The Empty Bottle works with a wide variety of venues for their Presents shows, but perhaps none of them are as intimate and stunning as their Rockefeller Chapel concerts. For EBP this past Friday, Low took to the stage with opener IN / VIA. Both groups used the space to their advantage, crafting stark, emotionally wrought songs that were mollified by the Chapel’s acoustics.
IN / VIA, the solo synth project of Nona Invie, was an apt way to set the tone for Low. With swirling and twirling synth lines that were as mesmerizing as the vocals, IN / VIA created structured soundscapes that moved freely. Synth sounds warm and cool basked in the Chapel’s openness providing a lush backdrop for somber, heartfelt lyricism.
While Low didn’t use synths (their consistent instrumentation is guitar, bass, drums, and vocals), their set followed IN / VIA’s smoothly, with poise and admiration—for their opener, the Chapel, and the listeners. The fact that it was an EBP production was particularly resonant for them, as their first show in Chicago was at The Bottle about 25 winters ago.
Despite it being just the beginning of the cold months, the harmonies of Alan Sparkhawk and Mimi Parker (the group’s core members who are also married) instantly instilled the imagery and feeling of the last bit of snow and ice melting at the end of winter. Their haunting vocals are what really set Low apart, and experiencing these voices live—attached to their sincere sources and heard in the reverberant space—was a highlight of the show.
“It’s such a beautiful space, I can’t say anything to ruin it,” Sparkhawk said simply of the Chapel.
Much of its beauty was manifested in its sonic qualities, but both these and the visual aspects were only accentuated by the lighting that accompanied Low. Frequent collaborator and engineer/producer Tom Herbers (who has also worked with Andrew Bird, Why?, and many others) instead focused on the lightboard, controlling three panels of lights that reacted to the sounds with abstract textures and other visuals. The lighting echoed the evocative, solemn music well, playing a much larger role than lighting usual does at a concert.
About half of Low’s set was made up of their recent album, Septembers’ Double Negative. Sonically, the record is a huge shift from previous records, with different production and recording approaches greatly molding their sound.
But their Rockefeller Chapel concert showed that their distinct songwriting and minimal compositions were still at the heart of this new sound. Sounding more like previous records rather than Double Negative, Low’s feeling and energy is what is most important about their music, and the fact that they can convey that purely no matter the sonic approach is a testament to their genuinity and emotional sentiment.
*A review by Izzy Yellen
*Photos by @bblane_photography
This past Monday, the Thurston Moore Group and poet Krista Franklin shared new work at the Art Institute, and the two contrasting performances filled the sold-out room with rejuvenating and motivating power amidst the the Chicago snowfall and nation’s ever-present negativity. While Franklin conjured up these powers with weighted words, Moore’s band instead premiered a lengthy instrumental piece.
Franklin shared three poems to open up the event, each with a distinct style. The third led into the Thurston Moore Group perfectly. The poem was explicitly a call to action and reflection, and Moore’s new composition certainly allowed inward-looking and was rooted in activism.
The piece was entitled “Alice Moki Jayne,” after its three inspirations—musician Alice Coltrane, visual artist Moki Cherry, and poet Jayne Cortez—all key figures in the sixties due to art and activism. While Moore is known for his heavily improvised noise jams in his group and Sonic Youth, “Alice Moki Jayne” was much more restrained and conceptual, allowing him to explore his instrumental compositional voice and the sound of the 12-string electric guitar.
Joined by guitarist James Sedwards, bassist Debbie Googe, and drummer Steve Shelley (also a Sonic Youth alum), Moore “conducted” the group minimally, signaling new sections, segueing and stitching together the ambient and heavy seamlessly.
Opening with a minimal, reverb-drenched section, the group played to the room with no problem whatsoever. This elastic moment was disrupted by a strum of gravitas from Moore, moving the quartet into the second part.
The lush ringing the 12-strings brought to the palette were particularly accentuated by the venue—the Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room—a boxy, resonant location.
The piece was a journey through many sections—some short soundscapes, some longer fuzzy jams—each one unpredictable yet satisfying. There was direction that came from its structure, but the variety of the sections kept the work snaking and hard to pin down. Not only that, but the maintained cohesiveness was even more impressive thanks to mixed bag.
With all the false endings from the movements, the actual end took the audience by surprise, and after awe and applause, Moore leaned into the mic for his only words—sharing the basis for the piece and his gratitude to Franklin “for sharing what’s on her mind” as well as the concert-goers. The Thurston Moore Group has performed “Alice Moki Jayne” a few times, so if a studio recording happens, you’d better keep your ears open.
*A review by Izzy Yellen
About a month ago, rapper Serengeti completed his Kenny Dennis saga, comprised of eight releases and “Dennehy,” the infamous song that started it all. Serengeti first rapped as Kenny back in 2006, creating a light-hearted single song about a simple guy who enjoys kicking back, watching some Chicago sports, and eating brats. But Serengeti’s inventive personality and own life began shaping this Chicagoan stereotype even more and more, and there are many points in all the releases where it’s clear Kenny isn’t just a character. He is more than that—a way for Serengeti to get through his own life, Dennis 6e being particularly connected to its creator.
After an enjoyable conversation with Serengeti (who’s a down-to-earth, genuine dude named Dave Cohen), it was clear that the depth of Kenny goes beyond speculation. While he may have started as a fun, humorous character, he grew beyond that, a self-prescribed therapy of sorts. Serengeti has done other cathartic music, but it was Kenny that he found to be distinctly freeing.
“I do all these records to get myself out of it,”
referring to his sadness. While he makes the art for everyone to hear, it is first and foremost for him. With Kenny, Cohen shared, he can distance himself from the situations and emotions and make breakthroughs. But as much as he separates his life from Kenny’s, the two never fail to mesh together, informing each other more and more.
In the case of the final album, the intertwined lives both have closure. When I asked Cohen about how he feels now that the last chapter has been told, his response was of contentedness and acceptance:
“Now I see the whole thing for what it is.”
He’s happy with what he created in all its intricate, detail-oriented, emotionally-driven, funny glory—and more than that, its creation seems to have had a lasting effect on his well being.
So what’s next for Serengeti? He may be retiring Kenny Dennis but he’s certainly not slowing down—it’s not in his nature (he’s released nearly thirty albums and over ten EPs since 2003, damn). But he is approaching music in a different way than he has during his productive career, focusing more on short, physical releases. He’s also completed a full-length script for a Kenny Dennis movie, telling the stories the music did in a more literal way and filling in the gaps. He explained to me the desire of making the movie came from the distinction of what each means of storytelling does—the music told it in an impressionistic way, but he wants the movie to be more literal—
“really clear and really funny and also sort of sad.”
Serengeti will be performing at The Empty Bottle on October 11, in support of Air Credits and Sims. You can follow his many endeavors on his Instagram and Twitter under the handle of @serengetidave.
“Shit is fuckin’ weird right now. Be nice to people you know, be nice to people you don’t know…Lance that boil, pop that zit. Here’s another song.”
Lead vocalist Tunde Adebimpe expressed these sentiments and similar ones through his quips between songs and overall performance, and the rest of the band backed him up throughout their set that closed out the first day of Goose Island’s 312 Block Party. The show had a perfect balance of being about the turmoil going on right now and simply dancing away that negativity, the music cathartic and enjoyable in nature.
Photo by Danny O'Donnell, @Do312
What makes TV On The Radio special is their extreme eclecticism—they’re primarily a rock band, yes, but they pull from many sub-genres (including but not limited to punk and synth) as well as a multitude of other styles and traditions. And they do this with an energy that boils and melts it all together into a fine hodge-podge of sounds, in the studio—and as exemplified by their September 21 show—on the stage.
In all honesty, I was a bit nervous to hear how they would sound live—their records are so well-produced, countless layers interacting but never getting in the way of each other, pristine vocal tracks and their harmonies shining. Throughout the concert, there were great moments where each musician’s zeal was supremely prominent—a trombone and guitar rhythmically spitting back and forth, subtly and minimally used vocal effects resulting in controlled feedback atop everything else before being buried, unrelenting drums holding it all together.
Photo by Danny O'Donnell, @Do312
A high point in the show came after the aforementioned quote, with the moving chorus of “Trouble,” from 2014’s Seeds. Adebimpe—and the many fans singing along—belted out “‘Everything’s gonna be okay’ / Oh, I keep telling myself / ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ / Oh, you keep telling yourself” and following its introduction, the song that preceded recent events had a new meaning, one that evoked both a longing acceptance and bitter sarcasm, depending on how you heard and processed it. In a time when it seems every artist has to acknowledge the current climate, TV On The Radio navigated that well, not disregarding the immense power music has to deal with heavy subjects in abstract ways, nor the ability it has to—at the very least—help masses put their worries somewhere else and just dance and sing.
*A review by Izzy Yellen
It’s not often you get to see a well-programmed concert at a cemetery on the Fall Equinox. And under the Harvest Moon. But Empty Bottle Presents’ Beyond The Gate was exactly that.
Photo by Danny O'Donnell, @312
Right off the bat, the setting was beautiful—blue lights illuminating the building behind, branches and handmade lit-up orbs adorning the stage, blankets and chairs packed into the lawn with bundled up fans.
> Photo by Danny O'Donnell, @312
Once the crowd and the sun’s light settled, Hilary Woods began, twangy guitar accompanying her wispy but resonant voice. The atmosphere she created, especially in the cemetery, was reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti’s music for Twin Peaks—thick, muddy voicings on a keyboard and 50s-sounding guitar (she switched between the two) created structured songs that still allowed there to be an atmospheric, open quality.
Photo by Danny O'Donnell, @312
Mute Duo is Sam Wagster on pedal steel and Skyler Rowe on drums/percussion, but for this special concert, they were the Mute Duo Ensemble, joined by six others. An instrumental group (aside from wordless vocals from Bottle staple Bruce “Hesh” Lamont, who also played tenor sax), the collection of musicians played without breaks, going from unified drones to solos to prickly durations of time that had the many voices peeking out of the combined voice with their idiosyncrasies.
Photo by Danny O'Donnell, @312
Grouper was—in terms of the whole bill—a synthesis of her openers, bringing together chaos and stark songwriting. The fact that it was just a sole musician (Liz Harris) didn’t stop there from being layers and layers of sound enveloping the audience. Grouper’s outside music surrounded and comforted me, the powerful moments—emotionally and sonically—making the near silent moments even more silent, and the silent moments making the powerful even more powerful. The dynamic and emotional range of her performance was flooring, and this was only accentuated by its setting.
While the space and her interaction with it was an instrument itself, it would not have functioned as such without the sources—her elaborate but well-controlled setup of piano, guitar, affected vocals, and samples, all through a mixer she intently controlled. Melting and shifting together, these different instruments often took on similar forms in context of her larger work.
Hilary Woods, Mute Duo Ensemble, and Grouper evoked an unsettling creepiness at their concert space without forcing it at all, their music finding a home at Bohemian National Cemetery and, ultimately, being more moving thanks to the environment. I’m already excited to hear more bands find a home for their music at the cemetery next year.
*A review by Izzy Yellen
Neither the fact that it was a Monday night or the start to the Jewish High Holidays deferred fans from a show with experimental rockers Gang Gang Dance and Deakin (of Animal Collective). GGD and AnCo have known each other since the early 2000s, renting a practice space together and sharing a bill at the Empty Bottle in their wee beginnings, and their reunion at this venue was something special—both bands spoke highly of each other and their host, showing this gratitude and energy through their music as well.
Justindemus opened things up with his dark beats and singing, fitting right into the bill of music that both grooved and warranted somber contemplation. Deakin followed him, armed with two guitars, a keyboard, a mic, an OP-1, and a whole lot of pedals. (Between two of his songs, he said with tongue in cheek, “Thanks for your patience…while pushing all these buttons.”) Despite the significant number of instruments, Deakin approached all the music with an intense concentration and consideration, subtly layering and melding drones, rhythms and more together. The meticulous control of the instrumentals was the perfect counterpart to his vocals—cryptic in lyricism (and often effects too), the voice was the instrument he really let loose with, going from collected lower register drawls to unbridled yells and back again. His voice wove in and out of his other sounds, peeking above frequently. It’s not uncommon to compare thickly layered music to a blanket, but Deakin’s live set wasn’t quite that, instead, a sheet providing warmth and protection (with the feet and shins sticking out for contact with cool air).
The overall feeling of his live music was similar to his 2016 album Sleep Cycle, but only one song of the setlist was a track from his sole release—the album opener “Golden Chords,” which closed the set. Other songs were solo reworkings of two AnCo songs—“Wide Eyed” from 2012’s Centipede Hz and “DownDownDownDown” from their site-specific live show earlier this year—and a cover of a Tinariwen song with elements from his remix. In addition to this variety of songwriting sources, Deakin debuted several “sketches” of songs he’s working on, but had he not described them as such, we would most likely never have known. Performed with confidence and intention, these new tunes had the same grounded substance heard in Sleep Cycle. It’s clear he’s aware of all the sounds going on and what his lyrics mean to him, and even though I was transported into this world of creative sounds I hadn’t heard before and lyrics I didn’t have the meanings of, I felt—in one of those inexplicable, experiential ways—home.
While Deakin ushered in feelings of introspection and home, GGD ushered in cosmic and bigger-picture reflection. Tight grooves that slipped and slid from improvisation to intense composition pulled listeners in, getting many to dance, but unsettling harmonies and ambiguity of who was making what sound really gave the audience something to chew on. GGD’s live set was both carefree and thoughtful, occupying both ends of the spectrum and challenging what dance music is and what it can be. You could dance the night, mull over their musical choices, or both at the same time—hell, I know I switched back and forth through all of those.
At times, it was overwhelming, as if the physicality of the music and all its many components were grabbing you, yet I enjoyed this aspect of it. One of their more popular songs—“Vacuum” from 2008’s Saint Dymphna—was as encompassing and intoxicating live as it was with headphones, if not more so. And that’s a chiller song of theirs. Other moments had three percussionists going full throttle, a guitar acting like a synth, a synth acting like a few synths, and one of the fullest basses I’ve ever heard—with Lizzi Bougatsos’ ethereal shrieks and organic oscillations atop, of course.
With all the controlled chaos throughout the set, their closer was even more expansive. Introducing the song as one about “the future of the universe,” the band launched into a soundscape-oriented rather than groove-oriented jam, with flowing swells from guitars and synth, rustling drums out of time, and breathy, spoken lyrics—all musicians leaving lots of space for each other to settle, expand, and continue the cycle. It ended the night with a misty, thoughtful energy, bodies tired from dancing and minds tired from thinking, both ready for rest.
I wish I could have been there in those early aughts to see how GGD and Deakin have evolved in a live setting, but who knows, maybe they’ll both be back a decade or so from now. And if they are, you can bet I’ll be there.