In some instances, concerts are simply putting live vocals to music–relying on the energy of the crowd to carry the show. This was not the case for Caroline Polachek’s “Spiraling Tour” stop at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago–supported by openers Ethel Cain and True Blue. Despite a couple of minor tweaks that could have strengthened things, May 16th was a night to remember for fans of alternative and avant-garde pop music.
After releasing her breakout solo album “Pang” in 2019, Polachek has gained acclaim as a different kind of pop star–one that’s interested in maximalist “failure pop” over commercial standards. Polachek has carved out a unique space in music and often blurs the line between arena-worthy pop star and indie siren fit for small theaters. Her music is defined by her distinct voice that can effortlessly glide up and down scales without a crack.
Taking the stage at 6:45 p.m., True Blue daintily walked onto stage, cloaked by a layer of fog and completely back-lit. Throughout her five songs, she was shrouded in darkness and seemed consumed by a nervousness that she couldn’t quite shake. Her words were hardly distinguishable–perhaps the sound technician's fault for cranking up the bass too much, or perhaps it was just her vocal stylings. But, after a short 15 minutes, she bid the crowd adieu and left the stage.
Less than ten minutes later, the lights dimmed again as Ethel Cain’s band took their places. Sporting a cut-off gray t-shirt and cargo pants, Cain nonchalantly sauntered onto stage which prompted a roar from the audience. The crowd seemed to be a blend of die-hard Cain fans, and die-hard Polachek fans, the rest falling somewhere in between. Cain’s nonchalance fit her performance because of her carefully curated aesthetic. Her performance could be deemed overly lax by those who may not be familiar with the singer’s music, but the crowd seemed to understand and appreciate her dedication to her image.
The one and only flaw of her set was not her performance, but the lighting. Whoever was running lights for her set seemed to be asleep for the first two songs. For both “Family Tree” and “American Teenager,” bright white lights were directed at the crowd, and created a bashful energy among fans. Let’s face it, no one wants to dance and sing along in a well-lit room with a thousand others. After the lighting person woke up, the lights quickly turned to shine on Cain and her band. Though the mood was already altered because of the lighting situation, the crowd quickly brushed it off and embraced Cain in all of her glory, most people singing along word for word. Particularly memorable was her rendition of her song, “Crush,” to which the crowd screamed back lyrics on command and took part in some soft head-banging.
As soon as 8:30 p.m. hit, the lights went down and out came Polachek, dramatically sauntering to place before erupting into her opening wail of “Welcome To My Island.” Breezing between songs, Polachek delivered an impeccable live vocal performance while spinning around the stage. Her performances were lightly choreographed, but remained completely organic to her own quirks and mannerisms.
After the first few songs, Polachek made a somewhat confusing remark. She spoke to her audience, sharing that this was “a very special night, because I’m playing my album in full for the first time.” The confusion comes from the fact that her declaration is completely untrue. Chicago lands itself among the last of tour dates, and the entirety of the album has been performed at each stop along the way. During the rest of the show, a couple of quirked-up mini-monologues about being a self-sabotager punctuated songs with an air of awkwardness. These moments didn’t detract from her performances, but made for some clumsy minutes in between.
Polachek’s show was packed with dance-along sequences to fan favorites, “Bunny Is A Rider,” “I Believe,” and “Sunset,” but the most stirring executions were some of the last few songs. Key changes and pitch perfect runs forced “Caroline Shut Up” to the forefront of standouts, while “Smoke” threw the crowd right into Polachek’s fantasy–complete with a 20 foot volcano that spewed out the song’s namesake.
Closing with “Door,” it was vivid how Polachek’s music connects with her legion of fans. As the LED backdrop illustrated a city silhouette speckled with light orbs, the collective energy in the theater shifted to bittersweet. Released on her debut album, “Door” poignantly tells stories of being left behind, chasing after another, and being “just another girl in a sweater.” Perhaps this song in particular struck a chord with the Chicago audience, and reminded them of a time when their lives in the city were soundtracked by it. As her prop volcano filled the air of the theater with more smoke, Polachek cried out and reminded each and every fan that “everything’s different when we're not together.”