As I began compiling a list of my favorite Chicago performances of the year, I noticed a pattern emerge. I’ve picked out seven key nights here, and many of them — four, in fact — made the cut for introducing me to something not only new, but exceptional. Minor Characters, Sons of the West, In Tall Buildings and The Singleman Affair all etched their names on my radar for what they can do live.
What made their sets that much more meaningful to me was that they played at a time when I had not a clue who they were. Minor Characters? Totally would not have known they existed as a band — by August 12, at least — had they not opened for Elsinore at Subterranean. The same is true of In Tall Buildings, who played some music in front of Santah about a week ago. And so on.
Some of my favorite music nights in Chicago, then, caught me by surprise. I had gone to a venue to see a band I knew, and then came away with one or a handful more to follow.
It was very much a year of discovery for me, which I would imagine to be the norm for a critic of local music. New bands crop up all the time, or more established ones get paired with some up and comers. And with a little luck, you’ll be there, too, to see it unfold.
Elsinore, Minor Characters @ Subterranean (August 12) | Review
Based in Champaign, Elsinore doesn’t make it up to our city nearly as much as they should. With that in mind — and, well, the fact that I love them so — I make every effort to keep a clean schedule for when they’ve planned to drive up 57 North to pay us Chicagoans a visit.
To the best of my knowledge, Elsinore made the trek just once in 2011 to formally release, officially, their Life Inside an Elephant EP. That it had to be at Subterranean is another story entirely. You all by now may have a general understanding about how I feel about the space.
Opening for these guys was Minor Characters, a group I’ve taken under my wing, so to speak, by raving about them since. In October I reviewed their debut EP, and then a week or two later I caught a follow up performance at, you guessed it, Subterranean.
The Yes Way, Sons of the West @ Martyr’s (March 24) | Review
A venue I don’t go to nearly as much as I should is Martyr’s, a lovely bit of space on Lincoln Avenue in North Center and, really, steps from my apartment. Every show I’ve been to — and there have only been a handful — have been a delight. And I think much of the credit goes to the guy or gal in charge of booking. It seems they’ve got a knack for arranging acts that might sound good together.
Such is the case for a late March evening there for a Village show my friend wanted me to see. As it were, I enjoyed more the bands that opened for Village: Sons of the West and The Yes Way.
Sons of the West is based here in Chicago. I’ve since reviewed their recorded music but haven’t seen them live again. But what I can remember from that Martyr’s show, which translated to the album, is their intensity. They just beat their instruments over a period of 40 to 45 minutes and then just up and call it a night. Expect to read more about them here in the new year.
Alela Diane, The Parson Red Heads, The Singleman Affair @ The Empty Bottle (June 9)
What brought me out to The Empty Bottle in early June was to see, again, a performance by Dan Schneider and his Singleman Affair. Some time earlier in the year I’d seen him headline a free show at The Whistler and was about due for another live set.
Dan got the evening started on a good note, and then that was carried on through the night by a pair of Portland-based acts: The Parson Red Heads (a group I’ve since reviewed twice: their new album and their Schubas show around my birthday) and Alela Diane, a woman with a father so supportive that he actually plays in her band.
I remember this night so fondly for being such a tight show all around. Everyone that played I’ve since seen again (or would do so independently).
UMMA @ Lincoln Hall (April 25) | Review
I caught the Rachele Eve train fairly early in my move to Chicago. She happened to headline a record release show for Darling about 15 months ago and I’ve been a fan since.
What’s nice about Rachele, among many things, is that she comes packaged as a variety of sounds. As of early this year she’s led (and continues leading) a rock band of her own — known simply, I think, as Rachele Eve — and has played gentle, acoustic sets as Rachele Eve, the singer-songwriter.
Her next gestation was a unique four-piece named UMMA — I’ve stylized it at such; the letters may in fact be lowercase — which featured her and singer-songwriter Dan Price on guitar and vocals, and then two supporting cellists.
These guys were on fire that night at Lincoln Hall, and made for one of my favorite evenings nights of music for having so uncommon a sound. Rachele and Dan, too, were gracious enough to play at a benefit I helped put together some time ago, and I’m indebted to their goodwill.
Breathe Owl Breathe @ SPACE, Evanston (November 29)
One of the strangest bands I’ve seen yet in Chicago is Breathe Owl Breathe, a three-piece folk group out of East Jordan, Michigan. I caught the end of their set in front of the Fruit Bats in September at Lincoln Hall, and then drove up to Evanston a few months later with a car full of friends to see them headline an evening at SPACE.
The members of Breathe Owl Breathe are the rare sort of performers who have a fun time under the lights, outwardly show that fun to the people watching them play and then move to include the room in their games.
In Tall Buildings, Elephant Gun @ Lincoln Hall (December 22) | Review
Originally stepping inside Lincoln Hall for a reunion with Santah a few days before Christmas, I came away a fan of both of their openers.
I seem to be in the honeymoon phase with Elephant Gun. Their live show got progressively better as it went on — I’m not versed enough in their tunes to know which songs came from which albums — and I haven’t had much chance yet to give a respecting listen to their new one (though I do, finally, have it in full). So a factual, this-is-how-it-is opinion of these guys — a group of eight-plus, depending on the song I think — is still on deck. But I responded to, certainly, their eclecticism and size.
In Tall Buildings, though, left quite the impression on me. So much so that a complete unknown — paired with Elephant Gun as an opener — happened to be my second favorite night of music of the year. In Tall Buildings rocked it with grace and beauty. And yet I think I’ll stop it there because I’ll probably repeat my week-ago self.
Soft Speaker @ Beat Kitchen (November 19) | Review
This one was easy. Soft Speaker’s record release show for Vortrobos at Beat Kitchen about a week before Thanksgiving was my favorite show of the year.
My first time seeing them live will of course not be the last. Hell, I would have been there a week or two later when they stormed into Empty Bottle had I not been out of town sipping wines in Napa Valley and resting my bones in Dolores Park, among other things.
Soft Speaker got going and tore the roof off Beat Kitchen. And I actually mean that literally: There was a leaky hole near the front of the stage that the venue’s crew nursed with an over-sized trashcan. The hope is it was water, but I never took initiative to find out.