The Silence in Black and White: An Emo Orchestra Live Review

by - October 31, 2023

The Chicago music scene in the late 90s and early 00s brought acts like Fall Out Boy and Plain White T’s to the forefront, but there’s another act that isn’t necessarily associated with Chicago: Hawthorne Heights.

In 2003, while the Ohio band was on the verge of breaking up, they drove to Chicago to play for a dozen different record executives. They played three songs that they had sent demos of, and received absolutely no indication that the execs were impressed. It was their first Chicago winter experience, and by the lack of feedback they received, it was also probably their last. Imagine their surprise the following Monday morning, at 9:03 a.m., when an email with a record contract was waiting in their inbox.

It may not be a well-known story from Hawthorne Heights’ history, but it was one of many stories told during their Chicagoland performance of Emo Orchestra.

Emo Orchestra founder Ben Mench-Thurlow has been booking artists since his own middle school band, and has been booking Hawthorne Heights for more than a decade. During a difficult time in their lives, he and his wife, Kristen, came up with the idea of the show and decided to approach the band with the idea.

“Booking bands can sometimes be redundant so Hawthorne Heights and I have found ways to keep fans guessing on what we will do next,” he said. “It was simple; take a band from the genre, ask them to play some of their songs and some of the songs that helped shape the genre, and add an orchestral element. We wanted the show to be family friendly and in a different environment than where fans have typically seen the band.”

Lead vocalist JT Woodruff told the audience that in some ways the show is an apology letter. Sorry for all those years of standing on hot pavement during Warped Tour, enjoy these cushioned seats and air conditioning as a peace offering. (“You’re welcome,” he said that night.)

While the concept of the show is simple, the final product and presentation is elaborate. Surrounding the band are bouquets of flowers and floral garland wrapped around their microphone stands. Behind them is a black backdrop with the Emo Orchestra logo, held high like a prideful flag. Throughout the night, two screens project images associated with the songs they perform: a boy with antlers, trophies, a chandelier, a snow-covered forest. The entire night is interactive, including a sing-along to the Emo national anthem.

The music of this genre holds strong memories to those that lived through it, and the same goes for those that wrote and played these songs. Throughout the night, Woodruff shared a personal memory before each song that related back to the artist. From playing Knights of Columbus halls to late night conversations with fans in parking lots, the show gave a never-before inside look at how this music changed the performer as much as it changed the listener.

Since this is an event for all ages, Mench-Thurlow sees the family attendees as the most rewarding experience.

“We’ve met so many kids who are just starting to play guitar or bass, and then kids who are playing violin or clarinet or upright bass,” he said. “We want to continue to encourage the next generation to be music makers and performers.”

The most challenging aspect of the tour is logistics. It is part of Mench-Thurlow’s job to bring seasoned and inexperienced performers together as well as an entire crew and make sure it is an enjoyable experience for everyone. This tour also came along just about a week after the Is For Lovers festivals, and only gave them a handful of days to prepare.

“I remember getting a call from the bass player, Matt Ridenour, two days before the first rehearsal,” Mench-Thurlow said. “He just said, ‘We are good. This is going to be great.’ It has been a blast to watch a band who I’ve been with for so long take on a major undertaking and completely knocking it out of the park.”

The orchestra, of course, was such an incredible addition to these songs. They brought a new appreciation to each one, and it was apparent that these songs meant something to conductor Evan Rogers as well. Watching him sing along and interact with each performer made the show that much more special. Woodruff shared that these musicians came from around the world to perform in this ensemble, including some from Chicago who just learned the music that day.

An Emo Orchestra show is all about looking back on an era that feels like it just happened yesterday but also feels like a lifetime ago. Hearing these songs reimagined creates a new memory to cherish, and seeing these talented musicians is a reminder that it was never a phase.

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