Review: Dry Cleaning Creates Chill, Laid-Back Vibes on Friday the 13th at Thalia Hall

Listening to Dry Cleaning feels like having the perfect background-noise playlist on; the music and lyrics mimic conversations that we all make up in our minds in the shower, driving to work, or as we drift off to sleep. Vocalist Florence Shaw’s writing reminds me of the things I should have said but the time was never right, or the passing thoughts and memories that bounce around in my mind as I move through life daily—nothing so obviously profound, just every-day experience within myself. Shaw invites listeners to acknowledge a creativity in simply observing without the need to narrate grandiose stories; to not try so hard to make something groundbreaking out of every idea and just let it be what it is. Her patchwork of conversation, feelings, thoughts, and observations play coyly with the rise, swell, and journey of each song. Driving bass and twinkling guitar perhaps mirror an inner voice playing devil’s advocate, an ex-lover, friend, or someone not yet introduced.  

Thalia Hall hosted the London-based quartet on Friday the 13th, an appropriate date considering rumors that the venue is haunted. Despite the rumors, I experienced exclusively chill and laid-back vibes at this show. Thalia Hall’s beautiful architecture, multiple hip and affordable bar areas, and plentiful bench seating in the balcony made for a comfortable experience for everyone in attendance. Even at its peak the sold-out show’s crowd made room to move around the main floor and balcony comfortably. The demographic that Dry Cleaning attracts seems to be only the most respectful and easy going within a wide range of age groups.

Solo artist Marcus Brown’s project Nourished by Time joined Dry Cleaning for a good portion of their nearly four-month long tour including most dates in the United States. Nourished by Time’s opening performance at Thalia Hall was an ambient mix of electro goth synth wave and slow-jam vocals. Marcus’ presence on stage was almost shy but also playful and entertaining. NBT’s unique set bathed his audience in a gentle swaying soundscape; almost a meditation to prepare us for the rest of the evening. As Dry Cleaning’s bassist Lewis Maynard, drummer Nick Buxton, guitarist Tom Dowse and vocalist Florence Shaw took the stage, the crowd erupted with applause and shouts of “We love you!” and other pleasantries. At one point in the evening, Florence addressed the audience saying that Chicago had always treated them nicely and that they enjoy the city.

Dry Cleaning’s set included many songs off their newest album, Stumpwork. Their discography isn’t extensive, but fans have favorites, which the group did not forget to include such as “Scratched Lanyard” and “Leafy” off New Long Leg, and the last two songs played before the encore—“Magic of Meghan” from their first EP Sweet Princess and “Tony Speaks!," a single released in 2021. On stage, the band is comparable to most in their presence; there’s nothing too flashy or fancy about how they move around, the talent and tightness of the group is entertaining enough. Florence’s stoic stance commands attention and her outfit for this show was bright-red, boxy, and bold. Throughout each song and even with the primarily back-lit view, her face showed a range of palpable emotion ranging from disgusted, embarrassed, pensive, and more. Her long pin-straight hair was left down, she caressed it, twirled it and wrapped it around her neck like a scarf. The way she held her microphone stand as if it were made of glass was accented beautifully by her long, red-manicured fingernails. Florence Shaw doesn’t need to dance around on stage, her presence is delicately powerful and interesting.

Spoken-word music spans many genres and times in history; countless artists have used spoken word in their performances and recordings. Some of the most famous are Lauryn Hill, Steve Martin, Tom Waits, William S. Burroughs, and Ani DiFranco among many others. Often, spoken word is used within songs to emphasize a point, rant, tell a story, or to share a political or social commentary. Upon first listen, Dry Cleaning was not my favorite spoken-word band, I prefer the heavier instrumentals and in-your-face vocals of bands like La Dispute. Florence Shaw’s vocals are pulled back in the mix to play along the same field as the instruments, instead of pushed forward to take the spotlight.

Shaw’s lyrics initially brought to mind a confused version of college open-mic beat poetry. My subconscious eagerly awaited a melody or vocal diversity to come through, but the simple, conversational tone of her seemingly random train of thoughts were where the vocals began and ended. After doing more research about the band I decided to give the music another chance to speak to me and on a long walk outside I played Dry Cleaning’s discography without skipping any songs. I let go of any expectation of what I thought they should sound like and consequently was far more open to the experience. The post-punk instrumentals seemed to play opposite Florence Shaw’s out-loud, passing musings instead of just serving as a base for her to shine on top of. The lyrics showed themselves to me as a one-way conversation that I could observe happening within Florence’s mind. I now heard the pattern of thought—and that familiar pattern is what makes Dry Cleaning relatable.

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All photos by Shaela Johnson.

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Shaela Johnston

Shaela is a West-Coast born freelance photographer and writer, relatively new to Chicago as of 2021. Specializing in live music photography, Shaela can be found attending concerts several times a week when she isn't traveling or working on her Bachelor's degree. In her free time she listens to metal, hardcore, hip-hop, and likes to chill at home with her hairless cat named Soup and wife Courtney.