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In front of a packed Back Room, Ratboys show they’re ready for bigger things

A large crowd of people stand in front of a stage at a music venue watching three band members perform.
Brett Krzykowski

It’s a weird thing to love a band. You want so badly for them to find success, knowing it’ll only increase the distance between you and them — often literally.

When they’re on the up, there’s a comfort in knowing you’ll always be able to grab a ticket at the door for that friend who decided to come at the last minute. There’s a quietly giddy excitement in finding a member of the band at the merch table, happily waiting to dig through a box of sweatshirts for your size. Best of all, there’s the joy of being able to “excuse me” through the crowd (without getting any dirty looks) until you’re three feet away as they play your favorite songs.

Then, like you always hoped, the success comes. And the tickets sell out early. And they wrangle someone to sell the merch. And three feet becomes 30 rows. And you’re happy for them but at the same time a little sad for yourself.

When Ratboys played The Back Room on Saturday night, that tipping point felt closer than ever for the band’s enthusiastic supporters, who indeed sold out the venue and were rewarded with a performance that pitched firmly toward the “happy” end of the aforementioned dichotomy.

The Chicago outfit has been one of those “your favorite band’s favorite band” types since 2015 debut full-length AOID and, to a greater extent, 2017 sophomore album GN. Every subsequent LP only added to their momentum, culminating with the release of The Window in the dying days of this past August.

The analysis that followed included phrases like “a stroke of magic” and “an utter joy” and this from my esteemed predecessor Evan Rytlewski: “Ratboys have written great tunes before, but they’ve never stacked so many together like this.” Fans everywhere beamed with pride, and the ones in the general vicinity of Milwaukee gathered in The Back Room to see the stacking happen live and in person.

Fellow Windy City residents Free Range handled opening duties with a humbleness that belied their talent, as Sofia Jensen seemed just plain tickled to get the opportunity during the headliner’s latest run of shows. Still, they more than held their own by supplying a sort of gentle energy to the night’s first bit. The intent was not to kick ass. It was more like a nudge on the rear end with a work boot — just enough to supply some momentum and encourage further exploration via your streaming service of choice (“On Occasion” and “Forgotten” are decent starting points, for what it’s worth).

Ratboys, to continue the pained metaphor, didn’t engage in any ass-kicking during their set, either. The vibe wouldn’t have fit. Instead, imagine two friends reuniting after a lengthy time apart, simultaneously hugging and jumping up and down. It was that, but for an hour and a half — a 90-minute hug-and-jump.

It’s hard not to ride a wave of joy when the group on stage is as in sync as Ratboys were Saturday. Being two weeks into a tour can have that effect, but I wonder if a small part of it was the rejiggered writing/recording process the band used for The Window. This was the first time all four members contributed, something Julia Steiner (lead vocals, guitar) covered in an interview with 88Nine music director Erin Wolf:

“For me, it was just so exciting to hear everybody’s individual cogs turning and creative personalities come through in the songs. It’s little touches that happen in the music that I know wouldn’t be there if it was just me and Dave [Sagan] kind of working out all the parts, and then giving them to friends to record, which is kind of what we’ve done in the past. … Little moments like that wouldn’t have happened if we all hadn’t been in the room together twice a week every week, working on these songs.”

It’s possible having all four members pitch in created a greater sense of ownership that manifests live, including Saturday night. Steiner, Sagan (lead guitar), Marcus Nuccio (drums) and Sean Neumann (bass, vocals) were on point during raucous moments like set opener “Making Noise for the Ones You Love” and pin-drop performances like the intro to title track “The Window.” Nearly 9-minute rambler “Black Earth, WI” was as satisfying live as on the record, and Julia Steiner added a touch of sweetness by teeing up “Molly” with a shout-out to her sister (the song’s namesake) out in Portland with her tortoise.

The show being in such close proximity to Chicago meant her absence — Molly, not the tortoise — was the exception, as Steiner pointed out other family members lending their support for the night. Maybe that’s why Saturday’s performance had an injection of happiness. Or maybe it was because the band had a 12-day break from touring that started as soon as the show ended, lending a last-day-of-school quality to the proceedings.

It’s also possible it had something to do with fans walking through the door and seeing Steiner at the merch table, cheerfully fishing out whatever sizes they had left after 17 days on the road. Or being able to stand less than a yard from a slightly elevated stage to hear songs that, until then, existed solely in earbuds and car stereos.

How could you not be happy on a night like that?

A merch table at a concert venue with a stack of CDs and cassette tapes, as well as a vinyl album on a stand.
Brett Krzykowski
Ratboys' elegant solution for staffing the merch table while the band was on stage Saturday night.