By Alexander Marketos
Life on the road for a touring band gets inevitably strenuous. They play the same songs every night for months on end and answer the same questions from interviewers, not to mention how they spend their time between cities crammed like sardines in a tour bus or van. At First Avenue’s Mainroom on Thursday, Nov. 30, Chicago indie rockers Whitney were living, breathing proof of how difficult touring can get.
In the course of a year, Whitney has found themselves growing at an ever-increasing rate. They released their debut album Light Upon The Lake last year to general acclaim. Their sound initially seemed familiar. It had those languid guitar riffs reminiscent of Mac Demarco’s 2014 album Salad Days, but it also had a more pastoral quality to it, like their studio was right next to a forest. Interestingly, the album was conjured up and recorded in the middle of a brutal Chicago winter a few years ago, which is the polar opposite of the sunny, carefree attitudes of songs like “The Falls” or “No Matter Where We Go.”
The last time Whitney came through Minneapolis was during the spring, when they played at the smaller, now-shuttered Triple Rock Social Club (which lead singer/drummer Julien Ehrlich commented on at the beginning of their set). The band has seen an increase in the size of the venues they have been playing at and it was hard to imagine the band ever playing to crowds in venues like the Triple Rock. Since the release of their album, the band has toured nearly nonstop.
The band took the stage 15 minutes past their scheduled set time to a raucous applause from the audience. Initially, the band had no problems, sliding right into “Dave’s Song” from their debut. Ehrlich immediately commented on how amazed he was at the size of the room and how many people showed up. He seemed genuinely surprised. After a few songs, however, the show began a bit of a downward slope. Ehrlich admitted to the crowd that the previous show had been a bit hard for him and the tour was getting to a point where he was losing his filter on inter-song speeches to the crowd.
The cruel irony of Whitney’s grueling nonstop tour is that the band played incredibly tightly. They didn’t make mistakes while playing. They’ve obviously mastered the material, which is what one would hope after playing an entire album front to back for over a year straight.
However, nothing was at stake with their performance. They didn’t switch any of their songs up for a live setting, aside from some brief improvisation during the instrumental “Red Moon,” which seemed to fall apart.
The band’s tight quality was apparent during the last song of the evening, “No Woman,” the band’s biggest hit. They stopped the song twice: once to invite a friend from the audience onstage, and then again to force the drummer of the opening band, Ne-Hi, to jump into the audience. The band didn’t miss a beat jumping back into the song, but they looked incredibly bored playing it, as they did with most of the songs that evening.
Part of the problem with Thursday night’s performance was the lack of music the band has. “Light Upon the Lake” is 10 songs and runs at a tight, get-in-get-out 30 minutes. A band that has ten songs to their name is definitely going to get bored playing them after about a couple months. Within the first hour of an hour-and-twenty-minute set, they played four covers. If you’re playing four covers in an hour, you need to make a new album.
However, the band did debut two new songs during the encore (the second of which the band has never played live aside from during soundcheck, Ehrlich noted). The new songs sounded great and were probably the biggest highlight of the night. Playing them, the band looked like they were having the most fun of the night. Before playing the second one, Ehrlich commanded the crowd to put away their phones and warned them that they were probably going to mess up because the song wasn’t finished yet. It still sounded great and it would be great to hear on the next record.
All this being said, it is important to cut the band a bit of slack. Recording albums is expensive and, for some bands, ticket sales and merchandise are the only way to generate revenue. As a result, many bands are forced to go on these relentless tours. But it was a bit distressing to see the toll touring has taken on Whitney. Hopefully, the next time they come through the Cities, they’ll have a new album and a few more hours of sleep.