We were already late and confused when the evening began, as we hurtled down 90-94 in a comfortably battered Grand Marquis and pondering the great mysteries of modern urban life. As the streetlights stumbled and dropped behind, my good friend the driver and I talked shop, discussing music with a thrust, parry, and riposte.
Conversation soon turned towards the concert we were commuting north and west to seean evening of underground hip-hop and intelligent dance music, to paraphrase my friend. He parked the car, and we headed down Western towards the sallow beacon of a Heilman's Old Style light barely managing to shine, when a thought struck me.
"What do you do when you can't dance to dance music?" I asked. He shrugged his shoulders, shooting me a puzzled look. I continued as I reached for the door.
"I mean, it's not like you can watch the guy on stage, you know? He's just twiddling some knobs and maybe rooting through his bag for a record. I know he can't go jump around with his turntables, but still "
The sentence had barely left my mouth and was poking a tiny little head out like a rabbit at a warren, when a giant blast of noise swooped down and swallowed the poor thing alive. We glanced at each other, held our breaths, and plunged through the wall of sound and into the Empty Bottle.
If you've never been, the Empty Bottle is one of the last truly great holes-in-the-wall in Chicago. Walls are tattooed with phone numbers and illicit suggestions. There's always dollar beer at the bar, and the owner's cat occasionally falls asleep on the pool table. Additionally, there's enough cigarette smoke that on cold evenings it condenses and starts raining Pall-Mallsno lie.
The bathrooms are always semi-clean, and the floor is guaranteed to be sticky.
However, as impressive as the Bottle's ambiance is, the main reason others and I make the trek out to Bucktown at 10 p.m. on a weeknight is the live music. And that night was no exception. The bill last Thursday night consisted of Nobody, Beans, Dabrye, and the should-be-legendary Prefuse 73.
Due to the lack of agreement between the posters (which advertised a starting time of 10 p.m.) and the Empty Bottle (which started the show at approximately 9:15), the Bottle was well below capacity when we entered to the sounds of hip-hop wunderkind and maverick, Beans. Armed with only a laptop, a pair of aviator glasses, and a beard Isaac Hayes would love, Beans tore into the audience from the get-go, unleashing some wicked freestyle verse that was as funny as it was intelligent. Favorably compared to both Del tha Funkee Homosapien and Cannibal Ox, Beans had a rapid-fire delivery and deadpan humor that convinced the sparse crowd to stick around.
Aside from a few false starts on the laptop (Bean does his own beats), the bearded wonder's set was incredibly tight, relying heavily on material off of his excellent new EP, Now Soon Someday, and culminating in an a cappella version of his single "Databreaker." The only thing that could be considered remotely bad about Beans's set was the fact that the promoter didn't make him the co-headliner.
Next up was Nobody, who spun in-between every single set. Unfortunately for the audience, Nobody lived up to his moniker, spinning very lackluster sets of forgettable ambiance that caused more people to scurry for the dollar beer than shake booties. In fact, I think I might have been the only person at some point moving in-sync with the beat, and that was mostly out of sympathy.
Following the rather poor first set (not that the second one was any better) by the shaggy-haired DJ Nobody, the audience seemed rather relieved to see Ann Arbor sensation Dabrye take the stage, and with good reason. As of late, Dabrye has received his best press for his lazy, jazzy beats and collaborations with the headliners Prefuse 73, and the crowd seemed more than ready for him.
Looking like the bastard child of Coldplay singer Chris Martin and a mad scientist, Dabrye spent most of his time smoking a cigarette, and then tweaking his beats out of a laptop and what appeared to be a computer/Geiger counter.
As he spun, the crowd surged and danced; beer flew while rumps shimmied.
Out in the dim alcove by the cigarette machines someone was even popping and locking.
Then, all too suddenly, Dabrye stopped and Nobody came back on. The dancing fizzled, and the pool table sprang back to life. People caught their breath, took swigs from now-foamy beer and resumed chatting up the handsome stranger at the bar next to them. No one saw the lanky, chapeauxed gentleman stride up to a wall of keyboards, nor did anyone catch a chubby drummer sneak around back to a small drum kit. Nobody remained on stage, spinning the same boring beats.
All was calm until the second major blast of noise bit the head off conversation again. Prefuse 73 had taken the stage and they were making sure everyone in a 24-block radius knew it.
Led by the hat-wearing electronics guru Scott Herren, the current touring incarnation of Prefuse 73 wasted no time tearing into what were possibly the weirdest and most entertaining sets of music I've ever had the pleasure to see.
On one side of the stage, you had Herren, pounding keyboards, drum machines, and a laptop; in the middle, some nameless and incredible drummer pounded the skins with a fury reserved for destructive natural forces; and, surprise of surprises, Nobody remained on stage as well, spinning and generally abusing his electronics.
Sonically, listening to Prefuse was like listening to a garage band jamming to scrambled radio stations in outer-space. Samples floated in and out of the mix, hovering over layers of cheesy synths, frenzied drumming, and what sounded like an old tube radio being tuned. The feedback from keyboards harmonized with trashy Detroit hip-hop. The volume was so loud that I could actually see bottles vibrate on the bar. It was absolutely euphoric.
We, the audience and I, were all moving at this point in unison, heads bobbing like buoys on a beer-splattered ocean of sweaty shirts and gliding feet. Even my friend (whose dancing rivals only my own in its sheer awkwardness) was dancing, throwing caution and his lit cigarette to the wind. It felt so good to move, no one acknowledged that they had options to the contrary.
But, before total hearing loss or sweaty collapse could have been achieved, Prefuse's time was up, and they headed offstage. We cheered and stomped, disregarding our ringing ears and blistered feet as Prefuse with Beans in tow returned to the stage to run through one last final song.
As the house lights came up, I realized that Prefuse 73 had finally answered my earlier question. They were transcendent, their entire performance seeming to suggest, "If we can't get you out on the dance floor, then we have no business making dance music." Now, if I could only learn how to dance