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Live Recap: Ryley Walker, OHMME, and Ben LaMar Gay Brought Improv and Collaborations to the Empty Bottle

On Friday, December 28th, Ryley Walker, OHMME, and Ben LaMar Gay brought a sold out crowd to The Empty Bottle for a night of improvisation, collaboration, and celebrating live music.

The bill of Chicago natives kicked off with Ben LaMar Gay, whose set was definitely the most freeform and jazzy of the evening. The composer and cornetist took the stage right around 10PM bringing along a full band that included a tuba player. Throughout his 45 minute set, the audience got to experience elements of hip hop, avant-garde, and soul that focused more on the instrumentals and melodies over lyrics. Instead of a traditional set where you recognize the transition from song to song, Ben LaMar Gay’s set played out more like a theatrical play, where it moved from scene to scene or segment to segment. As an audience member, you could hear the improvisation happening, but the band worked so well together through the winding transitions that sometimes you doubted that any of it was free-form playing.

OHMME, the duo of Sima Cunningham and Macie Stewart, took the stage next, bringing the audience back to a more traditional place of arranged songs, but their show still had some surprise guests and songs. The set began with the song “Water” from OHMME’s debut full length Parts, which was released earlier this year. With its bold, distorted guitar and layered harmonies, the explosive opening song showcased why OHMME is one of the best live acts around and just how well Cunningham and Stewart work together. After the pair performed the title track from their album, they welcomed a friend onstage to play the drums and jingle bells, in place of their usual drummer Matt Carroll, for a rare performance of a Christmas cover song: “Jing-a-Ling Jing-a-Ling” by The Andrews Sisters. “In Chicago we do special things like that,” Cunningham told the packed room after the Christmas cover. During the performance of their single “Icon,” the pair were once again joined by a special guest to fill in on the drums, which celebrated the collaborative nature of the Chicago music scene.

Just after midnight, Ryley Walker and his band took the stage to close out the special evening with a performance that once again celebrated free-form and improvisation by blending elements of jazz and folk music. The show on Friday marked the end of Walker’s most recent tour in support of his album Deafman Glance and his own version of The Lillywhite Sessions by The Dave Matthews Band, both of which he released this year via Dead Oceans. The unique set began with a trumpet player center stage for the first few songs, which the crowd loved (at one point, an audience member yelled “More horn!”). Despite it being a late night, the venue remained completely packed as Walker and his band jammed out, delivering extended arrangements and feeding off one another’s energy. For the majority of the set, the songs blended into one another, smoothly transitioning very much like Ben LaMar Gay’s set had done. Walker would occasionally check in to see how the audience was doing, but surprisingly, he didn’t make any banter between songs. Based on his hilarious Twitter feed, I had been expecting some between-song jokes, but the focus of the set remained solely on the intricate musicianship displayed by Walker’s live band. While the set heavily featured songs from Walker’s 2018 projects, he did throw in some older tracks, like “The Roundabout” from 2016’s Golden Sings That Have Been Sung.

Overall, Friday night’s show highlighted what a wide array of talent the Chicago music scene has to offer at the moment, and captured the magic of friends playing live music together. If you missed out on a ticket to the sold out evening, check out our photo gallery below for a glimpse of what you missed.

PHOTOS: OHMME Record Release Show with V.V. Lightbody and The Hecks

OHMME celebrated the release of their debut album Parts on Saturday with an in-the-round style show at Thalia Hall. V.V. Lightbody and The Hecks opened the show--check out a gallery of all of their performances below. 

Make sure you check out our interview with OHMME here if you haven't already, and listen to Parts in full below!