Rhapsody in Normcore: A Review of Mild High Club at the Empty Bottle

It’s as if a hazy cloud filled the Empty Bottle last Friday. 12-string guitars, crystalized synthesizers, and vocals that floated softly above the band all created a relaxed atmosphere for an audience moderately drunk and mildly high.

The night’s headliner, Mild High Club, started by playing many of the songs off of last month’s album Skiptracing, including “Skiptracing” and “Homage.” From the bridge of “Head Out” with colorful keyboard chords that seemed to evade conventional melody to the George Harrison-like slide guitar on “Skiptracing,” the band kept the crowd under a trance but away from falling into sleep.

The Chicago-born and LA-based Alex Brettin kept his band Mild High Club in the pocket while kept a loose vibe. Brettin’s work with Ariel Pink comes off in his psychedelic arrangements and soulful crooning. Touring with Mac DeMarco seemed to rub off on him with spacey guitars played through ‘70s-sounding chorus effects. And as far as his older influences, it’s impressive to take artists like Steely Dan or Bill Withers and not sound cheesy.

Brettin often looked at his musicians and directed his body toward them to make sure they nailed each chord change. He might be fastidious, but you’d never know if you only paid attention to his swirling guitar lines and his entourage of jean short wearing bandmates.

As a frontman, Brettin doesn’t engage with the crowd much nor did he banter. To him, the focus is on the music.

During one song, Chicago musician Jimmy Whispers sang with the band onstage. A saxophonist joined on “Head Out” to play with enough delay through the microphone to sound like part of a smokey Tom Waits song.

After plenty of chit-chat throughout the night, the room seemed to be teeming with musicians. This included indie-rockers to jazzers. And this isn’t a surprise given how Mild High Club’s pours these different the many different hues and shapes of indie-rock, psychedelia, jazz, and soul into one musical kaleidoscope.

Brettin’s studies have paid off. He played flute in high school and studied jazz in college. As playful or silly he might seem, beneath his bushy mustache and his thin-framed glasses is a serious bandleader who injects self-awareness into his playing.

Chicago Photographer Trina Certeza provided photos for this article.

Colin S. Smith
Colin S. Smith

Colin Smith thinks that Chicago right now is the place to be for music. He works for Illinois Humanities, is a freelance writer, and plays psychedelic-pop songs with his band.