Whitney: A Valentine’s Day Special
by Sophie Lee
There was love in the air this Valentine’s Day as Whitney returned to its beloved Thalia Hall for three holiday shows. Julien Ehrlich, the lead vocalist and drummer, promised the audience that if they ever made it big, they would never play another venue, and that they would just keep adding shows to Thalia Hall. The building is a small venue with a sky-high ceiling and paint that peels off the walls. Even the box seats look slightly rickety, as the wooden flourishes separate a bit from the wall. Yet, for one of Chicago’s most beloved homegrown bands, Thalia Hall remains as its most coveted venue.
Whitney is about as local as it gets, with guitarist Max Kakakec hailing from Northside College Prep. Initially, the two were members of the band, The Smith Westerns. However, after they broke up in 2014, Kakacek and Ehrlich came together to form their own indie rock duo. Whitney’s first single, “No Matter Where We Go,” was released in 2015 with help from other former band members and friends. They then took the band on the road and toured with other artists until the release of their debut album, “Light Upon the Lake,” in 2016. Since then, the band has been on its solo tour, playing music festivals including Pitchfork and Lollapalooza, as well as working on its follow up album.
As Whitney, now a seven person band with frequent musical guests, launched into its first song of the night, the atmosphere of the room brightened up. With a couple hours worth of middle of the road opening acts under their belt, the audience was ready for songs they already know well (and they do know them quite well). Outside of the venue, those waiting in line talked about the Whitney shows they have been to, who they saw Whitney open for, and often where in the city they have run into the band members before. This is a band whose fan base casually debates whether they like the studio version or demo version of songs better, or perhaps even the live version they have audio recorded on their phone. It is a safe guess that this was few people’s first time seeing the band.
Every song was a sing-a-long at this concert. Whitney played with a casual ease that lets one know this was not its first time playing the album. In fact, the performance was so meticulous in its execution that every voice crack Ehrlich allows to slip through has both the singer and the audience laughing along. Now that Whitney knows its songs so well, it allows the members to have fun at their own concerts by launching into drum and piano solos, having friends run on and steal a guitar for a verse, or inviting in performers like Aaron Scott, who run away with gospel vocals over Ehrlich’s perpetually wispy falsetto. In these ways, the raucous energy Whitney brings to the stage eclipses the low-key, summer night vibe of its album. In fact, when the band reached “Light Upon the Lake” in its setlist, Ehrlich bemoaned having to play the slow song in the middle of their otherwise uptempo concert. From the intensity with which the crowd threw themselves into the song, they did not seem to agree with his criticism.
Whitney’s music captures the moment in which its members live: young, confused, and making decisions their parents would likely think better of. Its sad, sweet ballads are dripping in nostalgia, though one may wonder what a group of 20-something boys have to be nostalgic for. Regardless, their moody rock has resonated with their growing fan base, who are similarly trying to figure out just how it is they want to go about getting older. The band walks the walk with this demographic, tweeting frequently about girls, parties, and sleeping in strangers’ houses. Perhaps this laid back attitude and soundtrack to summer break music is what makes Whitney’s shows feel like revisiting one’s younger, wilder days, even if no one there has quite grown up yet.