Chicago’s Empires sound as American as a white Hanes T-shirt with a pack of Camels rolled into the sleeve. Hardworking and heartfelt, they put their gumption and elbow grease into a 12:30 set on the Honda stage. It would have been nice if the audience had picked up what they were putting down.
The connection between band and crowd Saturday afternoon was oddly mismatched, perhaps because most who would appreciate the band’s sound flocked to the buzzed about Spanish Gold across the park on the Samsung Galaxy stage. These things tend to happen at an early set, too, and which tend to attract time-killing stragglers.
Lead singer Sean Van Vleet radiated earnest excitement and worked the crowd like a pro, searching out human connections and eye contact like a heat-seeking missile as he tore through songs like "Orphan." (I felt bad taking notes, because I didn’t want to be caught not paying attention.) But aside from a dedicated cluster of Empires diehards by stage left and cluster of dancers on stage right, polite nods reigned despite Van Vleet’s best efforts.
Whatever the crowd’s reaction, the music was unimpeachable. Van Vleet’s vocals sit somewhere in between Bono and Kurt Cobain (to whom he bears resemblance). Belting reigned, though sandpapery growls made an appearance. Mike Robinson’s ironclad drums thumped, and Tom Conrad and Max Steger brought a mixture of nimble, poppy guitar lines and thorny noise on "Please Don’t Tell My Lover" and "Hello Lover," respectively.
Closer "How Good Does It Feel" served as a the band’s musical mission statement, capturing the red-white-and-blue spirit of Gaslight Anthem but with the sobering bite of The National. Van Vleet blew the audience a kiss at the end, which was unfailingly kind of him. He deserved better.