from other rappers of his generation, and it’s part of why his fan base is so dedicated and passionate about his music, as made evident by his show in Chicago being sold out weeks before the performance.
Taking time out of his performance to pay tribute to his fans in the crowd who have been supporting his music career since his mixtape “1999” dropped in 2012, Joey emphasized his connection to longtime followers and his appreciation for the support they have shown him through the years. His gratitude was evident in his stellar performance, rapping mostly from his most recent album but also including much of his lesser known music like “95 Til Infinity” from his 2013 album Summer Knights. With a show filled with moments of connection with the audience and gratitude for his openers and DJ’s, Joey Bada$$ is an artist to look out for when it comes to using one’s status in the industry for constructive dialogue.
Originally the stage name for singer and guitarist Alejandro Rose Garcia, Shakey Graves has morphed into the four-piece, indie blues-rock band that took the stage at the Vic on May 22. Since signing with the Dualtone Music Group in 2014, Rose-Garcia has diversified his sound by adding more artists and instruments to his famous one-man guitar and suitcase act. His latest release, Can’t Wake Up, softens his upbeat Texan twang into a more whimsical, introspective rock set that relies less on Rose-Garcia’s showmanship and more on the depth of both his lyrics and his band.
Despite Rose-Garcia’s constantly expanding sonar vocabulary, his music—and stage presence— is still very uniquely his.Everything down to the construction of the set was overseen directly by Rose-Garcia, who darted around stage in a horned skeleton mask setting up props and instruments according to his liking before the performance. In keeping with the theme of Can’t Wake Up, the stage was set up as a Tim-Burton-goes-punk-esque dreamscape. Cotton ball clouds floated over an eerie, black and white city scape as cartoon sheep jumped between them, creating the ghost town of your best childhood nightmares. In the center of the setting was a conglomeration of outdated radios and televisions, playing a loop of cartoon static. And right in the very middle of the stage was Shakey’s iconic suitcase outfitted with a kickdrum and tambourine.
Traditionally, the stage going dark signals that the performance is about to begin. The audience anticipates the music to begin with a flash of light, the band storming the stage and commanding attention. It was surprising, then, that when Rose-Garcia walked on stage (this time without his mask), he was accompanied only by a soft, purple glow from the wispy clouds surrounding him and the static from the TVs behind him. From the audience, only his outline was visible. He slowly strummed his way into “Only Son” off his 2014 album And the War Came, which marked a transition point where Rose-Garcia branched out from his solo act to collaborate with other artists. This song, however, nodded to the old Shakey—just Rose-Garcia and his guitar, sitting on his funny little suitcase, having a blast.Each successive song added a little more depth to the set. The next one, “Foot of Your Bed,” invited the rest of his band on stage, linking the old with the new. I didn’t realize until the third song that the stage had been getting progressively lighter, the deep purple of the clouds lightening into pinks and oranges, the lights at the base of the stage flooding it with a soft luminescence. The sun was rising on Shakey’s ghost town, and Rose-Garcia was ready to greet it. The additional bodies on stage brought more energy to the set, and soon both the band and the crowd were dancing around to the rock-n-roll rhythms designed for this four-piece group. Rose-Garcia swapped his acoustic guitar out for an electric one and popped on a cowboy hat, only to swagger around in a wide legged stance and mime his own lyrics. In true Southern fashion, he was in no hurry to do anything but tell tall tales and enjoy himself.
The set was like a midsummer day dream—the sun rising lazily, heating up the ground and thickening the air until the clouds can’t take it anymore. Then they burst open for a late afternoon thunderstorm—or, in Shakey’s case, another solo bit where Rose-Garcia poured his heart out onto a six-string. He played several older songs, encouraging the audience to join him in his reverie, before parting the clouds for one last sunset. The band came back on stage, kicking up their heels to some of their more country-inspired pieces as the lights slowly reddened and dimmed. The final song that they played as a group was “Counting Sheep” off their latest album. At last, the sun had gone down on Shakey’s fantastical ghost town and it was time to rest. Rose-Garcia remained alone on stage under a spotlight to close the set with two of his most famous songs, “Roll the Bones” and “Late July.” Behind him, a retro-inspired sign flashed “Shakey Graves,” reminding the audience that at its core, Shakey Graves is the project of one scrappy little kid from Texas and his guitar. Even with the addition of other voices and talents, the two are inseparable.
It’s been a busy year for Courtney Barnett. After pumping out three new singles (one with an accompanying music video) in the first half of the year, Barnett released her long-awaited sophomore solo album through Milk! Records on May 18, 2018: just three days before I saw her live. Since April 29th, she’s been touring the US, and she played the last show on the U.S. leg of her months-long tour at Preston Bradley Hall inside the Chicago Cultural Center on May 21 before hopping the pond and kicking off another stint in Europe.
LALA LALA, a Chicago-area band, opened for Courtney, paying tribute to the garage/grunge rock she played with Rapid Transit to start her career. The all-female trio looked the part, sporting pink hair, tattoos, and edgy graphic tees. They played some matter-of-fact grunge rock and bopped around the stage unenthusiastically, mimicking the crowd’s response to their sound. I don’t think that they’re a bad band (in fact, I looked them up after the show and the three albums they have posted to their Bandcamp are decent), but seeing them live on stage, I would have never guessed it.I blame the crowd. Talk about some weird shit. People from all walks of life—from a group of screeching twelve-year-old girls to senior citizens wearing earplugs forty rows back while “resting their eyes” to the fifty-year-old guy in a paisley button-down and loafers who tried to fight me for “taking his spot” at a standing room concert—filled the scenic venue to the brim, and then there they stood. Motionless. After each song, they would scream. Lose their fucking minds, rather. But during the songs they didn’t so much as bob their heads. I’ve literally never seen anything like it and I probably never will again. It would have made an interesting study in human behavioral psychology; I felt like I was standing backwards in an elevator.
The LALA LALA girls picked up on the weird vibes and offered some half-hearted and monotonous gratuitous gestures when they saw fit before leaving the stage. They said things like, “Thanks Chicago,” and, “This is great.” It wasn’t.After 30 minutes of mulling around and checking out PBH’s breathtaking stained-glass dome ceiling and chandeliers, the crowd once again showed reluctant signs of life as Barnett took the stage. Now, I like her music. I really do. And I like her new album a lot. In the three days between its release and the show, I probably listened to it five times. But when I go see a musician live, I expect a live performance. Or maybe a good one. I was very disappointed with the show she put on for the Chicago crowd, and I was seemingly the only one.
The Australian leftie played her new album straight through. That was it. Not much pause between the ten songs, and not much variation from the studio versions. She played around with some divey guitar riffs that sounded unfamiliar during one or two of the solos, but for the most part it was a robotic reproduction of the studio album. She didn’t even change the order of the songs. If you liked the album you would have liked the show. I guess.
And I get it: it’s a brand-spanking-new album. But feel that I could have stayed home and written this review having never set foot in the building, and that’s not a good thing—in my opinion anyway. Overall, I respect her as an artist and, again, I really like her new album. But I did not enjoy the show. Had I paid to get in, I would have been pissed. But that’s just me.
She’ll be on the road through the end of July, meandering her way across Europe and then Canada, and eventually back through the US. Hopefully, she’ll figure out how to incorporate some variation and artistry to her live performances by then.
The Space in Evanston is a notoriously comfortable, intimate venue. When Caroline Smith played there on Saturday night, the venue was at its coziest–its floor filled with small, candle-lit tables and the stage covered with well-worn oriental rugs. There was no need for dramatics. Caroline Smith is a Minnesota based singer/songwriter who performed solo that night with only her acoustic guitar. She blends R&B, indie, folk, and pop elements into her music and her songs deal with love and life and even her beloved dog, Gracie. The setting was perfect for her intimate lyrics and laid-back stage persona.
Though Smith has not released an album since Half About Being a Woman in 2013, she still seems to have a strong resonance with her listeners. From the beginning of her set she established a light-hearted familiarity with the audience, opening with her satirical love song “Buy Me Something.” They all seemed in on the joke. She sang another song about love, and another—and then laughed and called herself out on it. “I don’t only sing about men!” she joked before transitioning into a cover of a song about growing up and exploring womanhood. She confessed to the audience that recently turning thirty has had a huge impact on her perspective, something they seemed to sympathize with. It struck me how honest and comfortable she was sharing herself with a room full of strangers, both through song and conversation. The mellow blue lights and her soft, full voice seemed to speak directly to the most vulnerable, human parts of the audience without transgressing any boundaries. Good songwriters like Smith have a knack for this. Even five years after her last release, people still identify with the ephemeral moments she captures in song and find themselves singing along.
Smith played quite a few tracks off her studio albums at the start of the set but took more liberty towards the end, taking advantage of her solo performance to play several new and in progress songs. She played three songs with Eric Mayson who had opened for her that night. The two have released one track together, “How Could You,” on Mayson’s 2015 album, Detail. Here you could really see the duo’s shared appreciation for soul and R&B, with Mayson playing keys and Smith losing her guitar in favor of stage mobility as she sang her heart out. Eventually Mayson retired off stage and Smith resumed her solo performance. After Mayson’s surprise appearance, the energy of the crowd ran high and Smith used this to round out her set with a mix of comedic and popular songs. The whole time, she was smiling. More importantly, so was her audience. For all her emotionalism, Smith never seemed sad or dreary. Good times, bad times, hard times, she rolls them all into song and keeps on singing.
Arriving right as doors opened for the Born Ruffians concert at Subterranean on Saturday, I was nervous to walk into an empty venue. It was the last show of their tour promoting Uncle, Duke & The Chief, the album they released in February, so I was expecting a better turnout at the start. By the time the opener, Little Junior, came on, only around 50 people were there.
The low attendance, however, didn’t stop Canada-grown Little Junior from leading with an incredible energy that put a smile on my face. Under a bright pink spotlight, the frontman, wearing red lipstick and a blue plastic necklace, literally glowed.
With songs dedicated to Ryan Gosling and a mysterious Michael, the frontman’s “enemy,” Little Junior filled their set with cheesy, coordinated headbanging and energetic guitar riffs. Their sound, reminiscent of the band Good Charlotte, transported me to a dark, crowded basement full of red Solo cups and beat-to-shit Converse, watching four guys bang out their angst with loud, overdriven guitar sound and emotional lyrics.
Despite the cheese, the band was more than enjoyable to watch. They were genuinely having a good time on stage, and couldn’t stop smiling and laughing at each other. Watching the hair of the bassist bounce up and down as he headbanged to every beat of every song made me so unbelievably happy. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a group genuinely enjoy performing as much as Little Junior did, and it was insanely refreshing and infectious.
By the time Little Junior closed out their set, Subterranean was packed. Both the balcony and the main floor were full of people ready to see Born Ruffians, composed of lead vocalist Luke Lalonde, bassist Mitch Derosier, keyboardist Andy Lloyd and drummer Steve Hamelin. The crowd was a mix of devoted fans who had been around since the first album’s release in 2008 and younger teens who had just started listening. I even spotted one young teen with her mom. Being pretty unfamiliar with their work, I was admittedly skeptical of the show I was about to see. The nice suit that Derosier wore didn’t help.
But by the end of the first song, I was hooked. The band led with “Hummingbird” off of their debut album, Red, Yellow & Blue (2008), and the energy of the crowd’s response to their classic hit was insane. Everyone was singing along and jumping, and when Derosier said to clap, they clapped. When he waved his hands, they waved back. This is pretty common at shows, but it’s rarely as enthusiastic as it was on Saturday.
After a few songs, Lalonde asked if anyone had been at their show in Chicago 12 years ago. Usually, there will be a few yells from the back when a question like this is asked. But in Subterranean, a solid third of the crowd responded to Lalonde. One of my favorite parts of the show was the dedication of the fans. Born Ruffians pulled from all of their extensive discography — “Forget Me” and “Love Too Soon” off of Uncle, Duke & The Chief, “& On & On & On” from RUFF (2015), and “Needle” from Birthmarks (2013) — but regardless of the song being played, the crowd knew every word.
The vibe of all of their music is laidback, easy-listening indie. I’d compare them to COIN, Circa Waves and ARIZONA, but with less synths and more of a natural sound. To me, this reflected Born Ruffians’ experience as a band. After having been around the block more than a few times, all four musicians were seasoned performers. They didn’t care much for gimmicks or unnecessary fluff, but instead preferred raw music and the joy of sound. It was refreshing, especially in an industry full of frontmen trying to out-hipster each other.
In addition to the actual sound of the show, the band was well arranged and matched the feel of the show. Lalonde and Derosier played off of each other beautifully. The stage was set up so that neither was in the middle, but instead each had their own side. Lalonde was calm, and stayed in his corner for the most part. Derosier, on the other hand, whipped his long hair all around the stage, taunted the crowd and jumped and danced around. The differences in energy among the bandmates gave everyone in the crowd someone to relate to.
After playing a few more songs, including “Ocean’s Deep,” and closing with “Miss You,” the band came back out with Little Junior for the last encore of the tour. Listening to the final song, “Working Together,” I was transported back to the Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes show I saw in 2016. It felt like church – the whole crowd was singing together with passion, shouting lyrics that they had lived by and jammed to for years.
With a fan base spanning 10 years, undoubtedly people there had grown up with Born Ruffians’ songs. It was an uplifting, calming experience that reminded me of the staying power of music, and proved just how essential music is to happiness and growing up.
Three boys emerge from the silence following the ill-matched rap music playing overhead. They take their places on stage and with little hesitation, start playing. With grins across their faces and a crowd full of teens drooling over Chicago’s young indie rock scene, they seem to enjoy every second. The boys strum and bang away until Rand, lead singer and guitarist, gets so hype that he has to ditch his shirt to keep going.
An hour earlier, Rand Kelly, Ramsey Bell and Josh Resing of The Slaps sat at a high table in Lincoln Hall, chicken fingers in hand, refueling before opening for Manwolves. Getting ready for the show ahead, the boys chatted about their experience starting as a DePaul band and where they hope to go with their Chicago fame.
With a vibe described as “beach blues rock” and a large fanbase of all ages, The Slaps have emerged as one of the most promising groups in Chicago’s indie rock scene. With a seamless performance at Lincoln Hall, faced with an energetic mosh pit and frequent shouts of “i love you,” its clear these boys have a passionate following despite being relatively new to town. The authentic, yet relaxed, confidence of the trio stems from each of the band members’ long history playing music. Resing has 13 years of drumming under his belt, Bell played guitar in middle school, switching to the bass his senior year of high school, and Rand plays the guitar and the piano.The Slaps started off jamming in houses their freshman year, but they have since expanded to play at venues like the Subterranean, the Empty Bottle, and Lincoln Hall. Grateful to be expanding their fanbase, The Slaps are confident that “the Depaul music scene was a good foot in for us,” (Bell). Recalling his favorite house show in Wicker Park earlier this year, Kelly reminisces on the intimacy of the performance and how “everyone was more inclined to dance when it’s a small venue.”
The Slaps’ success is the main priority for the band members at the moment, but as the well-rounded musicians they are, Bell and Resing are pursuing PR and marketing as Depaul sophomores, while Kelly pursues a degree in anthropology. When asked about expanding the band to include more members, the boys were open to the idea but “only if they can match the friendship we already have going,” remarks Resing. The Slaps being roommates begs the question of whether or not another member will be able to join the trios strong friendship. While Kelly and Bell are childhood friends hailing from Lexington, Kentucky, The Slaps met in September 2016 when Kelly and Bell approached Resing at a freshman party inquiring if he played the drums because, “he just had that vibe,” says Kelly.With their fame growing as they play more shows throughout Chicago, solo and with local bands like Manwolves (a band of Evanston Township High School alums headlining the show at Lincoln Hall), The Slaps are heading to Texas this summer to tour and bring their “beach blues rock” to the South.
Making their 8th appearance at Thalia Hall, Lake Street Dive returned to a loyal fan base and a full house on Tuesday night. The band has been active since its formation in 2004, still boasting its original lineup of Rachael Prince (vocals), Mike “McDuck” Olsen (guitar, trumpet), Bridget Kearney (upright bass), and Mike Calabrese (drums), plus the addition of keyboardist and vocalist Akie Bermiss in 2017. The longevity of the group and their well-defined sound give them an air of maturity, which was reflected in the crowd they drew.
The audience was almost entirely in their early 30s, drinking eight dollar beers, and probably into recycling. That didn’t stop them from singing and dancing along with the band, however. It was hard not to. Lake Street Dive has a unique way of crossing over time and space, tapping into genres like 50s jazz, 60s blues, 70s funk, 80s country, and 90s R&B to create their own “free country” music, completed by Rachael Prince’s powerful voice and insightful lyrics. The effect is a groovy twist on a classic sound.Lake Street Dive swaggered onto the stage, basking in the excitement of the devoted crowd for only a moment before launching into a song called “Baby Don’t Leave Me Alone With My Thoughts,” off of their new album Free Yourself Up. The stage was drenched in deep blue with shimmering pearls of disco light ricocheting off the bands loosely color coordinated outfits. At the center of attention, singer Rachael Prince rocked a baby blue A-line skirt, beach waves, and bold red lipstick. I couldn’t tell if the band was out in space or underwater but they were definitely in a world of their own. Especially with the way that the elaborate border framing the stage of Thalia Hall absorbed the color of the stage lights, it felt as if we were watching a sixties rerun of American Bandstand on an old CRT television.
The dramatic lighting played a huge role in the stage dynamics for the rest of the show. The nineteen song set was broken into distinctive visual blocks that kept the songs from bleeding together, with the lighting emphasizing and complimenting the bands transitions between genre and mood. Even though the band has a relatively consistent collective sound, they were able to highlight individual influences in their music this way and seemingly travel through time.Each member of the band also enjoyed an individual spotlight at some point during the set, starting with Mike Olsen as he switched from guitar to trumpet during the fifth song “Better Than.” By this point highly polished feeling from the beginning of their performance had tarnished into a more relaxed, interactive atmosphere. The band played a few songs from some of their older albums, evoking nostalgic singing from the crowd who remembered Prince’s character “Bobby Tanqueray” from the band’s 2014 album Bad Self Portraits. This time, bassist Bridget Kearney took the spotlight with a solo that transitioned the band into their hit “Spectacular Failure” off of their 2016 album Side Pony.
The band kept jamming through their next few songs until Prince halted their flow to introduce Lake Street Dive’s relatively new member, keyboardist and vocalist Akie Bermiss. Bermiss took the band in a funkier direction with an R&B inspired cover of Shania Twain’s song “You’re Still the One.” After Bermiss’s enchanting voice riled up the crowd, the band played hit after hit while the audience sang and danced along. Instead of riding this energy to the end, however, the band chose to mellow back down and “let Rachael Prince do her thing” in the spotlight to the song “Could’ve Done Better.” The lights went low, and she was accompanied by only ambient instrumentals as she filled the space with her voice.The band played three more songs after, embracing the emotion of their lyrics, the clarity of their sound, and proving why, after 14 years, they can still pack Thalia Hall on a Tuesday night. Lake Street Dive is a band that knows what it’s about and knows how to do it well.