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Feature Wed Aug 26 2015

Playing Atop the Hotel Lincoln, Widowspeak Embraces The Serenity Of Nature

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The J. Parker Rooftop at the Hotel Lincoln is packed at 6 o'clock. On an ordinary Tuesday evening, you'd probably see a few 20-somethings stopping by after work to drink up a stunning view of Lincoln Park, the lake, and the Near North Side skyline as well as a cocktail. But on this occasion, a PA system and a slew of microphones invade a square space at the east end of the roof, and people cluster in a semicircle around them, keeping up a garrulous chatter between glances at the makeshift stage.

At 6:30, a woman in a black top and floral skirt and a man with long dark hair, a massive beard, and denim from head to toe step up to the mics with acoustic guitars in hand. And after a quick introduction from the mustachioed event manager and some enthusiastic cheers, Brooklyn-based indie folksters Widowspeak smile and launch into an eight-song set with the greatest of the Great Lakes providing a stunning backdrop.

IMG_5867.JPGOff to the side of the stage, in a U-shaped booth that was absolutely intended to make its occupants feel like VIPs, Suzanne Thomas beams at her boy Rob and his friend Molly Hamilton, the two core members of Widowspeak. For the Thomas family, the show is a fabulous homecoming event. The apartment where Rob grew up, and where his family still lives, lies about six blocks from the Hotel Lincoln. And for a band that's been as busy as Widowspeak has lately--they finished up a sojourn opening for Lord Huron in July, their third studio album All Yours drops on September 4, and they'll set off on a headlining tour in October--a stop at home is a wonderful change of pace.

"It's kind of strange, I guess," said Thomas, who spoke to me on the phone as he biked to his grandma's place earlier in the day. "I love Chicago, I come back here to see my family, but after I moved away, it's like nobody cares that you're from Chicago...I go out east and people are like, 'Oh, that's a place I've heard of.' So for me, I get to be like, 'Hey dudes, this is what I'm all about here, this is what I love, this is where I come from."

Robert Earl Thomas played in bands throughout his high school years at St. Ignatius and then shipped off to Brooklyn at age 18 to go to college. It was there that he met Molly Hamilton and Michael Stasiak, two kids from Tacoma who were playing dreamy folk-rock infused with relaxed, reverb-heavy Pacific Northwest vibes. What began as a hobby for Thomas quickly morphed into a full-time project, and since its 2010 founding, Widowspeak has put out two full-length albums, 2011's Widowspeak and 2013's Almanac, and an EP called The Swamps. "We started this band as a kind of friends-dragged-me-in thing, a weekend project, and then it took off," he told me.

Since its inception, the band's shoegaze-folk sound has infused a subtle, sleepy melancholia with a quiet determination to push forward. A lot of that has to do with Hamilton's voice, which sounds like a dream-angel soaring through REM clouds, but it also has to do with the slight unease she and Thomas both felt in Brooklyn.

"It was a form of homesickness or yearning for something," she said of Widowspeak's early style. "For all the years I was in Brooklyn, I very much enjoyed myself, I met a lot of amazing people, I had a lot of great experiences, but I think that I had a hard time feeling settled, and I moved around every year. When I looked back at my time there, there was never really a sense of home."

Some lineup changes in the band's first couple years added to the feeling of instability--Stasiak left Widowspeak in 2012, rendering Hamilton and Thomas a duo, as the urge to discover a new creativity led them to up and leave Brooklyn entirely in late 2013, moving to a cabin in the Hudson Valley three hours north of the city that they affectionately described as a "hobbit hole." There, isolated and amidst nature as Thoreau was at Walden and The Band was at Big Pink, they were able to take a deep breath of the fresh rural air and approach both life and songcrafting more leisurely.

"It's weird because Rob has always been a city boy, he's never lived in a house," Hamilton told me. "For me, it's not like you need enough room in your house, but the idea of the outdoors as another room, like an extension of your living space...it's really important to be able to walk outside and get a different perspective, whereas in the city you're always in earshot or eyeshot of another human being." It isn't as if she and Thomas are completely isolated--they can walk or bike to a small town nearby--but the band's new base opened up a channel to relaxation and authenticity that comes from an intense focus on their relationship to the natural world. For Thomas, the best part of that new relation is Ruby, the dog he and Hamilton bought when they moved. "We almost named the record Ruby, but instead we just dedicated it to her," he said. "To care for something else, other than a human, helps you feel less self-centered, and then there's that philosophical saying about touching an animal helping you feel relaxed."

The result of the band's stay in the Hudson Valley is All Yours, which Widowspeak pegs as their realest, most natural effort to date. "I think with our previous records I was taking these ideas of scenes and trying to illustrate them with songs and have them be more like a project," Hamilton told me. "This one's just about moving upstate and leaving some things behind, and so I think without some overarching theme, it felt more natural singing them and not having to force them all too much." Her lyrics throughout the album possess a serenity to match her ethereal voice, combining just a hint of plaintiveness with the surreal beauty that lies on the boundary between dreams and wakefulness. On songs like "Girls," inspired by Hamilton comparing herself to younger peers, there's the familiar gentleness of Widowspeak's dream-country soundscape topped by Hamilton's voice at the level of a breathy whisper, but the song, like most of the others on the album, communicates the positivity of the band's current state of mind--in their house in the woods, they'll overcome anything.

Back on the J. Parker rooftop at the Hotel Lincoln, there's a popping sound every once in a while as Hamilton and Thomas play through a set that includes "Girls," "All Yours," "Calico," and a cover of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game," among others. It turns out to be Hamilton's small acoustic guitar bumping into the mic as she sways in time to the music, and she's visibly amused by this phenomenon: "I'm used to moving around while I play," she explains to the audience. The overall effect just amplifies the realness of the music.

Meanwhile, Thomas barely moves over the course of the eight songs, eyes on his guitar as he brings to life the spirit of some of the 70s' greatest folk-rock six-stringers. Obviously Robbie Robertson and The Band had been on Thomas' mind when he and Hamilton moved into their cabin (they were "okay falling into that lineage" of Big Pink, he told me) and Robertson's understated playing informed Thomas' style throughout the composition of All Yours. But there's also a lot more Neil Young here than on Widowspeak's previous works, as Thomas was listening through Young's 1974 LP On the Beach for much of the recording process. "On 'Dead Love,' there's some little guitar solo in the middle of the song where I just jam on one note, and that's very Neil Young," he said.

On the rooftop, Thomas brings out the harmonica on "Girls" and, combined with his intense acoustic soloing on that song, the Young influence becomes immediately evident. Then his slide guitar on "Harsh Realm" brings to mind George Harrison. A small group of obnoxious women talks throughout the performance 10 feet from the band, but for the most part the audience's attention remains fixed on Widowspeak's atmospheric music and the tranquil Lake Michigan behind them. This ambience suits the band perfectly--it's a cooler evening, one that foretells the coming of autumn, and their hibernal songs seem to let everyone know that the turning of the seasons is a welcome part of nature.

This isn't the only special event Widowspeak will play in the coming weeks. On September 3, they'll be hosting a release party for All Yours on a boat in New York. "People in New York, their attention is so fought over," said Thomas. "My friends come, but there's so many things going on any given night in New York that going to see a show isn't always a priority. So why don't we do something that's fun and cool to do that our friends and other people might like?" They'll follow up the album release with an October tour that will bring them back to Chicago on October 13 at the Chop Shop, and at that point they'll have a full band in tow.

The idea of headlining a tour will be exciting to Thomas and Hamilton, given the experiences they had in July opening for Lord Huron across the Southwest. "The idea behind that tour really fit the landscapes we were driving through," Hamilton told me. "You could see the line where California ends and Arizona begins. And even just driving from Tucson to Albuquerque, being able to drive through these tiny little expanses of mountains and then you go into the desert and then back into more mountains, you can see the landscape changing as you drive through." The vast expanse of Widowspeak's sonic landscape seems to fit well with the wide open spaces of places like Arizona, New Mexico, and Zion National Park in Utah, the band's favorite place they visited on the July tour. But in October, their focus will be on the East Coast and the Midwest.

Atop the Hotel Lincoln, Thomas and Hamilton finish their set to hefty applause and immediately walk over to embrace the Thomas family in their U-shaped booth. This is the intersection where Widowspeak resides--at the meeting point of wide open sky and wide open arms, of expansive lakes and expansive feelings, of the big city and the green space outside. They'll be visiting indoor venues on the All Yours tour in October, but the emotions the music generates will be the same. They found their happy place in the woods, and their songs exist to spread that serenity to the world.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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