FEB. 17, 2006
THE ELECTED and STARS
at the Metro, Chicago
On the coldest night of Chicago’s winter so far, the musical theme at Metro was meteorologically perverse. The Elected came with their songs from “Sun, Sun, Sun,” while Stars offered another suggestion for warmth, playing songs from their 2004 disc “Set Yourself on Fire.”
The Elected, a band that hails from the sunnier climes of Los Angeles, did its best to bring at least a little musical brightness to the room. Led by Blake Sennett, who’s better known as a member of Rilo Kiley, the Elected play delightful light pop – one critic compared them to the Eagles last week, but they make me think of the Mamas and the Papas, the Turtles and the Left Banke. At times, especially when they use pedal steel guitar, the Elected sounds a little like the countriest of Bright Eyes’ music (but with vocals that aren’t a fraction as overwrought as Conor Oberst’s).
The harmonies sounded wonderful in concert. All of that lovely, lilting music might have left some audience members hoping for a little more rock, and for its final song, the Elected obliged. “At Home (Time Unknown),” which also closes the Elected’s new album, ends with an extended jam. A lite-rock guitar duel? Sort of. While these guys are far less powerful than, say, My Morning Jacket, this closing blaze of guitars showed that they are capable of doing more than pretty ooo’ing and ahh’ing.
Stars, from Montreal, were the headliners. (Until I showed up, I wasn’t actually sure who would get top billing in this nice combination of two well-regarded indie-rock bands.)
“Set Yourself on Fire” has several great songs, and several others that seem a little lackluster to me. The concert was much the same (though it did include songs from Stars’ earlier records, as well as a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart,” in addition to the “Set Yourself on Fire” tracks).
Given the fact that this band includes a violin and trumpet and alternating/harmonizing male and female lead vocalists, in addition to the standard rock instrument lineup, you’d think Stars would have the potential for a wide variety of sounds and arrangements, but the group tends to stick to similarly bland settings. Its melodies are good, sometimes very good, though, and those harmonies can be awfully touching, the way Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan’s voices blend.
Stars is a good band with the potential, as yet unrealized, to be a great band. Whatever my opinions on Stars, I could see they’ve reached a pretty loyal cult following. The show was sold out, and the predominantly young crowd at this 18-and-over concert adored Stars. As the singers stretched out their arms during some of the more memorable lyrics, I sensed a swooning among many of the youngsters in attendance.
So, hey, if Stars is connecting with listeners to this degree, I won’t complain too much.
FEB. 23, 2006
The Hideout, Chicago
After raving last year about Devin Davis' album, Lonely People of the World, Unite! (and being the only critic to vote for his song "Giant Spiders" as one of the songs of the year in the Pazz & Jop poll), I finally got around to seeing him perform in concert. Too bad I missed the earlier Wednesday-night shows in his February residency at the Hideout. I would have liked to see him play with a full band.
Still, it was entertaining and impressive to see what he could do as a one-man band. Davis used the same sort of looping pedals that Andrew Bird uses to build multiple-track songs in concert, right in front of the audience's eyes. Davis clobbered on the drums for some songs, creating slightly off-kilter percussion tracks, and then played on top of those beats with guitar and harmonica. The drumming loops had some fun moments, but it was more impressive when Davis used the looping pedals to harmonize with his own vocals, or to create a droning chord with his harmonica. He also played Theremin, demonstrating nice pitch control on the notoriously tricky instrument as he added "God Bless America" at the end of one song.
Davis opened with an unusual cover, Wilco's "At Least That's What You Said" -- perhaps a nod to the fact that one member of Wilco, Mikael Jorgensen, had just opened for him. Davis apologized, "I hope that wasn't too cheesy." No, it wasn't cheesy at all. It was a shadow of the Wilco original, but still a nice tribute to Chicago's best-known band. Davis made a good attempt at duplicating the guitar/drum solo at the end of the song by going wild on the harmonica.
He also played a new song on a various-artists compilation from Kill Rock Stars, and he also did a cover of the Mississippi John Hurt song "Blessed Be the Word of the Lord," noting, "I'm not very relgious, but it's a good fucking song." For the most part he played the songs from Lonely People. It was a little ramshackle, maybe not the best introduction to Davis for newcomers, but further proof of his mad-scientist capabilities.
JOHN KLOS (formerly of The Boas) was the first performer of the night, playing rather sleepy but pretty songs on keyboards and guitar, backed up by a second guitarist. I enjoyed Kloss' music, but it would be nice to hear fuller arrangments of some of the songs. At one point, when the music threatened to get upbeat, he commented, "Pop songs? That's up to you."
MIKAEL JORGENSEN of Wilco was second on the bill. I wasn't sure what to expect. Jorgensen is best known as the guy with the laptop who has incorporated sampled noise into the Wilco concert sound, but he also plays keyboard. In his solo show tonight, he was pretty impressive on both keyboards and guitar as he sang pop tunes -- ranging from Randy Newman-style numbers on the piano to Flaming Groovies-ish power pop on guitar. Backed by a bassist and drummer, Jorgensen showed that he's a fair vocalist -- nothing special, but nothing bad, either. His songs show promise. Damn, Wilco sure has a lot of talented members.
The Autumn Defense's concert at Schubas sold out in advance. Is it just because of the Wilco connection, or are more people starting to appreciate this band's beautiful music? Yes, it's very soft, maybe a little too soft and sleepy, but the Autumn Defense's music is quite lovely. It reminds me of 1970s music -- acoustic numbers by Big Star, for example. The band might also remind some people of Bread -- not necessarily a good reference, though I take some guilty pleasure in enjoying a few Bread songs. (So do Jay Bennett and Edward Burch, who played "If" in concert and proclaimed it the best song ever written. A little bit of an exaggeration, but I won't argue that it's a great tune.) Backed by drums, pedal steel guitar and trumpet, the Autumn Defense sounded slightly more lively than they did when they opened for Jeff Tweedy at the Vic. Man, the crowd was very quiet tonight, which John Stirratt made note of...
Some new songs that the Autumn Defense plans to release on an album later this year sounded good, very much in the same vein as the Circles tracks. The last song of the encore was Stirratt's only song in the Wilco catalogue, "It's Just That Simple."
John Klos was the opening act. This is the second night in a row I'd seen him (see below), which was a bit much. But his music is growing on me.
FEB. 24, 2006
A LONG NIGHT OF GOOD MUSIC
I started off my night of two concerts at Schubas (with three acts) with a short mostly solo set by the guy usually known as Palaxy Tracks. I have to admit not being that familiar with his music; I've heard some of it, and it intrigues me a little bit -- without exciting me all that much. I enjoyed his set, which apparently focused on new material, but I'd have to hear these songs again to decide just how much I like them. He was joined by three other musicians during the course of the quiet set.
Okkervil River is a very good band, with Will Sheff being the dominant force... It's not quite one of those solo projects masquerading as a band, but this is definitely Sheff's show. So it was interesting to see him perform a solo concert, playing some of those same songs that I've heard Okkervil River play with extravagant energy. Some of the songs were quite different in the solo guitar or piano format, and some new songs sounded great. He also threw in a cover of Sandy Denny's "Solo." I have to say it was quite a powerful performance. I like the group arrangments that Okkervil River plays in concert and on record, but I might like Sheff's solo versions even better. He really bared his emotions tonight.
The late concert began with Michael Morris. I had no idea who this guy was, but was pleasantly surprised... This was this Minneapolis singer-songwriter's first performance in Chicago. He reminded me of the Okkervil River/Bright Eyes school of intensely sung folk music. His songs had strong melodies, and I definitely want to hear more from him.
I know Phil from my old days at The Daily Illini. It was nice to see him and his group getting a fairly high-profile opening slot for the Deadstring Brothers concert at Schubas tonight -- and to see the group back with a new drummer, Tom Jasek, after the tragic death of drummer Tim Rutkowski a year ago. Plus, they rocked.
The Deadstring Brothers definitely have an early-'70s Stones thing going, plus a couple of songs that obviously mimic The Band and Bob Dylan. But the lack of originality doesn't bother me much with these guys, because it's such fun to hear them play. Lead singer Kurt Marschke acknowledged they band is stuck in a 1970s time warp, but he doesn't care, either. They're a fine addition to the Bloodshot Records roster, and I liked hearing the songs I've come to know well from the new record Starving Winter Report. Hearing the older songs persuaded me that I need to pick up their first album, too.
Belle and Sebastian was just about perfection on Friday night. Great selection of songs both old and new – including several early tracks that I didn’t expect to hear, like “Dog on Wheels,” “The State I Am In” and “Lazy Line Painter Jane,” which featured guest vocals from a woman in the crowd. Her husband had e-mailed the band, suggesting that she sing the duet. What a sweet moment, and luckily, the woman (identified only as Amanda) did know how to sing well.
Good opening set, too, from the New Pornographers. What a perfect pairing. These bands come from similar musical places, but their approaches are different. The New Pornographers have a tendency to hammer home every musical hook with a lot of force and doubled (tripled or quadrupled) parts. Yes, it’s a little cheesy, but in the best sense of the term. Even without Neko Case, they sounded great.
MARCH 11, 2006
with JON LANGFORD & AMY RIGBY
at the Hideout, Chicago
A concert at 4 p.m.? What gives? Hideout honcho Tim Tuten explains that Jon Langford has been organizing some special concerts at the club every several weeks, and this time, he called up Tim with a late-breaking opportunity to bring the legendary Wreckless Eric to the Hideout, along with Amy Rigby. The club was already booked for that night, but a recent charity gig by Freakwater at 4 p.m. had been a success, so Tuten thought, Why not?
Tuten was in rare form with his logorrheic introduction to the whole affair – so much so that Langford’s first words, following Tuten’s intro, were, “I’m exhausted.” Langford played only songs from his new album, Gold Brick, and they sounded very good in concert.
Amy Rigby followed with a short but tasty set of her songs, including several from her 2005 album, Little Fugitive, which I liked quite a bit. She closed with the wonderful “Dancing With Joey Ramone.” Rigby said her daughter, who's getting ready to go to college, was present, and she joked that she wants her to go into a career that'll support her mom's music. ("Just don't do one of those 'Girls Gone Wild' tapes!")
Then came Wreckless Eric, who hadn’t played in Chicago since 1980. One of my regrets in 2005 was missing his appearance at SXSW, so this was a great opportunity to make up for that. To be honest, I didn’t know any of his songs other than “Whole Wide World” (which I became familiar with through the Rhino D.I.Y. collections)… During his set, Langford had remarked that Wreckless Eric was an inspiration to the Mekons when they were starting. “That was sort of the template for the Mekons,” he said. “It’s Ok to be punk and sensitive at the same time.” And Rigby said, “I’m very excited he’s playing today. I’m just a fan.”
Even though I was unfamiliar with most of the songs, I found Wreckless Eric immediately engaging. Playing solo, he reminded me a little of Robyn Hitchcock. And he was an entertaining raconteur as he told stories and jokes over his guitar grooves – and didn’t hesitate in telling some of the chattier people in the back of the room to shut their gobs. “Fucking hell, what are you talking about back there? I’m trying to do business up here.”
He introduced his biggest hit by sarcastically noting the similarity to Sting’s later song, “Fields of Gold” -- “It’s by Sting, but I’m going to sing it with the correct lyrics.”
He also read a short bit from his memoirs (“I’m going to read it to you whether you like it or not”), and then brought out Amy Rigby to play with him on the last few numbers.
It was quite an entertaining way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Or as Eric put it (describing one particular moment of noise, not the whole show): “Sounded like a fire in a banjo factory.” Let’s hope Eric doesn’t wait so long before his next visit to Chicago.
It was wonderful to see NEKO CASE on "The Tonight Show" the other night... Her new album may be a masterpiece, certainly her best and one of the year's best. And it was so, so cool to see someone I've watched at local places like Schubas on national TV. A clip of the performance can be seen at youtube.
© 2006 by Robert Loerzel.
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