TOPS at Empty Bottle

Christian Wade

For TOPS, this tour has been a long time coming. First announced in October of 2019, the plan was to trek across the USA from Las Vegas to New York and back out west to San Diego to wrap things up in a bit over a month, making a stop at Chicago’s legendary Empty Bottle on the way. However, for reasons you’re probably well aware of by now, the quartet from Montreal had to call an audible, cancelling their dates in the US and Europe. Even though the pandemic brought about its fair share of issues, the band spent their time in lockdown putting the finishing touches on their first album in three years, releasing I Feel Alive to the world in April 2020. Their efforts resulted in one of the best albums of the year and a chance to run it back in 2021, this time doubling their amount of initial dates and hitting the Empty Bottle for two sold out shows on back-to-back nights this past weekend. 

The band put on a show that was guaranteed to put a smile on everyone’s face as they left 1035 N. Western Ave., rolling through the gambit of their discography with an emphasis on getting the crowd to move their feet from the start. Kicking things off with the namesake of their tour, “Party Again” was the perfect icebreaker for an audience that took a bit to trickle in and shake off the frost from a chilly November night. Released in July, the laid back single carried with it an air of longing for those moments where you can just let your hair down and dance with a room full of strangers, and what better time to do so than at a concert? As lead singer Jane Penny hushedly crooned a verse of “When will we party again? / Missing the touch of your skin,” the crowd tapped their feet and nodded their heads in delight, and the energy was only bound to rise from there. 

Next up was the opening track from I Feel Alive, “Direct Sunlight,” a track whose beautiful harmonies are complemented perfectly with a popping synth beat laid down by keyboardist Marta Cikojevic that gives way to a rousing flute solo by the multi-faceted Penny which sent the crowd into a frenzy. As she reached the highest of booming falsettos in the chorus amidst a cacophony of cheers and grooving bodies, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of nostalgia. Maybe it was the disco ball hovering above or the ABBA-esque sound and style of the group, but it was as if TOPS had transported us to Montreal’s version of a 1970s discotheque, and I was more than here for it. The groove didn’t stop as lead guitarist David Carriere fretted the opening notes of “Superstition Future,” fully immersing the crowd into their web of sound. By this point, you had to be in full “dance your worries away” mode, as the infectious bass line carried you away to a place of pure joy. 

“OK Fine Whatever” followed, with “I Feel Alive” coming afterwards. Prior to beginning the songs, Penny invited opener and fellow Arbutus label mate Sean Nicholas Savage on stage to sing along with the band. Savage pranced out of the crowd and burst onto the stage with a wide smile on his face, and the pair proceeded to sing the lead single from the titular album in the vein of two best friends dancing around the living room at a sleepover, marking a definite highlight of the show. Another high point came a few songs later with “The Hollow Sound of the Morning Chimes,” a slow-paced melodic single from 2015 that stalks along a chillingly consistent percussive beat (a great feature on any late-night playlists). Penny’s amazing vocals totally changed the dynamic of the song, as she belted out the chorus with so much passion and energy that I almost didn’t recognize the otherwise mellow track. It ended with another flute solo that was layered on top of an infectious Carriere riff, a moment of true sonic bliss. 

The show wrapped up with two fan favorites, “Way to Be Loved” and “Petals.” Both were electric as everyone in the crowd sang along to every word of both tracks. Penny remarked that the band had never played at Empty Bottle before on their trips to Chicago, and that the warm reception they received from a seemingly sleepy venue “scared the shit” out of her, but that they loved every second of it.