Monday, March 3, 2014

Concert Review - Empty Bottle Winter Block Party, March 1, 2014

Courtesy of Matt Conzen's phone.
At this point, all we can do in Chicago is lean into the winter. I mean, it's made it clear that it's not going anywhere so all we can do is wear our #Chiberia hashtags like a badge of pride. Besides, harsh winters have always been a part of Chicago's DNA. Even as it's become "international city", Chicago has never been a gathering place for celebrities either entertainment (LA), literary/business (NYC) or political (DC) and it's easy to see why - for at least five months of the year, you to have some starch in your shirt and iron in your spine to enjoy life in the city by the lake ice cube.

So a block party in the snow seemed like the perfect way to close out (or at least begin to close out) this 3rd coldest winter in our city's recorded history. The wonderful people at the Empty Bottle were behind this endeavor, which could not have been more fitting. Their scruffy, eclectic but still-discerning approach to music was note-perfect (if you will) for this kind of patently ridiculous celebration. 
In fact, the perfect distillation of the event's spirit came earlier in the afternoon when an Empty Bottle employee asked everyone in the crowd to look up towards a second floor window where the owner was snapping photos of the crowd. Per their instructions we all looked up, smiled and gave the camera the traditional one-finger salute.

I was, sadly, late in arriving on Saturday because (as hopefully befits a hard-working Chicagoan such as I, etc, etc.) I had work in the morning and spent the early-afternoon scrambling to finish a long list of chores and make it out into the... lightly falling snow.

I heard Diarrhea Planet's four guitar rumble echoing across Western Avenue before I could even see the Empty Bottle's lovingly-graffitied Old Style sign. By the time I arrived at the tiny sliver of Cortez Street that had been cordoned off, I was already feeling the electricity that these Nashville punks inevitably inspire surging through my body.

After locating friends in the crowd I was informed that I'd already missed memorable moment when the band had decided that it was going to prove that "anyone can be punk rock." This lead them to picking a seemingly mild-mannered crowd member out of the group, dragging him onstage and telling him they were going to play some punk while he screamed about whatever made him mad. He (unfortunately) chose "White Sox fans" and proceded to rant about them over the band's riffing while the crowd (rightfully) showered abuse on him. It was, as promised, a fairly punk rock result from a contrived band stunt and set the stage for a memorable end to Diarrhea Planet's set.

Despite the slowly falling snowflakes and the inhospitably-cold (mid-to-low-20s) temperatures, the crowd area had propane heaters dispersed throughout and, combined with the density of bodies, this provided a decent simulacrum of warmth and the rest of their set was about as raucous and ridiculous as one could expect from a bunch of southern punk/metalheads thrashing around in the snow. A crowd-surf-borne guitar solo closed things out for DP and left attendees to their own devices for 25 increasingly-cold minutes as Marnie Stern setup.

After people had time to warm themselves with Goose Island beer/chili/trashcan fires ("it's got all the ambiance of a hobo camp but with less fear of being stabbed" quipped a friend), Marnie Stern took the stage to close things out. Her diminuative stature made viewing hard for those not in front, as the stage couldn't have been elevated more than 8" to accommodate the tent above it. Fortunately, Stern's set was rousing enough to forestall any grumbling about sightlines.

Indeed, as Stern played, the temperature continued to drop and the snowfall continued to increase in pace, leading, if anything to an increase in masochistic energy. This was the kind of weather we in Chicago has been shivering through at bus stops, trudging through to work and enduring through shamefully under-insulated windows (in this writer's case) since November. With enough of us in the same place, spurred on by Stern's defiantly hopefully jams, the whole scene became a vision in perverse pride. At one point Marnie even complimented the crowd, for their fortitude, saying "I come from New York, which is tough but... wow, Chicago, they got nothing on you" (or something very similar in sentiment).

As Stern's set wound down, the classic Chicago late-winter, late-afternoon gloom started to move in with a vengeance and people began clearing out to seek toastier environs either within the Bottle or elsewhere. But the sense of accomplishment as everyone dispersed from this ridiculous, benightedly-cold March block party was palpable. Amidst the fluttering blue and yellow flags of the Ukrainian Village, we'd turned a snowstorm into a dance party.