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Book Review, The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years Music/ Friendly/ Dancing

“Hole-in-the-wall” is the most popular description for the beloved music venue The Empty Bottle. Local Chicago publishing house Curbside Splendor has released a coffee table book, chronicling the shows, personalities and community that inhabited the Bottle for the past 21+ years.Bottle+New+Front

Third Coast Review lit section writer Robert O’Conner summarizes the book’s layout–

The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years Music / Friendly / Dancing has a quirky design which fits the subject well – along the right margin is a complete list of every show ever played at the Empty Bottle, which is replayed at the end. The left margin is reserved for quotes plucked from the interviews or captions. The approach is unique but it doesn’t clutter up the book. There are loads of double-page spreads that break up this design.

The are interviews with people who started at the Empty Bottle and went on to fame, like Tim Norwind and Damian Kulash of Ok Go (Kulash says of the Bottle “[it] wasn’t one of our home bases, it was more like our only home base…the Empty Bottle was very much the center of our social scene.”

Two diehard Bottle-goers on staff got early copies of the book, and they agree it’s a must buy for anyone fond of the venue or local music scene in Chicago. Here’s what they have to say:   

Thoughts and reflection from music section writer Julian Ramirez

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to the Empty Bottle or how it’s shaped my concert going experience. It’s one of those venues that is grossly intimate and utterly inviting, always feeling like a place you can stop by whenever and catch a show. The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years Music / Friendly / Dancing pretty much embodies that sentiment, allowing it to be picked up at a moment’s notice and reading one interesting entry at a time. The passages in the book range from bite sized memories to long and engaging essays that give off an incredibly conversational vibe. This format never makes the book feel like a history lesson or just straightforward interviews, instead feeling like a pair of friends exchanging stories.

That is partially why I gravitated toward the book. Every time the contributors lamented being too young to attend the shows, I was transported back to my underage days feeling bad I missed out on Arcade Fire or meeting Radley the cat before he passed. Kristen Kontrol’s short entry brought me back to her last Dum Dum Girls show at Empty Bottle, awkwardly standing behind a drunken girl sloppily making out with a random dude. While the essays stand tall on their own, I can’t help but enjoy them the most when they’re being relatable and evoking memories of shows at the venue. It’s a must read for fans of The Empty Bottle.

Praise from Music and Lit section writer Andrew Hertzberg

I was ready to be skeptical about this book. 1035 N Western Ave is likely the building in Chicago I’ve been inside the most that wasn’t a place of residence or employment. I’ve been going consistently since I first stepped in there April 6th, 2010 to see Swedish post-punks Love is All. My skepticism didn’t last long. The stories are great but what really does it for me are the images. Maybe because it’s so easy for nights to get blurry after you cross under the black “Music Friendly Dancing” awning and Old Style beacon. I’m also a fan of the meticulously cataloged list of shows that scroll throughout the entire book, just in case you can’t remember who opened for Elliott Smith March 7th, 1996. Speaking as someone who wasn’t there in the 90s or 00s, I loved reading and learning about the old scene and the bands that played, about the (mostly) friendly competition with Lounge Ax, the evolution of Bite Cafe next door, and of all the bands like the Arcade Fire, the Flaming Lips, or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs who got their start on the tiny stage.

I went to the Bottle on my birthday one year, after chugging Maker’s Mark in the alley, getting my eardrums pounded by Radar Eyes, then seeing their bassist working at the Handlebar the next morning. I saw Rabble Rabble play in a hail of empty beer cans thrown from the crowd. Yonatan Gat performed on the floor and didn’t care when we took the mic to scream into. I’ve posted too many shitty videos and photos on social media. I love the book clubs, pop-up book fairs and lit readings, and just the fact that I’ll go there and probably run into someone I know. Likewise, I think someone who has never been to the Bottle can get just as much out of this book as a regular since the mid-90s could. It will mean something different to each of them. I could ramble on about how great the book and venue are, but I should shut up, and you should buy it already. As opposed to the old school holier-than-thou punk attitude of You Weren’t There, this book, from John Darnielle’s intro, all the way to the letter from Rahm Emanuel congratulating the venue on being named one of the Best Rock Clubs by Rolling Stone (seriously), is saying You Could Be. 

With the demolition of The Smell in LA imminent, it makes the timing of this book all the more prescient. Not to just mythologize the venue, but to remind ourselves not to take a space for creative artists to perform and experiment for granted. This book will probably get a lot of guff for being nostalgia-bait. And of course there’s a lot of that. But this book doesn’t just point to the past: it points to the future.

Purchase from Curbside Splendor Publishing for 34.95, or at any local bookstore.

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