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I see so many concerts that it’s easy to get a little jaded about the whole experience – to take it for granted – but every once in a while, I see a show that reminds me of how special it is to see a great musician performing live. The show last night (Nov. 12) by Neil Young at the Chicago Theatre was one of those concerts.

I’d seen Young only once before – a searing show with Crazy Horse on the Ragged Glory tour. I don’t know why I’ve missed seeing him on so many other occasions, but for some reason, the current Chrome Dreams II tour seemed like a can’t-miss concert. And it was.

Seemingly random letters decorated the skeletal billboards behind the stage – like some sign with missing letters along an old highway. After a pleasant opening set by Neil’s wife, Pegi Young, an announcement urged fans not to call out song requests, since the set list had been predetermined. That did not stop people from yelling out song titles, though, or singing “Happy Birthday” to Neil, who turned 62 yesterday.

Neil played the first half of the show by himself, playing acoustic guitars, banjo and piano on a few newer songs and several classics. Despite some occasional shouts from the crowd – and some signing along – the guitar notes and Neil’s distinctive sounded so crystal clear in that beautiful auditorium. I struck me how similar this felt to some of the more intimate acoustic concerts I’ve seen at places like Schubas. Sure, I was sitting farther back this time (I had a seat near the back of the main floor, with a good view), and the room was much bigger with a lot more listeners, but somehow it felt just as intimate.

Sitting down at a psychedelically painted grand piano, Young played “A Man Needs A Maid,” simulating the string section with a Mellotron-like synthesizer sitting on top of the piano. That made the arrangement a little awkward, but it was charmingly primitive. In between songs during this first set, Young sometimes walked around his instruments in an absent-minded way, as if he were trying to decide what song to play or what instrument to use. There was a second piano over on the other side of the stage, an old upright, and when he sat down there with a harmonica, everyone knew he was about to play “After the Gold Rush.”

Young didn’t talk much. He told one story about catching crawdads when he was in a two-room schoolhouse and scaring girls with them. I was spellbound for this entire set, and I only wish it had gone on a little longer.

After a 20-minute intermission, Young was back with his band (Rick Rosas, Ben Keith and Ralph Molina). The concert featured the unusual gimmick of a painter working on a canvas near the back of the set, who also placed paintings on an easel at the front of the stage. Each painting included the title of the song about to be played. The electric set was a great mix of old and new, opening with classics “The Loner” and “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.” I was ecstatic to hear “Winterlong,” which has always been one of my favorite Neil tunes. (The audience response to it was a little muted, though… maybe I’m alone in the “Winterlong” cult.) My favorite tracks on Chrome Dreams II are the ones where Neil tears it up Crazy Horse-style, and in concerts, these songs sounded perfect alongside the old ones. In particular, the set closing epic “No Hidden Path” was a stunning showcase for Young’s electric guitar soloing. The song went on and on, each moment more dramatic than the one before (or so it seemed), finally bringing the crowd to its feet with a mid-song standing ovation.

Other guitarists are more virtuosic, but few have ever bettered Young at feedback-drenched solos. There’s something perfect about the sound he hit upon in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He has such an unusual, intuitive sense of timing when he hits those notes, such a perfect sense of when to make a note loud and when to make it a glancing, half-played clink. And when Neil stretches out, letting a guitar solo take him wherever it will take him, all sense of passing time seems to vanish.

For his encore, Young played “Cinnamon Girl,” that great song that doesn’t sound the least bit dated, with that great chunky guitar riff and that unexpected flourish at the end when the song, by all expectations, should have already ended. As that song finished, a little keyboard decorated with angel wings (or something along those lines) descended from the ceiling. After warming up for a minute with some guitar noodling, Young launched into the opening melody of “Like a Hurricane.” The song sounded fabulous, both during the big chorus (with backup vocals from Pegi Young and Anthony Crawford, who also played keyboards on a few songs) and the extended guitar jams. In the final verse, Young echoed the vocal melody on his guitar, deconstructing the song for a moment before returning one last time to the magnificent chorus.

Watching Young roaming the stage with his electric guitar, watching his fingers roaming up and down the neck of his guitar in search of that perfect note, I thought he seemed as alive as he ever has. It was just about everything I wanted from a Neil Young concert (although, like Dylan or Waits, he has such a huge number of songs that he easily could have played an entirely different set list and pleased me). Certainly one of the year’s best concerts, and a contender for my all-time list.

Set list
ACOUSTIC: From Hank To Hendrix / Ambulance Blues / Sad Movies / A Man Needs A Maid / No One Seems To Know / Harvest / After the Gold Rush / Mellow My Mind / Love Art Blues / Love Is a Rose / Old Man

ELECTRIC: The Loner / Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere / Dirty Old Man / Spirit Road / Bad Fog Of Loneliness / Winterlong / Oh, Lonesome Me / The Believer / No Hidden Path

ENCORE: Cinnamon Girl / Like A Hurricane

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Propecia Buy CheapFrench-Canadian rockers Malajube – for my money, one of the best of the many great bands coming out of Montreal these days – were back in town Friday (Nov. 9) for a show at the Empty Bottle. Like the show earlier this year at the Beat Kitchen, this one was high-energy and filled with terrific songs off the 2006 album Trompe L’Oeil, as well as a few I didn’t recognize, including one that was more like straight-up punk than the rest of Malajube’s artsy post-punk. Word is that Malajube will have a new record out by next fall, and I can’t wait.

I showed up halfway through the first band, Light Pollution, who were a likable if not terribly distinctive band of the quasi-orchestral (violins and accordions plus rock) variety. I wouldn’t mind checking them out again. The second band was Chicago’s Jai-Alai Savant, who put on a pretty lively show of classic rock meets dub… or something like that. And best of all, they brought their own lights and briefly illuminated the dim cavern known as the Empty Bottle.

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Talk about an unwieldy name. Broken Social Scene Presents Kevin Drew, “Spirit If…” That’s the title of the new record by… by… well, is it a Broken Social Scene album? Or a Kevin Drew solo record? Or somewhere in between? Such are the ways of Canadian rock collectives, I guess. In any case, it’s a nice record, and the band came to town Saturday night (Nov. 3) for a sold-out show at Metro. (I guess that confusing title didn’t confuse ticket buyers.)

With an opening set by Arthur & Yu, this was essentially a Broken Social Scene concert, stripped down just a little bit – a mere six musicians onstage, and no Feist – but with a lot of the joyful, anarchic spirit that typifies the band. The first part of the concert focused on songs from the new “Spirit If…” record, which is, for my money, about as good as anything BSS has done. The group tossed in a cover of the Dinosaur Jr. song “The Wagon,” and BSS member Brendan Canning moved over to the main mike for a forthcoming song of his own (probably from a “Broken Social Scene Presents Brendan Canning” album slated for a May release from Arts & Crafts). Andrew Kenney of American Analog Set was sitting in on keyboards, and he took the mike for an AmerAnSet tune.

The BSS fans at the front of the Metro were waving their arms with joy during many of the songs, especially when the band played some of its older “hits” near the end. It was an enjoyable concert for most of its duration, but then it went on a bit long for me, stretching past the 2 1/2-hour mark. For the final half-hour, the concert devolved into more of a loose basement party with lots of rambling talk in between the songs. Drew came across as more of a friend than a rock star, but after a while, it was hard not to wish that he would just play a song. Still, all in all, a good show. When Broken Social Scene hit its stride, its songs had all the catchy qualities of pop anthems and all the cycling strengths of shoegazer rock.

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One of the best surprises this year at SXSW was a band from Athens, Ga., called the Whigs. They came to Chicago Friday (Nov. 2), with their next album in the can and scheduled for a January release. A hard-rocking trio with a touch of power pop and classic rock in their arsenal, the Whigs sounded pretty damn good once again, though it was the songs from their first album that still stood out for me, especially the keyboard-driven “Half a World Away.” I guess I’ll have to hear the new songs on record to see how they measure up.

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I was also eager to see openers the Broken West, whom I’ve written about before. This L.A. band has a really good record out on Merge, I’ll Go On I Can’t Go On, though when I saw them play in concert earlier this year, I though the band was playing versions of the songs that sounded a little too safe and close to the studio recordings. What a difference a few months have made. Maybe the band was just “on” Friday night, or maybe they’ve loosened up during all of the recent touring. Either way, they really sounded alive, added that looseness that the songs needed. They also surprised with a couple of unusual cover choices: “Back in Your Head,” a song from Tegan and Sara’s new record, The Con, and Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.”

The first band of the night was Wild Sweet Orange. The group’s drummer had broken his ankle a few days earlier, hence the mostly drummerless performance. I’m not familiar with the group’s songs, but they sounded all right to me on first listen.

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I have three albums by the Icelandic group Múm, including the new one, Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy, but I have to admit they’re the sort of records that sound pleasant to me and then wash past without leaving too much of an impression. I suppose I should spend more time burrowing into these recordings, because the group leaves much more of an impression on me in concert. I saw Múm a few years ago at the Logan Square Auditorium, and they returned to the same venue last Thursday (Nov. 1) for another show. It was an evening of beautiful sounds, an enchanting weave of electronica, standard rock instruments and lots of folkie devices (Melodica, autoharp, ukulele), with some passionate vocals. The two female singers in Múm smile a lot, as if they’re enjoying every second of putting across their music.

The opening act was Tom Brosseau, a singer-songwriter who invariably plays solo with his acoustic guitar, crooning out pretty tunes with slightly archaic-sounding words. His eyes could bore a hole in you as he sings. Toward the end of his set, he commented on the people talking at the back of the room while insisting on singing a song that required hushed quiet to match the revealing nature of the lyrics and the soft melody.

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Did I mention that I saw Bruce Springsteen a couple of weeks ago? No, I suppose not. Believe it or not, it was my first time seeing the Boss. I’ve never really disliked Springsteen, but I just did not get into his music for many years while everyone else was raving about him. I’ve always liked “Born to Run,” but I got sick to death of all the Born in the U.S.A. back when that album was big. And by then, those early E Street Band songs already seemed like a cliché to me. But Springsteen’s sort of worn me down over the years into a more respectful attitude. I like his latest record, Magic, pretty well, especially when it adds a bit of Pet Sounds to that Spector/Springsteen wall of sound.

So, I finally gave in and decided to witness the Springsteen concert experience firsthand (on Oct. 22). Well, as close to “firsthand” as you can get sitting in a nosebleed seat at the back of the United Center. I think this was almost exactly the same spot where I sat a few years ago for concerts by the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. In all three cases, I bought the cheapest ticket I could find just to get the long-distance version of seeing these legends perform in the flesh. It’s a worthwhile way to see a concert if you’ve got no other choice, but it did seem strange thinking how different it is from my usual experience of standing right next to the stage at a place like Schubas or Metro and seeing a musician three or four feet away from me. So here I am sitting in the top deck of the United Center looking the length of a basketball floor and more at this stage way off in the distance. Those little ant-like figures down there? One of those is the Boss! And hey, I can look at him on a video screen if I really want to see. But then… it’ll be like watching it on TV, won’t it? Oh, well…

Not being a true Springsteen aficonado, I don’t feel qualified to say a whole lot about how the concert stacked up other than to say it was a pretty entertaining set, with both new and old songs. When the house lights came on near the end of the concert, and Springsteen took a request from a teenager standing at the front of the general-admission area (“Thunder Road”), it felt about as much like a big, happy party as a big, corporate concert can feel.

SET LIST: Radio Nowhere / Prove It All Night / Lonesome Day / Gypsy Biker / Magic / Reason to Believe / Candy’s Room / She’s the One / Livin’ in the Future / The Promised Land / Tunnel of Love / Spirit in the Night / Darlington County / Devil’s Arcade / The Rising / Last to Die / Long Walk Home / Badlands / ENCORE: Thunder Road / Born to Run / Dancing in the Dark / American Land

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The first time I saw Bob Dylan in concert was an amazing experience. This was Oct. 29, 1998, when I was in Toronto for a mini-vacation, with no plans to see any concerts. Dylan and Joni Mitchell happened to be playing a double bill at Maple Leaf Gardens, the hockey stadium next door to my hotel. Throughout the day, I kept passing by the guys selling tickets on the sidewalk. The prices seemed to drop a little just before the concert, so I snapped one up. Joni was pretty good, but Bob blew my mind. I’d heard rave reviews from his tours in the years leading up to that. He seemed to be at the top of his game in the 1990s, though it was hard to explain exactly why. He was on fire that night, singing with such gusto and passion. And taking lots of guitar solos. That was something I hadn’t expected, but Dylan was actually a pretty impressive guitarist, and as he danced around with his little soft-shoe shuffle he was wailing away on his electric guitar during the breaks on songs like “My Back Pages.” I thought to myself, “Why have I waited so long to see this guy?”

What was going on with Dylan at the time? In Chronicles, Volume One, that marvelous but sometimes mystifying memoir, Dylan writes about his struggle to keep his vitality as a performer. In 1987, as he toured with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, he was “sick of living a mirage.” And then he had a musical epiphany during a concert on Oct. 5, 1987, in Locarno, Switzerland. At one moment, he opened his mouth to sing and nothing came out. Somehow, Dylan recovered from that lapse, and he describes what he did in almost magical terms:

“Figuring I had nothing to lose and not needing to take any precautions, I conjured up some different type of mechanism to jump-start the other techniques that weren’t working. I just did it automatically out of thin air, cast my own spell to drive out the devil. Instantly, it was like a thoroughbred had charged through the gates. Everything came back, and it came back in multidimension. Even I was surprised. It left me kind of shaky. Immediately, I was flying high. This new thing had taken place right in front of everybody’s eyes. A difference in energy might have been perceived, but that was about all. Nobody would have noticed that a metamorphosis had taken place. Now the energy was coming from a hundred different angles, completely unpredictable ones. I had a new faculty and it seemed to surpass all the other human requirements. If I ever wanted a different purpose, I had one. It was like I’d become a new performer, an unknown one in the true sense of the word. In more than thirty years of performing, I had never seen this place before, never been here. If I didn’t exist, someone would have to have invented me.”

Invigorated by this new way of singing (whatever it was), Dylan also determined to discover a new way of playing guitar. He remembered old-time jazz and blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson once showing him a method.

“Lonnie took me aside one night and showed me a style of playing based on an odd- instead of even-numbered system. He had me play chords and he demonstrated how to do it … I had the idea that he was showing me something secretive, though it didn’t make sense to me at the time because I needed to strum the guitar in order to get my ideas across. It’s a highly controlled system of playing and relates to the notes of a scale, how they combine numerically, how they form melodies out of triplets and are axiomatic to the rhythm and the chord changes. I never used that style, didn’t see that there’d be any purpose to it. But now all of sudden it came back to me, and I realized that this way of playing would revitalize my world. The method works on higher or lower degrees depending on different patterns and the syncopation of a piece. Very few would be converted to it because it had nothing to do with technique and musicians work their whole lives to be technically superior players. You probably wouldn’t pay any attention to this method if you weren’t a singer … The system works in a cyclical way. Because you’re thinking in odd numbers instead of even numbers, you’re playing with a different value system. Popular music is usually based on the number 2 and then filled in with fabrics, colors, effects and technical wizardry to make a point. But the total effect is usually depressing and oppressive and a dead end which at the most can only last in a nostalgic way. If you’re using an odd numerical system, things that strengthen a performance automatically begin to happen and make it memorable for the ages. You don’t have to plan or think ahead.”

Frankly, I have no idea what Dylan is talking about here. What is this weird method of thinking about music in odd numbers? Is he making this up? Is it a mental game or an actual system of playing music? As Dylan’s explanation goes on, it seems that he’s talking about playing melodies with groups of three notes. Not triplets or waltzes, but melodic phrases … I think. “I don’t know why the number 3 is more metaphysically powerful than the number 2, but it is,” Dylan writes.

Well, whatever he was doing, it was working. Dylan was still in great form when I saw him a few years later at Chicago’s United Center on the Love and Theft tour. And then, when I saw him March 5, 2004, at the Aragon Ballroom and the following night at the Riviera Theatre, things had changed. Without explaining why, Dylan had stopped playing guitar and spent the showing standing behind a keyboard. He seemed less animated. The shows weren’t bad by any stretch, but compared to what I had witnessed earlier, they were disappointing. By last year, when Dylan played Oct. 27 at the Sears Centre, he seemed to have found his footing again, and it was a pretty solid performance.

And so, when I went to see Dylan last week (Oct. 29 at the Chicago Theatre… for some reason, I always seem to see Dylan concerts around Halloween), I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d read that he had returned to playing guitar a little bit. He was touring with Elvis Costello and Amos Lee as his opening acts.

Amos Lee is not my cup of tea – a smooth, professional folk-pop singer whose music is inoffensively pleasant… so inoffensive that it bugs me. I can see why it might appeal to some of Dylan’s fans, but to my ears, it sounds closer to the music of Dylan’s son’s band, the Wallflowers, than the old man’s music.

I’m a big fan of Elvis Costello, on the other hand. Even if I have been frustrated occasionally by his dabblings in too many genres and his pretensions toward classical music and jazz standards, at his core, he’s still an excellent singer-songwriter. His solo acoustic set at the Chicago Theatre was top-notch stuff, with some classic tunes such as “Radio Radio” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” as well as two new unreleased songs and that “Scarlet Tide” song from the “Cold Mountain” soundtrack, which he’s been playing lately as an anti-war anthem. Costello stepped to the side of the mike during that tune and actually sang out to the huge theater unamplified, a terrific and moving moment slightly marred by the annoying electronic tinkle of someone’s cell phone.

Dylan did indeed play guitar, for the first three songs, before moving over to the keyboard. He seemed to play well enough, though without the same fire or finesse that he had nine years ago. His voice has narrowed down to a raspy croak with a range of just a few notes. On some songs, Dylan has figured out ways of making that croak work, flattening out or lowering melodies but still putting across his words with conviction and clarity. At other times, he just can’t make it work. Case in point: The second song of the night, “Lay, Lady, Lay,” had virtually no vocal melody at all. It’s not that I was expecting a pretty croon out of this guy, but hearing Dylan creakily reciting the words to this song gave me the feeling that I was watching a great singer-songwriter whose powers of performance had been diminished by time and age. There’s still something moving about seeing such a legend, even in his twilight, but I felt a twinge of sorrow.

As the show went on, Dylan seemed to find his groove on certain songs. “Ain’t Talkin’,” my favorite track off his 2006 album Modern Times sounded excellent, but then again, as a recent composition, it was constructed specifically for that aged voice, not for the voice of Dylan as a young man. It’s lovely how this minor key tune ends on a major chord, like a ray of sun bursting through the gloom at the last second.

At times, Dylan’s band seemed to be tiptoeing around him, perhaps keeping the music nimble to give some space for his voice. His current musicians are great at playing old-time blues-rock with a jazzy touch, and at times, they were really cooking. However, the group has a tendency to make all of Dylan’s songs, even the old ones, sound like the music on Modern Times and Love and Theft. Some sonic variety would have helped.

As the concert entered the home stretch, I got the feeling Dylan was playing his standard classic concert-closers with a somewhat lackadaisical or perfunctory attitude. First, I have to wonder about his song selection. He does toss in obscure old tracks at every show, but with so many great songs to choose from, does he have to play “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” near the end of every concert? “Like a Rolling Stone” lulled instead of rocking, with Dylan sounding weary. During the encore, Costello and Lee joined Dylan onstage for “I Shall Be Released.”

Overall, Dylan and his band put on an all-right show, but this Dylan was a pale shadow of the Dylan I’d seen at Maple Leaf Gardens.

SET LIST: Cat’s in the Well / Lay, Lady, Lay / I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight / You’re a Big Girl Now / Rollin’ And Tumblin’ / Spirit on the Water / Cry a While / Workingman’s Blues #2 / Things Have Changed / Under the Red Sky / Highway 61 Revisited / Ain’t Talkin’ / Summer Days / Like a Rolling Stone / ENCORE: I Shall Be Released / Thunder on the Mountain / All Along the Watchtower

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Buy Canadian Generic Viagra OnlineIt isn’t easy being a Fiery Furnaces fan. Oh, I know there are hard-core fans who’ll disagree, people who love every song on the albums as well as the concerts. Sometimes, I love the band myself. There’s no denying they’re among the most creative musicians on the scene today, but they also seem almost deliberately difficult and frustrating. All of those manic musical changes and jabberwocky rushes of words can be a bit much to take. The new Fiery Furnaces album, Widow City starts out great, with some strong tracks, and then meanders into boredom in the second half.

In concert, the group’s always been problematic. A few fans love the way the band cuts up and rearranges its songs in concert, turning them into medleys decipherable only by those who have memorized every note and word of every record. As far as I could tell, they didn’t do that sort of rearranging last night (Oct. 31) at Logan Square Auditorium. But the Furnaces did persist in playing keyboard-heavy versions of their songs. The tunes blended together until they became almost indistinguishable. The first couple of times I saw the group, Matt Friedberger played guitar, and even his sister, singer Eleanor, played guitar a little bit. Now, the band is playing without any guitar at all. Last night, Matt remained sitting behind three keyboards all night. A slight improvement over previous keyboard-heavy Furnaces concerts, yesterday’s show at least featured one keyboard with a piano sound. I’d rather hear Matt playing piano than making those insanely swirly organ noises all night long. He’s such a talented guy, but he’s not doing himself any favors by drowning his complex compositions in a bunch of bleeding organ notes. Quick, someone, take that organ away from him.

Eleanor was typical Eleanor, delivering all those verbose lyrics (how the heck does she remember them all?) with a cool, almost calm delivery. It was Halloween, and she was wearing a dress printed with ancient Egyptian images and references, and she played around with a toy snake and a skull face at various times. The concert started off with some of the better songs from Widow City, including “Philadelphia Grand Jury.” And the show finished with a strong encore, including two of the more direct songs from the Furnaces’ early days, “Don’t Dance Her Down” and “Tropical Iceland.”

I still count myself as a Fiery Furnaces fan and I continue to admire the band, but the concert experience is feeling like too much of an ordeal for me. The band is what it is, and I’m sure they don’t listen to people like me for advice, but I’d love to see them perform with more musicians playing all of those complex and varied parts on the studio recordings. Or at least give us more variety of keyboard sounds. And how about some guitar?

The opening act was Pit er Pat. The trio has a decent sound, with a touch of artsy experimentation and trance… and a lot fewer lyrics than the Fiery Furnaces.

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