Live Review: GUARDS at The Empty Bottle in Chicago

The word “GUARDS” was in big, bold letters at the top of my concert ticket, so I was a bit surprised to find out they were actually billed as one of the opening acts on Monday, February 11th at The Empty Bottle. I promoted this show to friends with an endorsement only proper for a headlining set: “It’ll be a real we-have-arrived-blowout, showcasing the dark voracity of their new pop record less than a week after its official release.” So, naturally I felt a bit jaded and, well, confused when I read the lineup on the way into the venue. I wasn’t the only one though; the door guy scratched his head, telling me that a local band called MAWRCREST was headlining instead, and he seemed about as perplexed as I was. “A local band instead?!” I gasped. The horror! (sort of joking, but not) I decided to keep up a good attitude (mainly because the other option was pouting) and so did Guards, doing their damnedest to blow the roof off, even when things out of their control were working against them. The good news is that by show’s end my endorsement wasn’t far off.

In addition to being cast as an opener, the band also had some issues with the sound system, at least initially. As Guards prepared to play, the mic delivered ear-piercing feedback into the crowd and singer Richie James Follin made it clear he wasn’t happy with their monitor levels either. Not a great start. Thankfully, after a few oppressive screeches, things recovered quickly and the sound engineer deserves credit for eventually getting the mix perfect, letting the ethereal layer of reverb complement the constant flow of fog puffing out into the crowd. You want lots of fog for a Guards show; the barrage of guitars set against the gentle, whisper-like croon of Richie James Follin and his harmonically-adept crew makes for heavenly moments.

The set list was short, but absolutely jammed with their hardest hitters, including “Resolution of One” and “I See It Coming” off the 2012 self-titled EP. As expected, we also got a major dose of the refined pop gems off their latest effort, In Guards We Trust, including “Not Supposed To” and the sing-along “I Know It’s You.” While Follin could benefit from beefing up his vocals a bit on the verses–at time he sounds a little meek–the choruses were strong on every song. “I See It Coming” had to be the track of the night though, kicking off with a simple shake of the tambourine that builds into this grandiose, cloudy rocker. We swayed. We danced. It was good. Once Guards exited stage left and people began to file out, it became clear the majority of people were in attendance to see them, lending further credibility to the fact that the lineup sequence didn’t make sense.

Post-show, I was left with two thoughts: You can never have enough fog, and Guards deserve a headlining set in Chicago soon.

 Stream a cool version of “I See It Coming”  below and/or buy In Guards We Trust on iTunes

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