For several decades the Empty Bottle has been Chicago’s best place — and often the last chance — to see up-and-coming bands before they get huge. Usually for the price of the wadded up contents of your pocket you can catch bands in an intimate, if loud and seedy, rock’n’roll venue. On Thursday evening a near-capacity crowd turned out to see Yellow Ostrich, the latest band on the verge of indie-stardom to take the hallowed Empty Bottle stage.
The core of the Yellow Ostrich sound springs from the imagination of guitarist and lead singer Alex Schaaf. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Schaaf attended the prestigious music conservatory at Lawrence University. In his spare time he created Yellow Ostrich as a bedroom pop project, writing and recording all the music himself. Buoyed by the underground acclaim surrounding a series of EP’s, Schaaf moved to Brooklyn where he put the finishing touches on The Mistress, his first album as Yellow Ostrich. For his next album Schaaf assembled a band and went to work. The life-long Wisconsin native was inspired by his “stranger in a strange land” mentality and included input from new band mates Michael Tapper and Jon Natchez. The resulting LP, Strange Land, is a fully fleshed out indie pop record that has been rightfully earning hype across the blogosphere.
At Empty Bottle, Schaaf (on guitar) was joined by his new band members — Tapper on drums and Natchez taking up a variety of instruments, including bass, keyboards, trumpet and saxophone. On the record Yellow Ostrich creates a complicated mix of sounds with structural variety, sudden tempo shifts, complicated bridges and other hallmarks of talented songwriting. When performing live, the trio effortlessly recreates this diverse sound. Schaaf is a competent guitar player who has no problem often carrying the melody alone. Natchez uses his multiple talents to keep the sound fresh, and Tapper provides a reliable backbeat with percussive accents that emphasize powerful crescendos.
Their only flaw as a live band is the peculiar nature of Schaaf’s voice. While competent technically, rarely missing a note, he swings pretty far to the nasal side of the spectrum and is a bit of an acquired taste. Further complicating things is his refusal to vary tone or delivery— it’s a love/hate scenario. On record I had never noticed it, but live I found his repetitive tone grating.
Yellow Ostrich performed a set heavy on tracks from Strange Land. The band’s familiarity with these songs was clear as they moved quickly and easily between some complicated musical passages. Their mid-set cover of “Heaven” by the Talking Heads was especially a treat.
Yellow Ostrich are a new band just starting to turn heads in the indie world. They are sure to be omnipresent on the summer festival circuit and will likely be headlining bigger venues within the next year. Despite some misgivings with their live show, it was a treat catching this group before having to pay two to three times as much at less a welcoming venue.