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Empires' redemption: Lollapalooza rain, 'Garage Hymns'

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Chicago's Empires tells campfire tales with some, er, friends.


When the rain fell on Lollapalooza last month, Sean Van Vleet watched his dream go down the drain.

But, in fact, this story ends with a kind of Shawshank-level redemption.

EMPIRES
with Pomegranates and Suns
• 9 p.m. Sept. 21
• Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
• Tickets: $12; (773) 525-2508; lincolnhallchicago.com


Lollapalooza, day 1: The sun is shining, the heat is on, Grant Park is filling up. Van Vleet's backstage to chat about his Chicago band, Empires, and their excellent sophomore record, "Garage Hymns." The band -- Van Vleet, Tom Conrad, Max Steger -- plays the following day, and Van Vleet is working hard to contain his excitement.

"We tried to get on this festival for three years," he says. "It was a great email to get, saying we were playing."

Empires has taken some building. The band's first full-length, "Howl," emerged in 2008. A mish-mash of R&B influences just past the sell-by dates, it wasn't an auspicious debut.

"We didn't know what we were doing," Van Vleet says. "We listened to so many grooves, and whatever was hooky we went for it."

During our backstage chat, time was wasting. Van Vleet wasn't about to miss the Afghan Whigs, a freshly reunited veteran R&B-influenced alt-rock band. "They're the leaders at this," Van Vleet says.

But when Empires regrouped to record round two, Van Vleet says they tried to be more natural. After years on the road -- Van Vleet's bartending schedule is flexible -- they sought to capture a live sound, something that felt truer, more rock and roll, more soulful.

"Garage Hymns," released in June, is all of that. It's drawn Springsteen and Pearl Jam comparisons. It got them top-level management. It landed them in a nice diversion, a marketing campaign-contest for Rolling Stone. It booked them at Lollapalooza.

Van Vleet's still nervous, rocking back and forth. "We're ready," he says backstage, "but I'm not gonna think about it till I'm out there."

Lollapalooza, day 2: More sun, more heat. Empires is due on the BMI stage at 3:20 p.m. They're ready.

But they're doomed.

"The morning started off awesome," Van Vleet remembers in a new conversation this week. "I remember I showed up to the stage 20 minutes before we were supposed to start. The other band had broken down. The weather was perfect. The crowd was growing. It was that dream-come-true moment. I had no idea there was a storm coming.

"I was literally walking to the microphone, and the stage manager came up and said, 'You gotta hold off for a sec. They might actually evacuate the grounds.' I said, 'For what?' I looked up and saw blue sky. Then they made the announcement."

In advance of severe storms charging in from the west, Lollapalooza and city officials opted to shut down Lollapalooza on Saturday, Aug. 4. Announcements were made instructing the crowd, about 60,000 strong at midday, to leave Grant Park and seek shelter.

The storm blew through and the festival restarted a couple of hours later. The schedule was even adjusted to squeeze in some of the rained-out bands -- but not all of them. A half dozen acts were canceled, not postponed. Including Empires.

"There was this sheet of paper posted backstage with the canceled artists -- Chairlift, Temper Trap, two or three bands, and us," Van Vleet says. "I grabbed it, looked at it, was like, 'That's it. We're done.' ... It was a really bummer day. I went downhill."

Empires tweets a potent curse word and added: "Our set is canceled. Nothing we can do about it. Hard to put into words how bummed we are. Thank you to everyone that traveled."

Lollapalooza, day 3: Cooler, muddy, back in business. Van Vleet gets up, hungover -- "not from drinking, from being really upset" -- and heads to Grant Park to see Nashville band Mona. Empires had just toured with them.

"I'm standing there, and our manager calls. He said we're rescheduled to play at 7:45. I thought, 'How are people going to find out?'"

More tweets, word of mouth, the magic of modern communication -- and by 7:45 p.m. a crowd of hundreds is gathered to hear Empires finally take a Lollapalooza stage.

"Everyone's heading over to see Jack White at that point, which I would have been, too, if we weren't playing," Van Vleet says. "But the crowd was awesome, we really nailed it. Maybe it's the come-from-behind aspect of it, but it was my favorite show we ever played. It really worked out."


But wait, there's more. The dashed-then-fulfilled dream reinvigorated the band.

"We've had a month off since then, and we've been recording," Van Vleet says. "On the heels of an event like that, it really inspired us. It's been really productive, and we're waist-deep in material. There's a fire that whole weekend put in our bellies. It's done something kinda cool to us."

In the interest of keeping the spotlight deservedly on "Garage Hymns" a while longer, Empires won't rush into assembling a new album just yet. Fans, however, can expect a new single or two by year's end, Van Vleet says.

This weekend at Lincoln Hall, they'll play "Garage Hymns" in its entirety, then they head off on another national tour opening for Blue October.


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1 Comment

I could not agree more. It was an epic set - I had spent all day holding my barrier spot the day before and then several hours on the rescheduled day, and it was worth all of that. Tonight's show was very nearly as good.

That's my video you've got linked! It's the only one I did - I was too busy screaming my head off, for the most part. I've never felt quite that level of intensity at a show before, and I'm not at all sure I ever will again

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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