Whitney is the Phoenix that rose from the ashes of Smith Westerns. The heavily buzzed, Chicago-based indie rock band, Whitney, is the creation of former Smith Westerns songwriter and guitarist Max Kakacek and drummer Julien Ehrlich. The duo created a fictional character/songwriter named “Whitney,” who they began writing songs for. Filling their ranks with Josiah Marshall on bass, Will Miller on trumpet, Malcolm Brown on keys, and Ziyad Asrar on guitar (Asrar would leave for family reasons and Print Chouteau would step in as his replacement), they released their debut album Light Upon the Lake earlier this year. Produced by Foxygen keyboardist Jonathan Rado, Light Upon the Lake, is a definite departure from the party vibes and glammed up garage rock of Smith westerns. Whitney is a more subtle listen. Julien Ehrlich handles both the drumming and provides the soulful falsetto lead vocals that flawlessly weave into a backdrop of grassroots Americana and Chicago soul. With upbeat melodies, understated harmonies, brass, organ, and tightly wound guitar riffs, Whitney have found a sweet spot where their songs sound both vintage and timeless. Riding a wave of critical acclaim surrounding Light Upon the Lake, Whitney have embarked on a fall headlining tour in North America before heading off on a run of European dates. Catching them at an intimate venue like the Duke Coffeehouse in Durham, NC felt like a rare treat.
Whitney made their way to the stage with Glen Campbell’s “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet in L.A.)” playing in the background. The band lined up around Julien Ehrlich, whose drum kit was front and center on the small corner stage. It was immediately striking just how many members make up the young band… With six in their ranks, they crowded the small coffee house stage. The band appeared relaxed and at ease with their rising star status, cracking jokes and chatting with the audience like old friends in between playing through the songs from Light Upon the Lake. The setlist was a perfect mix of uptempo countrified soul romps and mellower introspection. The band was extremely tight and showcased their musicianship with a playful romp through the jazzy instrumental “Red Moon” that featured the trumpet work of Will Miller and the piano of Malcolm Brown. Keeping the loudly appreciative crowd on their feet, they even threw in a foot stomping honky-tonk cover of NRBQ’s “Magnet.” With the packed room calling for more, Whitney closed out the evening with the single “No Woman.” The song was the perfect way to end the set with its melancholy lyrics tempered by a sense of nostalgia and the guitar runs of Max Kakacek and the thumping bass lines of Josiah Marshall, culminating in a room-wide crowd singalong. With their endearing blend of Americana, country, soul and indie rock, Whitney offer something new and engaging that feels vintage and familiar… Definitely a band to catch.
Starting off the evening was the sunny lo-fi indie rock of Bloomington, Indiana-based Hoops. Beginning as the solo ambient project of Drew Auscherman, the band has filled out and released a new self-titled EP on Fat Possum Records.