Chicago Takes Over First Avenue: Whitney and NE-HI Show Minneapolis Some Love


It was a sleepy Thursday night in downtown Minneapolis. It honestly seemed a bit more quiet than usual when Jessica (photographer) and I walked up to First Avenue. Although there was a little hustle and bustle in front of First Avenue and 7th Street Entry, everything just seemed quite and calm. It was kind of refreshing to be honest. 

We made our way into the Mainroom and claimed our spots near the side of the stage. As Jessica readied her camera, I took a chance to glance around the quickly filling up room. The crowd was young, super young, but I think that’s exactly what I was expecting. Both bands playing last night are fairly new to the scene and seem to just be starting on the track to stardom so it would make sense that the crowd would be young. That being said, I was definitely feeling my age and I seemed to be hitting a wall of exhaustion. We waited patiently for the show to start and, though the set times said that the opener would be kicking things off at 8, they didn’t take the stage until a little after 8:15. The fact that this show was running on punk time was a bit ironic since I was also covering the punk show down in the 7th Street Entry which had actually started on time but, as soon as NE-HI took the stage, I had forgotten about the delay was thrown into a world of beautiful music.

NE-HI is a four piece band from Chicago and, even though they have only been around since 2013, they are clearly making waves in the scene. NE-HI’s music is your classic indie-pop sound but mixed with something that makes you feel like you’re in a bit of a dream. Spacey and atmospheric wouldn’t quite be the words to use to describe their music but they also wouldn’t be that far off. The music of NE-HI shows a sense of restraint behind it while still keeping a creative, fun vibe. It’s not quite the type of music that you would shove the people around you to but it’s also impossible to stand still while listening to it. The infectious beats made me want to bob my head and tap my toes throughout their forty minute set all the while keeping a smile on my face.

Guitarist/vocalist Jason Balla seemed to be the only member on stage that was really getting into it. Since he was really the only one moving around on stage, it was hard not to just stare at him as he danced around with his guitar in his hands. Sure, there wasn’t much movement in the crowd or on the stage but there really didn’t have to be. The energy in the music did all of the talking that needed to be done on that front and it was perfect. The chill vibe that radiated off the stage matched perfectly with the calm and collected music that the band was producing. Even with the calmness of everything, there was an undeniable sense of energy that made NE-HI the perfect opening band for the night. It also made it clear that they will soon be a household name and be headlining shows like this and I can not wait to see that happen for this young group.

Headlining the night was Whitney, another Chicago based band that has been making waves. Whitney is one of those bands where I stumbled into their show by chance a couple of years ago and instantly fell in love. Now I just can’t get enough of them and never miss a chance to catch them live. The first time I saw these guys I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew a couple of members from a past life or something. It ended up that drummer/vocalist Julien Ehrlich and guitarist Max Kakacek are actually members of the defunct group Smith Westerns who I will always have a soft spot in my heart for. Although after I put the pieces together I could hear bits and pieces of Smith Westerns throughout Whitney’s music, the members had turned it into something completely new and that made the music feel refreshing and clean.

I get to see live bands almost every night and, although there’s something special about every single band I see, some bands have “it” and some don’t. Whitney is a band that definitely has “it” and it seems like the general public (not obsessed with stumbling into random shows and falling in love with random bands) are filling catching on. There’s a lot that sets Whitney apart from other bands in the over-saturated genre that is indie-rock. First off, it’s the set-up. Julien Ehrlich and his drumset are always set up in the center of the stage with the rest of the band behind him. Sure, I know there are plenty of bands where the drummer does the singing but usually the drummer is still stuffed towards the back of the stage. Not Whitney, Julien sits front and center with a flexible microphone stand that arches over his head. Being able to watch the coordination he has as he sings and drums along to the songs is nothing short of jaw dropping. Beyond the set up is the sound of this band. Julien’s voice is high but not unnatural. It’s one of those voices where, as soon as you hear it, you know damn well who it is with no hesitation. The instrumentation behind him also has signatures that just scream Whitney.

Whitney’s set on Thursday night was polished and fun and it was easy to see that the band doesn’t take themselves too seriously, even in the midst of long tours, back to back shows and the grind of life on the road. “Shit, there are a lot of people here, “frontman Ehrlich said, “we’re tired out here on the road, but we’re so glad we came,” he went on. He also talked about “almost having a mental breakdown” the night before, but showered some love on his fellow tourmates, NeHi who offered some support. There was a tangible love felt between Whitney and NeHi, more than simply tourmates. There was a palpable love in the air at First Ave, between the bands and between the crowd. The good energy was much needed and left a feeling in the air of night wanting the night to end. Having seen Whitney nearly half a dozen times now, I can easily say that seeing them never gets old and I’m already looking forward to my next chance of seeing them.