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After Lollapalooza delay, Empires lives the dream at last

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EMPIRES

With Pomegranates
and Suns

◆ 9 p.m. Friday

◆ Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln

◆ Tickets, $12

◆ (773) 525-2508;
lincolnhallchicago.com

Updated: October 22, 2012 6:08AM



When a storm pummeled Lollapalooza last month, Sean Van Vleet watched his dream go down the drain.

After much anxiety and near despair, this story ends with a kind of Shawshank-level redemption.

Lollapalooza, Day 1: The sun is shining, the heat is on, Grant Park is filling up. Van Vleet’s backstage to chat about his Chicago band, Empires, and its sophomore record, “Garage Hymns.”

The band — Van Vleet, Tom Conrad, Max Steger — plays the following day, and Van Vleet works to contain his excitement: “We tried to get on this festival for three years. It was a great email to get, saying we were playing.”

Empires has taken some building. “Howl,” its first disc, emerged in 2008. A mishmash of R&B influences just past the sell-by dates, it wasn’t an auspicious debut.

“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Van Vleet says. “We listened to so many grooves, and whatever was hooky, we went for it.”

But when Empires regrouped to record round two, the band tried to be more natural. After years on the road — Van Vleet’s bartending schedule is flexible — Empires sought to capture a live sound, something that felt truer, more rock ’n’ roll, more soulful.

“Garage Hymns,” released in June, is all of that. It’s drawn Springsteen and Pearl Jam comparisons. It got Empires top-level management. It landed the band in a nice diversion, a marketing campaign-contest for Rolling Stone. It got the guys to Lollapalooza.

Van Vleet’s still nervous, rocking back and forth. “We’re ready,” he says, “but I’m not gonna think about it till I’m out there.”

Lollapalooza, Day 2: More sun, more heat. Empires is due on the BMI Stage at 3:20 p.m. They’re psyched.

But they’re doomed.

“The morning started off awesome,” Van Vleet recalls weeks later. “I showed up to the stage 20 minutes before we were supposed to start. The weather was perfect. The crowd was growing. It was that dream-come-true moment. I had no idea there was a storm coming.

“I was literally walking to the microphone, and the stage manager came up and said, ‘You gotta hold off for a sec. They might actually evacuate the grounds.’ I said, ‘For what?’ I looked up and saw blue sky. Then they made the announcement.”

In advance of severe storms charging in from the west, Lollapalooza and city officials opted to shut down Lollapalooza on Saturday, Aug. 4. The crowd, about 60,000 strong at midday, was told to leave Grant Park and seek shelter.

The storm blew through, and the festival restarted a few hours later. The schedule was even adjusted to squeeze in some of the rained-out bands — but not all of them. A half dozen acts were canceled, not postponed. Including Empires.

“There was this sheet posted backstage with the canceled artists — Chairlift, Temper Trap, two or three bands, and us,” Van Vleet says. “I grabbed it, looked at it, was like, ‘That’s it. We’re done.’ It was a really bummer day. I went downhill.”

The band sends a tweet: “Our set is canceled. Nothing we can do about it. Hard to put into words how bummed we are. Thank you to everyone that traveled.”

Lollapalooza, Day 3: Cooler, muddy, back in business. Van Vleet gets up, hung over — “not from drinking, from being really upset” — and heads to Grant Park to see Nashville band Mona, which Empires had just done a tour with.

“I’m standing there, and our manager calls. He said we’re rescheduled to play at 7:45. I thought, ‘How are people going to find out?’ ”

More tweets, word of mouth, the magic of modern communication — and by 7:45 p.m. a crowd is gathered to hear Empires finally take a Lollapalooza stage.

“Everyone’s heading over to see [headliner] Jack White at that point, which I would have been, too, if we weren’t playing,” Van Vleet says. “But the crowd was awesome, we really nailed it. Maybe it’s the come-from-behind aspect, but it was my favorite show we ever played. It really worked out.”

But wait, there’s more. The experience reinvigorated the band.

“We’ve had a month off since, and we’ve been recording,” he says. “[The event] inspired us. It’s been really productive, and we’re waist-deep in material. There’s a fire that whole weekend put in our bellies. It’s done something kinda cool to us.”

In the interest of keeping the spotlight deservedly on “Garage Hymns” a while longer, Empires won’t rush into assembling a new album just yet. Fans, however, Van Vleet says, can expect a new single or two by year’s end.

This weekend at Lincoln Hall, Empires will play “Ga­rage Hymns” in its entirety, then head off on a tour opening for Blue October.

Sometimes dreams do come true.



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