My Morning Jacket at the Randolph Street Festival


JUNE 18, 2005
My Morning Jacket
at the Randolph Street Festival

They’re better groomed… not quite as much hair, not quite as much reverb… but man, they still rock with incredible intensity. Tonight’s show was a reminder of why I have called these guys the world’s best live rock ‘n’ roll band. And I’m not the only one to give them that title.

I first saw them in 2002, at South By Southwest. I’d already heard reports about their live shows in Chicago, and I’d picked up their album At Dawn. The disc seemed pretty good to me, but it did not prepare me for the phenomenal concert performance I was about to see. One of the papers in Austin recommended the show that day, saying it would be a nice quiet end to the evening. The writer apparently had given only a cursory listen to some of MMJ’s quieter recordings, and hadn’t heard about their incendiary live shows.

This was one of the first times I’d ever used my video camera to film a musical performance and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing through the lens. After opening with “At Dawn,” the band launched into a hard-rocking song I’d never heard before (it turned out to be “One Big Holiday,” released later on the It Still Moves CD). Seeing these hairy guys thrashing around on the stage as they played their songs and amped up the intensity of what I’d heard on CD was simply amazing.

Lead singer and songwriter Jim James barely showed his face the entire concert, singing through a mass of hair that hang down over his face. As if that “Cousin It” routine weren’t enough, he also had a stuffed-toy buffalo head stuck on the microphone in front of him.Was he a little stage shy… or just weird? And did he have an animal fetish?

Later, at another concert, James played with a toy parrot perched on one shoulder. And then came the cover of It Still Moves, showing bears (stuffed bears? people in bear costumes?) instead of the band members.

But little by little, James has come out from behind the mask. I’ve seen the band in concert six times now, plus a show by Jim James with Bright Eyes and M. Ward, and My Morning Jacket has yet to disappoint. The band has gone through some personnel changes since that concert I saw in 2002 — the only members left from that lineup are James and bassist Two-Tone Tommy. The current lineup is pretty damn solid, though.

At the Randolph Street Festival show, James was wearing a tan sport jacket, his hair still long but neatly pulled back from his face. His voice was just as powerful and as beautiful as ever, as he sustained many long notes. He was more talktative than usual, bragging that My Morning Jacket had performed the best sound check by any band ever. He also noted that they had felt surrounded by cuteness at the festival, after visiting a tent with puppies and seeing someone walking around with a kitten.

MMJ played several new songs, which sounded promising, plus favorites like “Golden,” “One Big Holiday,” “Lowdown,” “Mahgeetah” and “Run Thru,” and a cover of Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying With You.”

The great moments came when the band stretched out the songs — there was more than one false ending, followed by more jamming. MMJ’s detractors have pointed out that the band’s jams are nothing all that complicated, musically speaking. It’s true that they repeat many riffs over and over, but that misses the point of what’s so brilliant about MMJ. They take a seemingly simple pattern of notes, and play it harder and harder, flailing it until it sounds like something new. It’s so cathartic.

SEE PHOTOS OF MY MORNING JACKET.

Comets on Fire at the Abbey Pub

JUNE 17, 2005
Comets on Fire
at the Abbey Pub

I groaned when I walked up at 9 p.m. and saw a schedule posted on the wall with three opening bands. Three! Oh, well, it’s not as if I had any other place to go, but still…

It turned out to be a smorgasbord of various forms of noisy rock music. First, Plastic Crimewave Sound. I’d seen them once before, and they impressed me a bit more this time, though I’m still not sure they have songs I really want to hear again on CD. The noise style for these guys was to create a Sonic Youth-style wall of noise over rock-pop song structures… I think.

Next was Atomic Bitchwax, which for lack of a better term, plays stoner rock. Or tuneful hard rock. Whatever you want to call it. I’d never heard a note of their music before, but I enjoyed it, and they had a contingent of enthusiastic fans in the Abbey tonight. The drummer was particularly good.

As I was waiting for the next group, a guy standing near the front of the stage asked me, “So, you’re the digital camera guy?”

“Uh, I guess so,” I responded. (More on this guy later.)

Next came Growing. I had a feeling what we were in for when the band members lined up about six or seven large amps across the middle of the stage without any drum kit, and then packed lots of pedals and wires from toolboxes. Growing turned out to be a guitarist and bassist playing one long wall of noise — think Metal Machine Music meets that long, drony electronic thing on the last Wilco record. Luckily, this lasted only about 30 minutes, and I didn’t actually mind it as a sort of third course before the main entree of Comets on Fire, but I don’t imagine that I’ll be especially anxious to hear more music by Growing.

As soon as Comets on Fire began playing, that guy who’d asked me about the camera before bashed his way through the crowd and started aggressively swaying against the stage, pushing the monitors and even grabbing one of the cords plugged into the monitors. When he saw me, he stuck out his hand to block one of the photos I was trying to take. Then he got into a shouting match with a photographer standing nearby… A couple of minutes later, security showed up and ejected this clown.

Like Atomic Bitchwax, Comets on Fire were dominated by some gonzo drumming. In fact, the drummer was positioned front and center on the stage. Also unusual was the guy off on the right side of the stage, who was basically twiddling knobs on a pile of electronic gear to make the psychedelic sound effects that permeate Comets on Fire’s music.

As on their fine CD from last year, Blue Cathedral, Comets on Fire played loud and chaotic rock, like a demented version of mid-1970s hard rock. Is it stoner rock? Space rock? I’m not sure. And I’m not sure if I can identify a single word from the shouted lyrics. But I do know I liked it. Comets on Fire rock with unrestrained fury.

SEE PHOTOS OF COMETS ON FIRE.

Sleater-Kinney at the Riviera

JUNE 16, 2005
Sleater-Kinney
at the Riveria

One of the best shows of the year, from a band with one of the best albums of the year. They rocked with abandon, and Corin Tucker let loose some unbelievable banshee shrieks (all on-key… I think). “Jumpers,” that fabulous song from the new record, was a highlight, building like a multi-part epic without a regular verse-chorus structure. Janet Weiss’ drumming was superb, and Carrie Brownstein has really come into her own as a guitarist. Nice surprise of the night: A cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” with the three of them trading off on vocals.

The openers were Dead Meadow, who did fine with their drony, wall-of-guitar music. But the boys couldn’t hold a candle to the grrls at tonight’s concert.

Vanessa Davis Band at North Center Rib Fest

JUNE 11, 2005: Vanessa Davis Band at North Center Rib Fest. I’d never seen her before, though I was with a friend who claimed to have seen her something like 40 times. It was an entertaining set of blues rock and R&B, made all the more interesting by Davis’ bigger-than-life personality. She was apparently not clear on the concept that this was a family festival with kids in the crowd, and let loose with some adult language… while talking about a recent DUI arrest that her lawyer had advised her not to talk about. Oops!

Later, I caught some of the Coral’s show at Martyrs’. I got there late, just in time to hear the last five songs… enough for me to confirm my memory from SXSW 2003 that they’re a great live band, better than they sound on their studio records. I will have to listen more to the new one. If the Futureheads are the new XTC, these guys are the new Dukes of Stratosphear. (And I mean that in a good way.)

Ivy and Astaire at the Double Door

JUNE 9, 2005: Ivy and Astaire at the Double Door. I don’t know much about either of these bands, but I enjoyed seeing them. Astaire sounded a little generic, but with some of the same appeal as Rilo Kiley. I’m way behind on the Ivy discography, but I thought their songs sounded fairly cool in concert.

Madeleine Peyroux at Park West

JUNE 8, 2005: Madeline Peyroux at Park West. So who really cares that a lot of Peyroux’s records have been sold at Starbucks? At least one critic has pointed out that connection with barely concealed disdain.If the music’s good, I don’t care where people are getting it or which people are listening to it. And Peyroux’s good. She might seem to fall in the same general category as Norah Jones, but I find her much more interesting. And yeah, she does sound a lot like Billie Holiday, but I get the impression it’s a natural similarity rather than an act she’s putting on. Her songs, mostly drawn from last year’s album, sounded fairly similar in concert, though they were hardly just reproductions of the studio recordings. The vibe was very mellow, but the music was enchanting.

The Ponys and the M’s at Subterranean

MAY 28, 2005: The Ponys and the M’s at Subterranean. I’ve seen the M’s a few times now, though I still haven’t heard their studio recordings. I enjoyed this performance more than any of the previous M’s concerts I’d seen. I’ve always liked the idea of what they’re trying to do, but the songs have just sounded a little too thick. Not enough dynamics or variation in the sound. But the melodies and harmonies and the obvious ’60s influences have finally started to sink in for me.

The Ponys have now put out two very good records, so I was excited to see them in concert for the first time. I’m not sure where TimeOut Chicago’s writer came up with the idea that they’re ripping off the Stooges. I hear a lot more Television myself, plus some British punk and glam rock.

Yeah, I guess they are a little retro, but who isn’t these days? As the New York Times pointed out the other day in a piece about the White Stripes (making a point that occurred me back when I was at this year’s SXSW), rock bands today seem to feel a freedom to borrow whatever sounds they want from any part of rock’s history.

Anyway, the Ponys were quite good in concert, performing their catchy riffs and keening vocals with a lot of energy. The place was packed, and the crowd up by the stage included a bride and groom celebrating their wedding day. (Friends of the band?)

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF THE PONYS.

Okkervil River and Earlimart at Schubas

MAY 12, 2005: Okkervil River should have been the headliner this night at Schubas, but for some reason, they were the opening act for Earlimart. Okkervil River was certainly the better band.

I am digging the new Okkervil CD, Black Sheep Boy, and I’ve been meaning to see the band in concert for a while now, so it was a treat to see Will Sheff and his group playing their songs with so much passion.

Passion, on the other hand, is something that seems to be a little lacking from Earlimart’s music. The only Earlimart album I’m familiar with is last year’s Treble and Tremble, and it strikes me as merely pretty good — pleasant enough, but not a record I go back to all that often. The connection and similarity to Elliott Smith intrigues me, however. I was hoping that seeing Earlimart in concert might do the trick for me, but it was a letdown after the great opening set by Okkervil River.

SEE MORE PHOTOS OF OKKERVIL RIVER AND EARLIMART.

Gang of Four at Metro

MAY 11, 2005
Gang of Four
Metro, Chicago

Wow — what an amazing show this was. Gang of Four has always been one of those bands I wished I’d seen when they were together the first time around, so it was great to get the chance at last. Andy Gill’s jagged rhythms on guitar, so simple but so perfect. That propulsive rhythm section. Vocalist Dave King’s stage presence was a wonder in itself, as he rolled and squatted across the stage, often acting as if the power of the music had actually stunned him.

The crowd was an interesting mix of older fans (another Leeds rocker, Jon Langford of the Mekons, was in the crowd) and younger listeners, probably drawn by the legion of recent bands imitating Gang of Four. Young and old appeared to be having a fun, fun time. Gang of Four’s music is even more impressive in concert than it is on record  — and this reunited lineup more than lived up to expectations.

See photos of Gang of Four.

March and April 2005 concerts

The Underground Bee has been out of commission for a month or so… I was too exhaused by the big SXSW 2005 extravaganzato pay much attention to updating this site. It’s time to catch up. But first, here is an actual letter to the editor I received recently. (The authenticity of the signature is open to question, however.)

DEAR SIR,

I have perused the “Underground Bee” Web site, and I have to admit I am quite disappointed. There is much blathering on about Rock Bands and nary a mention of honey, beeswax, hives, drones, queens and such. I found a reference to something called “Bee Thousand,” but did not understand its meaning. In the future, please try to add items that might be of interest to the striped population.

Sincerely,
Buzz Aldrin

Well! I must admit I keep promising to expand this site’s purview beyond the aforementioned “blathering on about Rock Bands,” without fulfilling said promise. One of these days… I promise. I am far behind on my bee research.

Now, back to the blathering… Some recent concerts:

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APRIL 1 — The Kills at the Double Door. I have to plead ignorance about the music of the Kills  — I just listened to a little bit of their new album online as I decided whether to see this concert. I was intrigued when some critics compared the Kills to P.J. Harvey. I’m not sure that I see that much of a connection, but the Kills certainly put on a pretty darn entertaining concert. Guy on guitar, plus girl on vocals (and occasional guitar), plus drum machine. The spare lineup left them room to cavort across the Double Door stage, working up a good sweat. I will definitely be checking out the Kills’ music after seeing this show. Opening act Scout Niblett was simply tiresome. PHOTOS.

APRIL 3 — Dolorean at Schubas. The club was pretty empty as Dolorean took the stage at 11 p.m. on a Sunday, just 25 to 30 people sitting around to hear Dolorean’s lovely, quiet folk-pop. Bad timing, I suppose. Can’t these Sunday-night shows begin a little earlier? Anyway, Dolorean (which is mostly singer-songwriter Al James) sounded good live, and the lack of fans didn’t detract from my enjoyment. In fact, it made it seem more like James and band were playing a personal gig for the few fans in the place. One of the opening acts, Jeff Hanson, had an amazingly feminine voice, though this guy didn’t look the least bit androgynous. His songs sounded pretty good on first listen, falling somewhere in Jeff Buckley/Nick Drake territory.

APRIL 9  — Magnolia Electric Co. at Schubas. I‘m still not convinced that the 2003 album titled Magnolia Electric Co. was actually by the band called Songs:Ohia. That name doesn’t appear anywhere on my copy of the disc (though I’ve seen copies with a Songs:Ohia sticker). In any case, Jason Molina is now officially calling his band Magnolia Electric Co., and it is a first-rate group. Neil Young and Crazy Horse comparisons are inevitable, but Molina has his own distinctive voice. I like its natural quality. While he doesn’t do a Mark Knopler talk-singing thing, I get the sense that his singing comes straight out of his speaking voice. There’s something very conversational about it. And I love those deep-pitched solos that he plays on the lower strings of his guitar. Three members of Magnolia Electric Co. served as the opening act, playing in the incarnation known as the Coke Dares. Their shtick is playing very short songs in rapid succession, always being sure to say the name of each song. It was quite humorous. I’ll have to hear the songs on CD to say how worthwhile they are, but the Coke Dares seemed to pack a lot into each little burst of music. PHOTOS.

APRIL 15 — Paul Westerberg at the Riveria. He smashed a TV, a telephone and a guitar. He played a lot of his recent solo songs and a few odd covers (“If I Had a Hammer,” “Different Drummer”). He took swigs of whiskey. The concert degenerated into a series of aborted songs: one verse of “Like a Rolling Stone,” half of “Substitute,” a few chords from “Sweet Jane,” the riff from “Cat Scratch Fever.” His band anxiously awaited his next move. Someone got up to leave from a balcony seat and Westerberg said, “Hey, don’t you dare walk away!” Westerberg was falling down on the stage as he played his guitar. Was it all an act? He threw the microphone out into the crowd during “Can’t Hardly Wait,” and then jumped off the stage himself. End of show. Would he bother coming back for an encore? Yes! Glorious versions of “Alex Chilton” and “Left of the Dial” ensued. Was this concert a train wreck? Yes, at times, but it also had moments of triumph.

APRIL 16 — Andrew Bird at Metro. I had the honor of interviewing Mr. Bird recently, and it’s always an honor to see him play live. He’s still doing his amazing one-man band act, using a sampler pedal to loop various string and guitar sounds, building a song from the ground up right in front of the audience. That’s fascinating to see and hear, and it helps that the songs are so good. Kevin O’Donnell was with him on drums tonight, adding jazzy percussion. Bird actually slipped up a couple of times as he tried to juggle all of the musical balls  — but in an odd way, that made his act all the more impressive. It makes you realize how difficult it is to pull off perfection. Near the end of the show, one round of applause swelled beyond the typical cheering, and I sensed a genuine outpouring of affection and appreciation from the crowd. Opening act Archer Prewitt put on a fine set, with his soft, jazzy art-pop songs building into catchy grooves. It was nice seeing Dave Max Crawford, who works as a Metro bartender, on the stage as part of Prewitt’s band, drawing a big hand for a trumpet solo.

APRIL 17 — Damien Jurado at Schubas. Somehow, I’ve missed seeing Jurado in concert until now. I was tempted to see Elvis Costello over at the Auditorium tonight (I’ve somehow missed seeing him in concert, other than one show back in 1989), but I just couldn’t blow off Jurado again. Jurado is one of those singers who doesn’t look the least bit like a rock star, which makes him seem all the more real. He sat down for the whole show, getting up once to go back and play drums for one song. A nice mix of Jurado’s quiet acoustic songs and some rockers, like “Paper Wings.” Responding to an audience request, he played “Ohio” from Rehearsals for Depature, noting that he was heavily medicated (from hospital drugs, not illicit ones) at the time he wrote most of the songs for that album, so he doesn’t really remember the experience. I picked up a copy of that CD on the way out  — I owned it once before, but then it was stolen from my car. I wonder if the thieves ever listened to it? PHOTOS.

APRIL 20 — M. Ward at the Abbey Pub. Another musician I enjoyed interviewing recently. And as I mentioned before, I am waging a campaign for the recognition of M. Ward’s current supremacy in the musical firmament. So of course I enjoyed this show, which featured Ward playing with a full band, his pals in the group Norfolk & Western. The concert had its share of quiet acoustic moments, but it also rocked, especially with songs such as “Big Boat,” “Vincent O’Brien,” “Four Hours in Washington” and “Sad Sad Song.” It’s nice how much Ward varies his live performances. “Fuel For Fire,” which he played on piano at Schubas in February, was back to being an acoustic guitar song this time around, but with a really well-played harmonica solo added to the intro. His Carter Family cover, “Oh Take Me Back,” which is just a short ditty on Transistor Radio, began with an extended bluesy instrumental section. Despite his renown as a guitarist, Ward felt comfortable enough with his role as frontman to take his hands off the guitar and just sing at times. And at other times, it was possible to hear a tiny bit of the surprising influences he mentioned in my interview with him: Sonic Youth and Firehose. None of his music would be confused with those bands, but at a few of the concert’s loudest moments, he did make some dissonant noise with his electric guitar. Norfolk & Western had its own slot as the first opening act, playing melodic folk rock, followed by Devotchka, which played artsy cabaret music — a little like Calexico, with whistling, violin and accordion Interesting, I thought, though obviously not for all tastes. The crowd seemed to dig it. …Speaking of which, the M. Ward crowd was quite young, and I spotted a Bright Eyes T-shirt. Maybe he’s picking up some fans from his tours with Conor Oberst. PHOTOS.

APRIL 21 — Yo La Tengo at the Vic. You might take it as a bad sign that I kept nodding off during this concert, but I’d put the blame more on lack of sleep than lack of interesting music. Yo La Tengo started off the concert with a long instrumental drone, three keyboards going at once, bearing some similarity to Wilco’s much-hated electronic experimentation on “Less Than You Think.” Personally, I like this kind of thing, in small quantities, at least, and I thought this was a daring way for Yo La Tengo to start off its show. (Plus, it gave me time to catch a few winks.) The trio kept things eclectic at this concert, with punky garage rock, super-hushed mellowness and tropicalia. They even did a little dance routine. Somehow, it all sounds distinctly like Yo La Tengo and no one else. Responding to very enthusiastic applause, the band played three encores. A reminder of what a great band this is. NOW why was this concert on the same night as Chris Stamey at the Abbey Pub? I would have liked to have seen both, and given the fact that Yo La Tengo plays on Stamey’s new CD, you wouldn’t think they’d book shows at the same time. Oh, well…

SXSW 2005

A journal of Robert Loerzel’s experiences at South By Southwest in Austin. (Click here to see my coverage for Pioneer Press.)

TUESDAY, MARCH 16 — The music part of the South By Southwest Conference hasn’t started yet, but there’s plenty happening in Austin already. I catch an excellent documentary showing at the SXSW festival, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” which chronicles the story of the highly idiosyncratic singer-songwriter and his battles with mental illness. Johnston’s music is certainly an acquired taste (and I’m only about halfway there toward acquiring it), and it’s hard not to wonder how much attention he would have received without the accompanying story of his having manic depression.

You don’t have to be a fan, however, to appreciate this film, which pulls together some amazing audio tape, film and photos documenting many of the key moments from Johnston’s life. Although the subject matter is completely different, this documentary belongs in a category with “Capturing the Friedmans.” Both draw on extensive home movies or audio recordings to tell a story that wouldn’t be nearly as compelling if the filmmakers had to rely entirely on talking-head interviews. That being said, it’s unfortunate that “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” doesn’t include more interviews with Johnston himself.

Johnston was in the Paramount Theatre for the screening, but he ducked out of the building before the filmmakers got a chance to invite him up onto the stage during the question-and-answer session that followed the movie. They did bring up the woman whom Johnston had a crush on years ago, who has inspired most of his songs. Surprisingly, she did not act too freaked out.

The film fit one of the recurring themes this year at SXSW: Artists who have struggled with mental illness or similar issues. In addition to the film on Johnston and several musical performances by Johnston, the festival featured an appearance by Brian Wilson, the return of Wreckless Eric and a panel discussion and musical performances related to Roky Erikson and the 13th Floor Elevators.

As far as music on Tuesday, the place to be is Beerland, where Two Cow Garage and Richmond Fontaine open for Grand Champeen  –  who pull off a rousing rendition of the Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away.” Only three bands? It’s just an appetizer for the banquet of music that lies ahead.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 16 — The most interesting events today at the conference center (where folks like me, the so-called “badge-wearing weasels,” hang out) are a panel discussion on indie records and an onstage interview with Elvis Costello.

At the indie panel, Nan Warshaw of Bloodshot Records says the label rarely signs anyone based on a demo tape. “The way we find the majority of out bands is word of mouth from people we trust,” she says. And it’s essential that a musical act shows its commitment to touring. Warshaw and her cohorts at the label usually wait for a performer to show up in Chicago, rather than scouting around the country for bands.

Warshaw bemoaned the loss of many independent record stores around the country, while Jeff Price of SpinART said the trend toward selling songs by download gives small record labels a new advantage —they won’t have to worry so much about unsold CDs being shipped back to them from retailers.

ELVIS COSTELLO is entertaining, witty and talkative. He spends the first portion of his interview complaining about all of the record-label management changes he has survived.

Asked about the difference between his current band, the Imposters, and the very similar Attractions, he says the group is different because of all the experience the musicians gained in projects outside of their work with Costello. And of course, the band has a different bass player. Prefacing his comments by saying he does not plan to insult Attractions bassist Bruce Thomas, Costello goes on to say, “He simply can’t play a groove.” As Costello explains it, Thomas is a good melodic bassist in the tradition of Paul McCartney, but was never really part of the Attractions’ “rhythm section,” with Costello’s guitar taking the groove role that the bass would normally play.

Asked about the books that have been written about him (and without his cooperation), Costello reveals that he’s working on a book of his own, which should be out next year. He hints that it will be an unconventional memoir in the vein of Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles Vol. 1.”

Costello answers a question about his famous performance of “Radio Radio” on “Saturday Night Live.” Did he really pull a fast one on NBC by playing the song against the network’s wishes, or was Lorne Michaels really in on the joke? Costello does not directly answer, but he repeats something Bill Murray told him: “Don’t let Lorne tell you he was in on the joke. He was behind the camera giving you the finger.”

And for someone who has released a ton of albums (and reissued versions of those albums, and special editions of the reissues…), Costello surprisingly says the important thing is playing live, not making records: “It’s always about playing … Records are just a souvenir. Live music is where it’s at.”

ROBYN HITCHCOCK — Right off the bat, I break my self-imposed SXSW rule: See bands you haven’t seen before. Sopping into the Vibe, where Micah P. Hinson is supposed to be playing, I see nothing happening. It’s already 8 p.m., and no one’s even setting up equipment on the stage. In fact, someone’s taking equipment off the stage. Impatiently, I head down the street to Emo’s to see someone I’ve seen many times before, the great Robyn Hitchcock. (On the way in, I catch just a minute or so of a singer named TONY TEARDROP. Not bad…) Hitchcock was just what you’d expect. He seems to settled into a good stage of his career, not too concerned about big-label success, still weird but not quite so self-consciously arty. And he’s a mighty fine performer as a singer with an acoustic guitar. Somehow, Hitchcock is one of the few people with multiple SXSW showcase time slots (another being Daniel Johnston). Hitchcock jokes, “I’m doing over 400 gigs here.” And he also makes light of his current status in the music world as he takes a swig from a bottle of water: “This is what it looks like when a cult figure has his water. Don’t confuse it with the way a living legend drinks his water. When Brian Wilson drinks his water, pay close attention to his technique.” www.robynhitchcock.com

JENNIFER GENTLE — This is not a girl, it’s a band from Italy, and they play next on the Emo’s stage. Judging from his vocals as well as his haircut, the lead singer has paid close attention to those early Pink Floyd records featuring Syd Barrett. The band, which was recently singed by Sub Pop, is interesting, playing gentle pyschedelia as well as a few excellent jams — I like the keyboard player literally pounding his fists on his instrument. Some of the quirkier tunes verged on being annoying, in that sing-songy, herky-jerky psychedelic kind of way, though I’d personally say it was a good kind of annoying.SEE PHOTOS OF JENNIFER GENTLE.
www.jennifergentle.it

 

GRIS GRIS — Highly appropriate as a followup to Jennifer Gentle, this Oakland band was playing down the street at Club DeVille. After the opening minute of noise, I think, “Uh oh, this could be some idiotic art-school wankery ahead,” but it turns out to be a quite invigorating performance of freakout psychedelia. (There’s a fine line between the two, and don’t ask me to define it just now.) SEE PHOTOS OF GRIS GRIS.
www.birdmanrecords.com/grisgris

MIDLAKE — I love these guys from Denton, Texas, and I can’t understand why they haven’t received more attention, especially from all of the people who like Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips and Grandaddy. A packed house is ready to hear them tonight, however, at the bar called Friends. Unfortunately, the two-keyboard band has trouble setting up its equipment on the small stage. At one point, a band member asks for help on programming a keyboard, apparently on loan from the previous band. Midlake ditches its plan to show slides during the concert and finally gets started 10 or 15 minutes late. Despite all these problems, Midlake’s live show lives up to the promise of the recordings. It’s particularly great to hear those lively drum parts driving along these weirdly sinister and whimsical songs. At least some of the audience is familiar with the songs, which is a good sign — maybe Midlake’s not quite as unknown as I’d thought. Midlake closes with “Kingfish Pies,” a great tune, and the lyrics of the final chorus almost give me chills. SEE PHOTOS OF MIDLAKE.
www.midlake.net

BURNING BRIGHT — I head over to the Hard Rock Café to check out this band mostly because they’re local to my newspaper’s coverage area, hailing from the suburbs of Chicago. The sets here are running late, and so I see a little bit of the previous band, DELEGATE… not enough to really say much about them, though. Burning Bright finally gets started, and I can see these guys are not exactly my cup of tea, but they have the punk-pop thing down cold, so they do have the potential to make it. Nice energy onstage, too.
www.burningbrightmusic.com

MONO — Next stop is the Eternal nightclub, where this Japanese trio wows the audience with its slowly building instrumental epics. A perfect sendoff as the clock strikes 2 and everyone heads back to their hotels. SEE PHOTOS OF MONO.
www.mono-44.com

THURSDAY, MARCH 17 — Gotta get up early to see MAVIS STAPLES performing the 10 a.m. slot over at the covention center, the SXSW equivalent of church services. She gives an excellent performance, accompanied just by Marty Stuart on acoustic guitar and mandolin. Her mini show is a prelude to the keynote appearance by…

ROBERT PLANT — Do we really need to sit through an infomercial offering a hagiography of Plant and heavy promotion of his new album? Ugh… But once that’s over and Plant accepts the Led Zeppelin lifetime-achivement Grammy that he failed to pick up at the Grammys show, Plant turns out to be quite interesting and charming during the onstage interview. (What exactly does it mean for an interview to be the “keynote speech,” anyway?)

Portraying himself as someone who has constantly pushed forward by trying out new musical ideas, Plant says, “I don’t think popular music can ever stand still, and it can’t be left up to new musicians to push it forward.”

Plant throws a bit of an insult at his hard-rock contemporaries from the 1970s, saying he always thought of Led Zeppelin as being more intelligent than groups such as Black Sabbath. In the end, though, Zep gets lumped together with all of those bands, Plant says in a despairing tone: “You end up in the same pile with ‘Paranoid.'”

But he acknowledges Zep was guilty of some excesses: “The songs got longer and longer. (During solos), I learned a few languages. I’d nip off. I had a little Berlitz course.”

Plant laughs at the part he played in injecting Nordic and Celtic imagery —and Tolkien themes —into rock music. Now that Viking hordes are an icon of hard rock, he says: “They’re all coming over the horizon in longboats. It’s not my fault!”

Calling for more diversity on radio, he says, “I hate the idea of the jukebox being the mass acceptance of four or five songs.”

Asked about the charges that Zeppelin ripped off some of its songs from blues musicians, Plant says it’s just the blues tradition of taking earlier riffs and doing something new with them. He cites the Black Keys as a current band he likes that is doing the same thing. “It’s quite vital to hear that. It’s very good… There’s no end to plagiarism, really.”
www.robertplant.com

APOSTLE OF HUSTLE — I pop out of the convention center and head over to one of the many day parties going on. (SEE PHOTOS OF APOSTLE OF HUSTLE.) Apostles of Hustle, one of the Canadian bands that shares members with Broken Social Scene, is on the stage at Emo’s Jr. They’re very energetic, with horns, cowbell and even a flamenco dancer supplementing their songs. I am digging it quite a bit as a live show, though I’ll need to hear the studio recordings to decide how good the songs are. After taking the vocals on one song, the trumpet player jumps off the stage and leaves the room. That’s because he needs to head over to the other Emo’s stage, where he is playing with…
www.arts-crafts.ca/apostleofhustle

STARS — Another Canadian band, obviously, and one I’m not that familiar with. When I see a concert by a group whose music I don’t know, it’s rare that I notice much about the lyrics (assuming I can even make them out), but a couple of songs by Stars have striking words that penetrate through all the normal din and stick in my mind. I like these guys an awful lot, and will definitely be checking out their recordings. Not to be too obvious, but they remind me a bit of the Fire Arcade. Like many of the bands playing this year at SXSW, Stars and Apostle of Hustle have musicians trading off on vocals and various instruments. That seems to be another theme this year: Big ensembles with horns, xylophones, bells and melodica… usually from Brooklyn or Toronto. SEE PHOTOS OF STARS.
www.arts-crafts.ca/stars

DR. DOG — As I walk out through the Emo’s Jr. room, I catch just a minute of Dr. Dog, but I can say from previous experience that this is a band to watch. Their CD Easy Beat is shaping up as an early 2005 favorite for me.

 

THE REDWALLS — Another band I’m seeing because of the local angle (they’re from Deerfield, Illinois), but this is one I’d love to see in any case. Yes, they are derivative of the early Beatles and other ’60s music, but I can’t say I really care if it’s derivative or not. They play it with such passion and conviction, and they’re so damn good at it. While I am this Advanced Alternative Media party, I catch a couple of other acts, though I can’t say I’m sure who they are. Willy Mason… I think? Memo to aspiring rock stars: Tell the crowd who you are. (Yes, yes, I know I should be taking better notes.) SEE PHOTOS OF THE REDWALLS.
www.theredwalls.com

13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS — Running late, I head back to the convention center for the end of the panel discussion on the 13th Floor Elevators, especially notable because Roky Erikson is taking part. By the time I arrive, it’s time for audience questions, and no one in the audience seems to have any questions. A few people get up to offer their fond memories of the Elevators. After a few minutes of this, I decide to head across the street for…

JAPAN BASH — This party is a good chance to catch a couple of the bands playing at the Japan Nite showcases. I can’t say I’m super-impressed, though. NOODLES and TITAN GO KING’S both strike me as the sort of so-so bands that wouldn’t attract any attention at all without the novelty of seeing cute Japanese girls playing punk. And so I move on…

JON LANGFORD — The singer with the Mekons, Waco Brothers and countless other punk and country bands gives a performance of his new multimedia show, “Executioner’s Last Songs,” a combination of music with monologues about his life, the histories of punk and alt-country, the story of the Mekons and his activism against the death penalty. Sally Timms and a violinist back Langford on the songs, while a screen shows collages of his artwork and film footage. Langford’s always been a funny raconteur at Mekons and Wacos shows, so it’s no surprise he could pull off a show like this one, which he plans to do at a few museums around the country this year, possibly including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It’s entertaining to hear his spiels, always on that humorous cusp between low-brow punk attitude and high-brow intellectual content. This feels more like a dress rehearsal than the final show, with Langford stumbling a number of times as he reads from a script. (Of course, he just makes light of his stumbling… including the funniest bit of the whole night, when everyone cracks up over a line about bears nibbling on Langford’s testicles.)

 

“The secret of the Mekons’ success was our lack of success,” Langford says.

And he recalls what Lester Bangs said when he was stunned by the Mekons’ self-deprecation: “That’s a totally revolutionary concept —a band that doesn’t even like itself.”

ADEM — This British folk singer seems like a good way to start the official SXSW showcase portion of the evening. Though he’s often mentioned in the same breath as Americans Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, his music doesn’t seem as quirky as theirs (and not nearly as annoying, if you ask me). He gives an impressive performance, despite the distraction of bar noise and rumblings of a band from next door. (Or is that construction equipment?)
www.adem.tv

AMPOP — Without any must-see acts in the 9 p.m. hour, I take a chance on a random choice, this band from Iceland without a U.S. record label. And they turn out to be quite impressive, with melodies that sound a little like Radiohead, though the overall sound of the band has a different feel. They’re pleasantly modest as they introduce themselves, as if they’re not sure what to expect on this trek far from their homeland. As they finish their set, it’s clear they’ve won over some fans. A few people go up to the stage and ask the members of AMPOP if they have any CDs for sale. SEE PHOTOS OF AMPOP.
www.ampop.co.uk

MARTHA WAINWRIGHT —As a fan of Rufus Wainwright as well as his father, Loudon, I was interested to see what Rufus’ sister is up to musically. But her performance isn’t exciting me. I’m not ready to write her off —any member of the Wainwright-McGarrigle family is bound to have some musical talent —but her songs sound pretty generic as I hear them for the first time at this performance. Maybe if I knew the tunes better, or heard them with more interesting arrangements, they’d do more for me, but at the moment, she’s just not catching my interest. I watch about half the set and leave, hoping to get into the 11 p.m. show by Sri Lankan-English rapper….
www.marthawainwright.com

M.I.A. — Unfortunately, the line for badge-holders to get into this show at Elysium is a block long. I debate whether to try, and end up standing in line for almost an hour. I should just bail out, but once I’ve waited for a while, I feel committed to getting in. Besides, I want to see LCD Soundsystem at the same venue at 1 a.m. I finally get in, just a few minutes before M.I.A. finishes her set. I don’t hear enough to say what the big deal is… She’s obviously attracting some attention, though. I was intrigued when I read a profile of her in the New Yorker a few months ago.
www.miauk.com

HOT CHIP — More misfortune… this time because I am inside the venue. I sit through a set by this band just so I can see LCD Soundsystem. Deliberately projecting the image of nerds, these guys playing on a series of five or six keyboards set up across the stage. Very little about their music interests me, and I find myself sitting over in a corner, dozing off. I wake up to find my badge missing… a potential disaster… and figure out that it must have come off when I lifted my camera over my head to get a picture of M.I.A. The staff at Elysium is a great help, though. Someone gave the missing badge to one of the bouncers, and they retrieve it for me. Phew!
www.hotchip.co.uk

LCD SOUNDSYSTEM lives up to the hype. A great, great show of dance music played by a true live band (more cowbell!) with intense vocals. In spite of the live feel of the music, singer James Murphy jokes at one point, “We’re one of the bands you read about that all of the rock bands make fun of, because we’re a slave to the technology.” Murphy is pretty funny in an acerbic way when he talks to the crowd between songs. The audience dances up a storm. Best show I’ve seen so far at SXSW. SEE PHOTOS OF LCD SOUNDSYSTEM.
www.dfarecords.com

FRIDAY, MARCH 18 — MAVIS STAPLES gives an onstage interview at the convention center, talking about her plans to release the final recordings by her late father, Pops Staples. I’ve heard a rough mix of those recordings, and I can report that they’re excellent. The sooner that album comes out, the better.

Commenting on the criticisms over the years about mixing gospel music with the blues, Staples says her father would say, “The devil ain’t got no music. All music is God’s music.”

BRIAN WILSON — The Beach Boys legend makes a rare public-speaking appearance as part of a panel discussion about the recording of theSmile album.Ironically, Wilson barely cracks a smile himself… at least during the first part of the event. He looks distinctly uncomfortable as he trudges onto the stage with the other panelists, who include Smile lyricist Van Dyke Parks.

The rest of the people on the panel — filmmakers, journalists, experts on the Beach Boys — are fine, but no one in the room really wants to hear them talk. We’re just there for Wilson and Parks. Wilson gives abrupt answers to most of the questions, acting almost like he’s cutting off discussion about the ways he doesn’t want to discuss… or maybe that’s just the way he talks. On some questions, he doesn’t show much sense of reflection or deep thought. Asked several times why he finally decided to release Smile in 2004, he simply says that his wife told him it would be a good time to release it. That’s it. No reflection on how his feelings about the project changed.

Parks, on the other hand, says, “I abhorred any thought of Smile for 38 years. It was just a very painful thought for me.”

One of Wilson’s stranger revelations (maybe he has said this before — I don’t know) is that he cannot hear music in his head. Two people ask him how he takes the musical ideas he hears in his head and writes them down or records them. Both times he gives a similar answer: “I did not hear it my head. I cannot hear it in my head. I have to go into the studio to hear it.”

Asked about revisiting the traumatic “Fire” song, Wilson sounds nonchalant: “It felt a little scary, but it was good to get back into it.”

Wilson says he wouldn’t have been able to finish Smile without a piece of technology that was unavailable to the Beach Boys in the 1960s: Pro Tools. “It made it easier to sequence.”

What music is Wilson listening to these days? “I still listen to Nat ‘King Cole now and then. I listen to Phil Spector. I listen to the Beatles. And that’s about it.”

What does he think of the Beach Boys album Smiley Smile, which was salvaged out of the first Smilesessions? “Smiley Smile was a pleasant hashish marijuana album.”

Asked about his late brothers Carl and Dennis: “If they were alive, they’d be thrilled to death to listen to it (Smile) … I miss their voices very much.”

Parks says he came up with the title “Surf’s Up” to encourage Dennis Wilson, who was upset by people mocking the Beach Boys’ image as surfers. “It was that positive image that I thought we should respect,” Park says, adding, “The rest is just about the decay of modern civilization.”

During the time for audience questions, I can’t resist the chance to ask Brian Wilson something, so I get up and ask him to comment about the band he currently works with. “I used to work with the Beach Boys’ musicians,” he says. “I used to work with Phil Spector’s musicians. I found a band that’s better than both of them put together.”

THE FUTUREHEADS are playing their lively art punk at the Spin magazine party at Stubb’s when I show up. I’ve seen them recently, so I didn’t feel much need to catch their performances here, but I’m glad to see they appear to be wowing the crowd. What a great version of Kate Bush’s “Hounds of Love” they do.
www.thefutureheads.com

BLOC PARTY is up next at the Spin party. I’m not sure yet if they have the songs to live up to the hype that’s been building for them, but they do put on a hell of a show. Yet another band showing the influence of late ’70s and early ’80s music like the Gang of Four and the Cure, but Bloc Party seems to have its own take. SEE PHOTOS OF BLOC PARTY.
www.blocparty.com

NEW YORK DOLLS finish up the party. Sure, only two original members are on the stage, but it’s damn fun seeing David Johanson, Sylvain Sylvain and the new recruits showing how things were done back in… (gasp) 1973. SEE PHOTOS OF NEW YORK DOLLS.

PICASTRO starts off the showcase at Friends for the Polyvinyl label (based in good old Champaign, Illinois). The Toronto group plays melancholy, drony acoustic music, with a violin giving it the feeling of avant-garde chamber music. I have a feeling many people will find Picastro a tad boring, but connoisseurs of low-key (myself included) may be mesmerized. SEE PHOTOS OF PICASTRO.

IDA, another ensemble from Brooklyn featuring weird instruments (an miniature old-fashioned pump organ and bells), follows Picastro at the Polyvinyl showcase. They’re subdued, too, but their sound is more varied. Some lovely, lovely melodies and harmonies, a bit reminiscent of Low. This is a band to watch. SEE PHOTOS OF IDA.
www.idamusic.com

GREY DELISLE — You’ve gotta like a gal singer in a shiny red dress strumming an autoharp, and a mandolin player using the instrument to play loud electric solos. And then to put icing on the cake, the talented DeLisle does an Americana cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (well, the first part of the Queen song, the part before it gets really silly). Her Graceful Ghost album was a highlight of last year; I’m looking forward to her new one. SEE PHOTOS OF GREY DELISLE.
www.greydelisle.com

Given the long line for the Go! Team and Dogs Die in Hot Cars, I opt to go to Exodus for…

THE WARLOCKS, who practically tear up the place with their psychedelic jams. Whew! SEE PHOTOS OF THE WARLOCKS.
www.thewarlocks.com

DIOS MALOS would be the one band that Brian Wilson would see tonight, if he were actually out on the town. Wilson’s nowhere in sight, of course, but the spirit of his music hovers over the group as it plays its catchy songs at the Blender Bar at the Ritz. Listening to the CD by Dios (as the band was called before Ronnie James Dio forced them to change the name), I noticed the nice harmonies and melodies but I failed to appreciate the group’s ability to play solos that take the songs to cathartic climaxes. Very cool. SEE PHOTOS OF DIOS MALOS.
www.wearedios.com

Seeing another long line, this time for Guitar Wolf, I choose to see…

THE CAPITOL YEARS. Another band obviously influenced by the ’60s. By the end of the set, the band is going wild with Pete Townshend-style windmill moves on the guitar and roaring like the late ’60s Who. SEE PHOTOS OF THE CAPITOL YEARS.
www.capitolyears.com

 Just enough time is left in the 1 a.m. time slot for me to catch a song by Copenhagen’s Blue Van (very lively), a few minutes of jamming by Isis, and a good, long chunk of the show by…

SHONEN KNIFE. I’m way behind on this group, pretty much ignoring their music for years. Once again, I think the Japanese novelty factor might account for some of the band’s fame, but they do seem quite a bit of fun, and they’re good musicians to boot. SEE PHOTOS OF SHONEN KNIFE.
www.shonenknife.net

SATURDAY, MARCH 20 — Many day parties to choose from, but the one with a truly solid lineup is the Misra/Overcoat shindig at Red Eyed Fly, so that’s where I camp out for the afternoon

THE ZINCS — I see a few songs by this group (just one guy, actually)… which seem pretty good but quickly disappear into the blur of my memory.

PHOSPHORESCENT… yet another big ensemble with horns and such. Quite good stuff. Reminds me a bit of Bright Eyes, but not the whiny acoustic songs —the bigger moments when Bright Eyes music bursts out with horn solos. I’m looking forward to hearing more from Phosphorescent. SEE PHOTOS OF PHOSPHORESCENT.
www.thewarmsupercompter.com

MICAH P. HINSON is next, with a good set… that also fades into the SXSW blur. He’s worth pursuing, I think.SEE PHOTOS OF MICAH P. HINSON.
www.sketchbookrecords.com

GREAT LAKE SWIMMERS are one of the main reasons I’m at this party. Their self-titled album, released a while back in Canada, is coming out next month on Misra, and I’ve been listening to it quite a bit. This is quiet folk music with crickets chirping in the background, haunting melodies and words sung softly, so softly. It’s in a similar vein to Iron and Wine, though personally I prefer these songs. The set this afternoon is short, but the music’s just a powerful in a quiet live show as it is on the record. The performances at SXSW were the first concerts by Great Lake Swimmers (mostly singer Tony Dekker) in the U.S. SEE PHOTOS OF GREAT LAKE SWIMMERS.
www.greatlakeswimmers.com

NICOLAI DUNGER is from Sweden, but he’s definitely channeling Van Morrison during his set. Great voice. SEE PHOTOS OF NICOLAI DUNGER.
www.nicolaidunger.com

CENTRO-MATIC is one of the best rock bands playing today, and they just prove it once again.SEE PHOTOS OF CENTRO-MATIC.
www.centro-matic.com

THE FRAMES finish up the party. I still haven’t gotten a handle on exactly what the Frames are all about. I really like them at some moments, don’t quite get them at other moments. But this is a fun show, closing their U.S. tour. They play covers of the Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” and Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.” When Nicolai Dunger joins them onstage for that song, he gets his Van tunes a bit mixed up and starts singing, “Turn up the radio… when you’re going into the mystic!” Urged on by the audience to play an encore, the Frames comply with an a cappella version of local hero Daniel Johnston’s “Devil Town.” And that tune surfaces several times in my head over the course of the night.SEE PHOTOS OF THE FRAMES.
www.theframes.ie

THE LAST TOWN CHORUS, from Brooklyn, starts out the night with a cool set of hauntingly beautiful acoustic tunes dominated by the rather fetching singer Megan Hickey’s lap guitar solos. A couple of interesting covers: David Bowie’s “Modern Love” and a song by Gillian Welch (sorry, I know the song, just can’t remember the title right now). This is another folk-rock group with strong potential. SEE PHOTOS OF THE LAST TOWN CHORUS.
www.TheLastTownChorus.com

NIC ARMSTRONG & THE THIEVES —The name sounds like a singer and a backup band, but surprisingly, everyone in this group gets a turn at lead vocals. Great bluesy British pop in the style of early Stones and Animals classics. The band’s very lively, with the drummer vaulting over his kit a couple of kits to tap his sticks all over the place. The guitarist steps onto his monitor at one point… narrowly avoiding a fall just because I happen to have my hand on the monitor. My beer bottle crashes to the floor and smashes to pieces. At several points, I nearly get hit in the head with the guitar. (Insert gratitutious comment about rock ‘n’ roll here including the word “Dude.”) SEE PHOTOS OF NIC ARMSTRONG & THE THIEVES.
www.nicarmstrong.com

THE SILENT LEAGUE —Another big ensemble… Yes, another melodica is spotted at this concert. I can’t really get into this band, although I did like the mp3 sample posted at the SXSW site. And that song sounds good in concert… so I won’t write them off just yet. They’re a decent band, just not that exciting yet.As the show ends, someone up in the balcony dumps a crapload of glitter on my head… which ends up inside my shirt, underpants, etc. Not sure if this was part of the show or just moronic action by a drunk person. In any case, I skidaddle out of there. SEE PHOTOS OF THE SILENT LEAGUE.
www.silentleague.com

CONTROLLER.CONTROLLER —A really nice surprise, a band that I knew nothing about, this Toronto group really rocked the Eternal nightclub with its guitar-based dance music (Gang of Four rearing its head again). The band members were almost out of control with their constant dancing throughout the show. SEE PHOTOS OF CONTROLLER.CONTROLLER.
www.controllercontroller.com

THE NIGHTINGALES —I’d heard that Jon Langford recommended seeing this band, an older British punk group that entirely escaped my attention until now. Unlike the more kinetic bands at SXSW (controller.controller, Bloc Party), the Nightingales just stand there and play their instruments, but their music is simply propulsive. Catchy, too, with a narrow drive that reminds me a little of Wire. But enough of these comparisons and categorizations. Let’s just introduce the Nightingales with the words of lead singer Robert Lloyd: “We’re the Nightingales from England. Make of this what you will.” SEE PHOTOS OF NIGHTINGALES.
home.clara.net/kidd/nighingales.html

DANIEL JOHNSTON plays next at Maggie Mae’s. As I said, an acquired taste. Should we cut him some slack because of the challenges he faces or judge him like any other musician? I do like his voice and some of his melodies. The words are interesting at times, though fairly bland when he tries to write straightforward love songs. His sense of rhythm on guitar and piano is not so good… or is it hearing some weird rhythm that the rest of us don’t get? In any case, it was nice to see Johnston playing in Austin and receiving a hearty round of applause.
www.hihowareyou.com

After Johnston finished, enough time remained to catch a fairly long stretch of music by…

BRAZILIAN GIRLS, another hyped band… though the hype didn’t seem particularly frenzied in Austin. None of them are Brazilian, and there’s only one girl in the bunch. This is intelligent and catchy dance music, something I could definitely get into. And it doesn’t hurt that the band has a sexy singer, Sabina Sciubba, who is wearing an outfit tonight that would make Bjork proud.

SEE PHOTOS OF BRAZILIAN GIRLS.
www.braziliangirls.info

And so SXSW ends. A ton of great music, though I know I missed a lot, too.

Jeff Tweedy at the Vic

MARCH 5, 2005
Jeff Tweedy
The Vic, Chicago

Jeff Tweedy’s occasional solo concerts are one reason I feel lucky to live in Chicago. Sometimes Tweedy uses these shows to try out new songs, which end up later on albums by Wilco (or one of his other projects). Tonight’s show was all about nostalgia, though, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. Resurrecting no less than five pre-Wilco songs out of the Uncle Tupelo catalogue, Tweedy seemed to be reconnecting with some moments from his past — and giving the musical equivalent of a big wet kiss to some of his most rabid fans, the ones who scream out requests for oldies like “Gun” at his solo concerts.
In addition to the five Uncle Tupelo songs, Tweedy played a couple by one of his side projects, Golden Smog; two from the Loose Fur album; and one from the Minus Five album that Wilco worked on with Scott McCaughey. He also gave a rare performance of the non-album Wilco song “Blasting Fonda” and played a cover of Mott the Hoople’s “Henry and the H Bombs.”
Few performers can command the attention of a large theater with just a voice and an acoustic guitar, and Tweedy is one of them. Two of his Wilco bandmates, John Stirratt and Pat Sansone, opened in the guise of their group Autumn Defense, playing beautiful, sleepy acoustic pop, most of it from the excellent 2003 album Circles. Stirratt acted as if he were a little daunted about playing these little songs in front of such a big audience. “It’s like Schubas on steroids,” he joked, commenting on how quiet the room was.
Tweedy played several songs before saying anything to the audience, but he was talkative later on, bantering with the crowd about all of the people holding up cell phones. Tweedy momentarily blanked out on the lyrics of “(Was I) In Your Dreams” and flubbed a chord or two in “Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway (Again),” which made him seem human. He had some fun at his own expense about this. Those lapses were forgivable, of course, as Tweedy once again showed himself to be an accomplished acoustic guitarist. And his voice? It has become so familiar to me and many other listeners that it’s hard to say much new about it or to rate his vocals on a particular night. It just sounds like the voice of a friend.
Tweedy joked that it seemed like he’d played 10 or 12 Uncle Tupelo songs tonight. Noting that “Gun” was 12 years old, he shook his head and wondered where the years had gone. After a false start in a lower key, he played the song without a capo in the higher key he originally sang it in for Uncle Tupelo. When he polled the crowd afterward, most hands went up for the higher version. Tweedy lamented that it’s harder to sing that way.
With Autumn Defense as the opening act, the odds seemed good for a surprise appearance by Wilco at the end of the concert. But I’d heard no such thing happened on the previous night (I missed that concert). And after two encores and 90 minutes of music, it felt like the show was over. Tweedy played an excellent version of “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” capturing the jaunty vibe that song had in incarnations pre-dating the final studio version on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Tweedy waved to the crowd and walked off stage. Many people (myself included) got ready to leave, but then some roadies appeared.
At the sight of a Persian rug, the crowd went wild. Yes, I know that’s a cliche, but it’s one of the few times in the last year I’d say it was a true description of an audience reaction… the other being the roar of applause when Wilco took the stage at the Vic a year ago. This band certainly has some devoted fans.
Just about everyone knew what the rug meant — Glenn Kotche’s drum set was coming out. The roadies quickly set up the drums, a couple of keyboards and guitars. Beaming like a giddy child, Kotche sat down and began playing the recognizable beat of “Laminated Cat” (aka “Not For the Season”). Tweedy came back out and played the Loose Fur song. Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone joined in for “The Family Gardener.” Then Stirratt came out for the remainder of the mini-Wilco concert. All that was missing was guitarist Nels Cline, and Tweedy joked about that, having Sansone call him up on his cell phone. (He got Cline’s voice mail.)
Without Cline, Wilco’s sound was a little subdued and keyboard-dominated, but it matched the mood of the evening perfectly. The performance had the loose feel of a friendly living-room jam or rehearsal. Tweedy set down his guitar for three of the songs: Randy Newman’s “Political Science” (he even did a couple of leg kicks on the lines, “Boom goes London, boom Par-ee!”), “Hummingbird” and “I Shall Be Released.” After the big-keyboard finish of “Hummingbird,” Tweedy said, “Damn you, Jim O’Rourke! You made us sound like Supertramp!”
Those looking for clues about the direction of the next Wilco album were left clueless after tonight’s show, but it was a great look back at what Tweedy and his pals have accomplished so far.

Here’s the set list:

Someone Else’s Song
Remember the Mountain Bed
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart
Airline to Heaven
(Was I) In Your Dreams
Wait Up
Black Eye
Radio King
Chinese Apple
Bob Dylans 49th Beard
Someday Some Morning Sometime
Blasting Fonda
Someday Soon
Nothing’severgonnastandinmyway(again)
Summer Teeth
ELT
I Can’t Keep From Talking

Encore 1
Gun
We’ve Been Had
Candyfloss
Henry & The H-Bombs
Acuff Rose
I’m The Man Who Loves You

Encore 2
Misunderstood

Encore 3
Not For The Season (with Glenn Kotche)
The Family Gardener (with Kotche, Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone)
How To Fight Loneliness (with Kotche, Jorgensen, Sansone and John Stirratt for rest of set)
John Wesley Harding
Political Science
Hummingbird
Late Greats

Encore 4
Passenger Side
California Stars
I Shall Be Released

Slobberbone at the Abbey Pub

MARCH 4, 2005
Slobberbone
The Abbey Pub, Chicago

What is it with Denton, Texas, anyway? Seems like a lot of good bands hail from there, including Slobberbone (as well as Centro-Matic and Midlake). Slobberbone’s calling it quits, but not before giving the fans what they want with this farewell tour. A good time was had by all (…well, as far as I could determine). Two Cow Garage also played tonight, ripping up the stage with its usual heart-on-sleeve over-the-top garage rock. And the first opening act, I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch in the House, proved to be pretty darn entertaining, too, though they didn’t necessarily live up to their name, given the competition they faced onstage.

SEE PHOTOS OF SLOBBERBONE, TWO COW GARAGE & I CAN LICK ANY SONOFABITCH IN THE HOUSE (including some artsy shots, like the one above, taken through a bunch of beer bottles on the edge of the stage).

The Futureheads at the Double Door

The Futureheads were just as unrelenting in concert (March 1 at the Double Door) as they are on their CD. I still can’t help thinking of early XTC when I hear the Futurehead’s herky-jerky riffs, but they’re original enough to stand apart from their obvious influences. The interlocking guitar lines, the pounding bass and percussion are all great, but what really sets them above most of their contemporaries is the vocals. All four Futureheads sing, though it’s a far cry from sweet harmony. These Brits are a cheeky bunch, too, so their stage banter was pretty entertaining. Only down side: I wish their high-intensity style weren’t quite so unrelenting. I’m not asking for a ballad, but personally, I could use a bit of break.
The first opening act, the High Speed Scene, was pleasant enough but not exactly thrilling power pop. (Think Split Enz with louder guitars.) The second act, Sweden’s the Shout Out Louds, were more enjoyable, with tuneful songs; a hirsute and highly spastic bass player; a very Nordic-looking blonde on keyboards, xylophone, harmonica and tambourine; and a yelping lead singer who looks like Jason Schwartzbaum. I thought their resemblance to the Cure (mostly in the vocals) was a bit too obvious, but a die-hard Cure fan who listened to the Shout Out Louds’ three-song EP assures me I’m just imagining things.

M. Ward and Dr. Dog at Schubas

As a self-proclaimed “M. Head” (see my CD review), I went to see this show (Feb. 25, 2005, at Schubas) for just one reason, M. Ward’s performance, but it turned out to be a good triple bill.
Playing first: Shelley Short, a singer-songwriter with a pretty voice playing languid little ditties, traditional folk with a bit of old-timey songbook… but not so much that her music ever crossed into the cloying cuteness of Betty Boop stuff. If you need a reference point for Short’s style, she’s somewhere between Gillian Welch and Nora O’Connor — not nearly as accomplished as either of them, but showing a lot of promise. She sat down and played acoustic guitar for the whole set, backed by upright bass and drums.
After the show, I asked Shelley where she lives. “Portland, Oregon,” she said. “Wait, what am I saying? Chicago.” (She lived in Portland until about six months ago.) I picked up her CD, Oh Say Little Dogies, Why? You can tell from the packaging (or lack thereof) that it’s a homemade effort, but it generally sounded good to me on my first listen.
Up second was Dr. Dog. These guys from Philadelphia were fairly raucous onstage, though they always kept their performance grounded in the melodies and riffs of their songs rather than indulging in full-out jamming. They reminded me a little of My Morning Jacket, though not quite as hairy or loud. And the Faces — but maybe that’s just because I’d been listening to the great Five Guys Walk Into a Bar… box set earlier in the day, and suddenly the Faces seem like a touchstone for a lot of bands.
Anyway, Dr. Dog played songs rooted in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with good harmonies, impressive little instrumental breaks and some quality jumping and head-bobbing. I also picked up their CD, Easybeat from National Parking Records (a bargain at the merch-table price of $5). First impression: Not as loud or wild as the live show, with some interesting sounds and songs… Needs more time for evaluation. (See Dr. Dog on the SXSW site.)
Onto the main act…
I was not shocked that this show sold out, though I was a bit surprised at how quickly tickets disappeared. Who are the fans? People who found out about M. Ward from his opening slots on the tours with Bright Eyes and My Morning Jacket? No obvious group of Bright Eyes fanatics was visible in Schubas, but then again, it was a 21-and-over show so that might have shut out that contingent. Maybe Ward’s fan base is simply growing as more people hear about him (…through exposure such as his June 2004 interview on NPR).
Ward’s performance was preceded by yet another poem of opaque gibberish from Chicago’s rock concert poet Thax Douglas. Thax’s poems are indecipherable, but at least they’re reasonably short, and I’ve come to accept them as a sort of Chicago concert ritual. If nothing else, it’s interesting to see the reactions of concertgoers unfamiliar with his… um… Thaxness.
After Thax left the stage (nearly knocking me over in the process), Ward came up, the top half of his head enshrouded in a thin blue cap. As he plugged his guitar into his effect pedals, a young woman near the stage wearing an M.WARD T-shirt asked him to sign it and he politely replied, “Maybe later. I’m a little busy now.”
Standing away from his two vocal mikes, off to the side of the stage, Ward lifted his guitar with the neck pointed at the ceiling (for you guitar geeks out there, the only guitar he touched all night was his black Gibson J45) and played perhaps the quietest imaginable choice for an opening song, his version of Bach’s first prelude from “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” It’s clear that Ward is a virtuoso on guitar, but he doesn’t play this piece with the practiced precision of a classical guitarist. He gives it a looser, more emotional feeling.
A hush fell over Schubas, and the club would stay quiet for the next ninety minutes or so, broken only by the appreciative applause between songs, the occasional shout of “Chicago loves M. Ward!” or the murmur of audience members singing along in whispers. Ward was violating one of the Laws of Concert Scheduling by playing a solo acoustic set as the headline act after an opening set by a loud rock band, but that didn’t matter. This crowd was enthralled.
Without pausing, Ward’s Bach piece shifted into one of his most touching and obviously personal songs, “O’Brien,” from End of Amnesia. He proceeded to play some of the best songs off that album, as well as Transfiguration of Vincent and the new Transistor Radio. If anything, the set was dominated by key tracks from Vincent rather than the new CD.
Ward makes his guitar playing look easy, but there are few players who can make the instrument sound quite like he does. The key is his agile finger picking. On some songs, he used alternate tunings. It was startling to see that the guitar part he plays during the verses of “Sad Sad Song” is actually just one chord, played in an opening tuning without any fingers on the fretboard at all. Based on that description, you’d think it would be monotous and dull, but the rhythm and finger-picking pattern keep it interesting.
Ward did not say a whole lot between songs — nothing at all during a long stretch at the beginning of the concert  — and it was hard not to get the feeling that he’s reserved. After all, he uses an initial instead of his full first name. In the past, he’s let his hair hang down over this eyes in concert. Now, he was wearing a cap that almost seemed like a disguise. He wore a serious expression for most of the show, though a flicker of a smile sometimes it made it feel as if the seriousness was just a put-on. Or maybe it was his slight smile that was the put-on.
(Yeah, yeah, I know this sort of psychoanalysis of someone you’re watching on a stage is pretty bogus, but I can’t help it, especially when someone like Ward puts forward a persona that seems different than most of the other performers out there.)
Is that voice of his a mask he has chosen? Does he sing in a bit of a whisper to hide what his voice would sound like at full volume? Or is it just the way he naturally sounds? He does have a distinctive singing style, with a real heft and husky tone that gives it more weight than the sort of whispy falsetto that male vocalists often use when they want to sound pretty.
[Ward’s explanation, from the Merge Records Web site: Ward is at a loss to explain the origin of his singing voice, a three-pack-a-day rasp that sounds like it should come from a 75-year-old Mississippi Delta bluesman. It’s as much a non sequitur as the Southern-fried vocal delivery used 40 years ago by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty, a man who grew up just north of Oakland, Calif. “I don’t smoke,” Ward says. “I started recording in my parents’ house when I was 16 and, not wanting to wake anybody up, you just start to sing quieter and play quieter. I think that’s why my voice is so messed-up. People who only know the records think I’m really old or from the South.”]
Ward had no other musicians to help him out, but he never needed any assistance. Not only did he confirm his mastery of the guitar, he also sat down at a piano for several songs, showing that the tasty piano playing that pops on some of this studio recordings is no fluke.When he sang along to his piano playing, his music felt even more antique — echoing old-time ragtime, blues and jazz, as well as a slightly more recent influence, Tom Waits.
It was especially cool to hear Ward playing a piano version of “Flaming Heart,” a song that’s dominated by guitar in the studio version on End of Amnesia.Another piano highlight was Ward’s cover of the Daniel Johnston song, Story of an Artist,” which generated several laughs with its goofy but heartfelt lyrics.(Ward’s version of the song and Johnston’s original are on the 2004 CD Discovered Covered.)
Ward used his effects pedals to loop his guitar parts on a couple of songs, allowing him to solo on top of his own chords. Playing “Vincent O’Brien” for his encore, Ward even stepped over to the piano, with his guitar still slung over his shoulders, and pounded away at the keys for a joyous bit of racket that closed the song.
After all of his songs about sadness, Ward introduced his final song of the night as the happiest tune ever written. It was a lovely cover of “What a Wonderful World”  — with Ward omitting the title line of the song whenever it occurred, leaving it up to his guitar to speak those words. As he finished the song, Ward smoothly segued into a snippet of “When You Wish Upon A Star,” and with that melody still echoing on the sound system, he left the stage.
It was a masterful performance.
As I was leaving, I spotted Andrew Bird in the crowd and briefly talked with him. Bird’s obviously a fan of Ward’s music. “I feel a certain kinship with his music,” he told me.

Jorge Ben Jor at the HotHouse

Brazilian star Jorge Ben Jor just played a two-night stand at the HotHouse in Chicago the first time he’s ever played here to wildly enthusiastic audiences. I was there for night 2 and thoroughly enjoyed it. His guitar playing is highly rhythmic and slightly funky, his singing has the soft tones of typical Brazilian vocalists without being too mellow, and his songs have superbly catchy melodies and danceable beats.
The crowd sang along with many songs, and when I turned around at point, I saw the people just behind me waving a Brazilian flag over their heads. Appropariately enough, the Jorge Ben Jor song I know best is a tribute to a soccer player, “Ponta de Lanca Africano (Umbabararuma).”
The 1976 song, which I discovered when David Byrne included it as the opening track of the 1989 compilation Beleza Tropical: Brazil Classics 1, has an infectious guitar groove, and Jorge Ben (as he was billed on that CD) delivers some of the verses in a sort of pre-hip-hop patter that I want to chant along with even though I don’t know of a word of the language. The songs shows up occasionally as a bit of segue music on the public radio show “Marketplace.”
Let’s hope Jorge Ben Jor’s back in Chicago soon.

Adult subject matter?

For the first time in its history, The Simpsons was preceded tonight with a warning — white type on a black screen — that the show would contain adult subject matter… namely, the subject of gay marriage.

Huh? Is this topic so radioactive that it merits a special warning? The Simpsons has gotten away with a lot of racy references in the past, and gay marriage is talked about all the time on the news. It’s not as if this cartoon was going to show explicit gay sex or anything. Sheesh.

M. Ward: Transistor Radio

First of all, let it be known that I am a huge fan of M. Ward’s music. His last album, Transfiguration of Vincent, was my favorite CD of 2003, and it also may be my favorite disc released so far this decade. Some fans will swear by the previous Ward album, The End of Amnesia, as his best. That one’s great, too. I can think of few songwriters working right now I admire as much as Ward. I’d also rank him among the best guitarists around, and one of the best singers.
Have you ever heard a band or singer for the first time and felt as if the sound was something you’d been looking for? In my case, M. Ward is one of those artists.
So it shouldn’t come as a big surprise how much I’m enjoying Ward’s newest CD, Transistor Radio (which comes out Feb. 22 on Merge Records).
Given my high expectations, I felt disappointed the first time I listened to Transistor Radio. That M. Ward sound was still there, but the songs seem quite as strong as those on Transfiguration. Maybe that was because some of them are muted, deliberately sounding distant, like broadcasts from a mysterious radio station (that being the theme of the album). I wouldn’t be surprised if some critics and listeners have the same first impression. The three-star write-up in the newMojo reads like a review by someone who hasn’t listened to it enough.
But with repeat listens, all of the melodies and musical nuances made themselves clear. Transistor Radio is another Ward classic, with one beautiful song after another, the sort of album I’d gladly listen to more than once in a row.
Although Ward describes the CD as a sort of concept album dedicated to underground and independent radio stations, it’s not clear how the concept applies to most of the songs, at least as far as the lyrics go  — other than “Radio Campaign.” The concept has more to do with the spirit of the songs and the way they sound.
Transistor Radio starts out slowly, beginning with a brief instrumental version of the Beach Boys’ “You Still Believe in Me,” followed by a song obviously designed to sound old-timey, “One Life Away,” in which the narrator directs his song “to the people underground.” It’s not clear until the end whether the “fraulein” he’s talking about is one of the living or dead people. (Even at the end, I’m not sure it’s totally clear.)
The next three songs, “Sweethearts on Parade,” “Hi-Fi” and “Fuel for Fire,” are typical Ward — melodic folk-rock tunes that could have been hits in the Simon and Garfunkel era of the ’60s or cult favorites from the likes of Nick Drake in the ’70s.
Then the album shifts into a bluesier section, with a trio of songs using more electric guitar, piano and elements of early rock. They’re far from standard wannabe oldies, though. “Four Hours in Washinghton” is a haunting scene of insomnia, without anything resembling a chorus, the lyrics more like a poem with a circular structure. The melody is slight, ranging no further than a few notes, and maybe not that original. Somehow, Ward makes it all his own. The song reaches its climax as the words end and acoustic guitar picking emerges from the mix. The next track is the instrumental “Regeneration #1,” the kind of echo-laden jam that Ward’s pals in My Morning Jacket might pull off. And then there’s “Big Boat,” a rocking gospel number with a bass piano break that echoes late ’60s Kinks classics. In case the ferry references in the lyrics aren’t clear enough for you, the CD cover shows a book titled, “Coins for Charon’s Ferry.”
As “Big Boat” ends, the CD reaches what would be the end of Side 1, and Ward says he intended for people to listen to the album as a two-sided LP. That’s an outdated conceit — how many people are actually going to listen to this on vinyl? — but it’s still not a bad way to organize the songs for an album.
“Side 2,” such as it is, begins with “Paul’s Song,” a pretty and melancholy tune that declares every town seems the same to a touring musician. From there,Transistor Radio runs through a series of six more classic Ward songs, showing his great knack for coming up with tunes that sound simple on the surface but work their way into your head. The title of “Radio Campaign” refers to a single line in the song, and it’s a wonderful idea: A guy putting out the word in a radio campaign that he wants to get back his old “peace of mind.” One of the last songs, “I’ll Be Yr Bird,” was already as a bonus track on the reissued version of Ward’s first album, “Duet for Guitars #2,” but I don’t mind hearing it again, here in its new context.
Closing as it began with an instrumental guitar performance, Transistor Radio comes to a peaceful and achingly lovely conclusion on “Well-Tempered Clavier”  — actually, the first prelude of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” It’s a beautiful composition that has almost become a cliche as a study piece for piano students, and yet I’ll never grow tired of hearing it or playing it, and it’s such a joy to hear Ward transcribing it for guitar.
And at that point, I feel like going back to that Beach Boys song that began it all. If this really were an LP, I’d be turning it over to Side 1 again.

What’s with all the monkeys?

Mysterious monkeys are making more appearances in music. Are they merely metaphorical? The latest monkey allusion comes in the great opening track of the Low album The Great Destroyer — titled, simply enough, “Monkey.” The somewhat ominous chorus proclaims, “Tonight, you will be mine. Tonight, the monkey dies.”

So is someone about to commit primate sacrifice in order to achieve a romantic conquest? Poor monkey. Who knows what these guys from Duluth, Minnesota, are up to, but they seem like a pretty wholesome bunch, so let’s assume this tale of monkey death isn’t based on personal experience.

The Low song follows Gillian Welch’s “One Monkey,” from the 2003 Soul Journey album, in which she engimatically declared, “One monkey don’t stop the show…” (No, I suppose not.) “…so get on board.” This particular monkey has something to do with a freight train.

Of course, Peter Gabriel had a hit with “Shock the Monkey,” though I’m not sure that song’s in the same spirit as these. (And I prefer the novelty of the song’s German version, “Shock den Affen.”)

More appropriate is the Beatles’ “Everything’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” No one seems to be hiding their monkeys these days, though.

The Comas and Vietnam at the Empty Bottle

I have certain gaping holes in my knowledge of current pop culture, especially anything related to celebrity gossip. So unbeknownst to me, this album I’ve been listening to, Conductor by the Comas (Yep Roc), is apparently focused on lead singer Andy Herod’s romantic woes concerning a certain former girlfriend who is an actress on some television show I’ve never seen before.

(Maybe all of this would have been more obvious if I’d actually bought the CD, which comes with a DVD depicting the breakup story, rather than downloading it from emusic. Clue #1: The song called “Tonight on the WB.”)

Yeah, I have heard of Dawson’s Creek — I’m not that out of it — but if you’d asked me who Michelle Williams is, I wouldn’t have had any idea. (Or I might have remembered her as the cute chick from The Station Agent.)

Now that I know what Conductor is all about, I’m inclined to think: “Oh, great, some celebrity whining about breaking up with a celebrity girlfriend.” But that wouldn’t be fair, and this is a more-than-decent collection of rock songs. In any case, breakups are a great topic, no matter how famous your former partner is. And Herod doesn’t qualify as a celebrtity, not yet at least… Somehow, I had the idea that the Comas show at the Empty Bottle might sell out, given the press that the band’s been getting. As it turned out, it was a decent-size crowd, but there was enough space for me to roam around in front of the stage taking photos.

It’s hard to get a handle on exactly what style of music the Comas are playing. The album’s an eclectic mix of various rock genres and subgenres, though the core is melodic indie rock, not supercatchy enough to qualify as power pop, not quite extreme enough to qualify as postpunk. Ah, who cares about these labels, anyway? It’s good stuff, and the band pulled it off in concert, too.

Though the Comas recorded a couple of albums before this one, you wouldn’t have known it from their Empty Bottle show, which was less than an hour long, drawing almost exclusively (or was it exclusively?) from Conductor. And they aren’t the kind of band that transforms good studio songs into reveletory rave-ups in concert. But I wouldn’t call the show disappointing. Several of the songs moved toward more intense catharsis when Herod upped the intensity of his vocals. And when the Comas play in concert, the interplay between Herod and guitarist/backup vocalist Nichole Gehweiler becomes more apparent — their loose harmonies keep things interesting.

The opening act, Vietnam, was also interesting — and just as hard to pin down. Sounding at times like slightly sludgy ’70s blues rock, Vietnam’s percussion occasionally surged into Arcade Fire territory.

See my photos of the Comas and Vietnam performing February 18, 2005, at the Empty Bottle in Chicago.

Bettie Serveert at the Abbey Pub

OK, I will admit up front that writing about this concert is putting my critical faculties to the test. You see, I spent the whole show looking at up at Bettie Serveert’s lead singer, Carol van Dyk, and taking photos like this.Yes, I am smitten.
But, believe me, the music was great, too. Really. What is there to say about it, though? It’s simply hard-rocking and catchy indie pop songs, sung by one very sexy gal from Holland. (The band definitely rocks harder in concert than some of the pop songs with techno touches on the new CD from Minty Fresh, Attagirl.)
Wearing Buddy Holly glasses and a cowboy hat, Peter Visser plays the kind of kind of guitar riffs that will knock you in the head. I mean that both literally and figuratively. I was standing very close to Visser (but paying considerbably more attention to van Dyk), and at one point, his guitar brushed against the top of my head. Ah, the perils of concertgoing. If I were a centimeter taller, it might have hurt, but as it was, it was just a close call. I wasn’t sure Visser even noticed what happened, but then he leaned down and apologized before leaving the stage at the end of the set.
One surprise selection on the new CD is a cover of the Bright Eyes song “Lover I Don’t Have to Love.” As they introduced it, Visser commented in his Dutch accent that he didn’t understand the title. “I’ll explain it to you later,” van Dyk promised.
SEE MORE PHOTOS… MANY MORE PHOTOS OF BETTIE SERVEERT. (I plead guilty to focusing nearly all of my photographic attention on Ms. van Dyk. Can you blame me? And how am I supposed to edit this down to a reasonable number of pictures. Sheesh…)

Low and Pedro the Lion at Metro

The monks have broken their vow of silence. Low, the Duluth trio famous for its quiet, slow music, has gradually moved toward more aggressive sounds, culminating with the excellent new album The Great Destroyer (Sub Pop).
The mix of quiet, delicate moments and louder rave-ups sounded great in concert. Low still knows how to bring a hush over an audience. Low’s strength lies in compelling melodies, putting them across with cool harmonies and a minimum of musical accompaniment. How many other bands have a drummer who plays the whole show standing up?
Alan Sparhawk dedicated the new song “Death of a Salesman” to Arthur Miller, the author of the play of the same title, who’d died earlier in the day. He also noted he was playing it on a guitar signed by Chuck D. It’s a lovely and haunting song, performed solo by Sparhawk, in which the narrator gives up his efforts at writing music after being told by friends: “Music’s for fools, you shoul go back to school, the future is prisons and math.” It’s not the only song on The Great Destroyer about negation or abandoning music. Another track wistfully imagines the day “When I Go Deaf,” before erupting into a chaotic guitar solo.
Opening act Pedro the Lion played a solid set of tunes, sticking close to the band’s signature sound, pausing for a peculiar question-and-answer session with the audience (in which one man asked permission to use Pedro the Lion songs in a movie he’s making). The band cut loose on a cover of Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues,” joined by Sparhawk on guitar.
Pedro the Lion was preceded by an interesting solo performance by Tim Rutuli of Califone, who proved himself adept at both folksy blues and impromptu sonic experimentation (building layers of sound with a Casio “Rap Man”).

Midlake: Bamnan and Silvercork

Overlooked CD of 2004? It may be Bamnan and Silvercork by Midlake. It placed at No. 570 in the Pazz & Jop Poll, but I’ll venture a guess that its would have ranked higher if more people had heard it. Yet another band from that font of musical creativy known as Denton, Texas, Midlake is from the same school of high-voiced modern art-rock grandeur as Grandaddy, Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips.
This slightly lo-fi but highly listenable rock opera is set in some mythical place ruled authority figures known as “Monicle Men.” The good guys are trying to escape in baloons and coping with the unpleasant work conditions in the particle-separation room, which make it difficult for them to bake “kingfish pies.” The story, such as it is, reminds me of “Yellow Submarine” (the movie, not the song) and that British TV show “The Prisoner.” The most compelling songs are “They Cannot Let It Expand” (which repeats the title line over and over), “Kingfish Pies” and “Mopper’s Medley,” but there are many catchy tunes here, and the whimsical worldview gives it the appeal of a good puzzle.

Band-to-Band

Six degrees of Golden Smog? Now here’s a cool Web site for rock-music nerds, www.bandtoband.com. I played this very game as a teen, trying to draw lines from one rock group to another by the musicians they’ve shared. It’s the musical equivalent of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”

Until I alerted the fellows who run this Web site, they had overlooked the connections from Sonic Youth to Loose Fur to Wilco, and hence to many alt-country artists and Chicago underground bands, not to mention Big Star. It’s fun to see the convoluted chains that connect some groups. It’s 16 steps from the Allman Brothers Band to Wilco, with Guns N Roses as one of the stops along the way. Thank goodness for “super groups.”

Many, many more bands are waiting to be added to this fabulous site. Contact these guys yourself if you have any suggestions, but make sure you read their stringent rules. They were very receptive to my submission.

Pazz & Jop 2004

The Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll — a survey of critics on the best music of 2004 — is out… and even though I thought I might have missed their deadline, my ballot apparently got to the Voice in time. See here for the winners of the poll. (Kanye West? Yeah, it’s good, but just not my thing, I guess.) See here for my own ballot. Any regrets? My list would be a little different if I compiled it today, but not that much different. The Arcade Fire’s still tops in my book for 2004.
I will admit my singles list is sort of half-baked, compiled on the spur of a moment when I realized I had to get my ballot in ASAP. Most of these songs were not even real singles, but then, I don’t think that really matters these days. Looking at this list now, I’m thinking: Man, I’ve got to hear those songs again.

The Moaners at Subterranean

The band name notwithstanding, singer/guitarist Melissa Swingle doesn’t exactly moan. Her singing has a bit of drone in it, though it’s hardly monotone as she leaps fearlessly or maybe a bit lackadaiscally around the melody. It’s one of those dazed, deadpan voices that you’ll either love or hate. Me, I love it.

Last time we heard from Swingle, she was with Trailer Bride, another fine outfit. Now she’s part of Yep Roc’s burgeoning roster of cool bands, and she’s doing the guitar-drums duo thing, with Laura King on drums. So let’s get the obligatory line about the White Stripes out of the way right now: King’s a helluva better drummer than Meg White (though Meg’s primitive percussion does serve its purpose well). Swingle’s no Jack White hot shot on the guitar, but her jagged chords and peeling bottleneck-slide solos have an allure all their own. Combined with that voice of hers, the sound is bluesy Southern Goth swamp rock and stomp, everything sounding just a bit askew … which is why it’s so good.

The Moaners’ debut CD, Dark Snack, is full of good riffs and off-kilter tunes about pooches, overpopulation and roadhouse strippers. It sounds raw and live, so it wasn’t hard for the Moaners to pull it off in concert. King even managed to play guitar and drums simultaneously on one song, an impressive feat (she was just using her feet for the drums). Just one disappointment. I really wanted to see Swingle (who was wearing dark glasses and a Hello Kitty T-shirt) to whip out her saw. And no, that’s not some sort of obscene slang euphamism. She really does play a mean saw, given the chance, but I guess that’s hard to handle onstage when your band is just a guitarist and a drummer.

Rogue Wave and Two Gallants at Schubas

Judging from the credits on Out of the Shadow, one of 2004’s most promising debut albums, the band Rogue Wave is pretty much just songwriter Zach Rogue and some backing musicians…
There’s no doubt that Rogue is the captain of this ship, but Rogue Wave really did feel like a full-fledged band during their show at Schuba’s. The three backing musicians (only two are listed at www.roguewavemusic.com — Pat Spurgeon and Gram Lebron) swapped places on drums, bass, guitar and keyboards several times, but always sounded lively as they brought more of a rock edge to Rogue’s catchy, loopily psychedelic pop tunes.
Several new songs sounded fine — they might grow on me after I hear them more, though none of the new songs initially stood out as strong as the best tracks on Out of the Shadow.
The audience was very, very enthusiastic. The second encore actually seemed to be one of those unplanned sets that bands play when the crowd just won’t leave.
The Saturday Nights played first, with likable if not exactly outstanding power pop. Then came the angular, intense sound of the San Francisco guitar-and-drums duo Two Gallants. They ended their set by moving down onto the main floor of Schuba’s (taking a few pieces of their drum kit with them), playing one last song unamplified for the hushed room. A nice touch. Two Gallants are not much like the more famous guitar-drum duos out there (you know, White Stripes, Black Keys, Local H), but they left a strong first impression on me…
However, listening to the songs “Nothing to You” and “Train That Stole My Man” at the Two Gallants Web site, I’m not so sure. That singer’s voice… it seemed “edgy” during the concert, not exactly good but somehow invigorating… Now it seems a little annoying out of that context. A bit too Obersty, perhaps? Definitely an acquired taste, which I haven’t acquired yet.

Guided By Voices’ final concert

As Robert Pollard asked the crowd jammed into Chicago’s Metro nightclub to help him perform a sketch at the start of Guided By Voices’ final concert, hardcore GBV fans knew exactly what he had in mind. The audience did an encore of its chant from a few minutes earlier — “GBV! GBV!” — and Pollard & Co. (bandmates, plus former bandmates like brother Jim Pollard) recreated the spoken dialogue from the beginning of the “Propeller” album.

“Are you ready to rock?”

“This song does not rock.”

“89.”

The exchange would be meaningless to 99.9999 percent of the population, but it meant a lot to this crowd. (Just what does “89” mean, anyway?) And with that, GBV launched into its great prog-rock anthem, “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox” … not a song the band has played that much in recent years, and a good sign that GBV planned to dig deep into its back catalogue.

Alongside the bins filled with beer bottles — a requisite component of any GBV show — a couple of white plastic buckets labeled “PUKE” and “PISS” sat on the stage. And GBV even had its own bar on stage, with Pollard pal Trader Vic serving as bartender. Thus… we knew much alcohol would be consumed by the musicians. So what else is new at a GBV show? Pollard’s famous for chugging beers, twirling beer bottles into the air and catching them (well, at least some of the time), and somehow managing to hang onto cigarettes and beer while spinning around his microphone on its cord and doing karate kicks at the same time. He’s apparently given up smoking, but he took it up again for this final show, bumming smokes off audience members and GBVmates.

After a strong start, the concert paused for a New Year’s Eve midnight countdown… balloons falling and mostly exploding upon cigarettes (except for the balloons in the net that got tangled up in a ceiling fan)… and more drinking…

Pollard promised this would be the longest concert of all time, and he almost lived up to his promise. He said the set list had 61 songs — the same as Roger Maris’ old home-run record — but thanks to Barry Bonds, GBV would now have to go for 78 songs. They didn’t make it quite to that mark, but they did play close to four hours (from 11:20 p.m. until 3:20 a.m.), with a grand total of… 63 SONGS!!!

What exactly is the record for single longest performance by one band or artist, either in minutes or songs? Whatever it is, this GBV show was one for the history books. With that many songs, I was hard-pressed to remember some of the more obscure tunes, which Pollard dutifully identified — saying, for example, that the next song was from the 1993 EP Clown Prince of the Menthol Trailer. Um, there’s one I haven’t listened to in a while.

I could quibble with the set order and a few of the selections, but GBV played almost every song I wanted to hear, with many great tracks from “Bee Thousand,” “Alien Lanes” and “Propeller,” plus a few of the early, early songs that the band rarely played on tour. Looking at the set list from the previous night’s concert (which I did not attend), my only regrets are not hearing “Gold Star for Robot Boy” and “Liar’s Tale,” as well as that night’s opening act, Tobin Sprout.

A few other songs I wish I could have heard one more time in concert: “Break Even,” “Weed King,” “Striped White Jets,” “Little Lines,” “Jane of the Waking Universe,” “Bulldog Skin,” “The Ironmen Rally Song” and “Captain’s Dead” (actually, I never heard that one in concert). Oh, well… When a band has 900 songs, you’re bound to miss a few of your personal favorites when it gets boiled down to a mere 63 songs.

It was great to see Sprout and several other former GBV members sitting on some songs. I liked GBV best when Sprout was in the band, adding a second distinctive voice to the group’s sound. Ah, it was nice to hear him singing on “14 Cheerleader Coldfront.”

Hearing “Demons Are Real” for the first time in a while as a live song — and hearing it out of its normal context on “Bee Thousand” — I was struck by how gripping and odd it is. The best GBV songs are the ones with unusual rhythmic touches and off-kilter vocal phrasing, the ones that might seem just peculiar the first time you hear them but grow on you with repeated listens. “Cut-Out Witch” did not initially strike me as one of the better songs on “Under the Bushes, Under the Stars,” but when I noticed the song was becoming a regular fixture of GBV concerts, I came to see its genius. Other songs of this ilk include “Shocker in Gloomtown.” Reaction upon hearing it the first time: What the heck was that? Reaction upon hearing it the hundredth time: Best song of all time! (Well, not quite…)

After seeing some great, great GBV concerts, starting at the Lounge Ax in 1994, I’d been disappointed with a few of their shows in the last couple of years. They weren’t necessarily bad, but at times, the band lacked the spark and spontaneity it had once had. This final show, though, was the best I’d seen in years, and surely the most unforgettable.

Pollard was in generous mood, even making forgiving comments about people he has slagged in the past, such as Jim DeRogatis. Most of all, he seemed proud of what he’d accomplished in 21 years with Guided By Voices. Over an instrumental break in “Secret Star,” he recalled his dad telling him, “Do you realize how many shitty bands there are out there? What do you have to offer to rock ‘n’ roll?” And he remembered telling his mom, “I’m a fucking genius.” Her response: “A genius at what?” In those early days of obscurity, Pollard’s motivation was simple, he said: “I just wanna have fun.”

Perhaps my sentimental feelings about the night made me more forgiving than usual toward Nate Farley, whose drunken inability to play much guitar has irritated me at a couple of earlier shows… You had to cut him some slack tonight, as he was clearly having fun.

Pollard’s own drunkeness started to take a toll on the show’s pace as it neared the end of the main set, and he stopped two false starts on the song “Heavy Metal Breakfast.” He began missing more of those beer bottles tossed into the air, slurring some of the words, or just handing the microphone out into the audience while he staggered over to the bar for more booze from Trader Vic.

But when the band came back for two encores and Pollard vowed to “kick ass,” the sounds were splendid indeed. A fast-paced hit parade of sorts, the kind that great GBV concerts also climax with: “My Impression Now,” “My Valuable Hunting Knife,” “Queen of Cans and Jars,” “Hot Freaks,” “Motor Away,” “I Am a Scientist,” “Teenage FBI,” “Echos Myron” (always one of my favorites, with that classic line — “And we’re finally here, and shit yeah, it’s cool, and shouldn’t it be, or something like that”). The audience, which had seemed lethargic an hour earlier (probably because of the late hour), was pumped up now, singing every word, waving fists and fingers into the air. After Pollard introduced “Smothered in Hugs” as the final GBV song ever and I heard the opening chords and that indelible melody, I actually found myself getting a little choked up. Is it ridiculous to feel this way about a band you’ve loved for more than a decade, whose albums and concerts have been important milestones in your musical life?

I thought that might be the end, but after emcee Beatle Bob briefly took the stage to extend GBV’s thanks to its fans, the group came back for more. Pollard said he’d given a lot of thought to the songs he would play for the last GBV encore ever, and it was a fine way to end things:

“A Salty Salute” … Of course! How could they end without playing that one more time?

“Postal Blowfish” … another one of those songs that vaulted from obscurity and oddity to a solid position in the GBV repertoire.

“Pendulum,” which Pollard introduced as “We’ll put on some Cat Butt and do it up right” … another rarely heard early classic.

“Dayton, OH 19 Something and 5” … an obvious sentimental favorite.

“He’s the Uncle” … seems like an obscure choice to me, but I guess I’ll have to listen to this song more to figure out why Pollard included it.

“Exit Flagger” … This was the final song of the first GBV concert I ever saw. I still feel compelled to sing along with it.

And finally, a song that Pollard introduced as “The Ballad of Guided By Voices.” You could feel his emotion as he acknowledged the members of his band one last time. The song was actually “Don’t Stop Now,” with a fitting title for the band’s coda. As Pollard calmly delivered his last lines, it was hard for a GBV fan not to get goose pimples.

The goof, Nate Farley, was the last one to leave the stage, unable to resist one more chance to slap the hands of adoring fans. The crowd tried to rouse one more encore with another chant of “GBV! GBV!,” carrying on for a couple of minutes even after the lights and canned music had come on, but this really was the end.

SET LIST

Over the Neptune / Mesh Gear Fox
Watch Me Jumpstart
Pimple Zoo
Everybody Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking)
Fair Touching
Things I Will Keep
(New Year’s Countdown)
Glow Boy Butlers
Lethargy (with Jim Pollard)
The Best of Jill Hives
Red Ink Superman
14 Cheerleader Coldfront (with Tobin Sprout adding vocals)
The Girls of Wild Strawberries
Back to the Lake
Demons Are Real
Do the Earth
Tropical Robots
Beg for a Wheelbarrow
My Kind of Soldier
Wished I Was a Giant
Bright Paper Werewolves (with Leland Cain)
Lord of Overstock (with Leland Cain)
Window of My World
Navigating Flood Regions
Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory
Tractor Rape Chain
I Am a Tree (with John Wuerster from Superchunk on drums)
Drinker’s Peace
Chief Barrel Belly
Game of Pricks
Pink Gun
Matter Eater Lad
Redmen and Their Wives
Gonna Never Have to Die
I Drove a Tank (with Greg Demos and Jim MacPherson)
Shocker in Gloomtown (with Greg Demos and Jim MacPherson)
Secret Star
If We Wait
Huffman Prairie Flying Field
Sad if I Lost It
Cut-Out Witch
Buzzards and Dreadful Crows
Alone, Stinking, and Unafraid
Unleashed! The Large-Hearted Boy (with Matt Sweeney on bass)
Glad Girls
Johnny Appleseed (with Jim Greer and Tobin Sprout)
Heavy Metal Country
Murder Charge

Encore 1:
My Impression Now
My Valuable Hunting Knife
Queen of Cans and Jars
Hot Freaks (with Tobin)
Motor Away
I Am a Scientist (with Don Thrasher)
Teenage FBI
Echos Myron (Tobin adding vocals)
Smothered in Hugs

Encore 2:
A Salty Salute
Postal Blowfish
Pendulum
Dayton, OH 19 Something and 5
He’s the Uncle
Exit Flagger
Don’t Stop Now

Mark Eitzel interview

Rummaging around in my cupboard here, I dug out some notes from an interview earlier this year with Mark Eitzel, unpublished until now.)

“I’ve never had as good a band,” says Mark Eitzel, after reuniting with American Music Club. “It’s also good to be with people who understand my neuroses.”

Restoring AMC’s rich arrangements to Eitzel’s deeply emotional songs, the new Merge CD Love Songs for Patriots features original members Vudi on guitar, Tim Mooney on drums and Danny Pearson on bass and newcomer Marc Capelle on piano and trumpet.

During AMC’s original run — 1984 to 1995 — the band never achieved commercial success, though it drew a cult following. Eitzel says the band was just too hard to pigeonhole, feeding on diverse influences ranging from Pink Floyd to Nick Drake to Al Green. Typically self-effacing, he says, “We tried to do everything we liked. We didn’t do anything well.We did about five things half-assed.”

References to Kathleen — a close friend who died a few years ago — continue to appear in Eitzel’s lyrics, including the new song Another Morning. Eitzel told a concert audience in Chicago this spring how odd it feels that he’s written so many love songs about a woman, despite the fact that he’s openly gay.

In a later interview, he says, “I just feel embarrassed that I’m still writing songs about this woman.” But, he added, “It doesn’t really matter what your sex is. You love people. And if you close yourself off to loving people, then you’re fucked.”

The Arcade Fire at the Empty Bottle

As the Arcade Fire was setting up its equipment on the Empty Bottle’s stage, one had to wonder: Just what are those motorcycle helmets for? Are stunts of some sort going to be performed? Yes, indeed … and protective headgear would be required.

(A brief aside: With seven musiciansthe Arcade Fire had some difficulty squeezing onto the Bottle’s stage. Hey, guys — the Polyphonic Spree has played here. If they can do it, you can.)

The songs on the Arcade Fire’s CD, Funeral, are emotionally intense, but they wouldn’t necessarily lead you to think this would be a particularly wild band on the stage. And it’s not as if everyone in the lineup constantly wreaks havoc, but a few of the musicians do display a manic, almost reckless energy. Like British Sea Power, the Arcade Fire makes use of mobile percussion, as some of the guys march about with a snare drum, shake tambourines or pound drumsticks on any available surface. The Arcade Fire also played musical chairs; almost everyone played more than one instrument during the course of the concert.

This Montréal group’s songs seem to be based around fairly simple chords and melodies, but they are strong melodies, reinforced by lots of backup vocals, violin and accordion. Something about the vibe brought Talking Heads to mind… and then, appropriately enough, the band covered a Heads tune, “This Must be the Place (Naive Melody).” The Arcade Fire also increases tempos and intensity in the final sections of many songs, echoing the fervor of the Feelies.

Main vocalist Win Butler sings in one of those slightly strangled indie-rock yelps, bringing strong feeling to these tunes. Régine Chassagne sings a couple of songs, too, including “Haïti,” which was particularly fun in this concert performanceIt isn’t always easy to make out the words on Funeral without the lyrics sheet to guide you along.

Once you do become familiar with the lyrics, the songs take on even more resonance. Death and neighorhood are the recurring themes. The liner notes explain: “When family members kept dying they realized that they should call their recordFuneral, noting the irony of their first full length recording bearing a name with such closure.”

But what’s really striking about the lyrics is their private nature; they feel like excerpts from a diary — the notes of someone who views the world with both mystical wonder and trepidation. “We’re just a million little gods causin’ rain storms turnin’ every good thing to rust.”

The crowd at the sold-out Empty Bottle knew these songs well and cheered wildly at many points. The music was crashing brilliance.

SEE MY PHOTOS OF THE ARCADE FIRE.

Fiery Furnaces set list

Better late than never… Here’s the set list from the chaotic concert by the Fiery Furnaces on January 15 at Chicago’s Empty Bottle.

At times, the Furnaces — brother and sister Matt and Eleanor Friedberger  — seemed to be playing different songs at the same time … but somehow it held all together. With barely any pause between some of the tunes, the concert was like a collage of song fragments.