Blackout Fest

Hozac Records’ Blackout Fest was back this past weekend for another round of garage rock, power pop and other mostly raw and raucous music. It stretched out across four days at the Empty Bottle; I was there for the last two nights: Saturday, May 18, when Chrome headlined; and Sunday, May 19, when Dwight Twilley had top billing.

For my money, Sunday was the much better of these two nights — partly because Sunday’s lineup leaned more heavily to the power-pop end of the spectrum, which was to my liking. As for Saturday … Well, Saturday had its moments, too, especially the powerful music of Chicago’s Verma, with wordless singing (or is it merely incomprehensible?). Wizzard Sleeve, with Quintron on percussion, were another highlight, with a number of catchy choruses.

But when Chrome took the stage for the headline act of the night, everything ground to a halt. Original Chrome member Helios Creed encountered one technical difficulty after another, struggling to tune his guitar or to get his pedals working, even as he kept making boasts such as, “We’re going to blow you away.” It seemed like a rehearsal with a newly assembled band more than an actual concert. The band sounded all right once it got started playing songs, but there was an uncomfortable vibe among the players. At several points, Creed abruptly halted songs by waving his arms at everyone else in the band, giving them a not-so-subtle signal to stop playing. Maybe this is just the way Creed functions on stage, but it seemed more like malfunctioning.

FNU Ronnies
FNU Ronnies
Verma
Verma
Cop City/Chill Pillars
Cop City/Chill Pillars
Quintron (with Wizzard Aleeve)
Quintron (with Wizzard Aleeve)
Wizzard Sleeve
Wizzard Sleeve
Chrome
Chrome
Chrome
Chrome

Sunday got off to a damn good start with The Sueves, a Chicago band with jagged guitar riffs and vocals — the best discovery of Blackout Fest for me. The second band of the night was one that I was already familiar with, Games, who put out a strong album of ’60-influenced garage rock/power pop on Hozac late last year. The songs sounded even more bracing in concert than they do in the studio versions.

Then came what amounted to a double dose of power-pop headliners: Oak Park’s Pezband — a trio that originally formed around 1971 and still knows how to rock, demonstrating that they should play far more often than they do — followed by Dwight Twilley. The Tulsa, Okla., singer is most famous for his two hits, “Girls” and “I’m on Fire,” but he has a cult following of fans who clearly loved hearing Twilley play other songs from his old records — as well as the news that Hozac is releasing the first official record of Twilley’s 1975 song “Shark (in the Dark).” Twilley closed out the Blackout Fest in style.

The Sueves
The Sueves
The Sueves
The Sueves
The Sueves
The Sueves
Games
Games
Games
Games
Games
Games
Pezband
Pezband
Pezband
Pezband
Pezband
Pezband
Dwight Twilley
Dwight Twilley
Dwight Twilley
Dwight Twilley
Dwight Twilley
Dwight Twilley

The Men at Lincoln Hall

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After getting their concert last night at Lincoln Hall off to a strong start, The Men came to a screeching halt because of technical difficulties. One of the Brooklyn group’s members, Mark Perro, was playing a vintage keyboard — an instrument the band has apparently been using a lot lately — when it suddenly conked out on him. Or maybe it was the amp. In any case, the thing stopped making any sounds recognizable as music. Perro left the stage for a bit, while the rest of the band played a couple of songs. Then he returned, abandoning his malfunctioning keyboard and picking up an acoustic guitar.

The Men scrambled their planned set list, playing songs that they could do without the keyboard. They ended up playing several brand-new songs — songs even newer than The Men’s latest record, New Moon, which just came out last month. In spite of everything, The Men put on a thrilling performance of rock music reminiscent of the Replacements, with touches of roots rock and older classic rock. (The Faces, another appropriate reference point, were playing on Lincoln Hall’s speakers before The Men took the stage.) At one point, when I was standing in front of center stage, I heard what sounded like perfect stereo: two simultaneous and fantastic guitar solos, one on either end of the stage. This was clearly a band that knows how to play and has a good time doing it.

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Implodes, Acteurs, Population

Implodes

Admission was free Monday night at the Empty Bottle — as it often is on Mondays — for a triple bill of intriguing local bands. With DJ Scary Lady Sarah playing music in between the bands, the live music got started with the first-ever concert by Acteurs, a duo comprising Jeremy Lemos of White/Light and Brian Case of Disappears. Song shapes occasionally emerged out of the amorphous synth squiggles and reverb-drenched vocals, but Acteurs was more about the atmosphere than anything else. It may turn out to be just a side project for these two busy musicians, but they make for an interesting combination of talents. (Their six-song EP is out on the British label Public Information, and you can listen to it on bandcamp.)

Acteurs

The second band of the night, Population, played goth post-punk with vocals strongly reminiscent of Joy Division and guitar lines that evoked the Cure. The band’s latest songs are streaming on bandcamp.

Population

Population

Population

The headliner was Implodes (like Disappears, a Chicago band with a present-tense verb for a name). The group’s second album, Recurring Dream, recently came out on Chicago’s Kranky label, and the gauzy shoegaze guitar music sounded great in concert.

Implodes

Implodes

Implodes

Implodes

Implodes

Implodes

Nick Cave at the Chicago Theatre

The real Stagger Lee, an African-American pimp named “Stag” Lee Shelton, killed a man in St. Louis on Christmas day, 1895, during an argument over a Stetson hat. The slaying became legendary thanks to a folk song called “Stack-a-Lee,” “Stacker Lee,” “Stagolee” or “Stagger Lee,” depending on who was spelling it out at any given time. Early versions of the song end with “poor, poor” Stagger Lee hanged and then hauled off to the cemetery via a “rubber-tired hearse” and “a lot of rubber-tired hacks.”

That’s not how the song ends when Nick Cave sings it. The 1996 version by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — actually, a loose interpretation of the old folk story, with new music written by Cave and six of his bandmates at the time — turns Stagger Lee into even more of a bad ass. Or to quote Cave’s twisted rendition of the words, “that bad motherfucker.”

By the time Cave & the Bad Seeds performed Monday night (April 1) at the Chicago Theatre, they had transformed Stagger Lee into an even more powerful, frightening demon of a man. In Cave’s live version of the song, the devil comes for Stagger Lee, and Stagger kills him, too. Cave was swaggering and writhing on the lip of the stage, lowering himself toward the outreached hands of the fans in front. The vulgar threats in the song’s lyrics (“suck my dick, because if you don’t, you’re sure to be dead”) became a leering come-on to the audience. Seeing someone in the crowd holding up a smartphone, Cave ad-libbed a new lyric: “In come the Devil with an iPhone in his hand.”

Nick Cave concerts are rarely, if ever, anything less than stellar. Monday’s show reaffirmed Cave’s breathtaking power as a live performer — and all the strengths of the versatile Bad Seeds ensemble. The new record by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away, is a brooding, moody set of songs. Much of it is quiet, but a tension rattles underneath the songs, as if they might burst into noise and apocalypse at any time. That expected catharsis never comes, but that doesn’t diminish the listening experience. If anything, it heightens the foreboding sense that something sinister is at play.

One of the new songs, “Higgs Boson Blues,” returns to the Satanic sort of blues Cave evokes in “Stagger Lee.” This time, Cave sings about the old legend about bluesman Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil, but the lyrics take a strange and unexpected journey into the world of pop celebrities including Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus. The song shows Cave at his most uninhibited as a songwriter. Like much of the album, “Higgs Boson Blues” feels like a phantasmagoria. (Dictionary definition: “a rapidly changing series of things seen or imagined, as the figures or events of a dream.”)

Cave and his band began the concert with four of the new songs, including a version of “Jubilee Street” that climaxed with a more rocking jam than the studio version, and a sprawling, dynamic “Higgs Boson Blues.” Then came a series of the Bad Seeds’ golden oldies, a smattering of piano ballads, and a staggering “Stagger Lee” to end the main set. (The Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot has the full set list at the end of his review.) The encore was a pounding “Tupelo” followed by one more song from the new record, the title track, an album closer that channels all of those disturbances and hallucinations into a shimmering meditation. And then the phantasmagoria shimmied out of view.

Chelsea Light Moving at the Empty Bottle

Chelsea Light Moving

Chelsea Light Moving

On Friday night at the Empty Bottle, Thurston Moore introduced his new group, Chelsea Light Moving, as if both he and his bandmates were completely unknown newcomers to the music scene. Just some new band called Chelsea Light Moving. From Chicago. Or so he said. Of course, the New York-based Chelsea Light Moving is actually a new vehicle for Moore, who’s already famous as a member — apparently, a former member — of Sonic Youth.

The surprising news in 2011 that Sonic Youth was breaking up, or at least taking an extended hiatus, left us fans wondering what the group’s individual members would do on their own. Drummer Steve Shelley spent some time playing with Chicago’s Disappears. Lee Ranaldo released a quite tuneful and enjoyable solo record last year, emphasizing the pop side of Sonic Youth. Kim Gordon made an appearance at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago last week (which I missed), reportedly getting rather avant-garde with noisy jams based on Nina Simone songs. On Friday, it was Moore’s turn, and he played songs from his new album with Chelsea Light Moving — which is named for an actual moving company that composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich once operated, back when they need to move furniture to pay the bills.

Moore’s solo records have shown that he’s just as responsible for Sonic Youth’s melodic side as anyone else in the band was, but with Chelsea Light Moving, he’s gravitating more toward the noisier, scrappier end of the spectrum. Moore’s new songs are sometimes bring back memories of what it was like to hear Sonic Youth for the first time, when the chord progressions — or whatever those weird sequences of notes might be properly called — seemed to operate on a logical system distinctly different from most rock music. It was fascinating to watch Moore returning to those roots, even as he tries to reinvent himself. On Friday night, Chelsea Light Moving’s other members (Samara Lubelski, John Moloney and Keith Wood) felt like a backup band for Moore rather than a group where he’s an equal partner in a musical mind-meld. So, yeah, it wasn’t Sonic Youth. But then again, what is?

Chelsea Light Moving

Chelsea Light Moving

Chelsea Light Moving

Chelsea Light Moving

Chelsea Light Moving

Chelsea Light Moving

The show also featured an opening set by Jeremy Lemos, who plays in the Chicago drone band White/Light. This was billed as a solo set, but he was joined onstage by the other half of White/Light, Matt Clark, as well as Mark Solotroff (of the bands Bloodyminded and Anatomy of Habit), for a set of abstract hums and bleeps.

Jeremy Lemos
Jeremy Lemos

The second band of the evening was Cave, the Chicago krautrockers, who dug into their repetitive riffs with intensity.

Cave
Cave
Cave
Cave
Cave
Cave

Hideout SXSW Send Off Party

It’s a March tradition at the Hideout: On the Saturday before the SXSW festival begins in Austin, the club hosts an all-day benefit concert featuring many of the Chicago bands that are heading down to Texas, raising some money to help them cover their travel costs. (They’re not actually getting paid for playing those gigs at SXSW — imagine that.) The lineup was strong this past Saturday (Feb. 9), and I managed to catch the first seven hours of the shindig before I finally bailed — not because the later bands were any less worthy, but just to get some rest.

The afternoon got started with a terrific set by Twin Peaks, a group of guys barely out of high school. I’d noticed them featured in Loud Loop Press’ recent list of 13 local bands to watch in 2013, and the song “Sunken” on their bandcamp page further piqued my interest. They more than lived up to my expectations, bashing out a bunch of catchy songs with some surprisingly Beach Boys-esque harmonies and Television-esque guitar leads.

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Judson Claiborne performed lead singer-songwriter Chris Salveter’s folk rock with a muscular, roots-rock vibe, offering an intriguing preview of the group’s forthcoming record, We Have Not Doors You Need Not Keys.

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The Congregation filled the stage with brassy, old-fashioned soul music, with occasional blasts of Who-style guitar and drums  as a bonus; the group closed with an unexpected cover of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”

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Scott Lucas & the Married Men followed with perhaps the most intense performance of the day, culminating with a searing version of “There Ain’t No Grave (Gonna Hold My Body Down),” filled with some stunning guitar playing by Mr. Lucas.

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The Waco Brothers were billed to play next, but it was actually a combination of the Wacos and another group led by Jon Langford, Skull Orchard. As Langford explained, a couple of the usual Waco members were unavailable to play; I presume he was joking when he explained that Tracey Dear was indisposed because of chafing he’d become afflicted with after a nudist adventure in the jungles of Costa Rica. Langford called tonight’s band, which featured Jim Elkington, “Waco Orchard,” and they played a fun set, finishing with Langford throwing his guitar into the arms of drummer Joe Camarillo for the last chord.

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For a complete change of pace, Frontier played droning, ominous music in nearly complete darkness, other than a few bright beams of light. It should’ve been louder.

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And then the Summer Girlfriends played their sunny girl group tunes, sounding tighter than they did the last time I’d seen them, with at least one brand new song in the set.

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There was plenty more ahead — Mahogany, Outer Minds, The Hood Internet — but that was as far as I made it. Good luck to all of these bands at SXSW!

Favorite concerts of 2009

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2. THE FEELIES, June 29 at the Pritzker Pavilion. … a young man danced his way into the empty area between the front row and the stage, twitching with the sort of spastic moves that looked perfect for the jerky sounds of songs from the first Feelies album, Crazy Rhythms. A park security guard led this fellow away, but he came back a minute later and continued dancing. That seemed to open the flood gates, as people jumped to the front area of the pavilion and started twitching along. Feelies lead singer and guitarist Glenn Mercer seemed to revel in the moment, coming out to the edge of the stage for guitar solos inches away from the upraised hands of fans. READ THE FULL REVIEW.

3. VIC CHESNUTT, Nov. 5 at Lincoln Hall. … At moments, Chesnutt was singing and playing all by himself as the audience quietly listened to each and every creak of the guitar strings and bend in his voice, almost like sitting in Chesnutt’s living room and attending an unplugged performance. And then the songs would erupt as the guitars, keyboards and bowed bass came in, making mountainous, majestic chords. And Chesnutt would rear back his head from the microphone and shout his words up to the mountaintop. (And now alas, Chesnutt is no longer with us. The emotional impact of his Dec. 25 death makes the two concerts I saw by Chesnutt in 2009 feel all the more special.) READ THE FULL REVIEW.

4. PJ HARVEY & JOHN PARISH, June 12 at the Riviera. … Even in minimal moments, she seemed like a lively presence on the stage. And then, the contemplative music gave way to outbursts of ferocity — as on the new record’s lacerating title track. Harvey dropped her voice to dramatic depths or let it soar to lovely highs, as the characters from her lyrics seemed to possess her.READ THE FULL REVIEW.

5. ECCENTRIC SOUL REVUE, Nov. 7 at Lincoln Hall. … The evening was a real blast. A younger soul group, JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, served as the house band, keeping the music going almost nonstop for more than two hours as various singers stepped up to the mike. There was barely a pause as the horns kept blowing and the funky guitar chords kept twitching. READ THE FULL REVIEW.

6. ANDREW BIRD, Dec. 14 at Fourth Presbyterian Church. … The most extraordinary moments of this show were the very quiet ones — Bird making a little clicking noise with his music to build a rhythm track, or plucking at his violin strings. READ THE FULL REVIEW.

7. FANFARLO, Nov. 9 at Schubas. … They play with a sense of communal spirit, switching instruments frequently, adding extra drum beats, raising all their voices high in chorus. READ THE FULL REVIEW.

8. FAIZ ALI FAIZ, June 18 at Pritzker Pavilion. … More often than not, Faiz Ali Faiz sang with such full-on force that his face contorted and turned red with exertion. As he sang, his hands were in constant motion, making gestures that seemed almost like a game of pantomime. READ THE FULL REVIEW.

9. MÚM with Sin Fang Bous and Hildur Gudnadottir, Oct. 28 at Logan Square Auditorium. … Múm’s records have sublime hymn-like harmonies, when it sounds like this is a bunch of Icelanders getting together in a little room somewhere and singing to their heart’s content… And so it was at the concert. There was a lot of joyous singing. READ THE FULL REVIEW.

10. DEAD MAN’S BONES, Oct. 21 at Schubas. … The celebratory show had some of the zany sense of humor and the “let’s try something weird” attitude that animated the Flaming Lips at their best. It was certainly a very memorable night. READ THE FULL REVIEW.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

The Jesus Lizard, July 17 at the Pitchfork Music Festival
Sonic Youth, June 27 at the Riviera
The Vaselines and the 1900s, May 16 at Metro
The Flat Five, Dec. 11 at the Hideout
The Poster Children, Lonely Trailer, the Outnumbered and Cowboy X, May 24 at the Highdive, Champaign
St. Vincent, April 9 at the Hideout and June 8 at Pritzker Pavilion
Jeff Tweedy, Feb. 14 at the Vic
The Dirty Projectors, June 22 at Pritzker Pavilion
Os Mutantes, Sept. 27 at Subterranean
The Sadies, Nov. 28 at the Hideout
Mount Eerie, Nov. 8 at Lakeshore Theater
The Vertebrats, Oct. 3 at the Highdive, Champaign
Choir of Young Believers, Oct. 26 at Schubas
Rural Alberta Advantage and The Love Language, Sept. 26 at Schubas
The Fiery Furnaces, July 11 at Millennium Park
Oumou Sangaré, July 2 at the Pritzker Pavilion
Jonathan Richman and Vic Chesnutt, June 11 at the Empty Bottle

January concerts

It’s been a quiet month for concerts so far in Chicago. At least, it seems that way. I know I probably could have found a good dozen or more shows worth seeing, but maybe that bone-chilling cold has discouraged me from venturing out too often. That’s my only excuse for missing most of the Tomorrow Never Knows festival at Schubas, which is becoming the official start of the concert year in Chicago.

I did sneak in at the very end of the five-day fest, catching the Jan. 18 show. Headliners Bishop Allen put on a spirited set of their indie pop music. I thoroughly enjoyed one of the opening bands, Tulsa, which has prompted me to get their recordings via emusic. I like what I’ve heard so far – melodic rock, with some the jangly guitar of ’80s indie music, maybe a little bit of power pop. The other acts on the Jan. 18 bill were Vacations, who rattled around a lot of percussion, and the Donkeys, who have a decent sound but seem somewhat lacking as far as the songs themselves. At least, that’s my opinion.

See photos from Tomorrow Never Knows Day 5.

The next night (Jan. 19) I went to see Adele at Park West. My expectations were not all that high, since her CD, 19, strikes me as merely pretty good. But Adele won me over with her impressive voice and her unpretentious personality. Click here to read my review for the Southtown Star newspaper.

On Thursday (Jan. 23) I saw Annuals at the Empty Bottle. Boy, I’m not sure what happened to this band since the last time I saw them. Or maybe my memory of their show from a couple of years ago is clouded with the fog of passing time. I recall enjoying the energy of the Annuals, even if not too many of their songs stuck in my mind after hearing them. Back then, they seemed like one of countless indie-rock bands trying to channel some of that anarchic spirit that animated the Arcade Fire, even if Annuals never really sounded all that much like the Arcade Fire. On Thursday night, however, Annuals suddenly seemed to me like a jam band. Maybe it was the spastic bass lines or just the general vibe of how the band was playing, but it seemed like Annuals had gone through a subtle but profound shift… into a genre of music that generally turns my stomach. It’s one of those musical mysteries I puzzle over: how two songs that are similar on many superficial levels can provoke such different reactions. Beyond the musical theory of how a song is put together and played, attitude seems to play a big role. And the prejudices of the listener. Whatever it was, I was just not into what Annuals were doing on Thursday night, other than a few points when they played some of their older songs with so much jam-band-i-ness. I did enjoy the opening acts. What Laura Says played retro classic rock, harking back to the Allman Brothers. (Hey, aren’t they a jam band, too? Yeah, but it’s not the same thing…) And Jessica Lea Mayfield played some plaintive roots rock.

See photos of Annuals, What Laura Says and Jessica Lea Mayfield.

Best concerts of 2008

1. Tom Waits, June 26 at the Fox Theatre, St. Louis. “Waits danced like a marionette last night, allowing some invisible strings to jerk his body to the rhythms of the band…” Review.

2. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Sept. 29 at the Riviera. “Cave is a scary sort of preacher, and he prowled the stage with barely concealed sexual energy, his white shirt completely drenched with sweat….” Review.

3. Radiohead, Aug. 1 at Lollapalooza, Grant Park. “Girls in bikinis dance as Yorke sings about the next world war. People whistle and clap whenever Yorke holds a long, high falsetto note. A collective ‘Ahhh!’ goes up each time fans recognize the opening chords of a song…” Review.

4. Randy Newman, Oct. 12 at the Genessee Theatre, Waukegan. “That was just a gray-haired man with an ungainly voice playing a piano by himself up on the Genesee stage Friday night, but it felt like a cast of thousands…” Review.

5. The Ex & Getatchew Mekurya, Aug. 18 at the Pritzker Pavilion. “It was a perfect day, and the music was perfect, too. With the Chicago skyline there at my side and a terrific band right in front of me in the middle of the day on a Monday, I found myself thinking: Why isn’t life always like this?…” Review.

6. Boredoms, March 26 at the Congress Theatre. “All the drumming and sounds abruptly stopped, and all of the musicians paused, their bodies poised to bang away again. The band paused and paused. It was the sort of moment when fans at some concerts will assume that a song is over and start clapping, but everyone at the Boredoms show knew that this moment of silence was part of the music. The vast room was deadly quiet, no one making a sound, except an intake of breath. I could feel the audience recognizing something special in the moment. And then the hammer fell and the drumming resumed with more force than ever…” Review.

7. Neil Young, Dec. 9 at the Allstate Arena. “As soon as Neil Young walked out onto the stage, he launched into the sort of live-wire, feedback-drenched guitar solo you’d normally expect to hear at the climax of a concert… Stomping around the stage with his shaggy gray hair flailing around the balding crest of his head, Young squeezed out his notes as if the energy coming out of those guitar string was charging through his body….” Review.

8. Cat Power, Feb. 10 at the Vic. “Marshall showed a jazz singer’s sense of timing, letting her words drop behind the beat or run ahead of it… She seemed to feel an uninhibited freedom to roam the stage with her peculiar pantomime-like dance moves. She crouched down low as she sang, making gestures with her hands that sometimes acted out the words of the songs – or just reflected one of her fleeting whims. She held her hands in prayer, she flicked her fingers with a fish-like motion, she pretended she was clicking a remote control, and she circled a finger next to her head (the universal sign for ‘crazy’)…” Review.

9. My Bloody Valentine, Sept. 27 at the Aragon. “Fans standing near the stage could feel the floor of the Aragon shaking… It seemed like that chord might never end, but then it suddenly shifted back to the chorus of the song. A minute later, My Bloody Valentine’s musicians put down their guitars and left. There was no encore, and fans may have wondered if they’ll get a chance to see My Bloody Valentine any time in the next 17 years…” Review.

10. Sam Phillips, Sept. 6 at the Old Town School Of Folk Music. “Phillips often turned her eyes upward as she sang, sometimes darting her glance back and forth, and a smirk occasionally played across her lips. She seemed at peace with herself, and maybe a little amused…” Review.

11. Magnetic Fields, March 16 at the Old Town School Of Folk Music. Review.

12. Monotonix, Sept. 20 at the Hideout Block Party. Review.

13. Andrew Bird, Sept. 3 at the Pritzker Pavilion. Review.

14. Thurston Moore and the New Wave Bandits, March 15, at the French Legation Museum, Austin. Review.

15. Frida Hyvönen, Nov. 3 at the Lakeshore Theater. Review.

Favorite concert photos of 2008

Some of my favorite photos that I took at concerts in 2008: 1. Cat Power 2. The Donnas 3. The Donnas 4. The Hives 5. Roky Erickson 6. Exene Cervenka 7. Fleet Foxes 8. Thurston Moore 9. Zooey Deschanel of She & Him 10. The Kills 11. Russian Circles 12. Icy Demons 13. Jarvis Cocker 14. Boris 15. King Khan 16. Dodos 17. Dinosaur Jr. 18. Gogol Bordello 19. The Raconteurs 20. CSS 21. Explosions in the Sky 22. Wilco 23. Brazilian Girls 24. Saul Williams 25. The National 26. Sons and Daughters 27. Monotonix 28. Neko Case 29. Mucca Pazza 30. A Hideout zombie 31. Nick Cave 32. TV on the Radio 33. Frida Hyvönen 34. The Hold Steady & Drive-By Truckers 35. The Sadies 36. Andrew Bird