Review: A Night of Surprises as Bonny Doon Turns Chicago into Detroit Rock City

Guest review by Lorenzo Zenitsky.

Okay, so first things first, Bonny Doon‘s Thursday night performance at The Empty Bottle was my first show ever at The Empty Bottle and I think it might be my new favorite venue (Sorry Hideout!). From its perfect flow, to its little sitting stairs, to its wonderful sound quality, and all the way to its beautifully lit stage, it’s just immaculate fun being at the Bottle. I also feel like it should be said that two days prior to this show, I had never once heard a Bonny Doon song. I also realize now that two days prior to the show, I was yet to be fully musically born because holy cow, this band rocks. They are the perfect mix of the modern and introspective alt-country sounds of bands like Hovvdy and the gritty city-born indie rock of bands like Twin Peaks. People, if you aren’t tearing through this band’s discography right now, hit pause on whatever you’re listening to for just a moment and hit play on Bonny Doon. You will not regret it.

Hazel City

Rarely do I ever watch a performance of a band that has no music on any streaming service, but Hazel City just added their name to that very, very, very short, specific list of mine. I had no idea what to expect from them when the three took the stage but I could only surmise that it had to be somewhat similar to Bonny Doon’s style if they were opening for them, right? Wrong. Well, kinda. When guitarist and lead vocalist Clay Frankel, guitar aficionado of Chicago’s own Twin Peaks, began to quietly belt out some of the somberest indie rock I’ve heard since discovering Keaton Henson a couple of years back, I knew there was more to his band than the sounds and styles of their headliners for the night.

As their set went on, however, the songs got much more lively with each carrying with it an emotional rainbow of colors with twangy riffs and hooks that were prone to repeat humming. There was one song in particular that came in around the back half of their set that was rather upbeat with one of the catchiest hooks I’ve heard in a long time that just made me smile ear to ear for the rest of their set. The song came dangerously close to ruining my whole night realizing that I wouldn’t be able to go back home and add it to every damn playlist I have but I somehow managed.

Ulna

The three-piece band officially became a theme for that night when ULNA took the stage and swerved the night straight into ’90s grunge. The vocalist (and also guitarist), Adam Schubert, sang with a wispy, yet impassioned timbre that sounded not unlike Elliott Smith if he fronted a loud and chaotic band like Nirvana or the Smashing Pumpkins. More often than not, a powerful and noisy solo would pop out of nowhere and carry the song the rest of the way home with screeching feedback, atonal notes, and beautiful harmonics that were always hit with an impressive amount of clarity and precision. It was lovely to see a band that unabashedly wore their influences on their sleeves but yet could still carry with them an obvious sense of self.

Bonny Doon

By the time Detroit’s own Bonny Doon took the stage, the Bottle was packed with the excitement of a full house of eager concert-goers all hopeful of a great set. I don’t make a habit of tossing out spoilers willy-nilly but it indeed was a fantastic lengthy set of songs new and old, covers, and even some surprise guests!

They opened the show with the hopelessly romantic (at least that’s how I see it) warmth of “I See You”, a song from their wonderfully underrated 2017 debut album, Bonny Doon. It’s one of my favorites from them but definitely a song I would have never guessed could work wonders as an opener since it feels like such a “middle of the setlist” type song but hey, reviewers can be wrong sometimes! From a high-level perspective, their setlist for the night was packed to the brim with singles and underrated fan favorites. Songs like the roadworn and contemplative “I Am Here (I Am Alive)” from their latest album, 2018’s Longwave, and the guitar-driven “Relieved” from their self-titled gave me and everyone else plenty to smile about. Their more upbeat and rowdy numbers like “Lost My Way” and “Crooked Creek,” one of the few brand new songs of 2023, brought crowd excitement to great new heights.

Katie Crutchfield

For anyone still with me, don’t think I forgot about all those surprises! Out of complete nowhere, while I was simply minding my own business enjoying an enchanting Bonny Doon set that was seemingly only half way through, Katie Crutchfield, the Alabama singer-songwriter from the legendary indie rock outfit Waxahatchee, waltzed onto the stage for a performance of the title track of Bonny Doon’s last record, Longwave, and “San Francisco,” a 2022 single.

Based on the crowd reaction to Katie walking on stage, I don’t think many in the crowd knew that she was the vocalist for Waxahatchee because I almost felt alone in my utter and complete disbelief that I was seeing this woman perform a mere 5 feet away from me in a approximate 100-person venue. She brought a wonderful effervescence to the stage as she gleefully swayed to a couple Bonny tunes that were so in her musical wheelhouse that I could possibly be convinced she helped write them. Soon after Katie left, her partner in crime, Kevin Morby, took the stage for an unrehearsed cover of the Silver Jews classic, “Random Rules,” a performance that brought with it as much crowd shock as it did giddy cheer.

As a last song for the night, the boys pulled out an absolutely killer cover of “A Long December” by Counting Crows. Ending a set with a near 30-year-old alt-rock classic was definitely a bold statement but good thing Bonny Doon walks and talks with the confidence of a band that has as many miles under their belt as they do songs left to write.

All in all, this show gave me plenty to write home about. I spent nearly half of the whole night standing next to Squirrel Flower without ever realizing it, saw some insane guest performances, drank my first Liquid Death, and got to experience some incredible local Chicago indie in a beautiful Chicago venue. Here’s to many more shows attended where you’ve only known the band for a total of 48 hours.

This review of Hazel City, Ulna, Boony Doon and friends’ show at Empty Bottle was written by Guest Author Lorenzo Zenitsky.

Concert photos by Lorenzo Zenitsky. Cover photo by Anna Friss.

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