Chicago is known for many things, it’s hard not to correlate the windy city with things like Willis (Sears) Tower, the Cubs, miles of lakefront, that god damned bean and murder. For those that have either currently or previously made Chicago their home knows that real spark plug of the city is the music. There are as many thriving scenes as there are neighborhoods. The flavor of the month in Chicago is hip hop with artists being signed by any and all major record labels. Chicago’s indie/DIY scene although robust, has never really seemed to boil over into the mainstream with any regularity. Well my friends, those days may be coming to an end soon.
I recently had the chance to see one of Chicago’s most revered indie/DIY bands, NE-HI, as they celebrated the release of their sophomore release “Offers” (Grand Jury) at the iconic Ukrainian Village indie venue The Empty Bottle.
As I entered The Bottle, there was a buzz in the air. As I mulled around drinking my $3 Tecate I tried to get a feel from crowd as to what to expect from the sold out show since I’d never seen any of the bands on the bill live. I was told that I was in for a treat and that tonight I would see something magical. Truth be told, I’m a pessimist to a fault so I smiled, nodded and thought to myself “I hope you’re right”.
By the time local Chicago psychedelic-tinged CAFE RACER took the stage I was three beers in and ready to get to business. It was obvious from their thirty minute set that CAFE RACER is a seasoned outfit that was ready for business also. My one gripe was the low volume of singer Michael Santana’s vocals. In hindsight, that aspect of CAFE RACER challenges their audience to pay attention to every aspect of their music which is never a bad thing.
On deck would be Chicago’s Deeper. By now the crowd had filled in and the temperature throughout the bottle was rising. As Deeper jumped into their set it was clear that the quartet wasn’t intimidated by a dense crowd looking them in the face. What was also clear was that Deeper take music seriously and the sound that they have created is akin to an aggressive coated shoegazy/mid 80’s vibe that relies heavily on guitar interplay.
Next on the menu for tonight’s all Chicago indie smorgasbord would be main course, NE-HI. With the beer flowing and the floor full, the time for NE-HI to shine was ever coming closer. With every shout of the mic check the intensity of the crowd anticipation grew. At the stroke of midnight NE-HI blasted into the first song of their hour plus set. With each song of their Offers heavy set list, the Jason Balla led NE-HI became more dialed into the performance. Obviously, there are tons of bands that can write a good song with a catchy hook and there are tons of bands that can turn a concert into a performance and then there’s NE-HI, who seem to accomplish both sides of that coin effortlessly. About the time the band broke into Since I’ve Been Thinking from their self titled debut there was little question about whether or whether not NE-HI had the chops to take the next step as a band. That answer is a resounding yes.
During the show I found myself comparing NE-HI’s performance to one that I saw on Halloween in 1989 of an unknown Chicago DIY band called Smashing Pumpkins. Although the sound for each band differs greatly what they have in common is possess the talent to pen and compose a solid song, the ability to “wow” a crowd with their performance and a cohesiveness that looks as if they were all put on earth to be part of this band. Unfortunately for the Billy Corgan led band, that cohesion dissolved and… you know the rest. If NE-HI doesn’t follow the path of the great pumpkin, the sky is the limit!