9 Chicago, suburban acts that surprised, impressed in 2019

I go see bands. My iPhone storage is at least 75 percent photos from local shows. And I almost always have a pair of earbuds on hand. What this means is I'm always working hard to help you find something exciting to listen to on the local music scene.

Throughout the year, I started keeping tabs on acts bringing something fresh to the stage and their recordings. Some are new bands, and some are just new to me, but they all surprised and impressed in their own ways.

Gazebo Effect brought a new self-titled album and a blistering cover of "House of the Rising Sun" to the Chicago-area music scene in 2019. Courtesy of Neal Zeleznak

Gazebo Effect

I had heard of Gazebo Effect. I had even heard Gazebo Effect. But I wasn't prepared to experience Gazebo Effect. I joined Chicago Sound Check photographer Neal Zeleznak to see the five-piece rock band play Tonic Room the first weekend of 2019; halfway through the set I was already adding them to my list for the year. The energy these guys - Wheaton's Jamie Major, Ray Bach of Palatine, Frankfort's James Bloomfield, and Eric Dost and Ian Robertson, both of La Grange - put on stage was enough to make me forget for a night that I should be taking photos and preparing interview questions. The waves of progressive-inspired rock and funk-tinged jams held the audience in a trance and forced them to dance. I've seen Gazebo Effect play several more times this year, and audience response is always the same. Maybe it's Major's dynamic vocals. Or the blistering four-guitar harmonies. Or the relatable blues that float on the surface of all their originals. Or their killer cover of “House of the Rising Sun.” Whatever it is, it leaves crowds breathless and wanting more. Gazebo Effect has some new songs in the works, but you can listen to what's out there already on Spotify.


The alternative rock foursome Zorila first hit my radar when Chicago Sound Check photographer Denis Cheng was shooting them at Cubby Bear a few months back. The show marked a turning point for the band members, who decided after playing together for about a year and a half that they should converge in the Windy City from their various hometowns and prepare to drop their first full-length album, “Sidney.” The new release - an open and honest exploration of feelings, failings and the brutal realities of sinking relationships - hooked me hard, and on Cheng's recommendation I checked out last week's show at Chicago's Burlington. The band - Nate Finn from Sidney, Illinois, Anthony Hish of Plainfield, and brothers Stew and Henry Arp of Paris, Illinois - showed they can tear it up in front of a crowd. But their disarming and endearing stage presence lends palpable heart to their softer pieces. (If frontman Stew's vocals on the sweetly plaintive “Untitled” leave you stoically unmoved, I don't think any of us can help you.) Zorila is in the process of recording an acoustic take on a few of their favorite songs from “Sidney” and a pair of music videos, due out in early 2020, as well as a new album slated for later in the year. Catch them on Spotify and then go see them headline Cubby Bear (1059 W. Addison St., Chicago) Saturday, Jan. 18, with Ignited, Joe Renardo & Friends and Butterfly In Traffic.

The five Scarbrough siblings in The Footlight District put out an impressive collection of music with this year's “Fairytales for the Dark Age.” Courtesy of The Footlight District

The Footlight District

“We wanted to inspire people that no matter what you're going through, no matter the trials or the hardships you're going through, there's always a light at the end of the tunnel,” Sarah Scarbrough said of The Footlight District's “Fairytales for the Dark Age,” released earlier this year. And inspire they did. The five Scarbrough siblings - Sarah, Gracie, Faith, Hannah and Cecil - have been Chicago residents since not long after they were forced from their family home in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. One of the first things the family did after getting settled in up here was to set up a food drive to send aid back down to their home community. That spirit is evident along with the sibs' talent on the band's album of cautionary tales and inspirational messages shared through driving rhythms and soulful garage rock. (If you're not familiar, check out “White Witch” and “Sell Your Soul” for dark and melodic treats.) The band is releasing a vinyl edition of “Fairytales for the Dark Age” through Shuga Records Saturday, Jan. 18, at Liars' Club (1665 W. Fullerton Ave., Chicago). Catch more of the band's catalog streaming on Spotify.

Bright pop, fuzzed-out rock and Broadway-esque theatricality punctuate stage performances by Molehill. Courtesy of Molehill


Molehill is one of those bands I kick myself for not opening up to earlier: Formed in 2010, the electro-flecked indie-pop band had been creating tunes for nearly 10 years before their catchy anthems and this year's “Hostage” EP crossed my playlist. Recordings from the Chicago-based band - fronted by Downers Grove's Peter Manhart and featuring Trevor Jones, Devin Staples and Greg Van Zuiden - belie that Molehill is only a four-person act: the rich, layered sound (reminiscent of Muse at times) is incredibly full and tight. A recent show at Cubby Bear gave me a taste of the band's versatility and showmanship and proved why Molehill is truly an anomaly on stage. They seem to pluck disparate musical elements out of thin air - bright pop, heavy fuzzed-out rock and Broadway-esque theatricality played out over a number of musical instruments. It shouldn't work, but thrown in the Molehill blender, it creates an entrancing performance that has been hooking audiences on the Chicago scene for nearly a decade. Check out Molehill on Spotify, and watch for upcoming show announcements for 2020.

Des Plaines-based pop-punk newcomer Wolf Rd is impressive in sound and performance, even though the band's first live show was only just over a month ago. Courtesy of Wolf Rd

Wolf Rd

Wolf Rd is a true newcomer to the Chicago-area music scene. But you'd never know the band just played its first show together a little more than a month ago. The level of skill and professionalism shown by this young Des Plaines-based foursome - brothers Chris and Nick Hoffmann, Geoffrey Duckmann and Lombard's Devin Stone - is striking, so much so that they were tapped to play Subterranean's first Pop-Punk Christmas! concert with a few already established acts on the Chicago scene. Chock-full of allusions to the suburbs (even the name Wolf Rd is a banner to their hometown pride), the band's recent EP “Nowhere Around You” and video for single “Oakton” are packed with pop-punk power and emo revelry (with a few dabs of metalcore for good measure). Check out Wolf Rd on Spotify, along with the band's November appearance on The Underbelly Hours. And then go see them with dying in designer, Lil Extra and Wilmette at Beat Kitchen (2100 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago) Friday, Jan. 17; and Cliffhanger's EP release show with Action/Adventure and The Homecoming at Subterranean (2011 W. North Ave., Chicago) Saturday, Jan. 25.

  When the The Million Reasons dropped "Secrets" earlier this year, it nudged me to discover a band I had been missing out on. Brian Shamie/

The Million Reasons

To say The Million Reasons is fun is to downplay the band's charismatic intensity. “Follow me a little deeper and I'll show you all the secrets that I keep inside.” With that, vocalist Scott Nadeau tempts you further into the band's fandom. The five musicians - Nadeau, Ken Ugel, Mike Nichols, Jason Cillo and Colin Dill - know how to write a hook. They know how to build feelings. And as you'll see on this year's release “Secrets” and the band's atmospheric gateway drug “Dizzy,” they know how to keep you entertained. If the rock sounds darkly solid and deeply masterful in your car or your office, you can imagine how it soars on the live stage. (Spoiler: It does. It really, really does.) The Million Reasons is working on some new music due out in 2020, but check out their collection on Spotify. While earlier shows are still TBA, the band plays with The Footlight District and Bubbles Erotica Friday, Feb. 21, at Martyrs' (3855 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago).

The releases "Midnight Feelings" and "Afterglow" illustrate The Darling Suns's evolution as a band in 2019. Courtesy of The Darling Suns

The Darling Suns

When West suburban indie-folk band The Darling Suns pulled out their new “Call From the Outside” as part of a battle of the bands set early this year, I felt something special about to happen. The song - a dark exploration of a burned heart grasping at flickers of love, made especially poignant by frontman Rob Krause's passion-drenched vocals - was just the start of a string of new releases taking the band in a more profound and challenging direction. The summer's release of “Midnight Feelings” showed the melancholy, shadowy side of the band - which features the skills of Lindsey Ward and John Stenger, later joined by Charlie Dresser and newest member Zach Kidder - followed up by this fall's dose of folksy sunshine, “Afterglow.” The Darling Suns has covered much ground sonically in its two years; follow the band's evolution on Spotify. The Darling Suns plays with The Cordial Sins and Tiny Kingdoms Saturday, Jan. 18, at Emporium (1366 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago) and Friday, Jan. 24, at The Union (309 School St., Naperville) with The Collection.

Can we please get some more Jonfin? Jon Wilson and Colin Supple are writing new music for the garage rock band, aiming for an early 2020 release. Courtesy of Jonfin


Garage rock-influenced indie band Jonfin has weathered a few less-than-successful circumstances this year, including losing a founding member to a student visa complication. But through it all, Westmont's Jon Wilson stayed the course, putting out some good, fun songs and picking up a solid core partner in Clarendon Hills' Colin Supple. (Try this cocktail: “Grapevine,“A Drink or Two” and “Attitude.” I'll be surprised if you're not intrigued by the end of it.) This fall's release of the five-song “Australian Alien” EP presented the Chicago scene with a collection of songs comfortably nostalgic but with complex and rewarding experimental structures. Definitely a win for a band that hasn't even been around for a full year. The duo is hard at work writing new songs and honing their engineering skills for a new EP they hope to release in early 2020. Check out Jonfin's EP and singles on Spotify.

  The Bank Notes are becoming known on the area scene for their chill vibe and reggae-inspired rock. Brian Shamie/

The Bank Notes

The Bank Notes - Elliot Krull, Evan Joyce, Dan Tamillow and Ian Boltz - has been a much-beloved player on the West suburban music scene for a while now, but it wasn't until this summer's Homegrown Arts & Music Festival at BaseCamp Pub that I saw exactly how fun the band's reggae-flavored alternative rock could be. Sporting solid tracks laced with funk, the band's summer EP, “Bassment,” is home to some musical favorites - “Heebie Jeebies” is the twirly, sonic equivalent of gazing into a distorted funhouse mirror. But the band's live set is the high point, all chill vibes and humor. Coming off a big show with The North 41 at Schubas, The Bank Notes focuses on its suburban brethren for upcoming back-to-back shows: Friday, Jan. 17, at The 105 (231 S. Washington St., Naperville) with Speedwagon and The Nephesh; and Saturday, Jan. 18, with The Ugly Lovers and The Blackwoods at BrauerHouse (1000 N. Rohlwing Road, Lombard).

<i> Hear the bands on this list on Spotify. Brian Shamie is a Daily Herald multiplatform editor and local music junkie. Find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter (@thatshamieguy) or Instagram (@chicagosoundcheck). Brian also keeps tabs on the Chicago-area music scene at </i>

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