The time between Christmas and New Year’s is always a dead zone. Very little gets scheduled or happens in the pop culture world during this period unless you’re talking about all the movies the studios release in a last ditch effort to qualify for awards season. The music industry is particularly quiet, with no album releases and no high profile shows. The big holiday bashes are over, and nobody wants to get right back to touring after taking a couple of days off for Christmas and such. Yet in this rather subdued week or so, there’s inevitably a fun little thing or two that pops up on the radar that seems to boast the attitude of, “Why not?” And so it was, on a chilly Saturday night in Chicago that the trio of local bands Wavepool, Minor Characters and Empires gathered together at Lincoln Hall for a show that helped wrap up a successful year for all three acts.
While I didn’t arrive in time for most of Wavepool’s set, I want to give them a quick mention as they were on the bill and deserve a little love and support. They’re a relatively new emo/punk band, but are starting to build a following thanks to some shows around town and a couple of songs released via Bandcamp. The couple of songs I managed to catch upon arriving at Lincoln Hall were quick, hard-hitting and fun. Here’s hoping that bigger and better things are in their future.
Speaking of bands with a bigger and better future, Minor Characters had a pretty solid 2014 overall. They began it with a Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds to get their debut LP Voir Dire mastered and released, which was quite successful. While I wasn’t able to review it this year, I’ll say this much: it’s a beautifully composed record that grows on you over time. My only real issue with the album is that it fails to fully capture the excitement and intensity with which the band performs these songs in a live setting. I actually saw Minor Characters back in October when they headlined a show at The Hideout for their album release party, and noticed the difference between the recorded and live versions immediately. Simply put, it feels like their music was composed for the stage, and that is where they excel and seem to be most at home. Perhaps that’s also because they’ve been playing most of these songs for years now, but only recently got around to recording them. Their set at Lincoln Hall on Saturday only furthered that assertion, as just about every song teemed with such forceful power and emotion that you couldn’t help but be drawn in. Their vocal harmonies were top notch too, in particular on a song like “Neighbors,” which elevates things to another level. To me, it also says something about a band if the other members sing along with the lead vocalist whether a microphone is in front of them or not. Just like when a die-hard fan does the same thing in the crowd, it shows that you’re passionate about the material. So yes, Minor Characters put on a great show. It’s just a shame they haven’t really been able to do much in the way of touring this year, so other states and venues might have the chance to see them at their best. Maybe that’ll happen in 2015 if we’re lucky.
Empires did embark on a national tour in 2014, and that was just one of several things that went right for them this year. They released an album called Orphan to solid critical acclaim. They were on Letterman and played Bonnaroo and the Austin City Limits Music Festival, among other places. Their singles “How Good Does It Feel” and “Please Don’t Tell My Lover” received national and international radio airplay. Those are just some highlights that tell you this is definitely a band that’s on their way up to the big leagues. So when you have a year like Empires did, a hometown show is a perfect way to celebrate those many accomplishments and wrap everything up in a nice little bow. The crowd at Lincoln Hall was primed for their performance, and the band was more than happy to deliver a high energy, catalog spanning set that perfectly showcased their strengths. It really was quite thrilling to watch, and a remarkable improvement on the show of theirs I saw back in the spring. An extensive amount of touring will do that to a band, as all the members learn how to best click with one another in service of a song, plus how to extract the most out of every performance. Empires are now a well oiled machine, and lead vocalist Sean Van Vleet is the wild-haired ringleader at the center of it all. He wasn’t just singing the songs, but throwing them out into the universe with the sort of gusto and celebratory nature often reserved for big name stadium bands. Empires may very well get there some day, and the effortless blend between pop and rock on Orphan is definitely a start in that direction. At various points during their set I recalled bands like The National, The Killers and U2, and not just because certain songs sounded similar. It was there in the style, the energy and even a bit in the vocals too. Throwing it all out there with such wild abandon can become a powerful elixir and really work the crowd into a frenzy. Given that they were playing in front of friends, well-wishers and others right here at home, of course things got a bit rowdy. What impressed me most was how many old songs that Empires included throughout the show, including a couple they hadn’t played in years, and how a majority of fans not only expressed excitement at this prospect, but sang along to every word as well. That’s the sort of devotion this band has sustained for several years now, and at this point it’s thrilling to think about how much farther they can go and how much more they can do once 2015 rolls around.