As I’ve grown up celebrating Christmas, the experience has definitely changed in recent years in the role of Santa. That's not a bad thing. It just means I've come to enjoy the experiences that come with the holiday more so than what's underneath the tree.
This year, Christmas came a little early for me as I was gifted an opportunity to cover/experience the first night of Whitney’s (Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek) annual three-night residency at Thalia Hall. It was literally the calm before the storm as the weather was just right for their first evening before the winds, snow and the infamous Chicago freezing temperatures arrived into town the following night.
The stage was set and lit as if it were waiting for a super intimate picnic between close friends but a supporting extended band to serenade the experience. Full disclosure, this was my first time get to see the duo live since the band’s inception, but I have experienced their music in their former bands. Seeing and hearing them both individually grow as musicians, I am truly loving what these guys are able to create together.
During the pandemic, I found myself crawling out from under whatever rock I had put myself and discovering a plethora of music I had apparently turned a deaf ear towards for a period in my life. I've had a chance to experience so many great bands and albums they’ve created during that time, almost similarly to finding a great show and binging through the handful of seasons which had already been released. Whitney is definitely at the top of this list for me and I can't always put a finger on what I feel when listening to their music but definitely am at a place of comfort when doing so.
Arriving on stage with a track playing, we were casually greeted as if the guys were reconnecting with old friends and companions similarly to a celebratory homecoming from travels abroad. Ehrlich greeted us with a heads up of what to expect for the evening, a cocktail of songs spanning their four records along with some new songs and reworked unreleased songs. As they dug into those opening chords of “No Matter Where We Go,” there was an overwhelming feeling of familiarity, like that old sweater you find in the back of your closet and just want to keep wearing.
Whitney’s catalogue of songs play in a way where I just want to keep each on repeat. They beautifully interlaced their songs between favorites and newer ones, with an additional seven musicians onstage, bringing each one to life in a romanticized, grand fashion. Kakacek was stoically quiet to the left, letting his masterful guitar play speak for him, while Ehrlich narrated the evening for us bouncing from drum kit, to keyboard and up with his own guitar in hand to duo, recounting for us their loves and their losses in a way that had me smiling and swaying along.
The overall setting felt like a warm, symphonic cocoon capsulizing a lifetime of experiences and conveying them in these 21 songs from the duo's six years of making music together. Wise for their ages seems like an understatement as a dad myself get the chills up my spine as if their music is something my dad would’ve dug but that I'd find myself sharing with my daughter. If The National is considered the poster boys of “Sad Dad Rock” of the music scene, why not elect Whitney as the face of “Happy Dad Rock”? I have to mention when they broke for a minute (I swear it seemed like a literal minute) to pee before returning for an encore, Ehrlich said they’d return to play a bunch more songs.
Already knowing the evening's setlist, I thought and half hoped it was just a misguided prop and we were about to experience 17 more songs and the evening was just about to begin. The standout song for me was definitely "TWIRL," which Ehrlich described as not a regularly played live song, but I found it to be so beautiful. This intimate rosebud of a song opening up and peeled apart petal by petal to reveal this sweet honest sentiment in the middle. The stage setting and more developed editions of songs had their own layer along with the added horns and strings another layer; the icing on the cake was both the stage lighting as well as the synchronized light set made the evening’s experience magical. It’s clear the pair’s “bromance” continues to shine in their own musical compatibility as they each grow older and output those experiences into relatable singalong choruses and emotional joyrides.
Their latest album, SPARK, is out and currently available at Secretly Canadian and your local record stores.
No Matter Where We Go
Used to Be Lonely
Friend of Mine
On My Own
Valleys (My Love)
*denotes new or unreleased songs