March 2, 2004

Art rockers 90 Day Men suck Empty Bottle dry

I was half a block away from the Empty Bottle when I started panicking. Right in front of me, I could see the line of hipsters and cute indie-rock girls stretching out of everyone's favorite seedy dive, in numbers growing by the minute. Through the front window, I could see the bouncer nervously fingering a "Sold Out" sign like a prison shiv, waiting for the prime moment to strike. Could I make it? My lungs were singed by the icy winter air.

Before the panic hit, my evening had been shaping up to be a nice, quiet, uneventful occasion. I had originally planned to accompany a good friend to a party, sip some mojitos, mosey up to the Empty Bottle and, just maybe, go to Arturo's for a late-night chimichanga. I was sitting on the couch enjoying the first of many rum-based concoctions when my cell phone rang.

I ignored it at first. After all, it's not every day I get the opportunity to quaff concoctions of coconut and fermented sugar cane. No, I couldn't take the chance of something dragging me away from this—not even something important, like an Axl Rose sighting. I was going to have a quiet evening or else, dammit.

But, like a demented silver toddler, my phone wouldn't stop ringing, crying for attention from the depths of my jeans. Finally, I gave in, swearing profusely. I mashed the accept button and growled an epithet that, in retrospect, I hope could have been loosely interpreted as a greeting.

"Where've you been? I've been trying to get a hold of you for the last 15 minutes!" the voice on the other end of the line starts, worried. Then comes the long pause of comprehension. "Have you been drinking?"

"Never mind that," I shout. "What're you doing calling me for? Are you at a bar? Is Axl there, or are you just feeling lonely? Out with it, man! Your life hangs in the balance."

"You're a weird bastard, you know that? Anyhow, I'm at the Bottle and I just wanted to let you know that the bouncers say there's only about 20 tickets left, so you'd better get your ass down here if you want to see the show tonight. You did remember about the show, right?"

I chuckled. Of course I remembered the show. At the place. With the cute girls. Five blocks away. That started 15 minutes ago. OH NO! I FORGOT ABOUT THE SHOW! I looked at the clock, did a few hasty calculations on a cocktail napkin, and then picked up my phone again.

"Yeah, of course I remembered about the show. I was just getting ready to leave. Yes. That's it. Leave. Anyhow, you worry too much, you know that? It's not healthy—gives you the bends. That's a fact."

I told him to save me a drink and then I hit the end button. He could smell the fear in my voice, and frankly, I wasn't too sure of my chances either. It was time to roll the dice.

I uttered my good-byes as hastily as possible, while gulping down my drink and throwing my outerwear on. Reeking of spilt rum and desperation, I ran into the night.

I was panting when I reached the Empty Bottle. A quick count revealed that there were exactly 14 people ahead of me. Would I slip in under the wire? I handed the bouncer my driver's license and money. He clicked the counter and I went through the door, breathing heavily.

By the time I had arrived, the Empty Bottle stood at full capacity, with people crammed into, on top of, and against any available surface. I mustered up my strength and shoved my way to the bar, hoping to meet my friend and my drink amidst the smoke and black denim.

Fortunately, I stumbled into him while rounding the corner of the serving area. He plopped a highball in my hand, took one look at me and shook his head. On stage was the opening band, Pit er Pat, a trio specializing in animal-print pants and off-kilter melodies. While not particularly unlistenable, Pit er Pat had a horrible problem with mobility—namely, they had not grasped the fundamental importance of moving on stage. I wondered whether or not these strange creatures were really cunningly crafted robots instead of humans.

We joked about this for a few minutes, nervously eyeing New York's CocoRosie as they took the stage. They had an acoustic guitar, and you know where that usually leads.

CocoRosie—two women dressed like Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls that had served time in various state pens—delivered a set of thoroughly underappreciated cabaret folk. And while we couldn't make out a single word of the lyrics due to the noise from the audience, CocoRosie more than made up for it. They displayed an impressive array of electronic, guitar, and vocal abilities.

However, the audience was in no mood to listen to two well trained women play oddly theatrical songs on acoustic guitars and a speak 'n' spell. No, sirree. Most of us were gathered under the eaves of the Empty Bottle to celebrate the release of a new 90 Day Men record. For those of you who are new to the area, the 90 Day Men are the unofficial Empty Bottle house band—an art-rock group consisting almost solely of Empty Bottle employees playing some incredible music on an international scale.

As the 90 Day Men took the stage, you instantly knew which side the audience was on. Friendly catcalls filled the air as friends and patrons good-naturedly ripped them. Someone shouted something about the keyboard player's mullet into the silence, and then the songs hit.

The way Chicago crowds react to music is very puzzling—the better the set, the less people move. Here we were, not 100 feet away from a band that's huge in Europe, and the audience looked as wooden as poor Pit er Pat did hours earlier. Nothing could get my fellow concert-goers to move—not even the crisp guitar work that sliced like a razor. The wailing organ that is just so right was never so ineffective in getting people to dance.

Yet even among this audience, the 90 Day Men continued to rock like men possessed. There was no slack in their set, not a moment of weakness or doubt. This was quality music; they knew what they had was good, and they didn't care if we couldn't understand.

I just laughed and danced. The only thing that could have made it better was a nice cold mojito.