The Safes and Big Buildings at Cal’s

This concert was originally supposed to happen at the Horseshoe Tavern on Lincoln Avenue, but that place shut down, so the gig was moved across the street to an unlikely-sounding venue called Save More. Sure enough, it did turn out to be unlikely. When I showed up, it didn’t really look like a concert was going to be happening anytime soon at this very VFW-looking “venue,” er, bar. Members of the Safes and Big Buildings were standing around at the front of the place with some of their gear, talking on their cell phones and trying to line up a last-minute venue change. Apparently, the guy at Save More who needs to be there for live shows wasn’t there. The musicians called up the South Loop venue Cal’s Liquors – probably one of the few places in Chicago that could squeeze two additional bands onto its schedule for that night – and managed to get on the bill there. They put a sign in the window at Save More, text-messaged their fans, and hit the road in their vans for Cal’s.

Thee Fine Lines had just finished playing at Cal’s when I showed up, walking in at the same time as the Safes. A couple of other acts followed with short sets (neither really worth mentioning, in my opinion), then the Safes were finally on, with some rampagingly fun power pop/garage rock. Their enthusiasm was palpable and the songs were very catchy.

See my photos of the Safes.

And it was worth sticking around for Big Buildings, a band I’ve been meaning to see for some time now. This was apparently the farewell gig for Big Building’s current drummer, Adam Yoffe, and the set closed with some covers that will give you an idea of where Big Buildings is coming from: “Queen of Eyes” by the Soft Boys, “Jane of the Waking Universe” by Guided By Voices and some Velvet Underground tune (sorry, I can’t recall the title). Despite the last-second venue change, Cal’s was pretty crowded with Safes and Big Buildings fans who figured out where to go.

See my photos of Big Buildings.

The following is the story I wrote for Pioneer Press about the Safes…

On a recent Friday night, the Safes — a rock band of three brothers from Park Ridge — were supposed to be playing at a bar on Lincoln Avenue called Save More. But when the O’Malley brothers and another Chicago rock band, Big Buildings, showed up at Save More, they discovered that the tavern’s owners weren’t really prepared to host a concert that night. As fans began walking in, the musicians got onto their cell phones, trying to find another place to play.

Frankie O’Malley of the Safes, his hair combed back like a 1950s rocker, assured the arriving fans that there would in fact be a concert that night — somewhere. “It will pay off,” he said. “The rock ’n’ roll is going to pay off. It’ll be great.”

Around 10 p.m., the Safes and Big Buildings managed to find another bar that actually had some time on its schedule to squeeze in two more bands that night — Cal’s Liquors in the South Loop. The musicians posted a sign in Save More’s window about the venue change, text-messaged their fans, and hopped into their vans. Half an hour later, they were hauling drums, guitars and amps through the front door of Cal’s, a little bar on the side of liquor store with no stage to speak of — just a space on the floor where bands play, illuminated by little more than the streetlights shining in the window.

By midnight, the Safes were rambunctiously pounding out power pop and garage rock for a crowd of enthusiastic fans. For half of the set, Patrick O’Malley played guitar and sang, while Frankie drummed. Then they switched instruments, making the gig feel a little like a competition over who would pound the drums harder (Patrick gets the slight edge) and who would jump more with the guitar (Frankie, for sure). Michael O’Malley was a little more low-key in his demeanor, but he contributed just as much, singing as he played bass.

During the show, one of them remarked, “I love my brothers and they love me.” It sounded a little sarcastic, but there was some obvious sincerity beneath that stage banter. As the last song crashed to an end and the Safes hastily disassembled their gear, Frankie joked to a fan, “Can you tell we never practice?”

Actually, it sounds like the Safes have been practicing a lot. Their new album, “Well Well Well,” is chock full of catchy tunes and tight performances. As they play concerts around the country (whenever they can get time off from their day jobs), the Safes are getting noticed. The Boston Globe and Washington Post have run feature stories about the Safes, and the group’s songs are showing up on college and independent radio stations.

Frankie, Patrick and Michael are the youngest of 11 children in the O’Malley family. Michael still lives in their hometown of Park Ridge, while Frankie and Patrick share an apartment in Rogers Park. The Safes originally included another brother, Sean, on drums, and the records feature guest appearances by other members of the O’Malley clan on various instruments. Their cousins, Bill and John Heneghan, taught them their first guitar chords and gave them records by bands like R.E.M., the Cramps and Hüsker Dü in the early ‘80s. “These records were a huge impact and led to other, more underground interests,” Frankie O’Malley said.

The Safes have released three records now, and each one has been dominated by the songwriting of a different O’Malley brother. The first, 2003’s “Family Jewels,” consisted mostly of songs written by Frankie. Then came 2004’s “Boogie Woogie Rumble” EP, featuring Michael’s songs. Now, Patrick wrote most of the new “Well Well Well” disc, which was released in February. The O’Malleys say they didn’t really plan it this way. “It’s just by chance,” Frankie said.

“I write more of the punk rock,” Michael said. “One, two, three! Play as fast as you can. Frankie and Patrick write more sophisticated music, but don’t tell them I told you that.”

“I tend to write more power pop and British Invasion,” Patrick said. “That’s just how it happens.” One track on the new record, “Cool Sounds Are Here Again,” began life as a song by Patrick, but he knew it was missing something. By chance, Michael had written a riff in the same key. “He played me that riff and said, ‘Can you help me do something with this?’” Patrick recalled. He immediately took the riff and grafted it onto his half-completed song. “We all help out on each other’s stuff,” he said.

Have the Safes had any problems with sibling rivalry, which have plagued other brother bands throughout rock history? “Not that we’ll tell you,” Michael said, smiling.

Turning serious, he acknowledged that they do occasionally argue over the music, but he said those arguments serve a constructive purpose. “It’s a way to get better,” he said.

The Safes will play the next two Friday nights, and this time, they know where the concerts will be — Grealy’s Pub this week and the Hideout on April 27. The band has already recorded an EP to be released soon, and the three brothers have a backlog of songs ready for future albums. “We’re a couple records ahead of ourselves,” Frankie said.