JULY 9-10, 2005
CHICAGO FOLK & ROOTS FESTIVAL
at Welles Park, sponsored by the Old Town School of Folk Music
I could have spent the whole weekend hanging out at this fest, which is always one of the most enjoyable in Chicago... Alas, other duties called... and in the interest of maintaining some semblance of sanity, I limited my time at the festival to just a couple of performances.
On Saturday, I caught the headline act, Alejandro Escovedo, whose set was interesting and enjoyable, if a little low-key for the festival setting. Twas nice to see him with a full string quartet, plus good old John Dee Graham on electric guitar and lap steel guitar, offering some very fine solos. It's too bad the festival schedule didn't also include a separate set by Graham. Escovedo got everyone to sing along when he played "All the Young Dudes" in his encore, and then the show ended with nothing but the string players on stage, going on surprisingly long in a gentle coda to the evening.
On Sunday, I showed up in time to hear the last several songs by Funkadesi. I liked the mix of reggae and Bollywood vocals. But the main reason I was there was the band playing next, Tinariwen. The two records by this group of Tuareg nomads from the Sahara are among my favorites of the last few years, very hypnotic bluesy desert chanting.
Tinariwen played once before in Chicago, in a gig that was poorly publicized at the Chicago Cultural Center. The vibe at that show was all wrong, with a screening of the documentary "Festival in the Desert" delaying Tinariwen's performance in a claustrophrobic concert hall, and then many audience members walked out during the show, seemingly because it was so late, not because of any deficiency in the performance.
Better vibe this time. The Folk & Roots Fest was a perfect setting for these guys. They don't speak much English, but they knew how to say, "Welcome to the desert," at the beginning of their set, aptly setting the tone for the concert. It was exciting to see Tinariwen's music inspiring rhythmic clapping, dancing and some enthusiastic whoops and hollers from the Chicago crowd this time.
I expended most of my mental energy concerning this concert in writing an actual review for Pioneer Press, which you can see here. This was the first time I'd seen Corgan perform in concert since way back in November 1989, when I happened to catch the then-unknown Smashing Pumpkins open for the Buzzcocks at Cabaret Metro. I recall liking them at the time, and for some reason, they reminded me a little bit of T. Rex.
I always try to make it to this fine festival for at least one day. As Robbie Fulks said during his set tonight, it's like a little bit of Austin, Texas.
The discovery of the day was the Lee Boys, a Florida "sacred steel" group that plays a rousing blues-gospel-rock. The blazing star of this band is pedal-steel guitarist Roosevelt Collier. The minute I heard this kid playing, it was obvious he's something special. And the crowd knew it, too. I'm guessing few people in the room knew anything about the Lee Boys before today, but they certainly have some new fans.
The Kinsey Report also impressed with their blues, and Tributosaurus pulled off a nice tribute to the music of the Band.
Robbie Fulks was as entertaining as always — of course, there are those who are put off by his sarcasm and tomfoolery, but I just find it amusing. He's one of those great showmen with multiple talents — in his case, singing, songwriting, guitar playing and comical emceeing. "Georgia Hard," the title track of his new CD, already sounds like a classic. The short set came to a rather abrupt end becase of the midnight curfew, as Fulks joked about not wanting to tick off the "Berwyn gendarmes."
Just as Fulks finished up, the Gourds were getting ready to play inside the club. I'm woefully behind on my knowledge of this Austin band, but I've heard a lot of good things about them (despite the fact that President George W. Bush is apparently one of their fans ... I guess you can't blame the band for that). All I can say is they sounded good, but I didn't know the songs and I was tired.
Pity the band with that first opening-act slot... The musicians walk out onto the stage in front of a mostly empty dance floor, which will be packed with people later on the same night. Or so I was thinking as the first group got ready to play tonight. I wasn't even sure what they were called (and despite the lead singer's saying the name a couple of times, I wasn't sure that they were the Tough & Lovely until I stopped by the merch table later).
But tonight it took all of about five seconds to recognize that the lead singer of the Columbus, Ohio-based Tough & Lovely, Lara Yazvac, has quite a voice — big and brassy, and totally in her control. And the band sounded pretty tight as it played some darn catchy songs, very much rooted in the sound of the early '60s. With Yazvac on vocals, it was hard not to think of the classic girl groups from that era, though, not suprisingly, the Tough & Lovely are contemporary enough to add a touch of punk here and there. Some fine organ playing was part of the mix, too.
It was clear the Tough & Lovely won over the crowd, even though most people at Subterranean had never heard their music before.I just had to stop by the merch table afterward and buy a copy of the Tough & Lovely's 2004 CD Born of the Stars. Sounds good on first listen. One standout track is the one called "Tough and Lovely" — carrying on the odd tradition of songs with titles that are the same or similar to the band name. This is definitely a band to watch.
Catfish Haven had the middle slot. I've seen this Chicago trio a few times, usually as an opening act, and I have trouble mustering much enthusiasm for their music. If I heard a short snippet from one of their songs, I think I'd say it sounded good, and some of the snippets might even sound great, but the lack of variety in their songs becomes a little tedious after a while. It's all song at the same intense pitch, with lots of heavily strummed acoustic guitar on top of the bass and drums. I kept thinking that I might like this music better if these three musicians had some additional helpers to balance out the sound — maybe a real lead guitarist who could take solos, or a keyboard player, or a female singer. Anything to add something different.
The Reigning Sound are also a trio, and like Catfish Haven, they don't really change up their basic sound that much during the course of a show. But their sound is so good, and their songs are so good, that it hardly matters.
Singer-guitarist Greg Cartwright plays with a no-frills set up — no effects pedals, no electric tuner. At the end of the show he played about four songs without bothering to fix a broken string. He didn't even have a set list on the floor in front of him. He occasionally consulted a song list sitting behind him on an amp, but it seemed more like he was running through a list of available songs to see which ones they hadn't played yet. A couple of times, the Reigning Sound obliged audience requests, and during the encore, Cartwright had to come over and tell the bassist the chords for a song they hadn't rehearsed.
The fans loved it all, singing along with the Reigning Sound's garage rock anthems. I can't wait for their new album.
Bettie Serveert is a good band on CD, even better in concert. Of course, as I mentioned in my previous Bettie Serveert concert report, lead singer Carol Van Dyk offers plenty of, um, visual distraction, but the music is also excellent... more lively, real and raw than most of the band's studio CDs have been able to capture. Van Dyk (or is it Van Dijk? Depends on which CD you're looking at) was performing tonight with a cold, but no one would have noticed much difference if she hadn't mentioned it.
Guitarist Peter Visser plays with quite a spread of effects pedals laid out in front of it (and no monitors), but he uses those pdeals for fairly subtle changes in the sound of his guitar. His guitar did not brush against my head this time, though it did come close...
After playing their cover of the Bright Eyes song "Lover I Don't Have to Love," Van Dijk and Visser said Conor Oberst complimented them on their version after seeing them at a concert in New York. Visser laughingly recounted Oberst hugging him and calling him "brother" at their first meeting, which led Visser into a little speech about how wonderful the world would be if everyone hugged everyone else and called him brother. (You have to imagine this being said with a Dutch accent.)
Bettie Serveert closed with a teriffic version of the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On."
This was yet another Abbey Pub show with three opening bands, which I easily could have skipped. Not that any of them were actually bad... Just nothing that stood out too much. The singer known only as Tristen sang well, but her songs were not distinguished. Nomad Planets played good countrified '70s-style guitar rock, and Braam ... I'm not sure how to classify that band, but it did have a decent-size contigent of fans on hand.
JUNE 24, 2005
GRAHAM PARKER AND THE FIGGS
at the Double Door
It wasn't until someone at the concert asked me that I realized I actually had seen Graham Parker once before. It was almost exactly 20 years ago July 5, 1985, at Poplar Creek, where he was opening (with the Shot as his backup group) for Eric Clapton. Not an especially memorable concert. Or maybe I was just too young at the time for me to remember anything now.
Parker's idea of hiring the Figgs as his latest backup band was brilliant. I had never thought of the two together, but listening to the Figgs play an opening set of their own music, it was hard not to be struck by how well their energetic, um, pub rock (is that how they've been categorized?) matches Parker's.
Parker is considerably older, of course. He joked that the Ian Dury T-shirt he was wearing was older than some members of the Figgs. But even if he looks more like Ben Kingsley than your typical pop star of the moment, Parker's looking fit, and he performed with just as much intensity as ever.
Parker and the Figgs played a number of songs from the new Bloodshot CD they've recorded together, but the set included plenty of classic tunes, especially from Parker's Howling Wind and Squeezing Out Sparks albums. This is as good a time as any to catch Parker in concert.
It was also a pleasure hearing him sit in with Jon Langford the other night on WXRT's "Eclectic Company" show — worth a listen 10 p.m. to midnight Mondays for some interesting conversation and records you don't normally hear on the radio. Now, if only the rest of XRT's schedule were half as intriguing...
JUNE 23, 2005
at the Abbey Pub
For my money, the Moaners — Melissa Swingle and Laura King — have topped the White Stripes this year in the realm of guitar-and-drums duos, though the Stripes' disc Get Behind Me Satan is getting a lot more attention than the Moaners' fine debut record Dark Snack.
Unfortunately, attendance was sparse at tonight's show. The Abbey Pub wasn't nearly as crowded as Subterranean had been the last time the Moaners were in town. Ah, I suppose it was an off night, coming on a Thursday without much advertising or publicity. But the small crowd didn't make the music any less exciting.
King showed herself to be an exceptional drummer, making a powerful sound with a relatively small kit, and Swingle's sleepy vocals and slide-heavy electric guitar playing were just as twisted as ever.
Some new songs in the encore — a couple of them half-finished — sounded promising. Can't wait for that next Moaners album. Check them out July 11 at the Hideout.
Out of the three opening acts tonight, the only one worth noting was Mr. Rudy Day, a band led by Chicago alt-country scene fixture Andy Hopkins, playing music that sounded like it was straight out of '70s classic rock. He's a good lead guitarist, and not a bad singer, either.
And from the archives, photos of the Moaners on Feb. 5, 2005.
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