Friday Night at the Empty Bottle seemed like the destined moment for Lala Lala’s underground buzz to overflow. It had been hedging that way for years–since 2014 when the droning, smirking first single “Fuck with your Friends” was released. Last weekend’s show felt like an event, a coming out party and record release which would leave a bigger population hip to one of Chicago’s most exciting bands.
But that had already happened. In the buildup to The Lamb’s release, the face of the force behind the band, Lillie West, was a far less surprising one to find in music blogs and culture magazines. The three songs already released from the album (“Destroyer,” “Water Over Sex” and “Dove”) had been good enough for most everyone paying attention to know that the album containing them would be a thing of beauty.
The show sold out Friday morning. The mass of smokers clustered on the corner of Western and Cortez served as greeters, dressed in that highly individual yet still characteristic garb of the thrift store sifter. They filled and receded through the front door, a can of Hamm’s in almost every hand.
Butterfly balloons decorated the stage under soft purple and red light.
Drummer Eric McGrady stood pounding away at just a snare and tom drum, his rumbles a backbone. Emily Kempf harmonized (in a tastefully vintage Tracy McGrady Rockets jersey) with the bouncing Jason Balla, who exuded enough energy to match her pleasant chill. The band ran through a set picked from last year’s EP Fire of Love and its self-titled debut from 2016. Their time onstage ran nicely on and on, before the consensus came that it was time to make room for the headliner.
West came to Chicago five years ago from Los Angeles, putting in a brief spell at the Art Institute before joining Supermagical on tour and forming Lala Lala. Her debut record dropped in 2016, but in recent interviews West has expressed a distance between her current self and the one who made “Sleepyhead.” The two intervening years have brought the whirlwind of forced maturity that comes as one leaves their early twenties. She is newly sober, and “The Lamb” finds her wrestling with changes in a remarkably clear way—though these consternation don’t usually bring satisfaction, West seems to be without many of the problems that have tormented her and pervaded her early work.
For all the hype in the room and out, Lala Lala took the stage in an understated way. The volume was far too low—The Lamb demands to be heard at near ear-splitting levels, but either the band or the venue’s soundboard didn’t agree. The songs took on a different, almost hushed tone, quiet enough that one didn’t have to worry about a lost voice.
The songs felt somewhat lost in the sea of a crowd, whose anticipation had been building for an explosive final set. But beauty wasn’t hard to find in the tenderness of it, and a slight readjustment of expectations didn’t bring disappointment. The Lamb came to life in a real way. For once, the intensity of the songs was lessened in a live setting—whatever the reason for that, it wasn’t unwelcome, as West’s words came across just as pointedly.