The story behind this album was dispiriting for those of us who love the Wrens’ 2003 masterpiece The Meadowlands. We’ve been waiting 18 years for the Wrens to release a long-promised follow-up record. But now, one of the Wrens has gone his own way: Kevin Whelan says he was tired of waiting for bandmate Charles Bissell to put out the music they’d been working on for all of those years. So he released this album under the Aeon Station name, including five songs that had been intended for the next Wrens album. It’s sad to see the Wrens dissolving in a “bitter feud,” as the Guardian called it. And we might never hear that Wrens album that was supposedly coming out, though some version of it will surely surface in one way or another. Bissell tweeted: “my songs have also been done for a couple years & will come out now…as a solo album, I guess.”
It’s hard not to listen to Aeon Station’s album without wondering what might have been. Is this half of a never-to-be-heard Wrens masterpiece? Is it just a shadow of that phantom album? Perhaps. The image on the album cover, a half-built office block, symbolizes how “projects sometimes just don’t get finished,” Whelan told the Guardian.
But this is also outstanding music in its own right. Whelan demonstrates his skill at making songs with catchy chord progressions that cycle around and around with tones that almost sound like chimes—patterns that morph as they repeat, sneakily building in power until they feel like anthems. His melodies and vocals also seem simple and understated at first glance, but their depth becomes more apparent the more you listen.
In the song “Alpine Drive,” Whalen seems to be describing the long process of trying to make the Wrens’ new album when he sings: “Why should I feel like I still have more time? / Year after year paid in more than my crime / One thousand night shifts all end with a song / Still breaking rocks into songs we never get taught”
2. Matt Sweeney & Bonnie “Prince” Billy Superwolves
The guitarist Matt Sweeney’s name is listed first on the album cover, but Bonnie “Prince” Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham) is the singer and the more famous one. Oldham wrote the lyrics and gave them to Sweeney, who wrote the music on this record, a follow-up to their 2005 album, Superwolf. One reason why Oldham is such a fascinating artist is his eagerness to collaborate with so many different musicians. This partnership yields a beguiling set of songs, most of them spare and sinister.
This Australian band says its album is about “what comes after grief, and how we throw ourselves back into love.” While that sounds like a heavy concept, the record is light in spirit: bittersweet pop that evokes 1980s and ‘90s indie rock (as well as the 1960s classics evoked by that music). Quivers delivers its memorable lyrics and melodies with beautiful male-female vocal harmonies and a few orchestral flourishes.
As I see it, Chicago’s Eleventh Dream Day is a role model for how an independent band can endure, continuing to make vital music — by working at its own unhurried pace, releasing new records every few years, playing a handful of gigs now and then, but never giving up the ship. “The time between records is what has allowed us to continue,” drummer-vocalist Janet Beveridge Bean told the Concrete Islands site.
This new double album came out six years after EDD’s last record, the stellar Works for Tomorrow. Although Since Grazed has a few passages of the loud and propulsive rock Eleventh Dream Day is known for, the predominant mood is stately and almost meditative. That reflects how these songs began, as Rick Rizzo’s demos for a planned solo record, but the rest of the musicians added layers that enrich the sound. In the end, it became another shining example of what this band can do.
This British group, led by saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, gets categorized as jazz. But this album transcends genre definitions. With guest vocals by various singers and rappers, there’s a sense of call and response between the voices and the instruments. “I wanted to get a better sense of how African traditional cosmologies can inform my life in a modern-day context,” Hutchings said. The resulting album feels like a passionate performance of a holy ritual.
The first musical reference point that comes to mind is Stereolab. But this Los Angeles band doesn’t slavishly imitate those forerunners. Instead, it uses droning organ chords as a jumping-off point for sounds both loud and soft. Dummy is actually a very smart band. (And, as always, the fine folks at one of my favorite labels, Chicago’s Trouble in Mind, were smart to pick up this band.)
7. Jonny Greenwood The Power of the Dog (Music From the Netflix Film)
Ever since he wrote music for 2007’s There Will Be Blood, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood has been one of my favorite film composers. With this score, he underlines the building tension and mystery in Jane Campion’s terrific movie (one of the year’s best). As Greenwood explained to The New Yorker’s Alex Ross, his approach included “using traditional instruments but having them sound like there’s something slightly wrong with them. Make it evident that it’s a human being making the sounds—that it’s being made with effort and sweat and breath.” The sense of the world being slightly off-kilter is part of what makes Greenwood’s smart experiments in chamber music so compelling.
This Glasgow post-punk band lists No Wave and early Sonic Youth as its early influences, but at times, the clean, minimalist arrangements on this record remind me of chamber music. Maybe that’s due to the occasional clarinet in the instrumentation. The members of Nightshift wrote these songs like a game of exquisite corpse while separated during the pandemic lockdown, and the results are slinky, surreal, and spooky. (This is another release from the Trouble in Mind label. Listening to everything on Trouble in Mind is a good way to start hunting for a year’s best music.)
9. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds B-Sides & Rarities Part II
I’m not sure if a collection of B-sides and rarities really belongs on a top 10 list of new albums. Is it truly new? Does it count as an album? Those questions are why I have this sitting at No. 9 on my list. If I ranked these records based sheerly on how much I’ve enjoyed listening to him — and how strong they are from beginning to end — this would be higher on my list, maybe even No. 1. This compilation pulls together 27 recordings from 2006 through 2019, which has been a fruitful and creative period for Nick Cave, marked by tragedy in his personal life. The records he’s made in recent years are among his best, and this collection offers outtakes and demos from his probing musical explorations. It helps to illuminate what he’s been doing on those other records, and it’s also a wonderful set of music on its own.
10. Godspeed You! Black Emperor G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END!
I think of GYBE as a rock orchestra — not an orchestra playing concertos that sound quite like Beethoven and Bach, but one making music more in the tradition of 20th and 21st century composers. When this Canadian band’s strings (the ones on its guitars and violins) are at full roar, they have all the Sturm und Drang of a symphony orchestra: sweeping, ominous, frightening, and sometimes even stirring with flashes of sonic glory, like some sort of postmodern national anthem for an underground society. All of those elements are present on this latest record — along with found sounds, like voices from radio transmission. Even without lyrics, G_d’s Pee AT STATE’S END! is a timely overture for the troubled times on our planet.
1. S.G. Goodman, Old Time Feeling (Verve Forecast)
I heard this album only because someone put one of S.G. Goodman’s songs on a Spotify playlist that I happened to check out. I liked it and listened to the whole album. And then I just kept on listening, again and again. What a solid record, filled with one terrific song after another. This singer-songwriter from rural Kentucky probably fits best into the Americana genre, but she pulls together elements from other styles of rock, pop and folk on this gorgeous collection (produced by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James). Like her voice, the sonic aura of the recordings is entrancing.
Goodman laces her music with poetic turns of phrase. I’m particularly taken with the lyrics of the title song, which comment on the rural-urban political divide in America. “The south has a very complex history of social and economic injustice,” Goodman said in a Consequence of Sound article. “It was important for me as a proud southerner to vocalize that many of us are working hard to undo those generational cycles that have long held us back. Many of us are not living in that old time feeling.”
Oh, and I hear people saying how they want a change And then the most of them do something strange They move where everybody feels the same About the southern state behind The southern state is a condition, it’s true I’ve got a little proposition for you Stick around and work your way through Be the change you hope to find
2. Gillian Welch, Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vols. 1, 2 and 3 (Acony)
I’m amazed that Welch, one of the best songwriters of recent decades, sat on this trove of 48 wonderful songs for 18 years before releasing them. Pitchfork explains the unusual circumstances of how she made these recordings with her longtime partner David Rawlings: “Welch resolved she could finally break from the publishing contract she’d signed nine years earlier—she was a successful singer-songwriter now, not merely a writer for hire. During one productive weekend at home in December 2002, six months before releasing the aching Soul Journey, she and Rawlings pored through more than 100 notebooks. They turned scraps of discarded songs into enough quick recordings to fulfill her contract before it renewed January 1.”
In other words, this was a hastily produced batch of tapes recorded as a sort of contractual obligation. That sounds unpromising, and yet, there’s something to be said for working fast and not worrying about production. For Welch and Rawlings, it resulted in a few hours of beautiful folk music telling evocative stories — rivaling anything else they’ve released. gillianwelch.com
3. Gil Scott-Heron and Makaya McCraven, We’re New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven (XL Recordings)
This is not an entirely new piece of music, but this version of it is fresh and exciting — and the lyrics are as moving and relevant as they were when Scott-Heron wrote and recited them near the end of his life. They originally appeared on his final record, 2010’s I’m New Here, which didn’t feel like a fully realized Gil Scott-Heron album. More like a rough first draft. Here, the Chicago jazz drummer and producer Makaya McCraven fleshes out those old recordings of Scott-Heron’s voice with a colorful and funky tapestry. I found it mesmerizing. XL Recordings
4. Sault, Untitled (Black Is) (Forever Living Originals)
This is the one record where my top 10 overlaps with the major critical consensus for 2020. It ranks at No. 10 on the spreadsheet compiled by writer Rob Mitchum, ranking albums based on the lists posted by various publications. Delivered by a mysterious British musical collective, this is such a powerful record about the Black experience — with a compelling mix of musical styles and perfect pacing. Bandcamp
5. Close Lobsters, Post Neo Anti: Arte Povera in the Forest of Symbols (Shelflife)
For me, this was the year’s most unlikely comeback. I was a fan of Close Lobsters back in 1987, when the this Scottish indie rock band released an outstanding album called Foxheads Stalk This Land, replete with that 1980s “jangly guitars” sound. I saw Close Lobsters perform in concert at Chicago’s Cabaret Metro in 1989, but then they seemed to disappear. Out of nowhere, Close Lobsters reunited in 2014 and released two new songs — including “New York City in Space,” which includes lyrics about traveling to New York and Chicago during that tour back in the 1980s. (“It was originally entitled ‘Chicago’ because that’s where we were headed at the time. In a bus,” the band told The Big Takeover.)
Those 2014 tracks are now part of this album, which sounds like a throwback to that 1980s era, but with contemporary-sounding production. Sure, it’s all very retro … but I love it. There’s something thrilling about hearing Close Lobsters declare, “This is the London of the Clash,” in their song “Under London Skies.” Explaining that song, the band calls it an ode to London, “the capital of punk rock insurrection and its renewed shambolic expression in 1986. As we in the North would seek to bid adieu, we salute and stand in solidarity with that London. That England. The England of The Clash, The Mob, The June Brides, Swell Maps and John A. Rivers.” Bandcamp
6. Melenas, Dias Raros (Trouble in Mind)
The next two records on my list were released by Chicago’s reliably great label Trouble in Mind, and they’re both rock bands from overseas led by women. Melenas are from Pamplona, Spain, making catchy tunes with oft layers of harmony vocals floating above organ and guitar riffs anchored in the garage rock tradition. Bandcamp
7. En Attendant Ana, Juillet(Trouble in Mind)
This coed quintet from Paris has a bit of that elegant French vibe associated with artists like Stereolab, but its music is rooted more in fuzzy guitar riffs. Margaux Bouchaudon’s lovely vocals carry her band through a variety of musical settings, including some pretty orchestral flourishes, all on a quest for perfect pop earworms. Bandcamp
8. The Necks, Three (Northern Spy)
I had a ticket to see this Australian instrumental trio this spring, but of course, that concert was canceled, like so many others. In place of that experience, I was left with this album of the group’s latest improvised pieces. With intricate music that moves from driving momentum to serene contemplation, it was my soundtrack for much of 2020. Bandcamp
9. Jeff Parker, Suite for Max Brown (International Anthem)
Parker is best known as a guitarist — most famously, as a member of Tortoise — but his stellar guitar playing is just one facet of this jazz album (dedicated to his mother, whose maiden name was Maxine Brown). Parker plays multiple instruments and draws on eclectic influences as he creates the sense of a story shifting scenery with each chapter. Bandcamp
10. Three Queens in Mourning & Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Hello Sorrow / Hello Joy(Textile)
Will Oldham, the Louisville singer-songwriter known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, continues to play by his own rules, releasing many records that wouldn’t fit into a traditional discography, including collaborations and multiple interpretations of his songs. That makes it challenging to keep track of Oldham’s musical output, but it’s always worth paying attention, even to his more obscure releases. Most of this album is the Scottish trio Three Queens in Mourning performing covers of songs by Oldham, making them sound more than ever like folk songs from the British Isles. But the record also includes Oldham singing a few songs by Three Queens in Mourning and contributing one new song. So this is something of a grab-bag — but quite an enjoyable one. Bandcamp
Waxahatchee, Saint Cloud Lucinda Williams, Good Souls Better Angels Nathan Salsburg, Landwerk Kevin Morby, Sundowner Bill Callahan, Gold Record Tré Burt, Caught It From the Rye Laura Marling, Song for Our Daughter Smokescreens, A Strange Dream Irreversible Entanglements, Who Sent You? Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings E&F Sides Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways Jason Isbell, Reunions Drive-By Truckers, The Unraveling Mekons, Exquisite Bonny Light Horseman, Bonny Light Horseman Jeff Tweedy, Love Is the King The Flat Five, Another World John Luther Adams/JACK Quartet, Lines Made by Walking William Basinski, Lamentations Jeff Lescher, All Is Grace The Jayhawks, Xoxo Joan Shelley, Live at the Bomhard M. Ward, Migration Stories William Tyler, Music From First Cow Rose City Band, Summerlong X, Alphabetland Laura Veirs, My Echo Steve Dawson & Funeral Bonsai Wedding, Last Flight Out Woods, Strange to Explain Steve Earle and the Dukes, Ghosts of West Virginia Yo La Tengo, We Have Amnesia Sometimes Yo La Tengo, Sleepless Night
1. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings: Soul of a Woman (Daptone)
In the year before she died of pancreatic cancer in 2016, this astounding soul singer recorded one last album, and it’s flat-out terrific — a testament to Jones’ indomitable spirit and the enduring power of the soul music genre when it’s in the hands of such talented artists. daptonerecords.com
2. Joan Shelley: Joan Shelley (No Quarter)
This Louisville singer-songwriter made my favorite record of 2015, Over and Even, and came very close to winning that title again with her self-titled. Simply beautiful acoustic folk music, with a sense of yearning that pulls me in every time. joanshelley.net
3. Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Luciferian Towers (Constellation)
This Montreal ensemble may be categorized as rock music, but to me, it’s one of the great orchestras of our time. *Luciferian Towers* is not quite as foreboding or dark as GYBE’s other recent albums, but it’s just as rich and powerful, leaning more toward the light. cstrecords.com
4. The Feelies: In Between (Bar None)
The iconic New Jersey band took six years in between albums this time, finally releasing another excellent collection of groovy rock songs. As the title In Between suggests, this album falls somewhere in the middle of the Feelies’ most pastoral folk rock and its Velvet Underground-style rave-ups. It finds a cool balance. bar-none.com
5. Kacy & Clayton:The Siren’s Song (New West)
This duo from Saskatchewan makes harks back to that part of the 1960s when country, rock and pop seemed to be on the verge of melding into some new genre. And with production help from Jeff Tweedy on this album, the songs sound marvelous. kacyandclayton.com
6. Laura Marling: Semper Femina (More Alarming)
The songs on Marling’s latest record are subtle and complex studies of female protagonists, performed as memorable folk rock in multiple forms. lauramarling.com
7. LCD Soundsystem:American Dream (DFA Records/Columbia)
After calling it quits, James Murphy and his group got back together and made one of their best records filled — the same expertly arranged dance music, but with more wistfulness this time. lcdsoundsystem.com
8. Robyn Hitchcock: Robyn Hitchcock (Yep Roc)
Robyn Hitchcock has been one of my favorite singer-songwriters (and raconteurs of absurdism) since the mid-1980s, but I may have begun taking him for granted. While I have enjoyed many of his other albums in recent years, none of them stuck with me as much as this self-titled one, which finds Hitchcock playing study psychedelic rock songs reminiscent of the work he used to do with his backup group, the Egyptians. robynhitchcock.com
9. Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society: Simultonality (Eremite)
One of Chicago’s most outstanding groups, Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society makes hypnotic records, and this one even climaxes with an ecstatic and beautiful passage with a radiance that evokes John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. eremite.com
10.The Necks: Unfold (Ideologic Organ)
This Australian trio’s meditative improvisations delicately explore how pieces of music can fit together. Over the course of this long album, the Necks continually reinvent how those parts work. thenecks.com
Jon Langford: Four Lost Souls (Bloodshot)
Mavis Staples: If All I Was Was Black (Anti-)
Algiers: The Underside of Power (Matador)
The National: Sleep Well Beast (4AD)
The Stevens: Good (Chapter Music)
Aimee Mann: Mental Illness (SuperEgo)
Mazes: The Violent Tapes (Sanzimat International)
Margo Price: All American Made (Third Man)
The Cairo Gang: Untouchable (God?)
Tinariwen: Elwan (Wedge/Anti)
Chad VanGaalen: Light Information (SubPop)
The Sadies: Northern Passages (Yep Roc)
Mdou Moctar: Sousoume Tamachek (Sahel Sounds)
Bonnie Prince Billy: Best Troubadour (Drag City)
Björk: Utopia (One Little Indian)
St. Vincent: Masseduction (Loma Vista)
Jeff Tweedy: Together At Last (dBpm)
Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile: Lotta Sea Lice (Matador)
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound (Southeastern)
Kevin Morby: City Music (Dead Oceans)
Mark Eitzel: Hey Mr. Ferryman (Merge)
Orchestra Baobab: Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng (World Circuit)
Angelo Badalamenti and various artists: Twin Peaks Limited Event Series Soundtrack (Rhino)
The Replacements: For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986 (Rhino/Sire)
Chad VanGaalen, a singer-songwriter from Calgary, Alberta, makes his recordings practically alone, writing every note and playing nearly every instrument. VanGaalen’s most recent album on Sub Pop, Light Information, offers an outstanding example of what he does so well: richly layered indie rock, with tuneful melodies but plenty of strange and murky textures. His songs have a touch of the lo-fi quality heard in classic Guided By Voices records, although it’s not because of any tape hiss — it has more to do with the way VanGaalen blends his various elements into an alchemical stew. It isn’t always immediately apparent which instrument is doing what in a song.
How does this translate during a live performance? As VanGaalen demonstrated during his Dec. 2 gig at the Empty Bottle, his songs also sound great when they’re played in a pretty straightforward style by a rock band. The tunes were less ornate and more direct — like an alternate but equally compelling version of the brilliant audio art VanGaalen creates in his home studio.
Opening act Un Blonde — the solo project of Montreal-based musician Jean-Sebastian Audet — played a very loose set, with some awkward pauses as Audet seemed to be deciding on the spot which song to play next, signaling that information to his backing musicians right as a song began. I sensed a bit of restlessness in the audience, and yet, I found it fascinating to watch, somewhat like witnessing an impromptu rehearsal. This was my first exposure to Un Blonde’s music, and I could tell that Audet’s a talent to watch.
Oct. 11 was Jon Langford’s 60th birthday, and it was also the date of a release party at the Hideout for his latest record. Of course, this prolific Chicago musician who never seems to stop creating would spend his birthday on a stage.
His latest project is a great one: The album is called Four Lost Souls, which is also the name of the group he assembled for some recording sessions in the fabled area around Muscle Shoals, Alabama. In addition to Langford, the Four Lost Souls include vocalists Tawny Newsome and Bethany Thomas and guitarist-singer John Szymanski.
As the Chicago Reader noted in a feature story, Langford ditched his usual process of writing songs on guitar, opting to create them on piano instead. He did sit down at the Hideout’s piano during another recent gig (with the Freakons), but despite the piano origins of his Four Lost Souls tunes, he played them all on guitar. They’re recognizable as the sturdy sort of rock and country songs Langford is known for, but his collaborators add different flavors to the sound. It’s great to hear Newsome and Thomas singing, whether it’s adding the heft of their harmonies or stepping to the forefront with occasional lead vocals. That’s true of the record, and the strength of that singing was loud and clear during the Hideout show.
Ever since Langford moved from Britain to Chicago, this Welsh punk rocker has championed American roots music in its many forms. With this project, he carries on that tradition, sounding as devoted as he ever has to making great music and having a good time while he does it. Happy 60th, Mr. Langford.
I missed the first day and a half of the Hideout Block Party this weekend — I was in Louisville for the Cropped Out music festival — but I got back into Chicago on Sunday afternoon and caught the final few hours of the Hideout’s fun shindig, which I was glad to see making a return after a gap for the past couple of years. Here are my photos from Sunday night, which capped off daylong celebration for the 20th birthday of Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio.
Cropped Out, an underground music festival in Louisville, Kentucky, lined up a blockbuster band for the top of its lineup this summer: The Fall. I was already eager to attend Cropped Out again after having a fun time there last year, and this sealed the deal. Alas, The Fall later announced it was canceling this show along with a few others, due to frontman Mark E. Smith’s health. As a replacement, Cropped Out added a new headliner, and it was not a surprising one: Louisville’s own Bonnie “Prince” Billy, who also played at this rather DIY festival last year.
And so, on Saturday, Sept. 24, when Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) stepped up to the microphone, he told the crowd: “Hello, class. Sorry, Mr. Smith is sick, but I’m the sub.” And then Oldham and his band, the Bonafide United Musicians, proceeded to play a set consisting entirely of songs from his most recent album, Best Troubadour, a tribute to the late country music icon Merle Haggard. This was a cool treat for me — it’s an outstanding record that has deepened my appreciation for Haggard’s artistry as well as Oldham’s, and it was great to hear these cover versions in their full live glory.
That was the high point of Cropped Out for me, but it was an interesting couple of days overall — including noisy punk and garage bands. I was especially impressed with the tuneful songs of Athens, Georgia, band Deep State. The Australian punk band feedtime, originally formed in the late 1970s, raged along with the younger groups, and Connecticut’s Magik Markers closed out the weekend with a powerful set.
There was also some jazz, most notably a strenuous, intense solo performance by Peter Brötzmann on the deck next to the Ohio River, Cropped Out’s most delightful stage. And on the quieter end of the spectrum, a lovely acoustic set by The Other Years, a Louisville duo. Other favorite moments for me include Omaha singer-guitarist David Nance’s set, and the hilariously rambling stoner monologues that Frank Hurricane told to introduce his songs. And speaking of funny, Cropped Out included comedy by Neil Hamburger and Chicago-based Sarah Squirm. Two very different comics, and yet in similar ways, they pushed boundaries beyond joke-telling into psychology and performance art.
75 Dollar Bill
The Other Years
Le fruit vert
Tara Jane O’Neill
(with Catherine Irwin and Thalia Zedek)
Tyler Damon/Tashi Dorji
Shit & Shine
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
& the Bonafide United Musicians
When the Mekons teamed up with Freakwater, of course they called themselves the Freakons. As they’ve joked, the other option was Meekwater, a far less formidable-sounding portmanteau.
Actually, this collaborative group — which played a few shows last week, recording one of them for a forthcoming album — doesn’t include all of the Mekons. Its members are Freakwater’s Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean plus two key members of the Mekons, Jon Langford and Sally Timms. Joining them are two fiddlers, Jean Cook and Anna Krippenstapel, and ubiquitous Chicago guitarist James Elkington.
It seems natural that the Mekons and Freakwater are collaborating, given their shared musical territory. The Mekons may be punks from England and Wales, but they’re steeped in a love of old American country, along with British folk. The Kentuckians in Freakwater have mined similar musical veins. The two outfits have even covered a few of the same songs. And now this conglomeration is making a record of songs about coal mining. All profits from the album will benefit Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, a grassroots organization opposing mountaintop removal mining and promoting economic justice, voting rights, and Kentucky’s transition to new energy sources.
The Freakons played two shows at the Hideout last week, one of which was recorded for the album. I attended the other gig, on Sept. 10, as well a concert by the Freakons on Sept. 14 at a rustic venue in Spring Green, Wis., charmingly named The Shitty Barn. (Elkington played at the Hideout but was absent from the Shitty Barn show.) As the band members noted a few times, their songs tended to be sad and bleak. But there were several rousing songs inspired by the spirit of miners toiling away at their work — and as always, Langford and Timms were quick with humorous quips. The group even played a recording of Richard Burton telling some tall tales on the Dick Cavett show about his coal-mining father.
The songs (some original, some covers) included: “Chestnut Blight,” “Corrie Doon,” “Canaries,” “Dreadful Memories,” “Coal Miner’s Grave,” “Abernant 1984/85,” “Johnny Miner,” “Trimdon Grange Explosion,” “Mannington Mine,” “Black Leg Miner,” “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Working in a Coal Mine.” After seeing these live shows, I look forward to hearing the Freakons’ album.
Steve Dawson — a talented Chicago singer-songwriter, bandleader, teacher, producer, author and all-around good guy — is in the middle of a September residency at the Hideout, playing three shows at the venue on Monday nights.
On Sept. 4, Dawson and his band Dolly Varden played their excellent 2007 album The Panic Bell in its entirety, plus several other songs, including a few new ones.
(Story continues below photos.)
On Sept. 11, Dawson and various friends played a show promoting the book about songwriting he co-wrote with Mark Caro, Take It to the Bridge. Taking a cue from the book’s title, the show featured songs with great bridges, performed by Dawson, Nora O’Connor, Kelly Hogan, Rachel Drew, Casey McDonough, Alton Smith and Bill Brickey, backed by Larry Brown on drums. The selection of songs was outstanding: “Back on the Chain Gang” (The Pretenders), “I Feel Fine” (The Beatles), “Johnny Strikes Up the Band” (Warren Zevon), “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (Elton John), “Something’s Got a Hold on Me” (Etta James), “I’ve Been the One” (Little Feat), “New Kid in Town” (the Eagles), “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling (Righteous Brothers), “Galveston” (Jimmy Webb/Glen Campbell), “Shadows Breaking Over My Head” (The Left Banke), “Nights on Broadway” (The Bee Gees), “Ooh Baby Baby” (Linda Ronstadt), “As” (Stevie Wonder), “Do Ya” (Electric Light Orchestra) and “Suspicious Minds” (Elvis Presley).
Amadou and Mariam played a truly delightful concert of lively music from Mali on Monday, July 24, at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion. I’m looking forward to the duo’s new album, La Confusion, coming out September 22.
The opening act was Frank Waln, a hip-hop artist of Lakota heritage, who delivered his raps with illuminating and powerful commentary about the history of injustices suffered by Native Americans.
Last week’s show didn’t feature quite as many Molina colleagues, but it was still a pretty stellar cast, including various members of Molina’s bands Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. — as well as guest stars like Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor. The show ended with epic renditions of “Farewell Transmission” and “John Henry Split My Heart.”
The Drive-By Truckers played a rousing free concert on Thursday, July 20, at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion — performing about half of the songs from their terrific 2016 album American Band, along with a cover of the Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” and, of course, some of the Truckers’ classic older tunes. During “Let There Be Rock,” Patterson Hood sang the song’s usual refrain (“And I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd but I sure saw Molly Hatchet/With 38 Special and the Johnny Van Zant Band”), but he also added: “I never saw the Clash, but I saw the Replacements about seven times.” Hood and his longtime bandmate Mike Cooley switched back and forth on lead vocals throughout the set. The only flaw in the show was its relative brevity. I’m sure the Drive-By Truckers would have answered the audience’s clamoring pleas for an encore if Millennium Park had allowed them to play past 9 p.m. In any case, it was a delight to see one of America’s best rock bands playing a free show in this beautiful setting. (Set list.) And the opening act, an acoustic folk trio from Boston called Honeysuckle, was a nice bonus.
I’ve been moaning for years about how seldom two of my favorite musical artists — the Feelies and PJ Harvey — play in Chicago. One of the great things about being a music fan in Chicago is that you get a chance to see just about every touring artist. But there are a few bands and singers who bypass the Midwest or simply don’t tour all that much. Since the Feelies went on hiatus around 1991 and then reunited, the New Jersey rock band had played in Chicago only one time, at Millennium Park in 2009. That year was also the last time British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey had played in Chicago; when she released her recent records, she played only a handful of U.S. shows.
So, you can imagine how thrilled I was — along with other Chicago fans of the Feelies and PJ Harvey — when it was announced that both of them were coming to the Pitchfork Music Festival. And they were just two of the artists that made for an especially strong and diverse lineup at this year’s festival, which took place this past weekend (July 14-16) at its usual location, Union Park on Chicago’s West Side. Not surprisingly, as it turned out, the sets by PJ Harvey and the Feelies were two of my favorite moments in a really fun weekend of live music (which was made more enjoyable by the delightfully temperate weather).
Holding a saxophone aloft like a talisman, PJ Harvey made a dramatic entrance as the musicians in her large band banged drums, making the concert feel like some sort of pagan ritual. After opening with songs from her most recent album, The Hope Demolition Project, Harvey seemed to be running backward through her discography, but she eventually circled back to the new songs, with the voices of her bandmates adding to the power of the chorus. As always, Harvey was a riveting presence at the center of the stage. (Set list.)
The Feelies got off to a slightly late start, because the previous act playing on the other side of the field, George Clinton, ran several minutes past his scheduled time slot. That may seem like a minor point — and yes, I was also excited to watch Clinton, the 75-year-old godfather of funk, jamming with his Parliament/Funkadelic group, whom I’d never seen before — but Pitchfork is designed to run on a pretty tight schedule. Once the Feelies started playing, the band hit a couple of wrong notes — that’s hardly an egregious crime, and yet it was surprising, considering how precise the band typically sounds. Once the Feelies had found their footing, however, the group was in top form, strumming its trademark chords to those driving rhythms. (Set list.)
Here’s the rub: As much as I enjoyed seeing both the Feelies and PJ Harvey playing in the beautiful weather in front of crowds in Union Park, I was left wanting more. I’d love to see longer shows by both of these bands, as opposed to these typically condensed festival sets that last an hour or so. (I’m jealous of those who saw the Feelies playing a full show at El Club in Detroit on the following night.) But I will take what I can get. And in general, shorter sets do create a livelier feeling at music festivals.
This year’s Pitchfork experienced some logistical problems — including long lines at the entrance on Friday. And when the big field got crowded at the end of the day, it wasn’t fun to make my way through the throngs of people. And this may be stating the obvious, but depending on where you were at any given moment, your experience of the festival may have been completely different from my own. I watched Harvey’s show from a spot near the stage, but then as she began playing the final song of her set, I started needling my way back through the crowd to reach the photo pit for the next show, by Saturday’s headliners, A Tribe Called Quest. By the time I’d reached the back part of the field, Harvey was still playing, but I could barely hear her music at all. In that part of the park, it was hard to tell that a concert was even going on.
Other highlights for me over the weekend included the resonating shoegaze guitar wall of Ride; the sultry, moody songs of Angel Olsen, which often built to ferocious climaxes; LCD Soundsystem’s dance party (even if it was a bit of rerun from previous fests); George Clinton’s nonstop groove; the boundless enthusiasm and catchy riffs of the garage rockers Priests, Cherry Glazerr, Jeff Rosenstock and NE-HI; Thurston Moore, still doing music that sounds like Sonic Youth (and why the hell not?); the enthralling songs of Mitski, who seemed almost stoic during the early part of her set (I wasn’t able to stay for the whole performance, which reportedly climaxed with a “primal scream”); Colin Stetson’s stunningly muscular saxophone minimalism; A Tribe Called Quest paying tribute to its recently deceased member, Phife Dawg, with an energetic set; the beautiful and passionate vocals of Jamila Woods; and R&B star Solange’s elaborately staged visual and audio spectacle.
As promised, Wilco performed its 1996 album Being There from beginning to end on Friday, June 23. Being There had won an online poll asking Wilco fans which of the band’s records it should perform on the opening night of Solid Sound, a festival Wilco curates every other year at Mass MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. After playing the 24 Americana songs on that beloved double album — without ever pausing for any of frontman Jeff Tweedy’s usual stage banter — Wilco came back onstage for an encore.
Without saying anything, the band launched into “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” the opening track from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, its masterpiece album from 2002. And then the band played “Kamera,” the second song on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. At this point, I wondered: Wait a second — is Wilco going to play the entire Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album, too? Some people standing near me in the crowd voiced the same question. And sure enough, that’s exactly what Tweedy and his band did, delivering all 11 songs from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in sequence, without ever stopping to announce what they were doing.
Wilco played the songs from both albums with the sort of flourishes and sonic layers that are typical of its live performances, but the band seemed to rein in those embellishments a little bit, keeping most of the songs as concise as they are on the original records. For instance, Tweedy has created a tradition of shouting “Nothing!” many, many times at the climax of “Misunderstood,” the opening song on Being There. He skipped that ritual during this performance.
The concert gained intensity during the encore, which showed just how artfully Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was constructed. After the noisy climax of “Poor Places,” Tweedy sang the opening verse of “Reservations” in a practically solo performance on acoustic guitar. A hush fell over the outdoor field where Wilco was playing — on the grounds of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art — as Tweedy quietly sang. The band subtly began filling in the rest of the song behind him. Just as it does on the record, the song drifted into an atmospheric final epilogue. That recording continued to play after the members of Wilco had lifted their hands toward the audience and departed from the stage. It was breathtakingly beautiful. (NYC Taper posted a recording of the show.)
This was the high point of Solid Sound, but it was hardly the only reason that the festival was worth traveling to attend. The weekend also included a rare concert by the Shaggs, the sisters who made the legendarily shambolic record Philosophy of the World in 1969. This performance was actually by two of the sisters — Dot and Betty Wiggin — and they were just singing. As an article in one of the local newspapers, The Manchester Journal, explained, “Arthritis prevents both Dot and Betty from playing instruments.” They were backed up by a younger group that has also played with Dot in recent years, the Dot Wiggin Band. As the Journal noted, “they work hard to master the sisters’ very unique style.” That made for a rather strange spectacle — seemingly talented musicians trying their best to sound as primitive as the Shaggs did when they made that 1969 recording under their father’s tutelage. The audience included adoring members of the Shaggs cult as well as some people who didn’t grasp what was going on. “My God, these people can’t keep the beat,” remarked a beer vendor who was clearly unfamiliar with the story of the Shaggs. “That’s how it’s supposed to sound,” I tried to explain. She shook her head and said, “So, it’s one of those things where it’s supposed to be so bad that it’s good?” It was certainly surreal, and I found it rather endearing to watch these two older women singing the off-kilter ditties they’d recorded when they were young.
Highlights of Solid Sound included a set by Television — even without Richard Lloyd, the group plays terrific guitar duels. And so did Kevin Morby and his band. Joan Shelley’s lilting folk songs sounded as delightful as ever. I was very impressed by the vocals and guitar playing of the Saskatchewan country-folk duo Kacy & Clayton (who have recorded a new album at Wilco’s Loft studio in Chicago). Another Saskatchewan musician, Andy Shauf, performed lovely ballads. Daniel Bachman’s instrumental guitar music was exquisite. And the emotion of Big Thief’s songs was palpable. While I was never a big fan of the J. Geils Band, that group’s vocalist, Peter Wolf, gave an entertaining and energetic performance with his current group, the Midnight Travelers. I also enjoyed the shows on the big stage by Kurt Vile and the Violators and Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin with the Guilty Ones.
In addition to all of the music, there was comedy — led as always by John Hodgman. Sadly, I missed out on all of that because of schedule conflicts with the live music. But I did find time to explore the art exhibits at Mass MoCA, which recently expanded. Chicago artist Nick Cave (not to be confused with the musician of the same name) has a massive installation called Until at the museum through August, which really shows what’s cool about this venue: With big rooms inside 19th-century factory buildings, it gives artist spaces where they try out big ideas. Here’s my video of a quick, three-minute walk-through of Cave’s installation:
Other noteworthy exhibits now on display include Jenny Holzer’s exploration of U.S. government’s torture victims at sites including Abu Ghraib. And there’s an interesting set of artworks by the musician Laurie Anderson, including huge drawings of dogs and some virtual reality environments she created. I spent 15 minutes immersed in one of those three-dimensional realms, and it was an odd and beguiling trip.
Of course, Solid Sound featured even more Wilco. On the second night, Wilco played a more typical concert. After opening with “At Least That’s What You Said,” the first song from the 2004 album A Ghost Is Born, Tweedy joked that, no, the band was not going to play that whole record: “We aren’t going to play any albums in their entirety tonight,” he said. “We’re going to play stuff from all our albums — except Being There and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. If you like those albums, you should have been here last night.” During the song “Via Chicago,” Tweedy abruptly exclaimed, “Holy shit! What the fuck was that?” I was too far away to see what had happened, but other audience members later told me that a bat had swooped down near Tweedy’s face as he was singing. Later in the show, Tweedy joked that he’d been attacked by a falcon or a “predator drone,” and he said it was the most scared he’s ever been onstage. He recovered pretty quickly in that moment, though. (Set list.)
Wilco’s various side projects played during the festival, including the Autumn Defense performing its album Circles and closing with a Love cover. Nels Cline played complex and lyrical jazz guitar with a quartet that included his past collaborator, guitarist Julian Lage. And drummer Glenn Kotche’s group On Fillmore sounded great — from inside the museum, anyway, where I happened to be at the time.
Just as it did in 2015, Solid Sound concluded with a set by Tweedy & Friends. The first part of this performance featured the band called Tweedy. That was followed by a solo acoustic performance by Jeff Tweedy. And then numerous musicians joined in — including two of his sons: drummer Spencer Tweedy (of course) but also Sammy, who sang Graham Nash’s song “Military Madness.” With various members of Wilco and other bands filling the stage, Tweedy and his assembled friends sang “California Stars,” “Give Back the Key to My Heart” and “I Shall Be Released.” (Set list.) It was a fitting way to end this weekend of friendship and creativity.
Negative Scanner — one of my favorite rock bands in Chicago these days — played a great free show on Saturday, June 10, at Bric-a-Brac Records. It was part of the fourth anniversary party at Bric-a-Bric & Collectibles, a shop where live garage rock is a regular occurrence. Singer-guitarist Rebecca Valeriano-Flores sounded ferocious at times, leading Negative Scanner through several songs from its self-titled 2015 album, along with a couple of tunes I didn’t recognize. (Signs of a new record coming sometime soon?)
After Negative Scanner, I stuck around for another Chicago band, the hard-rocking trio Sweet Cobra, which made a thunderous noise.
Why did I go to Detroit to see Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, rather than attending their concert next week in Chicago? Well, for one thing, I wanted an excuse for a road trip to Detroit. But I also discovered that the tickets for Cave’s June 3 show at Detroit’s Masonic Temple were considerably cheaper than tickets for his June 16 show at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre. Especially if I wanted to be up close to the stage, which is really the way to experience Cave in concert. I believe that the priciest Chicago tickets were more than $150, whereas similar tickets — for general admission on the main floor — were just $50 in Detroit. So off I went … and the trip was well worth it.
Cave is one of the most riveting live performers you will ever see, and he’s still at the top of his game. The last Cave show I saw — June 20, 2014, at the Milwaukee Theatre — was my favorite concert of that year. In the three years since then, Cave experienced a personal tragedy: his 15-year-old son Arthur fell to his death from a 60-foot after freaking out on LSD. An almost overpowering sense of grief filled Cave’s achingly beautiful album last year, Skeleton Tree.
Considering what Cave has gone through over the past few years, I wondered if his live shows might be a more somber affair. As it turns out, the concerts Cave is performing on this tour with his stellar backing band, the Bad Seeds, are similar in many ways to his previous tour. He still spends a great portion of the concert leaning out over the audience, walking among his fans, walking and lying on top of his fans — allowing them to stretch their hands up toward him, and sometimes reaching out to hold their hands. It’s a strange communal act that feels deeply personal. One rarely sees an artist putting himself or herself into the hands of an audience like that.
Now, add the lingering sorrow over the tragedy in Cave’s life — something that was surely on the minds of many audience members — and the musical communion feels even more spiritual.
Cave began the concert sitting in a chair at the front of the stage, singing an exquisitely still “Anthrocene.” But then the intensity built over the next six songs, as he prowled the stage and the audience, singing “Jesus Alone,” “Magneto,” “Higgs Boson Blues,” “From Her to Eternity,” “Tupelo” and “Jubilee Street” — culminating with Cave proclaiming “I’m vibrating — look at me now!” It felt like the whole theater was vibrating.
Cave took down the drama a bit during some quieter songs in the middle of the set, but brought back the high energy again with songs including his concert staples “Red Right Hand” and, in the encore, “Stagger Lee.” The Bad Seeds brought all of the songs to life with an ever-shifting palette of sounds. Warren Ellis raged on violin and guitar, of course, but also manned the grand piano at many key moments. When someone in the audience shouted out their love for Ellis, Cave smiled and remarked, “He’s fucking adorable. I don’t know what it is.” His beard? No, Cave suggested — it’s his heart.
The set list included many songs from Cave’s two most recent albums, plus the core oldies you expect at any Cave show. It was nice to hear one deep cut, “Breathless,” from his 2004 album The Lyre of Orpheus. And just as he did back in 2014, Cave ended his show with the title song from his 2013 masterpiece Push the Sky Away. It’s a meditative tune without a drum beat, which would seem to make it an unusual choice for the climatic closing number, but somehow it works as the most powerful way to end the performance. As he did three years ago, Cave used this song as his moment to walk way out in the crowd with his microphone on a long cord, finally wading his way back through the audience — brushing against me as he went — onto the stage for his final bow.
Anthrocene / Jesus Alone / Magneto / Higgs Boson Blues / From Her to Eternity / Tupelo / Jubilee Street / The Ship Song / Into My Arms / Girl in Amber / I Need You / Red Right Hand / The Mercy Seat / Distant Sky / Skeleton Tree
Encore: The Weeping Song / Breathless / Stagger Lee / Push the Sky Away
(I did not have photo credentials for this concert, so I didn’t have my regular camera gear with me. I managed to get these pictures with my iPhone; pardon the smaller-than-usual size.)
The Baltimore band Arbouretum has been playing heavy, rootsy guitar rock for about decade now, making several strong records on the Thrill Jockey label. On Arbouretum’s latest album, Song of the Rose, the group continues forging the sort of music it always has: songs rooted in folk rock with fuzz-drenched electric guitar riffs and solos, and mournful melodies carried by Dave Heumann’s plaintive voice. The epic quality of the music came through in Arbouretum’s live performance on Saturday, May 27, at Schubas. These four musicians — Heumann, bassist Corey Allender, keyboardist Matthew Pierce and drummer Brian Carey — dug into their songs with an unflashy intensity.
(Story continues below photos.)
Another Thrill Jockey band, Brokeback, opened the show with a set of evocative instrumental rock. Led by Doug McCombs (who also plays in Eleventh Dream Day and Tortoise), Brokeback recently released a new album, Illinois River Valley Blues.
Jambinai was one of my favorite bands at SXSW in 2014, playing epic music that mixed rock instruments with traditional Korean instruments. The South Korean band came to Chicago for the first time ever last week, playing May 18 at the Empty Bottle, and the concert showed once again that this is a superb ensemble playing music with dramatic power. There’s an orchestral strength to the music that’s reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but Jambinai really makes a sound unlike anything else I’ve heard.
It’s mesmerizing to watch Jambinai member Eunyong Sim playing the geomungo, a traditional Korean stringed instrument of the zither family. She uses a variety of techniques to coax deep and rattling sounds out of that large and impressive-looking instrument, sometimes plucking or caressing the strings and sometimes tapping them with a short bamboo stick called a suldae. The geomungo functions at times like a bass, but it also has something of a percussive element to its sound.
Another member of the group, Bomi Kim, plays the haegeum, a bowed string instrument. It’s more like the Chinese urhu than a European violin, with two silk strings suspended in front of rod. Because those strings never actually touch a surface like the neck of a violin, the notes slide up and down. And Kim makes those notes really soar.
Giving the band more of a rock or even heavy metal edge was guitarist-vocalist Ilwoo Lee, who also occasionally played a small horn. He plays piri, a double-reed instrument, on Jambinai’s second and most recent album, Hermitage, which is excellent. The group leans more toward heavy metal on the new record, with a bit more vocals, compared with the predominantly instrumental debut album, 2012’s Differance.
Near the end of Jambinai’s set, Lee remarked that he hadn’t been sure what to expect when his band played in Chicago. How much of an audience would show up? After all, he said, “We are a strange band from a strange country.” Jambinai deserves a larger following, but the listeners who did turn out for Jambinai’s Chicago debut were richly rewarded.
As he sat down behind the piano at the Hungry Brain on May 16, the 81-year-old Chicago pianist Erwin Helfer introduced himself to the 20 or so people in the club. “This is the Erwin Helfer trio — me, the piano and the stool,” he said, displaying his wry sense of humor. Helfer, who plays a free show at 7:30 p.m. every Tuesday at the Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont Ave., opened his set with the classic “St. James Infirmary Blues,” before offering up a delightful sample of the various styles he has played over the decades — jazz, blues and boogie-woogie — along with charming stories and illuminating explanations of the music. Remarking on how attentive and appreciate the small audience was, Helfer said: “I’m not used to playing in places as sophisticated at this. I feel like I’m in Europe.”
The Norwegian composer and violinist Nils Økland summed up the spirit of the Big Ears Festival when he spoke to the big crowd applauding his music at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Knoxville, Tennessee. “You come here to hear things you don’t know — alien things — from places you don’t know, by people whose language you do not know,” said Økland, who was playing in the United States for the first time ever. He seemed to marvel at the rapturous reception he was getting.
Every pew was filled for that concert on March 24, as afternoon sunlight streamed in through the big stained-glass windows. People stood along the walls and sat on the floor against the back wall so they could hear Økland and his band. His gorgeous music glowed, all of the instruments combining into an organic whole. There was something transcendent about it, and the church felt like a perfect setting for Økland’s American debut.
This is the sort of moment that makes Big Ears so special. The annual festival in downtown Knoxville features indie rock music — this year’s acts included Wilco and the Magnetic Fields — but the diverse lineup runs the gamut from folk and jazz to classical and experimental music. The emphasis is on adventurous music. I attended the first Big Ears Festival back in 2009 and I’ve been wanting to return ever since; I finally made it back to Knoxville this past week. My experience reaffirmed Big Ears’ standing as one of the most interesting and enjoyable music festivals.
This year’s festival was four days, with concerts at nightclubs, theaters and churches spread out across downtown Knoxville (a city known for hosting the 1982 World’s Fair). While some of the venues fill up for certain shows, it’s a fairly mellow event as far as the audience goes. It’s easy to walk between the venues, and you aren’t likely to get shut out of too many concerts.
Many of the artists performing at Big Ears do more than one show, playing in various combinations. Wilco’s concert on Friday, March 24, at the grandiose Tennessee Theatre was an outstanding example of this Chicago rock band’s virtuosic performances, but it was just the start of several Wilco-related events. I also caught part of Jeff Tweedy’s set with Chikamorachi (bassist Darin Gray and drummer Chris Corsano), where he improvised loud, atonal noise on electric guitar; drummer Glenn Kotche’s fun set as part of the On Fillmore duo with Gray; and guitarist Nels Cline’s guest appearance with Dustan Louque. (See my photos of Wilco and Wilco’s side projects at Big Ears.)
After seeing that wonderful performance by Nils Økland and his band at St. John’s, I made sure to see one of several other shows he performed. The one that I saw, at a nightclub called the Standard, featured Økland in duets with fellow Norwegian composer Mats Eilertsen on bass. (See my photos of Nils Økland at Big Ears.)
Another star attraction at this year’s Big Ears was the English minimalist composer Gavin Bryars, whose ensemble was playing in the U.S. for the first time. I saw part of the ensemble’s concert on Saturday, March 25, at St. John’s Cathedral and two full concerts on Sunday, March 26, featuring Bryars’ most famous works: Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet and The Sinking of the Titanic.
Bryars played upright bass as he conducted the musicians with a few subtle gestures. Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet is a piece that has haunted me for years, built around a loop of tape Bryars recorded in 1971, of an old Englishman singing the religious song “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.”
Bryars and his ensemble — supplemented by members of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra — remained still and silent for several minutes on the stage at the Mill and Mine nightclub as the tape loop began playing. Then they slowly began adding orchestral accompaniment to the anonymous man’s sorrowful lament, playing with intense precision. Through sheer repetition, the music disoriented. At the same time, it felt majestic. (What happened to that man on the tape recording? Bryars writes: “Although he died before he could hear what I had done with his singing, the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.”)
Later that night, the Bryars Ensemble concluded the festival at the Tennessee Theatre with a performance of The Sinking of the Titanic, featuring a historic film about the ship’s fateful voyage projected on the screen behind the orchestra. The pictures in the film were doubled, with a mirror image on one side, as the ensemble played another cycling Bryars composition, with a soundtrack of crackles, voices and maritime noises mixed into the music. (See my photos of the Gavin Bryars Ensemble at Big Ears.)
In addition to Wilco, highlights of the rock music at Big Ears included Xiu Xiu devoting an entire concert at the Tennessee Theatre to Angelo Badalamenti’s music of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks TV series.
And the Swedish musician Emilia Amper’s performance on the nyckelharpa — including an explanation of this bowed instrument with keys — was throughly enchanting.
The experimental electronic music duo Matmos covered the 1979 Robert Ashley album, Perfect Lives (Private Parts), which is described as an opera, with assistance from several musicians and singers. With a fractured narrative delivered as spoken word, it was a perfect fit for Matmos’ sense of humor and musical textures.
The Scandinavian group Supersilent combined jazz elements with ambient noise for a powerful and dark late-night set on Saturday. Coming out of that show, I stopped into the Tennessee Theatre and watched about half an hour of the Coen brothers’ movie No Country For Old Men, with an improvised score by the Dave Harrington Group.
Another intriguing cinematic experience happened earlier that night, when films by Jem Cohen were projected onto the walls of a building in downtown Knoxville while musicians (including Xylouris White) improvised a score. The event, called “Gravity Hill Sound+Image,” attracted passers-by along with festival attendees.
The Mill and Mine, a venue in an industrial building with a wide open floor, proved to be a great place for classical music as well as rock shows. For several shows at this place, a Steinway piano or other instruments were placed in the middle of the floor, with audience members gathering around the artists. This was a great way to experience Bang on a Can All-Stars pianist Lisa Moore’s performances of works by Philip Glass, John Luther Adams and others.
And it was also the setting for a bracingly weird set of noise and piano by Musica Elettronica Viva, an avant-garde group that started back in 1966, featuring Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzweski and Richard Teitelbaum in this performance. And the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra also performed on the floor, giving listeners and opportunity to circle around and see the tympani and cellos from an unusual perspective.
Other noteworthy classical performances at Big Ears included Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Drone Mass, performed by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and Theatre of Voices, conducted by Donato Cabrera; the radical vocal experiments of Meredith Monk; and dynamic performances by cellists Oliver Coates and Maya Beiser.
And there was even audience participation. On Sunday, people pulled out some Tennessee stones from a bin and knocked them together in their hands, following the guidance of the late Pauline Oliveros to create a performance she titled “Rock Piece.”
A highlight for me was Sorrow,Colin Stetson’s “reimagining” of Henryk Górecki’s 3rd Symphony — essentially, a new arrangement of that symphony, which became a million-selling hit (and a personal favorite of mine) in 1992. Stetson is a wizard on alto and bass saxophones and contrabass clarinet, so naturally, his version of Górecki’s composition uses more woodwinds than the original. It also has electric guitar and drums. But while the textures are different, it doesn’t wander too far from the original symphony. Stetson’s sister, mezzo-soprano Megan Stetson, sang the Polish-language lyrics of Górecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” Stetson’s Sorrow was stirring to see and hear in a live performance.
As with any festival, Big Ears presented many conflicting musical choices. At many times, there were two or three performances I wanted to see happening simultaneously. (I missed all but a few minutes of Magnetic Fields’ two-part concert, knowing that I will see them soon in Chicago.) But Big Ears was as fulfilling of a festival experience as I’ve had, and the performers seemed to be genuine whenever they expressed their own appreciation of Big Ears. As Lisa Moore commented during her piano recital, musing on the Big Ears name: “It’s not just that the music has wide possibilities. It’s the audience.”
Thigh Master, a rock band from Brisbane, Australia, played on Friday, March 10, at the Hideout — and like so many of the Australian bands I’ve heard lately, these guys played scrappy garage rock. I did notice a few artsy touches in the interlaced guitar melodies — nothing quite as elaborate as prog rock, though. It was an energetic and enjoyable set, part of a show that also featured the Chicago bands Pool Holograph and Basement Family.
In January 2010, Chicago’s Hideout announced that singer-songwriter-guitarist Robbie Fulks was going to play a series of four concerts at this cozy little nightclub. He was on the schedule for every Monday night in February. On Twitter, I commented: “Cool!”
Little did I know what I was in for.
As it turned out, Fulks’ “residency” lasted way longer than one month. He just kept on playing at the Hideout on one Monday after another, bringing talented guest artists onto the stage with him and playing shows with a startlingly wide range of themes. Fulks is known as an alt-country singer, but these concerts showed just how varied his musical interests are — along with the old-fashioned country songs you’d expect, Fulks and his ever-changing cohort covered everything from Thelonious Monk and Stephen Sondheim to Liz Phair, Harry Nilsson, Bob Dylan and Cheap Trick. And man, was it glorious.
In November 2010, Fulks said his residency “will be continuing next year and in fact indefinitely.” As the years rolled on, you could count on seeing Fulks play at the Hideout on Monday evenings. He wasn’t there every single Monday, of course — he took off a week here and there, and was absent for some stretches or a month or longer while he was out on tour. But more often than not, you could just show up at the Hideout around 7 p.m. on Monday and pay the $10 suggested donation to see Fulks. (With only a couple of exceptions, no advance tickets were available.)
These shows were one of Chicago’s musical treasures. But after seven years — and 250 gigs — Fulks played the final show of his epic Monday-night Hideout residency this week. (I may be guilty of overusing the word “epic,” but in this case, it seems entirely appropriate.)
In a post on his blog — written with his typical eloquence and erudition — Fulks reflected on why he undertook this residency and some of the things he accomplished:
I started it because I wanted a place to try out new ideas, some of which were offbeat and none of which I could see coming much in advance, at a place that was laidback and non-prominent enough that a loose and not always highly performative approach could be accepted. …
Here are some things I was able to do under the circumstances, things I hadn’t done before: play Prokofiev; sit quietly for a minute between songs, tuning and thinking; play Charlie Parker; tell 10-minute off-the-cuff stories; try out tunes on clawhammer banjo, ukulele, bass, mandolin, fiddle, and other instruments not native to me; play a 15-minute noise-drone improvisation; reharmonize songs by Bob Dylan, Wayne Shorter, and the Monkees, among many others; listen hard for the first time to people like Leonard Cohen, Danny Elfman, Stephen Sondheim, Blake Babies, Sonny Boy Williamson, Arthur Russell, Ty Segall, and Donna Summer; transcribe Doc Watson’s version of “Beaumont Rag”; collaborate with Michael Shannon; jam with Jason Adasciewicz; take off my pants in front of a paying audience; back up Liz Carroll in time signatures such as 9/8; use guitar pedals like Plimsoul overdrive and something called “Freeze sound retainer” which is truly wonderful and flummoxes both accompanists and house sound people; improvise country underscoring beneath country storytelling; play Jimi Hendrix. Some of this I do regret. However, I see now that I deeply regretted aspirational actions like playing the bass guitar on “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass,” or trying to comp an unknown Gershwin piece at high tempo, in the moments I was doing it, then let it go immediately afterward. This marks clear progress for me from the days when I’d forget a lyric or do something stupid in public and then experience burning blood to the face when the memory arose months or years after. The little humiliations were so ongoing for me during this series that I normalized them and was able to get over myself, at last, here at age 53.
You saw *how* many concerts?!?
That adventurous spirit helps explain why Fulks’ shows on Monday nights were so enjoyable. By my tally, I attended 58 of these concerts. (It might actually be a few more than that.) Other fans were there almost every week, including a couple of tapers who preserved audio of the performances for their own private collections. Ed Steffy, who says he attended all but two of Fulks’ 250 Monday-night shows, is the bearded fellow who was always sitting near the stage with an impressive-looking stack of audio gear. At the final show this week, Fulks asked Steffy what he’s going to do with the hundreds of hours he recorded. “I’m going to make a million dollars bootlegging,” Steffy joked. In fact, Steffy handed out free copies of a CD compiling 17 of his favorite songs from the seven years — and his “rough” mixes sound absolutely delightful. Could we get an actual live record out of this? (Hint, hint…)
My friend Heather Copeland was there practically every week, too — holding up her little camera to record video of just about every song. She has posted hundreds of these videos on YouTube, and it’s well worth your time to sample those. (I’ve included links to several of the videos in this post.) Fulks gratefully gives her credit for helping preserve his performances, though he occasionally mentions that he’d rather not see certain moments displayed for everyone to see on the internet.
For the first three years, Heather kept a list of every song Fulks and his cohort played at the shows she attended — coming up with a tally of 1,069 different titles. Most of these are songs that Fulks and his guests played only one time. Around 170 songs were repeated once or twice. The grand total number of songs Fulks played over the course of the seven years is well over 1,000, considering that he played hundreds of additional songs in the four years missing from Heather’s list.
A different show each time
Now, if you’ve told me back in 2010 that I was going to see Robbie Fulks some 60 times over the next seven years, I would have scoffed. (And yes, I actually saw several Fulks concerts at other venues over this seven-year stretch.) Obviously, I’m a fan of Fulks’ music — he’s not just a great singer and songwriter, but also a whiz on the guitar and an entertaining raconteur — but who really needs to see any musician that many times? However, it quickly became clear that Fulks was playing a different show each time. And not just tweaking his set list here and there. Only a few of the shows he played during the seven years were strictly focused on his own songs — the kind of show you’d normally expect at something billed as “a Robbie Fulks concert.”
Instead, he used his regular spot on the Hideout’s schedule to showcase other musicians and stretch his own repertoire by playing with them. I missed the very first night of the residency in 2010 — when Fulks played with his stalwart sideman Robbie Gjersoe — but I was there for the second week, February 8, 2010, when his guest was the great Nora O’Connor.
The two sat on chairs and played acoustic guitars, with Fulks’ fingers plucking fast runs of bluegrass notes while O’Connor played rhythm chords. O’Connor’s no slouch on guitar, as evidenced by her playing in the Blacks, but she was modest about her abilities Monday. At one point, when Fulks said, “Take it, Nora!” she responded with a sarcastic, “Please!”
Fulks and O’Connor played some old-timey bluegrass and gospel tunes, such as “The Lost Indian” and Flatt and Scruggs’ “Take Me in Your Lifeboat.” Of course, they played some of their own songs as well — a couple of recent Fulks songs and a couple of oldies, plus some of the best tracks off O’Connor’s excellent (and thus far only) solo record, 2004’s Til the Dawn. And some cool covers: Fulks taking the lead on George Jones’ “The Flame In My Heart,” and O’Connor singing M. Ward’s “Helicopter,” Fleetwood Mac’s “That’s Alright” and Ketty Lester’s “Love Letters.” In between songs, Fulks was as funny as ever with his stage banter. As Fulks remarked, how can you go wrong with two people playing acoustic guitars and singing?
Watching as they learn songs
That evening set the template for many shows that followed: a few pals casually playing songs together, including tunes they know very well — plus songs they’re just figuring out how to play. With talented and skilled musicians, that kind of performance hits a sweet spot: You can hear them testing themselves and exploring the notes. You can see them reacting to what they’re hearing from the other folks onstage.
I talked with Fulks about this when I interviewed him on January 18, for a Pioneer Press article about his first-time-ever Grammy nominations. (Alas, he didn’t win!) Here’s a bit of our conversation:
Q: What do you mean by the idea of rehearsal?
Fulks: If you have a one-time-only show, but it has a lot of curves in it, a lot of things that you need to go over, like, how do you efficiently go over that with five or six people? And that’s been interesting to sort through. In the old days, I would have had one or two rehearsals within the week of the show. And then later, I would kind of run minimal parts of the show at 5 that afternoon — an hour or two before doors — and just kind of race through it. And when you see the results of the one thing, a thorough-going rehearsal, versus the results of the other, you start to think, ‘Well, maybe you don’t need to rehearse at all.’ You know? Because it’s not that different. The results aren’t that different. So I’ve tried some shows without rehearsing at all. (Laughs.) I tried everything in between. And I’ve learned that there’s not a consistently reliable way to do it — so that the results will be, you know, error-free. But less is probably better.
Q: Well, I was going to say, one of the things I enjoy most about your Monday-night shows is that you often have you and some other musicians playing together, who obviously haven’t played the songs a zillion times — they don’t know them that well — but you’re good enough musicians that you can figure out things by ear, and if you make a little mistake, it’s not that noticeable. So that sort of “well played but not over-rehearsed” quality is what I find so appealing about it.
Fulks: Well, that’s almost always the case, what you just said. There was one memorable train wreck, where there was a half-step modulation in a song. And one guy, the guy that was leading the modulation, modulated a whole rather than half a step, and then he just stuck to his guns and played the whole rest of the song in that key, and just threw the whole thing — nobody knew what to do, and it kind of exploded. And then there was last Monday, where the show ended and somebody called the song, and it was one that I thought I knew but didn’t know. And again, I just wrecked it for everyone. And it was the last song of the night, and people gave me some shit as I walked through the crowd afterward. (Laugh.)
Q: What was the song?
Fulks: “Cherokee Shuffle.” It’s a song that every flat-picker knows very well. And I thought I knew. But I got it confused with another fiddle tune.
I missed that particular performance — but that sort of train-wreck moment is a key to why these shows were so great. By daring to fail, Fulks and the other musicians sometimes achieved almost transcendental beauty. Sure, they failed occasionally — very occasionally — but even those few off-key notes or flubbed lyrics were interesting or humorous.
Gjersoe probably played with Fulks more than anyone else, including duo shows as well as performance by groups like the Pussycat Trio (Fulks and Gjersoe plus Beau Sample) or the Scavengers (Fulks and Gjersoe plus Gerald Dowd, Casey McDonough).
On some nights, Fulks turned over the spotlight to his guest artist, acting more like a sideman. One of my favorite examples of this was the show on August 29, 2016, starring Linda Gail Lewis, a sister of Jerry Lee Lewis who sings and plays piano very much in her brother’s style. It was great fun to watch her grinning as she performed with Fulks and the crack band he’d assembled for this gig as well as some recording sessions during Lewis’ visit to Chicago (Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall). (Fulks wrote about meeting Linda Gail Lewis on his blog.)
Tributes, stellar and strange
Some of Fulks’ Monday-night shows were tributes — including whole evenings devoted to the music of the Everly Brothers, George Jones, Hank Williams, the Velvet Underground (video of “Beginning to See the Light”), Alex Chilton, Cheap Trick, Doc Watson, Harry Nilsson (video of “Without You”), Levon Helm, Merle Haggard, Roger Miller, Liz Phair (video of “H.W.C.”) and Stephen Sondheim. An evening of “Bitter Ex-Beatle” songs included Fulks doing John Lennon’s “God,” with some added lyrics alluding to his regular audience members and the garbage trucks in the city lot across the street from the Hideout. The crowd gives a howl of disbelief when Fulks declares, “I don’t believe in Hideout!” (Video.)
Around Christmastime, Fulks would bring in Steve Dawson and Diane Christiansen from the band Dolly Varden to sing songs about Jesus Christ. Memorably, the power went out in the middle of the first song, the Velvet Underground’s “Jesus,” during the show on December 8, 2014. The “Jesus Christ Trio,” as they called themselves, continued playing, without the benefit of electricity, for the next hour in near darkness — and it was magical.
On some nights, Fulks and his guests covered entire albums: The Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin, Gram Parsons’ Grievous Angel, Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!!!, Bob Dylan and the Band’s The Basement Tapes (video of “Tears of Rage”) and Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming and Street Legal. (The experience of covering Dylan’s overlooked 1978 album Street Legal with rich, full-band arrangements was so rewarding that Fulks has begun working on a studio recording of the whole thing.) On July 21, 2014, Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon — whom I’d spotted in the audience at an earlier Fulks gig — handled all the lead vocals for a performance of Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask.
Fulks stayed in the background, playing guitar and incongruously wearing overalls. (Explaining his decision to recruit Shannon for lead vocals, Fulks said, “Who’s going to take a guy in overalls singing Lou Reed songs seriously?”)
As you can tell from those themes, Fulks has a sharp sense of humor. That also comes through with his stage banter, which was a regular feature on Monday nights. At some point, he’d pause to chat with his guest artists about how their week had gone, invariably telling a humorous story from his own life, or an anecdote about a musician. Amid all the jesting, Fulks also offered smart insights about music and other topics. (When Robbie Fulks and Kelly Hogan covered the James Taylor song “Carolina in My Mind,” they spent five minutes discussing Taylor — captured in this video.)
That week at the Hideout, Fulks commented: “Apparently this is Exhibit A in the overwhelming case that Drew Carey is having a mental breakdown — that he likes my songs.” (Video by Jerome Hughes.)
Certain artists and themes drew big crowds — “big” being a relative term, when you’re talking about a venue that holds around 100 people. On many nights, there were just 25 or 30 people in the room. Country singer-songwriter Lydia Loveless made an unexpected cameo on February 3, 2015, when she was stuck in Chicago because of bad weather. After sitting in the audience, she came up onstage to sing a few songs with Fulks, and he explained the Hideout’s Monday-night vibe to her. “It’s a crowd of 30, but it responds like a crowd of 22,” he joked.
Oh, yeah — he also made some great records while all of this was going on.
Over the course of his residency at the Hideout, Fulks released two of the best albums he’s made during his career: Gone Away Backwardsin 2013 and Upland Storiesin 2016. I suspect that the experience of playing these varied shows on Monday nights influenced his songwriting and recording process. Fulks says one night was especially influential on his songwriting: a tribute on January 19, 2015, to singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester, who’d recently died. “I just remembered how deeply he had hit me when I was 17 years old,” Fulks told me. “And revisiting his writing style came to influence the next, I don’t know, 30 or 40 songs I made up after that.” (Fulks wrote about Winchester on his blog.)
“The end is near!”
During a show in November 2015, Fulks nonchalantly mentioned that he was going to end his run of Monday-night shows. I heard a stirring in the audience as Fulks’ fans reacted to the news. Later that evening, I saw Fulks at the Hideout’s bar and asked him exactly when the end would be. He said it would probably be sometime in the fall of 2016. As it turned out, Fulks stretched it out longer than that, but he finally decided to finish up the residency at the end of February 2017. On his blog, Fulks explains:
…in case anyone’s interested, that the reason I’m ending is that it just seems like the right time to. I had something to accomplish in starting the Mondays; I’m not sure I could have defined it precisely and not sure I did accomplish it after all, but whether I did or didn’t, it’s certainly past time to proceed to the next fuzzily defined idea or goal. If feeling more comfortable in performance was a goal, I can say without much self-love that I’m there! If it was to learn new songs made by other people, I suppose I’ve learned about 1,500 since 2010, and forgotten all but maybe 200. Not much achieved there, but a little. If it was to augment my guitar skills…hmm. Maybe. Probably not.
As the end drew near, I went to the Hideout on Monday night for a Fulks show whenever I could. And after neglecting to photograph many of Fulks’ Monday gigs, I brought my camera to the last three shows. (My photos are posted in a separate gallery.)
February 6, 2017: With Nora O’Connor
On February 6, Nora O’Connor was back, and her singing sounded as exquisite as ever. A cover of the Handsome Family’s “So Much Wine” gave me goosebumps. Another Monday-night stalwart, Kelly Hogan, joined O’Connor and Fulks for a couple of songs. The set included songs by Loudon Wainwright III (video), Jimmy Driftwood (video), Dan Penn (video) and Bobby Braddock (video).
February 20, 2017: With High Plains Jamboree
On February 20, Fulks presented the Austin bluegrass band High Plains Jamboree, and he stepped out of the spotlight for most of the night, playing guitar alongside the group. I became a fan of High Plains Jamboree when the group played with Fulks on a Monday night last year, and this return appearance was just as wonderful. In the middle of the concert, singer-mandolinist Brennen Leigh performed several duets with Fulks, including “The Angels Rejoiced” by the Louvin Brothers (video) and a rousing gospel song, “He Will Set Your Fields On Fire,” by James and Martha Carson — which had Fulks singing one set of words in the chorus while Leigh simultaneously sang other lyrics. The cheers after that song were long and loud. “I knew we had some angry Christians here,” Fulks joked. High Plains Jamboree played two terrific politically themed songs — from an album that’ll be coming out later this year — one about illegal immigration called “El Coyote” (video) and another timely protest number titled “You Ain’t Laying No Pipeline” (video).
When Fulks sang one of his own songs, “Sometimes the Grass is Really Greener,” he responded to the sight of High Plains Jamboree’s old-fashioned-looking microphones by saying it made him feel like Walter Winchell — and then he proceeded to sing a verse in a old-timey radio-announcer voice. And then he added an impressive yodel to the song, earning a big round of applause.
February 27, 2017: The finale with Robbie Gjersoe
For the grand finale, on February 27, Fulks played with the same guy who helped him start off the entire series seven years ago, Robbie Gjersoe. They originally met through one of those old Chicago Reader classified ads where musicians try to find people with similar musical tastes to start a band. Gjersoe is a master guitarist, especially adept at playing with a slide. The parts he adds to Fulks’ songs remind me of the essential contributions that Dave Rawlings makes to Gillian Welch’s music. Whenever these two Robbies play together, it’s a joy to see two guitarists with so much talent playing off each other. “The Robbie and Robbie show is my favorite of all of them,” Nora O’Connor remarked when she joined them onstage during this final show for a few songs.
For once, Fulks played a lot of his own songs — kicking off the set list with several of his most beloved tunes, ones you’d expect during an encore: “Tears Only Run One Way,” “Sometimes the Grass is Really Greener,” “Let’s Kill Saturday Night,” “The Buck Starts Here” and “There You Go Again.” Fulks also played a newer song with the chorus, “The old times have made a wreck of our lives,” explaining that it’s his response to people who are nostalgic about older times — people who say they’d like to live in Louisville in the 1930s, as he put it. “I don’t think so,” Fulks remarked. “You guys heard of dentistry? It’s great.”
Fulks was dressed up more than usual, wearing a sharp-looking suit. And the room was packed full. Reflecting on the end of his residency, Fulks said, “A couple of people have asked me what I’m doing — as if it’s the end of my life.” Later he added, “What I had in mind when I started this was to do just whatever popped into my mind.”
(Barry Jenkins, U.S.) — A masterpiece on many levels, the deeply engaging and empathetic Moonlight has extraordinary writing, acting, directing, cinematography, sound and music. The central character barely speaks a word at times, but the three actors playing him at various ages still manage to communicate so much with their expressions and the way they carry themselves. It’s entirely persuasive that they’re all the same person, even through major physical changes.Throughout all three chapters, Chiron’s remarkable eyes watch the world around him with a guarded, wary shyness. On one level, this is a film about an African-American’s experiences; on another, it’s a film about a gay youth’s sexual awakening. Like the best stories, it feels very specific and universal at the same time. I felt an especially strong connection to Chiron in the middle chapter, where he faces bullying as a teenager; it brought back memories of just how cruel children can be to one another. It’s also refreshing to see a movie portraying drug dealers and drug addicts as complex people who defy stereotypes. In the end, Moonlight is a beautiful portrait of a boy — and later, a man — discovering his own identity.
2. Toni Erdmann
(Maren Ade, Germany) — Exceedingly odd and utterly original, this German comedy delivers unexpected cringes and smiles at every turn — and a few truly hilarious moments. Very few films have ever focused on the relationship between an adult woman and her father; that alone would make this intriguing. But it’s a deeper experience than that. A synopsis might read like the script for a piece of performance art, but even in its most bizarre moments, Toni Erdmann comes across as authentically human. (An American remake is in the works; why bother?)
3. Manchester by the Sea
(Kenneth Lonergan, U.S.) — A devastating story of how to live with grief and guilt. Every moment of Lonergan’s script feels honest, and the acting is just as superb. Casey Affleck gives a subtle performance as a taciturn man who’s shielding himself from the world. The moment on the street between Affleck and Michelle Williams — when the pent-up emotions burst into plain sight — is an all-time great scene.
4. The Lobster
(Yorgos Lanthimos, U.S.) — The Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos proved he was a master of the absurd with his great films Dogtooth and Alps. In his first English-language movie, he continues in the same disturbing and surreally humorous style, creating yet another world with its own set of demented rules. This time, his alternate reality works brilliantly as a commentary on courtship and romantic relationships in our real world.
5. I Am Not Your Negro
(Raoul Peck, U.S.) — This thought-provoking and emotionally powerful film about race in America is an innovative variation on the documentary form. In some ways, it’s a portrait of the author James Baldwin, but it’s really more of a personal and poetic essay by Baldwin himself — brought to life on the screen with archival footage as well as actor Samuel L. Jackson reading Baldwin’s words. There’s a striking clarity to Baldwin’s thoughts, and Peck’s movie shows how relevant they remain in today’s America.
(Keith Maitland, U.S.) — Another film that stretches the boundaries of the documentary form. The brilliant Tower uses animation and actors’ voices to re-create many scenes from the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas in Austin, blending those simulations with actual movies, photos and audio from the horrifying historical event. The sniper, Charles Whitman, is not the focus of Tower. Instead, the movie shows what was happening on the ground as he fired his rifle. With the terror and tragedy playing out almost in real time, stirring stories of heroism and survival emerge.
7. April and the Extraordinary World
(Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci, France) — A delightful animated adventure, filled with memorable characters and clever visions of a steampunk world parallel to our own.
(Cristi Puiu, Romania) — A dysfunctional family’s gathering for a memorial service goes disastrously wrong in this claustrophobic black comedy, which screened last fall at the Chicago International Film Festival. Some viewers may find Sieranevada to be taxing and exasperating; to me, it was a mesmerizing picture of a taxing and exasperating ordeal.
(Denis Villeneuve, U.S.) — A thoughtful and emotionally engaging science-fiction drama anchored by a typically great Amy Adams performance, Arrival subverts our expectations of how time unfolds on the screen.
(Jim Jarmusch, U.S.) — A poetic film about a poet, this is an almost perfect distillation of Jarmusch’s cinematic style. Is Paterson a realistic depiction of a New Jersey community or an idealized vision of what America could be? Whatever — I feel like living inside this movie’s world.
Loving (Jeff Nichols, U.S.) The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Juho Kuosmanen, Finland) The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, Iran) Lost in Paris (Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon, Belgium/France) Fences (Denzel Washington, U.S.) The Garbage Helicopter (Jonas Selberg Augustsén, Sweden) Hail, Caesar! (Ethan and Joel Coen, U.S.) 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, U.S.) The Witch (Robert Eggers, U.S.) Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, U.S.) Graduation (Cristian Mungiu, Romania) O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, U.S.) Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie, U.S.) La La Land (Damien Chazelle, U.S.) The Red Turtle (Michaël Dudok de Wit, Netherlands) Jackie (Pablo Larraín, U.S.) One More Time With Feeling (Andrew Domnik, U.K.) Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke, China) Notfilm (Ross Lipman, U.S.) Silence (Martin Scorsese, U.S.)
The Brooklyn band Big Thief released a great album last year called Masterpiece — and the group, led by singer-songwriter-guitarist Adrianne Lenker, was even more impressive in concert last week at Schubas. Big Thief played Jan. 11, as part of the Tomorrow Never Knows festival. The band was missing one of its regular members, guitarist Buck Meek, reducing the lineup to a guitar-bass-drums trio, but it still sounded powerful. Lenker was a force of nature, shaping the songs with both her guitar playing and her impassioned vocals. The songs from Masterpiece sounded terrific, and the set also featured several tunes from a new record that’ll be out soon. This night of the TNK fest also featured a lovely set by Sam Evian, as well as Hoops and Campdogzz.
I’ve written before about my friend Jason Shanley, who performs guitar and electronic music under the name Cinchel. He is part of a new group called Mirror of Nature, which performed a cool set of improvised instrumental music on Jan. 7 at the Hungry Brain. Cinchel’s guitar, Mike Weis’ drums, Neil Jendon’s electronics and Keefe Jackson’s bass clarinet blended beautifully together into shifting sonic sculptures.
Sept. 26 during the Cropped Out festival at the American Turners Club in Louisville.
After 7 p.m., as the sun was going down, Callahan walked out onto the American Turner Club’s deck next to the Ohio River, where a small crowd had gathered for his performance. As Callahan played, insects along the rivers buzzed and chirped. Boats passed by on the river. Birds flying in V-shaped formations crossed the sky overheard. Throughout it all, Callahan sang with his typical poise, quirky sense of timing and wry humor. The astounding guitarist Matt Kinsey coaxed incredible sounds out of his Gibson SG electric guitar, almost like a second voice duetting with Callahan. What a transporting and unforgettable hour it was. See my blog post and photos. (Honorable mention: The Callahan concert I saw a few days later at Constellation in Chicago was also damn good.)
Aug. 7 at the Chicago Theatre.
Three terrific singer-songwriters — Neko Case, k.d. lang and Laura Veirs — teamed up for a album last year, and their concert was just as collaborative and warm-spirited. A special night featuring three amazing voices.
Sept. 9-10 at the Chicago Cultural Center.
A 15-hour concert of Indian classical music, stretching from 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 9, until 9 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 10, with sitars, tablas, flutes, violins and singers sounding all night under the magnificent Tiffany Dome in Preston Bradley Hall. The music was mesmerizing, beautiful and astonishing. Many of the pieces that were performed were intended to be heard at the specific times they were played, such as ragas for the “coming dawn,” which were heard around 4:30 a.m. The pink hues of the rising sun trickled into the grand room after 6 a.m., glinting in the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome. It was a gorgeous sight to behold, all the more so with such incredible musical accompaniment. See my blog post and photos.
4. Le Butcherettes
March 3 at Subterranean.
Le Butcherettes’ beautiful frontwoman Teri Gender Bender (aka Teresa Suárez) strides around the stage like she owns it — rapidly changing her facial expressions from wide-mouthed, wide-eyed insanity to gentle smiles as she switched between guitar and keyboards. See my blog post and photos. See my blog post and photos.
5. Joan Shelley
Dec. 3 at the Hideout.
Shelley’s voice was stunningly beautiful at the Hideout show, especially when she sang a cappella versions of two traditional folk songs: “Darlin’ Don’t You Know That’s Wrong” by Addie Graham and the chillingly macabre “Little Margaret,” which closes with the lyrics: “Three times he kissed her cold corpsy lips/And fell in her arms asleep.” Honorable mention goes to Shelley’s lovely set at the Cropped Out festival in Louisville. Like the set by Bill Callahan, it was performed at sunset on the banks of the Ohio River. Both times I saw Shelley in 2016, the beauty of her song “Not Over by Half” brought tears to my eyes. See my blog post and photos.
Aug. 25 at the Empty Bottle.
This felt like a quintessential night of live Chicago music: seeing Tortoise at Millennium Park, followed by Ryley Walker’s late concert at the Empty Bottle. (Consider the Tortoise show an honorable mention here.) Walker and his collaborators know how to stretch a song out, to revel in grooves, to explore a chord progression or melodic motif in ways that are hypnotic and enchanting. This set was a marvel. See my blog post and photos.
8. The Flat Five and Chris Ligon
Oct. 22 at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
As I wrote in my album review, the debut album by the Flat Five, It’s a World of Love and Hope, is a strange and wonderful thing. I doubt you’ll hear any other record this year that sounds anything like this. And this performance was especially great, with an opening set by Flat Five member Scott Ligon’s brother, Chris — the eccentric genius who wrote all of the songs on the album. (Honorable mention: The Flat Five also played a lovely show at the Green Mill.)
9. The Necks
March 27 at Constellation.
The Necks’ minimalist motifs gradually transformed, growing in volume and intensity, but a steadiness remained at the heart of the music — each musician closely following the lead of the others but then pulling the trio in a slightly new direction. It was a wonder to see and hear. See my blog post and photos.
10. Reigning Sound
Sept. 29 during Goner Fest at the Hi Tone in Memphis.
The excitement of the crowd was palpable. Maybe it was because this was a hometown show for the band. Or maybe people were just thrilled to see this version of the band. People were dancing and singing along all around me, and the enthusiasm was contagious. And as Greg Cartwright sang one quick masterpiece after another, it reminded me of just how impressive those Reigning Sound albums are, with tightly wounded rock tunes reminiscent of the 1960s, packing memorable melodies into every minute. See my blog post and photos.
Special prize: Robbie Fulks
Monday-night residency at the Hideout.
So many excellent nights of music and repartee. If I had a choose a favorite from 2016, it might be Fulks’ show with Linda Gail Lewis on Aug. 29. Jerry Lee Lewis’ sister sang and played the piano very much in the style of her more famous brother — including many covers of his hits — with Fulks, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall (aka those guys from the Flat Five and the Western Elstons) providing just the right accompaniment. Lewis kept smiling, and so did I.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Feb. 13 at Rockefeller Chapel
Neko Case and Robbie Fulks, Feb. 15 at the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove
eighth blackbird with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, March 26 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
Waco Brothers and The Sadies, May 21 at Wire in Berwyn
Savages, July 16 during the Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park
Kamasi Washington, July 17 during the Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park
King Sunny Ade, July 18 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park
Vulgar Boatmen with Walter Salas-Humara, July 27 at Martyrs’ Radiohead, July 29 during Lollapalooza in Grant Park
Mbongwana Star, Aug. 11 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park Wilco and Twin Peaks, Aug. 21 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park Guided By Voices, Sept. 3 at Metro Eleventh Dream Day, Sept. 10 at the Hideout
Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society + Bitchin Bajas and Emmet Kelly with Joshua Abrams Quintet, Nov. 15 at the Hideout Robyn Hitchcock and Emma Swift, Nov. 17 at City Winery
Kawabata Makoto & Tatsuya Nakatani, Nov. 29 at the Empty Bottle
The year began with the sound of David Bowie, sounding as alien and inventive as he ever had. The mysterious and wondrous title track that opened his new album, “Blackstar,” arrived first in the form of a 10-minute video — a beautiful science-fiction film in miniature, really. Bowie, who was as famous for transforming his look as he was for transforming his sound, appeared in the new video with one of his most haunting guises. A swath of fabric resembling a bandage or part of a mummy’s wrapping was wound around his head, covering the eyes. Buttons substituted for the eyes, like blind dots drawn on the face of a blind man. Halfway through the epic song, Bowie sang:
Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried:
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar…
And then of course, just two days after the album Blackstar was released, Bowie died of cancer. The news was a surprising shock, and it cast the Blackstar album in a new light. Suddenly, that record, which I’d already find beguiling, read like Bowie’s farewell note to the world. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sang in another song, “Lazarus.” Bowie didn’t sound alien so much as he sounded angelic. His death — and the outpouring of grief and tributes from his fans — set the tone for a year that was filled with mourning. Many noted public figures passed away, including the musical icons Prince and Leonard Cohen as well as many other great talents — the death of Sharon Jones hit me particularly hard.
Truth be told, I set aside Blackstar for several months after Bowie’s death. When I returned it later in the year, it sounded otherworldly and timeless — an art-rock masterwork — but also the perfect soundtrack for this strange and unsettling year. It’s my choice for my favorite album of the year. And for once, my No. 1 album is a front-runner in the critical sweepstakes (judging from Rob Mitchum’s spreadsheet compiling various publications’ “album of the year” lists). davidbowie.com
2. Cate Le Bon: Crab Day
This Welsh-born singer-songwriter’s record masterfully mixes twitchy guitar riffs, herky-jerky krautrock rhythms and Kurt Weill-esque cabaret tunes into her own distinctive music. The way Le Bon sings the curious chorus “I’m a dirty attic,” it sounds like both a confession and a defiant proclamation. catelebon.com dragcity.com
3. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree
Another album of mourning, this is Cave at his most pensive and soulful, recorded as Cave wrestled with grief in the wake of his teenage son’s death. The film One More Time With Feeling showed Cave and his bandmates at work on this album, documenting its difficult birth. Through this music, Cave seems to be searching for a way to heal his sorrow. Like the best of sad music, somehow it made me feel better to hear it. nickcave.com
4. PJ Harvey: The Hope Six Demolition Project
Harvey continues evolving as an artist, taking her sound in new directions as she addresses the world with socially and politically conscious lyrics inspired by trips to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington, D.C. The arrangements — recorded during a residency where visitors observed the sessions through one-way glass — sound as if they’re built around the quirky phrasings of how Harvey sings her words. And when the backup singers chime in, the tunes take on the rousing power of protest anthems and gospel numbers. pjharvey.net
5. Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool
It would be a strange thing for Radiohead to release an album and for me not to include it in my top 10. Simply put, Radiohead has been one of the world’s best rock bands — and one of my favorites — for many years now. I’m not sure that the group broke much new ground with this record, but it continued creating the sort of melancholic and mysterious music I’ve come to expect from Radiohead. It’s artful and haunting. radiohead.com
This Chicago country and folk musician — so damn talented as a guitarist, singer, songwriter and raconteur — followed up his fantastic 2013 album Gone Away with another superb collection. It’s a wonderful distillation of what he does best: telling stories filled with wisdom, humor and distinct characters, each sketch just a few minutes long, but so memorable and melodic. (I was present at the Hideout when this video of “Alabama at Night” was recorded, and you can see me near the end, clapping in the audience.) robbiefulks.com bloodshotrecords.com
8. Charles Bradley: Changes
This soul singer, whose success as a recording artist came late in his life, opens his latest album with a spoken monologue, calling himself “a brother that came from the hard licks of life” and proclaiming that America, for all its faults, “represents love for all humanity and the world.” That leads into a short version of “God Bless America,” setting the tone for the rest of the album. Bradley pours everything he’s got into these powerful tunes. On Oct. 4, the 67-year-old Bradley announced that doctors had discovered a cancerous tumor in his stomach, forcing him to cancel a concert tour. Let’s hope he gets the medical care he needs and keeps making music. thecharlesbradley.com daptonerecords.com
9. Jeff Parker: The New Breed
The rhythms, textures and arrangements on this record set it apart from the other jazz music I’ve heard. Parker, a guitarist and composer who’s also a member of the experimental rock band Tortoise, creates intriguing sonic landscapes here. The album features bassist and recording engineer Paul Bryan (known for his work with Aimee Mann), saxophonist Josh Johnson and drummer Jamire Williams, with Parker’s daughter Ruby Parker singing on one song. It feels like a story is unfolding over the course of these songs, something like the soundtrack to a film with shifting images of a city. At least, that’s what runs through my mind. jeffparkersounds.com intlanthem.com
10. Twin Peaks: Down In Heaven
These young Chicagoans are a rock band in the truest sense of the term — trading off lead vocals, piling on the guitar riffs and other musical flourishes, and writing catchy songs that hark back to the classics of the 1960s. They do it all with exuberance and smarts. twinpeaksdudes.com
Angel Olsen, My Woman
Horse Lords, Interventions
Kevin Morby, Singing Saw
Oh Boland, Spilt Milk
Teenage Fanclub, Here
Drive-By Truckers, American Band
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Lydia Loveless, Real
Ryley Walker, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung
Wussy, Forever Sounds
Big Thief, Masterpiece
Ultimate Painting, Dusk
Mitski, Puberty 2
M. Ward, More Rain
Chivalrous Amoekons, Fanatic Voyage
Whitney, Light Upon the Lake
Chook Race, Around the House
Black Mountain, IV
Bonnie Prince Billy, Pond Scum
Kitchen’s Floor, Battle of Brisbane
Cross Record, Wabi-Sabi
Colin Stetson, Sorrow: A Reimagining of Góreckis 3rd Symphony
Henryk Górecki, Symphony No. 4: Tansman Episodes
Eric Bachmann, Eric Bachmann
Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker
Lucinda Williams, The Ghosts of Highway 20
The Handsome Family, Unseen
Those Pretty Wrongs, Those Pretty Wrongs
Waco Brothers, Going Down in History
Fruit Bats, Absolute Loser
Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
Savages, Adore Life
Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate
Eleanor Friedberger, New View
Thee Oh Sees, A Weird Exits
Zerodent, Zerodent Klaus Johann Grobe, Spagat der Liebe
Steve Gunn, Eyes on the Lines
Doug Tuttle, It Calls on Me
Bob Mould, Patch the Sky
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
John Prine, For Better, Or Worse
Konono N°1 and Batida, Konono N°1 meets Batida
Morgan Delt, Phase Zero
Bad Sports, Living With Secrets
Rob Mazurek & Emmett Kelly, Alien Flower Sutra
Guided By Voices, Please Be Honest
Joan Shelley’s album Over and Even was my favorite record of 2015, , so of course I’m thrilled to hear that she’s working on a new album. She mentioned this during her concert on Saturday, Dec. 3, at the Hideout, where she sprinkled some of the new material amid a nice a selection of songs from her first two albums. Shelley says she’s working on the new recordings here in Chicago with the seemingly ubiquitous Chicago guitarist Jim Elkington as well as her own marvelous guitar player, Nathan Salsburg. Shelley’s voice was stunningly beautiful at the Hideout show, especially when she sang a cappella versions of two traditional folk songs: “Darlin’ Don’t You Know That’s Wrong” by Addie Graham and the chillingly macabre “Little Margaret,” which closes with the lyrics: “Three times he kissed her cold corpsy lips/And fell in her arms asleep.”
The show also featured a charming opening set by Moon Bros., aka Matt Schneider, who silenced the room with the simple act of rattling jingle bells and then played impressive instrumental songs on his acoustic guitar, along with a few sung folk tunes.
Here’s a video I took of Shelley and Salsburg performing the song “Here and Whole,” which is on a new 7-inch record released by the No Quarter label.
The British duo Ultimate Painting keeps turning out one splendid record after another — three albums in the past three years. James Hoare and Jack Cooper’s newest collection, Dusk (on Chicago label Trouble in Mind), is basically more of the same: pretty little pop gems with glittering, interlaced guitar lines and delicate vocal melodies and harmonies.
But when the band performs these songs in concert — as it did on Friday, Dec. 2, at the Hideout — it turns up the volume a few notches, grooving like the Feelies or the Velvet Underground. Hoare set down his guitar to play the Hideout’s house piano on a couple of songs, but the guitars were what this night was really about — culminating in a long, searing jam in the final song of the show, “Ten Street.”
The show started with enjoyable sets by the Chicago band Deeper (whose music reminded me a bit of 1980s or ’90s post-punk) and the New York group EZTV (whose music reminded of … well, Ultimate Painting).
Two master musicians from Japan — guitarist Kawabata Makoto, who’s the leader of Acid Mothers Temple, and percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani — created a beautiful instrumental epic onstage at the Empty Bottle on Nov. 29. Both used bows at many points during the concert, with Makoto bowing the strings of his electric guitar while Nakatani gently coaxed vibrations from a huge gong and other pieces of percussion. Nakatani even played the drums with his mouth for one short passage. This collaboration was an enthralling duet, filled with dramatic musical flourishes. Makoto and Nakatani seemed to be playing with an uncommon sense of freedom.
(Blog post continues below photos.)
The evening also featured two noteworthy opening sets. Brian Case, leader of the rock band Disappears, played instrumental electronic music. Spires That In the Sunset Rise continued exploring the many possibilities of what sounds two musicians can create together, duetting with wind instruments at some points, singing and plucking autoharp at other times. The results were bracing and fascinating.
Sadly, I arrived a bit late for the Poster Children’s early concert on Wednesday, Nov. 23, at Schubas. Rather than barging my way to the front of the crowded room during this sold-out show, I stayed in the back corner — which turned out to be a pretty good spot for getting some photos. This Champaign rock band, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, sounded as exuberant and energetic as ever.
On its website, the band reports: “If you saw us on this tour, you probably felt like we were having a blast on the stage, and you were right, we were. We were ecstatic to be playing again, and we are especially happy to see our new songs so well-received. We’ve already been in the studio with Steve Albini, recording new songs, and we’ll continue to work on a new record that should be released sometime in 2017.”
The masterful Chicago musician Joshua Abrams played five concerts at the Hideout in November, playing with different collaborators on each Tuesday night. The one constant was the group he calls Natural Information Society Residency — but even that ensemble has a shifting lineup. It’s essentially a setting for Abrams to play an African instrument called the gimbri (a three-stringed skin-covered bass plucked lute used by the Gnawa people of West Africa) as part of a large group of musicians improvising meditative minimalism and drones — part jazz, part rock, part world music, part experiment. Natural Information Society is one of Chicago’s best groups today, and the two shows I saw during November’s residency only confirmed how innovative and transcendent this band is.
I was there on Nov. 15, when the evening started with a set by Emmett Kelly, the multitalented musician who leads the Cairo Gang (or performs under that moniker) as well as playing guitar with numerous other bands. On this evening, however, Kelly sang cool jazz music in a style reminiscent of Chet Baker, with moody and atmospheric arrangements by the Joshua Abrams Quintet.
Then the main set featured Natural Information Society joining forces with Bitchin Bajas. Kelly joined in on guitar.
(Blog post continues below photos.)
The second show I saw was on Nov. 22, when the fabulous drummer Hamid Drake performed during both sets. During the jazzy opening set, Abrams and Drake played with Edward Wilkerson on reeds and oud and Josh Berman on cornet. Then came another mesmerizing performance by Natural Information Society.
Many of the songs Robyn Hitchcock played on Thursday, Nov. 17, at City Winery in Chicago had been chosen ahead of time by his fans. “All these songs were democratically elected,” Hitchcock remarked during his concert. “But it could have been voted on by a Russian…”
Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election cast a gloom over much of America’s arts community, and Hitchcock – a singer-songwriter who’s exceedingly British in his eccentricities, but has been living lately in Nashville – is no exception. Just take a look at his Tweets:
It feels like the world has been punched in the face; as the shock wears off the pain kicks in. Then come the bruises…
Hitchcock did not take his concert as an opportunity to give a political lecture, however. True to form, he interspersed solo acoustic versions of his surreal songs with comically strange commentary and miniature monologues.
As always, Hitchcock was a master of absurdities and non sequitors that wouldn’t be out of place in Monty Python’s Flying Circus or the weirder corners of science-fiction and magic realism. After apparently coining the word “thrint,” Hitchcock offered a prediction of a future involving “the war between the felines and the deep-sea thrints.” He made a gurgling noise with his mouth to simulate the mysterious sea creatures he’d conjured in his imagination. Perhaps the election inspired Hitchcock to add a bit more of a doomsday vibe to his musings. “See?” he said at one point. “All this gruesome shit really can be fun!”
Hitchcock’s partner of late, Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift, opened the show and joined Hitchcock for several songs in the middle of his set — including two tracks they recently recorded together and released on a single, “Love Is a Drag” and “Life Is Change.” Swift’s opening set was lovely, including her own melancholy folk-rock (which she called “dismalia”) as well as covers of Nick Cave’s “Ship Song” and Roland S. Howard’s “Shivers.”
Hitchcock’s set list was an excellent cross-section of his best songs from over the years, including some of my personal favorites, like “Queen of Eyes,” “Wax Doll” and “Airscape.” At several points, Hitchcock asked the sound engineer to add effects to his guitar or vocals, making outlandish requests such as: “Could you put a little something on this to make it sound like a well-played 12-string?” In his own cheeky way, Hitchcock was pointing out the limitations of what sounds he could make with just an acoustic guitar and his voice — but that was really all he needed. Even the songs originally recorded with full rock bands translated well in this stripped-down format.
For his encore, he played two cover songs, paying tribute to Leonard Cohen, who’d died a week earlier, with a moving rendition of “Suzanne,” and then ending the night with a Bob Dylan classic that clearly inspired Hitchcock as a budding songwriter, “Visions of Johanna.”
Hitchcock remarked that he doesn’t expect to make a lot of new albums in the future, since he has so many old songs to play. It was hard to tell if he meant it, though. He used that comment as the setup for a joke about how he’s being turned into an app, which will continue writing Robyn Hitchcock songs forever, long after he has died. Or… was it really a joke? With Hitchcock, it’s hard to tell.
Tonight (Soft Boys) / Raymond Chandler Evening / 1974 / The Devil’s Coachman / Glass / When I Was Dead / Glass Hotel / Love Is a Drag / Life Is Change / Linctus House / Queen of Eyes (Soft Boys) / You and Oblivion / Ghost Ship / Wax Doll / Be Still / Airscape / ENCORE: Suzanne (Leonard Cohen cover) / Visions of Johanna (Bob Dylan cover)
The debut album by the Flat Five, It’s a World of Love and Hope, is a strange and wonderful thing. I doubt you’ll hear any other record this year that sounds anything like this. It feels like a throwback to some other era … but when, exactly? And what exactly is this? Bubblegum pop? Psychedelic rock? Vocal jazz? Power pop? Country? Cabaret? Lounge music? It has a little bit of all that. The vocal harmonies and varied instrumental flourishes are delightful, and the songs are utterly charming, with the catchiest of melodies and offbeat, whimsical words.
Like the best music, it doesn’t really need an explanation — just listen to it, and I bet you’ll fall in love with it. But here’s the back story: The Flat Five is a sort of supergroup within the world of Chicago alt-country and related genres. The group brings together five highly talented musicians — and it requires something like a Venn diagram to keep track of all the bands they’re connected with.
The Flat Five also features SCOTT LIGON, a virtuoso on both guitar and keyboards, who also sings and writes music. And there’s bassist CASEY McDONOUGH, who also sings and writes. In addition to playing in the Flat Five, Ligon and and McDonough are members of the legendary rock band NRBQ’s most recent lineup.
Last but not least, there’s drummer ALEX HALL, who also sings and occasionally comes out from behind the drum kit to play accordion. In addition to his gig with the Flat Five, Hall is a member of the Fat Babies, who play big band-style jazz (including a regular gig on Tuesdays at the Green Mill). And there’s yet another band called the Western Elstons — which is usually Ligon, McDonough and Hall plus guitarist Joel Paterson. (You can see them on the first and third Wednesday of every month at Simon’s Tavern in Andersonville.)
OK, have you got all that straight? (That’s the simple version.)
Anyway, these five musicians have been playing together as the Flat Five for about a decade, as a sort of cover band. For a long while, their gigs were just an annual event. Back in 2010, I wrote a blurb for the Chicago Reader’s Best of Chicago issue naming the Flat Five as the city’s “Best Cover Band That Plays One Gig a Year.”
As I noted then:
Their repertoire stretches from “Vanishing Girl” by XTC alter ego the Dukes of Stratosphear to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy Bones.” Calling them a cover band hardly does them justice … they’re writing their own definition of what a standard should be as they have a blast interpreting a genre-defying mix of folk, jazz, soul, and soft rock. Since 2007 they’ve played just three times, convening for one night each December at the Hideout. It’s a nice holiday tradition, but I’d sure like to hear those sublime harmonies more often.
But Flat Five hasn’t made any records until now — the new album is out today (Oct. 14) on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records.
Now, here’s the other thing you should know to understand what this album is all about: Scott Ligon has a brother named Chris Ligon, who has made a series of independently released records filled with oddball tunes. (They’re so far underground that I can’t find a good internet link to include here.) Chris Ligon is married to the cartoonist Heather McAdams, who used to create an annual calendar packed with country music pictures and trivia. For many years, the couple sold these calendars at Chris & Heather’s Country Calendar Show, an annual shindig at FitzGerald’s that brought together a who’s who of Chicago’s alt-country musicians.
The Flat Five often sprinkles a song or two by Chris Ligon into its sets — including a hilariously scatological ditty called “Poop Ghost” — and now, the group has made an entire album of Chris Ligon covers. I interviewed Kelly Hogan and Scott Ligon in October 2014, when they were just getting started on this recording project.
I asked Scott, “Why don’t you describe what your brother is all about, musically?” And he replied: “I can’t describe what my brother is all about. I really can’t. To me, that music is completely singular. There’s just nothing like Chris Ligon. There’s nothing like what it is that he does.” That isn’t the most satisfying answer, but I can see why Scott had trouble putting in words what exactly Chris’ music is like. The songs tend to be weird and whimsical. Somehow, it sounds like his melodies and arrangements are following the usual songwriting rules while subverting them at the same time. This week, Scott wrote more about his brother’s music and their friendship in a touching and amusing Facebook post.
Knowing all of that history, I was confident the Flat Five’s record would be good, but it was hard to know exactly what to expect. The resulting album is such a pleasure to hear because it dares to be different.
If you’ve ever seen the Flat Five in concert, you know these are stellar musicians and singers who can blend their voices and instrumental parts in a way that looks and sounds effortless — though I’m sure it’s actually the end result of years of experience and work. Those skills are apparent on the record, too. Their voices flit around in the mix, joining together for delightful harmonies at key moments but also playing off one another in animated conversation.
At times, the Flat Five sounds like a jazz vocal harmony group — think the Manhattan Transfer or the Swingle Singers — or maybe a doo-wop act, singing nonsense syllables like “zip zip boom boom.” But that’s far from the entirety of what the Flat Five does. After moments that verge on novelty music — with jokey lyrics about subject matter like a bug-zapping light — the record slips into other styles. There’s a jazzy organ solo on the finger-snapping number “You’re Still Joe,” a burst of brass on the wistful country ballad “Birmingham,” and a soaring chorus on the bright rocker “Almond Grove.” And all of these elements fit seamlessly together, with smart and satisfying sonic arrangements.
The final track on It’s a World of Love and Hope is titled “It’s Been a Delight,” and it puts the focus on the Flat Five’s smooth harmonies, with all those splendid voices cooing farewell. It’s been a delight indeed.
Eleven years ago, Chicago singer-songwriter Devin Davis released one of my favorite records of 2005, Lonely People of the World, Unite! — a one-man studio masterpiece — and I’ve been waiting for another Devin Davis record ever since. He’s told me that he’s been working on music, but not to expect anything anytime soon.
Another promising Chicago musical act, a quirky group called Baby Teeth, called it quits in 2012 — and its frontman, singer-keyboardist Abraham Levitan hasn’t released a record since (though he founded the Piano Power collective of music teachers and co-hosted a monthly game show at the Hideout, Shame That Tune).
Now, Levitan has teamed up with Devin Davis, forming the duo Teletype, with a full-length album called Spontaneityout today on iTunes.
Here’s how the Teletype press release describes their collaboration:
In late 2013, Abraham asked Devin if he wanted to try some Postal Service-style remote collaboration. Abraham had a new batch of songs he was excited about, the result of a recent residency at Chicago’s legendary club, The Hideout. He thought Devin would be the ideal collaborator for bringing the songs into Technicolor. Despite their living about a mile from each other in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, each was intrigued by the idea of working remotely.
Abraham says, “I went over to Devin’s home studio with my songs and played piano-and-vocal versions over the course of two nights. He then spent the next two and a half years – no joke – adding layers of instrumentation and production. It’s a kind of collaboration that I’ve never done before, and the results are pretty amazing.”
And indeed, you can really hear Devin Davis’ studio magic at work in these recordings — even though the main voice and songwriting talent here is Leviton. (But no, the wait for another Devin Davis album isn’t over. The world still needs a follow-up to Lonely People of the World, Unite!)
The concept of remote collaboration isn’t the only way Teletype resembles Postal Service. Like that band, Teletype evokes an earlier era of synthesizer-based pop hits. But Teletype’s Spontaneity draws on a wider range of genres and influences, from 1970s Queen records to Elvis Costello, the Pet Shop Boys and Oranges and Lemons-era XTC. At least, that’s what it sounds like to me. In its own press release, Teletype cites other influences — Paul McCartney, Elton John, Leonard Cohen, Pink Floyd and The Band.
Levitan proves himself a strong songwriter here, with sturdy melodies and smart, well-crafted lyrics. And Davis shows that Lonely People of the World, Unite! was no fluke. He’s a master of constructing multilayered rock songs in the studio. These songs are filled with sonic touches and flourishes — at one second, it’s an acoustic guitar or something resembling a harpsichord, at another moment, it’s the deep gurgling noise of some sort of synth. And yet, these arrangements don’t feel too busy. Davis and Levitan have countless sonic ingredients at their disposal, but they’ve chosen well when they’ve decided what to put in each layer.
What are the future prospects for Teletype? The press release cheekily concludes:
While their joint public appearances are exceedingly rare, rumor has it that Teletype will be celebrating with a record-release dinner party at an undisclosed location.
This is one of those things people tell you do to when you’re in Memphis: Go see the famous soul singer Al Green at the church he founded. On Sunday, Oct. 2, I was heading back home to Chicago after attending Gonerfest, a three-day punk and garage-rock party in Memphis. I decided to swing by the Rev. Al’s Full Gospel Tabernacle before leaving town. As several websites correctly indicated, services began at 11:30 a.m.
I’ve been told that you can’t be certain Green himself will appear at any given service and it isn’t easy to find out ahead of time. As the crowd filtered into the sanctuary, I noticed several musicians who’d played at Gonerfest — including the Australians in Chook Race and the New Zealanders in the hard-rock band Bloodbags — taking seats among the regular congregants. It looked like a third of the crowd was tourists.
The church’s choir performed, singing joyful gospel music that got the congregants (and some of us tourists) onto our feet and clapping our hands. Before too long, Green entered. “My name is the Rev. Al. All of you know me,” he said. “God has blessed us. You know how I know? Because you’re here.”
Throughout the 2-hour-and-15-minute service, Green preached and sang — often breaking out into snippets of hymns while he was in the midst of speaking. And wow, what a voice — Green is just an amazing singer as ever. There were a few moments when I could barely believe what I was hearing.
Green and the others at the Full Gospel Tabernacle are obviously accustomed to attracting curious people outside of the regular congregation, and they were very welcoming. At one point, Green asked people were they were from. A large contingent of Australians was present, along with people from England, France, Japan, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium and various parts of the U.S. (“England?” Green exclaimed. “Let’s get a shout for England. Yee-hah!”)
I wasn’t certain if taking photos or video was allowed, but several people were doing it — and no one seemed to be frowning and dissuading them — so I pulled out my iPhone to snap some pictures and record video. (See my video at the top of this post.) I was holding up the phone when Green came down the aisle toward me. Seeing me, he remarked: “Hi there. You’re busy taking my picture. Hurry up — I look good!”
At another point, when a baby in the church cried, Green said, “That’s right, little baby. Say, ‘Amen!'” He also showed his sense of humor when he drank wine during the sacraments, noting: “Mmmm. Must be some of that Mogen David. Someone been to the store.”
Green started to comment about the presidential election, but then he said he wouldn’t bring politics into his pulpit. He told those present to keep God at the center of their decision about which candidate to vote for. “Because God is L-O-V-E,” he said. A minute later, he remarked, “I just love people, and I love people that love people.”
Green’s fame is obviously the reason so many strangers flock to his church, but he struck a modest tone, saying: “We can talk to each other like this because we’re little shots. I’m not a big shot. I’m a little shot.”
Jody Stephens, the drummer for the legendary band Big Star, kindly agreed to let me tag along Sept. 30, 2016, on a private tour he was giving at Ardent Studios — the Memphis recording studio where Big Star made its classic records, along with countless other artists over the years, including the Replacements and R.E.M. Ardent is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Stephens works as Ardent’s business development director — and he’s still active as a musician, writing and singing some lovely songs in the vein of Big Star’s acoustic ballads, on the self-titled album of his new band, Those Pretty Wrongs.
Stephens showed us through the studios, amiably chatting about the equipment and the people who have played inside those walls. “Playing music together is kind of like recipes,” he remarked at one point. “Everybody has their own ingredients for what they put in.” Discussing the best place to put the drums in a room, he said, “Everybody has a different idea of where the sweet spot is.”
That neon big star in the reception area isn’t the one that was used on the cover of Big Star’s Radio City — it’s a replica. But Jody’s the real thing.