I tend to avoid going out in Wrigleyville. College was fun, but I’m more or less over the bro-verload you typically find on Clark. But the Cubby Bear’s a legendary spot with a good stage where I had never seen a show, and up-and-comers Harriet were in town from Los Angeles with support from local acts Amber Flight and Beauty School. It was definitely worth a trip into the usual cultural black hole on a Thursday night.
One thing about Wrigleyville that I suppose should be obvious given the neighborhood’s name: its energy lives and dies with the Cubs. And with the Cubs out of town last night, the whole area felt dead. That included the inside of the Cubby Bear, which was populated by approximately ten people when I arrived and quiet enough that we were getting some deeeeeeep cuts from the Red Hot Chili Peppers over the PA system before and between sets. When you’ve got the house DJ choosing “Warped” and “Sir Psycho Sexy,” you know the goal isn’t to set a typical bar mood; it’s all about the DJ’s self-indulgence. I appreciated the song selection, though.
Setting the mood was instead left up to the three bands that would take the stage over the evening’s course, beginning with Beauty School, a four-piece outfit that sits firmly on the downtempo side of the neo-surf rock spectrum. You’d expect to hear their music in an low-budget indie film seeking to mix early Quentin Tarantino’s swagger with Napoleon Dynamite‘s loner-at-prom vibe; the songs laid back hard, imbued with languid longing and passionless love. In a way, it matched the vibe of the room—the near-empty bar as a haven for the world’s strangers, misfits, and passers-through. As for the band’s performance itself, it was mired in the inconsistencies you’d expect from a group that’s been together for less than a year. The singer, a young woman with pink hair, possessed power in her voice but struggled to stay on pitch (perhaps due to a cold, which she was attempting to alleviate with a Starbucks’ tea between songs). She was backed by harmonies from the capable guitarist and bassist—who switched instruments a few songs into the set—that showcased their impressive, Brian Wilson-esque range, but at times the Beauty School voices melded into an ugly conglomerate typical. The final song of the set ended with an a capella repetition of its middling hook that fell off the cliff of in-tune-ness and into the abyss of dizzying cacophony.
Following Beauty School, and probably playing second-to-last because people tend to clear out before the end of concerts at Cubby Bear-level prestige, was Harriet, a quartet from LA founded by erstwhile Dawes ex-member Alex Casnoff. He sings and plays the keys, but perhaps his largest-scale contribution to the band’s sound was his heavy use of a vocoder to create a synthetic choir of ghost-Casnoffs around him for most of the set. At times, the choir added appreciated depth to Harriet’s music—particularly during the band’s slower songs—but in the more up-tempo, dance-y segments of the performance, it felt a bit overwhelming. And it wasn’t just the vocoder creating this feeling; at its loudest and most bombastic, Harriet seemed too big for the room, not in an arena-ready type of way but in a sensory overload type of way. There were hooks buried somewhere within the grooves, but they were buried under earsplitting layers of synth, reverb-laden guitar, and thudding bass and drums. That said, Harriet’s poppy beats were more than sufficient for a fun night of dancing, and the few dozen more people who had filled the Cubby Bear at that point of the evening obliged.
When Harriet really showcased its potential was when the band turned things down a notch. As a Dawes veteran, Casnoff clearly has some folk roots—Harriet’s currently touring with folk-rock-collective mavens Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, enough evidence that they can slide into that crowd—and when those roots are allowed to the forefront, with synthesizers and guitars used to fill an unburdened atmosphere, all of a sudden Harriet’s layered aesthetic becomes much more enjoyable. The standout song of the evening was “Burbank,” which sounded like a modernized version of Eddie Money and featured a ravaging guitar solo from Matt Blitzer.
Following Harriet and closing out the evening was Amber Flight, another local act that fell much closer to Harriet than to Beauty School in terms of style. Its distinguishing feature was the dual lead vocals of guitarist Ardin Jameson and bassist Mariah Hoyt, who blended together well in their harmonies and adeptly handed off singing duties while driving the music forward with very rhythmic playing. Like Harriet, Amber Flight’s music was less about hooks and more about creating a seamless dance groove to carry the room through to the end of the evening; I can’t remember a single melody line from the entire performance I witnessed last night, but I remember my head bobbing and my foot keeping the beat, and Amber Flight was particularly effective in getting the sparsely populated room moving because of the band’s focus on rhythm. Drummer Michael Hoyt revived the spirit of the ’80s with his huge snare and eclectic use of toms, and keyboardist Zach Maa employed a wide variety of tones, from woodblocks to galactic-sounding leads, to accent the beats. The whole setup got the job done, as the crowd (many of whom were probably friends of the band) sang and danced along. The final song of the evening, “Everglades,” seemed to be a fan favorite, and for a decent reason—its hook was more memorable than anything else Amber Flight played.
Reflecting on the show after a good night’s sleep, I can’t help but think the bands would’ve been better served playing after a Cubs game, when more people would’ve shown up—a great concert atmosphere is a two-way street. But the evening was enjoyable enough, and Harriet probably made itself a few more fans in Chicago.