On December 18th Empty Bottle, a music venue in Ukrainian Village honored for its local music dive bar credentials, hosted performances by burgeoning bands Ruins, Uma Bloo and Boo Baby.
A testament to the talent of the line-up was the size of the audience in attendance because typically Tuesday and Sunday shows have the lowest attendance rate at Empty Bottle, especially in the winter months when it is hard to willingly face the Chicago winter chill. The night opened with Boo Baby, a band characterized by its whimsy and jocularity. With “the opening band” inscribed on their drum kit, they navigated the liminal space occupied by many opening acts, bringing people inside from smoke breaks, away from the bar and into the music.
“Rob and I love the thought of inviting people in and not just shoving the music down their throats,” Kevin Tellie, of Boo Baby, said. “We like to create a welcoming environment when we play.”
One of the ways they achieved this was by inviting us to boo them on stage instead of clapping. While this booing might seem like that origin of the band’s names Boo Baby ‑ the project of Robert Salazar, Kevin Tellie and Thomas Huston‑ it is actually drawn from one of Salazar’s childhood nicknames. “It could have been my other nickname, which is super cheese, but that one seems a little bit less sexy,” Salazar quips.
It’s easy to fall in love with Boo Baby—at least for this writer and by the looks of it most in the audience. Perhaps their allure is a side effect of their long standing friendships as well as their backgrounds in comedy. “We’re making a real move to get that Grammy award for best banter,” Salazar continues to joke.
We watched as they highlighted the joy and kindness in life’s less attractive moments in both their banter, musical mannerisms and lyrics.
“I’m reading this comic book and, in it, magic is activated by pain, dwell in your darkness and literal sparks fly,” Salazar said. “We take the opposite approach. I think magic is activated by joy and trying to describe being glad is something we want to get real good at.”
We watched as they highlighted the joy and kindness in life’s less attractive moments in both their banter, musical mannerisms and lyrics. “I’m reading this comic book and, in it, magic is activated by pain, dwell in your darkness and literal sparks fly,” Salazar said. “We take the opposite approach. I think magic is activated by joy and trying to describe being glad is something we want to get real good at.”
Another big influencer in Boo Baby’s music is Tellie and Salazar’s love for their hometown, Scranton, Pennsylvania. It is an unfettered and sometimes tumultuous love that shows up in lyrics like I know there’s not a lot not to like about America, but there’s a lot to love. “You won’t find two people who are as proud to be from Scranton as Kevin and me,” Salazar said. “The city, it’s struggling, and it’s hard to recognize that it’s different from how it was when I was growing up.”
While Boo Baby picked us out of the Chicago winter blues, Uma Bloo made our hairs stand on edge with a voice that shook the venue. Like the other acts of the night, Uma Bloo—Molly Madden, Alex Kociper and Mike Altergott—has been around for about a year. However, Madden’s persona, Uma Bloo, has been around since she started doing burlesque about four years ago.
“When I would dance this thing would happen and I would notice that I would channel the same sort of energy in situations that made me nervous,” Madden said. “Whenever I get on stage I feel safe with her, being her.”
Madden attributes the aesthetic of Uma Bloo to old country and old Hollywood icons like Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells, and Marilyn Monroe. “They’re really fun and cute, that has value, but what would it be to see someone that looks like that saying what they’re actually feeling? Would they have even known how to say it if they were given the opportunity to?” Madden said. “I thought it would be funny to parody the old Hollywood thing especially since so much of my music is so angry.”
We witnessed Uma Bloo electrify Madden, As Uma, Madden dominates the venue both during her solo songs and with her accompanying band. We were entranced by her ability to brazenly sing about moments of self-doubt, loss, and loneliness. “When I’m Uma, I’m everything I say that I am.” Madden said. “Especially having a costume I go into, that just helps me shift a mood and […] almost makes me feel like just a better version of myself. […] It’s almost like now I have somebody to meet.”
While the music scene in Chicago is diversity, for this writer it was notable that Madden was the only female identifying performer. “It means so much to me when I see these 18 to like 21 year old women coming to my shows,” Madden said. “I’m not paving the way for anybody, women have playing music in Chicago for a long time, but seeing how much it still matters makes me wonder. If I had gone to some different shows when I was younger would have started putting myself out there sooner?”
The night ended on a fervent note with Ruins, the night’s solo acoustic headliner. Commanding a room as a headliner playing solo acoustic is no small feat. Ruins brought us in with heavily layered acoustic. Even if we had no background in the workings Schubert’s pedals and mixers, we were aware that the success of his music relies on a large amount of technical and musical skill. Ruins is the solo project of Adam Schuber and a drastic stylistic shift from his involvement in local Chicago psychedelic rock band, Cafe Racer.
“I think playing shows with them kind of gave me the drive to start playing my own,” Schubert said.
Playing as Ruins, Schubert draws from influences like Elliot Smith, Kile Vile, Bradford Cox, and Roscoe Holcomb. As Ruins, Schubert indulges in a soft vulnerability. The timing of the Empty Bottle show was particularly significant for Schubert. “It’s going to be my year of sobriety, last year,” Schubert said.
Schubert’s sonic and lyrical meditations on personal and mental strife struck us as the night came to a close. The visceral vulnerability displayed by Schubert is something he strives for in his live performances. “If you aren’t showing yourself to the audience, really believing in what you’re doing, then you shouldn’t be doing it,” Schubert said.
For this writer the way Schubert effortlessly layers his acoustic guitar has the improvisational quality of a one man jam band. It’s a sound that does not necessarily come through in his EP, 2. “Recording is where I do everything, it’s very important to how I hear it, but when you play live nothing ever turns out the way it’s supposed to,” Schubert said. “It’s never going to be exactly perfect and you can play with that imperfection when you play live.”
Whether we stayed for life’s confusing, yet blissful paradoxes, the strife of young womanhood, or the mental struggles and strife that underlie sobriety, it was the passion behind each band that in this writer’s opinion made them stand out. “Seeing any band that’s in love with what they’re doing […] is super inspiring to see in any genre,” Schubert said. “You get to see the real version of them that they don’t show anybody and to me that’s what playing music is.”
Photos by Alexa Viscius, Kait O'Keef and Courtesy of Robert Salazar, unless otherwise indicated
Ally Hembree is an Associate Editor for Arts and Entertainment at Picture This Post. She is a graduate from the University of Puget Sound, where she studied Printmaking and Communication Studies. At Puget Sound she expanded her love of music as a DJ for KUPS FM and now interns at the Empty Bottle. When she moved to Chicago, she joined the Picture This Post team to learn, experience, and write about the breadth of cultural events in Chicago. She helps to preview high-quality free arts and entertainment events for Picture This Post readers. As a reporter, she enjoys covering a variety of events, but writing about live music holds a special place in her heart and feels blessed to live in Chicago to enjoy its diverse and prolific music scene.