I should have been mad that it was mid-June in Chicago and the temperature was still in the 50s, the grey sky threatening rain as it had been for the better part of the last two months. I should have been upset that I forgot to bring a raincoat as it started to drizzle with a half hour until House of Vans opened their doors. I should have been tired from working all day after working every day for the past four straight weeks between my day job, grad school, and my own business. I should have felt a lot of negative emotions, but none of them seemed important because we were all there standing in the rain, waiting to see Julien Baker play for us, for free.
For the uninitiated, House of Vans Chicago has, for the last three summers now, hosted a series of ‘House Party’ events where they get some of the best artists in Punk, Indie, Metal, and Hip Hop to play their indoor skate park/event space/party palace for fans, all on the company card. I couldn’t believe it when the schedule was first announced in 2017; there had to be a catch. And almost two years to the day that I got to see a free Lawrence Arms, Dillinger Four, Toys That Kill with seemingly every punk in Chicago… I haven’t found one.
If you want to be overly cynical, you could call it ‘experiential marketing’ on the part of the Vans Corporation, but that would make you a contemptuous prick. And if you can find something to complain about at an event with free music, free beer (!!!), and free swag then you should probably just stay at home getting into a fight in the comments section of a YouTube video.
Once the doors opened, I made my way inside for what can only be described as a photo finish trip to the urinal in order to make room for many free Goose Island beers coming my way over the course of the evening. Waiting for the rest of our group to enter, I picked up a complimentary Vans crew-neck… a gift I never thought I would deeply appreciate in mid-June.
Shortly afterwards, the opening band Macseal started up. I didn’t do my journalistic homework and had no idea who was playing aside from JB, but they were an enjoyable set to open up the night. Hovering the line between Indie and Pop Punk, it makes sense that they’re signed to 6131 who had put out Baker’s Sprained Ankle in 2015. Definitely worth a deeper dive and a band I hope comes back around soon.
About the time they wrapped up, I was nearing my fifth gratis Goose beer and in desperate need of some sustenance. Like everything else about the evening, Vans was looking out for us and had the Aztec Dave’s food truck parked in their back lot. Props to their crew for preparing an ungodly amount of Mexican food for the wet, no-longer-sober masses who had been using the free beer to add another layer of warmth underneath their damp coats and crewneck sweatshirts. Steak burrito firmly in hand, we made it back inside to huddle over a highboy table to bullshit with strangers in between onion and cilantro flavored bites.
By this time Wye Oak was on and I was pretty ambivalent to their sound. It could be that the phrase ‘Indie Rock Duo’ makes my testicles retract into my own body or it could be that I was just excited to be a #sadboi for Julien Baker… but I would give them a solid ‘meh’ out of 10. If the words ‘Indie Rock Duo’ does considerably different things to your genitals, I would suggest checking them out.
Finally, it was time for Julien Baker to play. Previous times seeing her have been in moderately sized venues and she was usually the only act of the evening. Even before her set actually started, there was generally a somber, almost reverent atmosphere to the crowd. Comparatively, HOV’s sound guy was bumping Hip Hop between every set. Not unappreciated by any means; they were playing some bangers and it definitely helped keep the energy up in the room. Then that soundtrack cut, the lights dimmed, and Julien stepped out in a Judas Priest shirt ready to make us all feel something.
Opening with “Appointments” and “Turn Out the Lights” from the album bearing the same name, Baker showed just how powerful the combination of her voice, music, and presence can be as she instantly quieted the dull roar of the space that just reached capacity. I heard someone next to me whisper “I wonder when she’s going to play the old stuff” like shitheads are generally wont to do. The cosmos seemed to align when she responded by ripping through “Blacktop,” “Sprained Ankle,” and “Rejoice” in a back to back to back fashion that would have made the ’96-’98 Chicago Bulls feel inadequate.
If you’re reading this review, it means you’ve probably listened to Julien Baker before. And if you’ve listened to Julien Baker before you know how much of an emotional powerhouse she is and the depths of which her songs can reach. So forgive me when I took the opportunity mid-set to go outside and catch my breath for a few minutes. Even from outside, the only thing you could hear was her voice cutting through the quiet, moist air. Walking back in, I found her accompanied by a violinist whose soulful work with her bow was the perfect accompaniment to deeper dives into Turn Off the Lights.
Lost in my own head, thinking about all the sad shit, long gone moments, and failed relationships I generally think about while listening to JB it was all of a sudden the last song. Having written a song like “Something” means that you never have to wonder about what you’re going to close a set with and she pushed her voice to their limit hollering “I can’t think of anyone, anyone else” into the void while we all watched, too embarrassed by our own vocal limitations to sing along as loud as we usually do. With the last note, we were all set adrift into the evening half drunk, half stunned by the experience that is watching her play music. And even though there were so many things to be sad about that day, we all left smiling.