This past Friday, Chicago-based group Whitney played Bar Le Ritz to a packed house. They’re one of the surprise breakout bands of 2016 and have gained a considerable amount of momentum since they released their first single in mid-2015. The songwriting duo of Max Kakacek (Smith Westerns) and Julien Ehrlich (Unknown Mortal Orchestra) have created a rich sound with their seven-person ensemble. They’ve been compared to a multitude of different artists, from Neil Young to Marc Bolan, and they successfully mix a variety of genres while maintaining a distinctly late ‘60s/early‘70s vibe. They stopped by Montreal while touring their debut album, Light Upon the Lake. The record combines Americana-style country twang and down-on-your-luck lyrics with layered vocal harmonies, soulful organ, and extensive trumpet arrangements. It’s these retro tropes that, at least for me, fix the band’s romantic and melancholic themes far off in the past.
Kakacek and Ehrlich have been quoted in interviews as saying they started writing songs under the guise of “some old-ass dude” – specifically pointing to John Denver – and this comes through clearly in their beautifully lovesick lyrics. The group’s melancholic melodies feel as if they could have been written by the pseudonymous cabin-dweller. However, the songs have been deftly penned to evoke a variety of feelings and responses from their audience, not only nostalgia and longing.
Throughout their set, they seemed perfectly at home at Bar Le Ritz with its retro-inspired decor. They stood still with their eyes on their instruments as they open the show with “Dave’s Song.” This track echoes Nashville Skyline-era Dylan, although the band’s guitar riffs seemed far removed from a lazy Tennessee porch on the cold fall night in Montreal. By the second song, “No Matter Where We Go,” the sold-out crowd started pushing against each other and grooving along.
Whitney fed off the rowdy energy of the packed house and seemed very comfortable with their sudden fame. After singing “Polly” in his high and lonesome falsetto, Ehrlich got up, walked over to his writing partner and planted a big kiss on Kakacek, eliciting loud cheers from the spectators. Apparently, this has become something of a tradition on the road. The gangly and grungy crew, in their oversized plaid shirts and hunting camo jackets, are very much in the honeymoon stage of their success and had the dynamic of a family road trip in their live show. This energy will help push them through the long tour ahead for Light Upon the Lake. After a couple more dates in North America this week they’re off to Europe and the U.K. in November.
Building on the enthusiasm found within their original material, the band even took a shot at covering Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” Albeit a bit of a messy attempt, the ode to the recent Nobel Prize Laureate was much appreciated by the crowd of millennials. And the feeling was reciprocal — by the time they announced their second to last song, Ehrlich had thanked the crowd several times for being considerably more welcoming than those in his native Portland. He even noted that it was the first time they’ve had a crowd sing along to “Wish You Were My Friend.”
As they closed out the night with a loose rendition of their single “No Woman,” which Ehrlich dryly describes as, “a song about having a girlfriend and then not,” the energy in the room was just as palpable as when they first got on stage. Even the nominally lonesome break-up song didn’t stop the crowd from swaying from side-to-side and singing along happily.
Whitney was eager to give back to the crowd, rewarding the room with multiple encores and feeding off the buzzing energy levels. One of those encores was the title track, “Light Upon the Lake.” For me, it was the highlight of the night: the band was entirely in sync, matching the vocal harmonies and guitar melodies in perfect timing. They were in top form.
After a long night, they happily mingled with the audience on Jean-Talon in the refreshingly chilly night air. Over the course of the night, Whitney won over the crowd and added Montreal to their long list of admirers. No one will smirk now when they go back to Chicago and say they have a Canadian bff — here’s hoping they’ll come back and visit us again soon.
– Review by Derek Colley