I’d never been to a rock show that screamed “Chicago” at the top of its lungs until Jan. 20. As part of the second Annual Abortion Access Benefit Series, venerable venue The Empty Bottle brought together Chicago artists Divino Niño, Macie Stewart (of Finom), Melkbelly, Resavoir, Free Range and Whitney. The latter, performing as “Is This Whit” laid down a smoking string of The Strokes covers. 

The series, which also hosts shows in LA, New York, Philadelphia and Nashville, is a night of local music in support of abortion funds, community and bodily autonomy. One hundred percent of ticket proceeds go to NOISE FOR NOW, a nonprofit organization dedicated to organizing benefit concerts across the country. The organization then allocates the funds raised to local independent abortion clinics and abortion funds in each region. 

A good cause and a killer night of Chicago music. I showed up with four close friends knowing it was going to be a good night in the small space. Let’s get into it.  

In the last year, I’ve written about how I’ve changed as a concertgoer. I’m a homebody and don’t often stay out late. This is hard because I love attending live shows. This one didn’t end until 1 a.m.—but it was amazing! I have once again been humbled by a fabulous local show.  

A show at The Empty Bottle feels like a gig at a friend’s house. It’s filled with familiar faces from the Chicago scene. It’s supportive and comforting. You might even be lucky enough to be greeted by Peg, the owner’s cat.  

Free Range (Sofia Jensen) by Kendall Polidori

My friends and I grabbed a 312 and headed to space in front of the stage. But anywhere you stand at The Empty Bottle is a solid spot. Free Range took the stage, and it was my first time seeing them perform as a full band, with Friko drummer Bailey Minzenberger joining on bass. The last time I saw Free Range, they opened for Hovvdy’s acoustic tour with a soft acoustic set. They remind me of the New Jersey band Pinegrove. They’re poetic but with an indie folk twang. 

Andy “Red” PK on pedal steel with Free Range. Photo by Kendall Polidori

Macie Stewart took the stage next with a beautiful solo set filled with songs from her 2021 album Mouth Full of Glass. Songs like Finally make me feel like I’m Alice walking through Wonderland. It has elegant vocals, dreamy almost-psychedelic guitar chords and a soft string section. A talented violinist, and often featured on other Chicago artists’ albums, Stewart opened her set with a lovely violin intro. I briskly swayed to each song.  

At this point, the venue started filling in quite snuggly. That was fitting for a change of pace with Chicago pop-rockers Melkbelly, who were about 15 notches louder than the other performers. People rightfully shuffled around me, headbanging and letting the rhythm possess their bodies. Being next to the speakers without my ear plugs was quite fun.  

Macie Stewart by Kendall Polidori
Melkbelly guitarist Bart Winters by Kendall Polidori

The set attested to the versatility of Chicago’s indie artists and showed why so many of the city’s listeners love nearly every genre.  

The set I anticipated most was Divino Niño’s. Coming to the stage just past 11:30 p.m., the band’s flowery tunes ignited a sway in your hips. Drawing upon their childhoods in Bogotá, Colombia, the band sings in both English and Spanish to create tropical indie-punk tunes. I’ve seen the band five times and each time they just get better. From groovy guitar chords and the smooth duo vocals of Javier Forero and Camilo Medina to the thumping of bongos, it’s impossible not to get up and dance. It’s the perfect way to leave behind the bitter cold Chicago winter and escape to some island pop.  

Divino Niño singer and guitarist Camilo Medina by Kendall Polidori
Divino Niño by Kendall Polidori

Whitney is another band I’ve seen so many times I can hardly keep track of it, but they changed it up a bit for this show. Instead of playing their original songs, they celebrated drummer Julien Ehrlich’s birthday. They had played a full set of songs by The Strokes for Halloween and brought it back for “Is This Whit,” a play on The Strokes song Is This It. I know The Strokes are wildly popular, but I truly had no idea so many people would be stoked out of their minds for Whitney’s cover set.  

Chicago band Whitney
Whitney guitarist Max Kakacek by Kendall Polidori

Rhythm guitarist Ziyad Asar ditched the guitar this set for lead vocals, and he sounded almost exactly like Julian Casablancas. I was pushed and elbowed to the second row during this set as a handful of people sang with every ounce of their being. It almost seemed they believed Whitney was The Strokes, and the band had a hell of a time living out that fantasy.  

I fumbled with my camera as “Is This Whit” flew through The Strokes’ hits like Last Nite, Someday and Bad Decisions. It was an amped up way to cap off the night of Chicago indie music. My friends and I just looked at each other and went, “Wow.” This is what Chicago music is all about.  

Kendall Polidori is The Rockhound, Luckbox‘s resident rock music critic. Follow her reviews on Instagram and Twitter. @rockhoundlb