Saturday, March 06, 2010

A Sunny Day in Glasgow

There are a lot of bands recently with geographical names, but it seems like most of them are not actually from the places mentioned in their band names. Portugal the Man? They're from Alaska. I'm From Barcelona? They're from Sweden. Illinois? They're from Pennsylvania. Continuing in this vein, there's the band A Sunny Day in Glasgow. In all fairness, one of the band's former members actually used to live in Glasgow, Scotland, but the group is based in Philadelphia, and that guy isn't even in the band anymore (if wikipedia is to be believed). So the band name is more about the mood and style of the music than where the musicians are from.

I won't go on at length about this band, because they're new to me, even though they've been playing for a few years. They came to Schubas on Wednesday (March 3) and played a quite enjoyable set of indie pop music, with a big emphasis on tuneful vocals. The group's gone through some lineup changes, and I don't know how this version of Sunny Day compares with previous ones, but the pair of female singers, Jen Goma and Annie Fredrickson, were fun both to hear and watch. The group finished its show with a Fleetwood Mac cover, "Everywhere." Like the band's name, it all sounded pretty sunny.
asunnydayinglasgow.com
www.myspace.com/sunnydayinglasgow

Photos of A Sunny Day in Glasgow and opening act Acrylics.

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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Ike Reilly at Schubas

When you see the enthusiasm of Ike Reilly's fans — the way they recognize his catchiest songs, the way they sing along, the way they shout out, "I love you, Ike!" — it seems clear that this guy could be a star. The reality is, however, that he's more of a hidden treasure. Reilly, who still lives in his hometown of Libertyville up in Lake County, has a pretty good following here in Chicago and some other places, but like most indie-label artists, he doesn't get all the radio airplay that he deserves.

Reilly has a strong album out called Hard Luck Stories, and he wrapped up a string of four Monday-night concerts at Schubas this week. The room filled up pretty well for a Monday evening, and it was obvious that some of Reilly's true believers were in attendance. Although one of Reilly's musicians was absent for the night, his band (the Ike Reilly Assassination) delivered the songs in lean, tight performances. In his gruff voice, Reilly sang his story songs about characters that seem so real. And he hooked his audience with the catchy choruses of shoulda-been hits like "When Irish Eyes are Burning."

My only complaint: I was hoping to hear a song from Reilly's new record that's been caught in my mind lately, "The Ballad of Jack and Haley." Oh, well, I guess I should have requested it online beforehand, which is how some of the fans at Schubas got to hear their Reilly faves.

Photos of the Ike Reilly Assassination.

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Monday, March 01, 2010

Laura Veirs at Schubas

How many women would go on tour and perform concerts if they were eight months pregnant? Laura Veirs did, showing up Saturday night (Feb. 28) at Schubas in Chicago, looking very "with child," as they say. She didn't act the least bit uncomfortable, however, seeming completely at ease as she performed songs from her excellent new record, July Flame, as well as a good number of older tunes. And despite the fact that she's about to become a mother, Veirs vowed to be back soon, baby in tow.

It's been a mystery to me why Veirs hasn't gained more popularity over the years. She's made several albums of wonderful folk-rock songs, writing smart lyrics and singing insinuating melodies in an appealingly open, honest voice. She deserves a spot in the top tier of today's singer-songwriters, but she still doesn't have a lot of name recognition. She used to be on the prestigious Nonesuch label, but now (like a good number of other artists abandoned by the majors) she is releasing her records on her own label, Raven Marching Band. More power to her.

Veirs' songs rang out strong and clear Saturday night. And in case anyone wants to try playing those songs, she was selling a July Flame songbook with lyrics, chords and guitar tabs. That's something I'd like to see more often at merch tables. (I bought one and got Veirs' autograph. You can buy a copy at Veirs' Web site.

Photos of Laura Veirs.

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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Alec Ounsworth at Schubas

Five years ago, indie-rockers Clap Your Hands Say Yeah were all the rage, getting lots of hype and seemingly coming out of nowhere. And then, as happens so often whenever there's hype, there was some backlash. In hindsight, the band's self-titled debut holds up well. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah hasn't lived up to expectations since then, however. With the group apparently on hiatus, lead singer Alec Ounsworth came to Chicago Thursday (Feb. 25) for a show at Schubas. It seemed as if a fair number of the fans in attendance showed up for opening act Ezra Furman and the Harpoons. By the end of the night, when Ounsworth finished his set, the attendance was less than you'd expect for a once-hyped indie star.

Ounsworth's voice has always been a little wobbly, with a tendency to veer off-key. That sort of singing — emotionally searing but potentially grating — has been in vogue for several years now in indie rock. (Furman does it, too.) There's a thin line between the good and bad when attempt this sort of barely controlled attack on the notes. On Thursday, Ounsworth landed on the good side of that line. With his hat, eyeglasses and mustache, he looked a bit like a character from sort sort of costume drama. And he had an unusual presence on the stage — barely moving around during the instrumental breaks other than tilting his head this way and that.

Ounsworth played songs from his recent solo debut, Mo Beauty, and another record, Skin and Bones, which he made under the moniker Flashy Python. He also played a bit of his repertoire from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, including "Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood." His backing musicians were a lively bunch, bringing a quirky sense of energy to the tunes.

Photos of Alec Ounsworth and Ezra Furman.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Tomorrow Never Knows

The Tomorrow Never Knows festival got bigger this year. It used to be a series of mid-January concerts at Schubas. This year, it was five nights of shows simultaneously happening at both Schubas and its new sister venue, Lincoln Hall. January is generally not all that exciting of a month on the concert calendar, but the TNK fest brought a good selection of up-and-coming indie-rock bands to Chicago.

I attended two of the shows during the festival. Last Thursday (Jan. 14) at Schubas, the headliners were Surfer Blood, a young band from Florida that's been getting some buzz lately. I like what I've heard of Surfer Blood's studio recordings. It might be a little too polished and amped up, but the power-pop single "Swim" is pretty darn catchy. The band has inspired some wild comparisons to other groups. Time Out Chicago said they sound like a mix of Asia and Brian Eno. Friends I follow on Twitter mentioned the Fixx and Boston. I was thinking more along the lines of the Ponys and OK Go. As a live act, Surfer Blood needs some practice. The band wasn't bad, but songs that would have been appealing as three-minute pop singles got stretched out twice as long as that, until the repetitive chord progressions just got boring. Then again, "Swim" sounded really strong without all that heavy compression and reverb on the studio record. Surfer Blood abruptly ended its set with drum-set-smashing antics... ensuring that there would be no encore.

Also on the bill Thursday, Freelance Whales played buoyant songs from its forthcoming debut LP, Weathervanes. The record's not out until March 16, but this band is already building a solid following. Freelance Whales also opened recently for Fanfarlo at Schubas, and Thursday's appearance was another energetic performance of the catchy songs on Weathervanes.

Thursday's show started out with the annoyingly named Lasers and Fast and Shit. With dramatic back lighting and lots of fog, the group hammered its way through some hard-edged post-punk. A couple of the songs had good hooks, but others sounded like run-of-the-mill rock.

And sandwiched in between all those bands was Bear in Heaven. A couple of the musicians in this Brooklyn band played in avant-garde guitarist Rhys Chatham's metal band, but Bear in Heaven doesn't play that sort of drony music. Its songs were ominous and dramatic, however.

On Saturday night, I was at Lincoln Hall for the triple bill of Julie Doiron, the Rural Alberta Advantage and Bowerbirds. Although the show was sold out, the room did not feel quite as jam-packed as I would have expected. I get the feeling some fans were there just for one band or another — and maybe some folks with festival passes were shuttling back and forth between Lincoln Hall and Schubas.

I saw Doiron play twice last year, once with a band and once solo. Saturday's show was like a hybrid of those, since she had just one musician accompanying her, William Kidman on guitar. She didn't talk as much as she during her last solo show (it would be hard for anyone to talk that much again), delivering a tighter set of some great songs, including at least one new composition and one very nice cover, Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me."

The Rural Alberta Advantage were the middle band on the bill Saturday, but judging from the energy of their performance and the fan turnout, they should have been the headliners. This Canadian trio put out an excellent record in 2008 (when I discovered it on emusic), which then got wider release in 2009. Their music reminds me of Neutral Milk Hotel, probably because the band's singer-songwriter Nils Edenloff sings in a strong tone similar to NHM's Jeff Mangum. The songs sounded lively Saturday night, thanks to the powerful drumming of Paul Banwatt and the many touches provided by multi-instrumentalist Amy Cole. Edenloff was suffering from a cold, and his vocals were ragged on some of the songs, especially when he belted out notes. I winced a few times at hearing Edenloff's voice crack, but he deserves a gold star for giving the music his full effort despite his illness. The RAA played a couple of new songs (which sounded like promising additions to the band's repertoire), and two covers: Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" and the theme of the Canadian kids' TV show, "The Littlest Hobo."

Bowerbirds finished off the night with a pretty performance of the band's folk-rock ballads. This Raleigh, N.C., band's 2009 record, Upper Air, really grew on me over time, with a lot of compositions that stick in the mind. In concert, Phil Moore's vocals and guitar blended beautifully with Beth Tacular's accordion and harmonies (though I wish Tacular would sing even more). All that being said, it was a very mellow set for midnight, lulling the crowd rather than rousing it. Maybe the Bowerbirds' set would have worked better earlier in the evening.

Photos from Tomorrow Never Knows. (I'm still waiting to get my camera from the repair shop, but I managed to get a few photos at these shows, thanks to the kind friends who let me use their cameras.)

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Evangelicals and Holiday Shores

A little before 9 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 22), it was looking unlikely that Holiday Shores would play its scheduled gig at Schubas, opening for Evangelicals. The band was still on the road, but it showed up in the nick of time, unloading amps and instruments cases into Schubas' music room. Good thing they made it, since it turned out to be a sparkling set of music.

This band from Florida's Panhandle has a debut album out called Columbus'd the Whim. In concert, Holiday Shores sounded at first like a pretty typical indie-rock band of the moment (a little Arcade Fire, a little Modest Mouse, a little Dirty Projectors), but the music took on a more distinctive sound as the show went on. The songs had an upbeat, cheerful quality, and some impressive guitar duets featuring serpentine melodies. It was a spirited performance that showed Holiday Shores stands out a bit from the crowd.
www.myspace.com/holidayshores
http://twosyllablerecords.com

Evangelicals were also well worth hearing, although you wouldn't have known it from the sparse attendance at Sunday's show. Twenty people or so were in the music room as this surreal, melodramatically emotional psychedelic rock band from Oklahoma played. The band deserved a bigger crowd, as it played some of the terrific tunes from its most recent album, 2008's The Evening Descends. The band's light display included a couple of mannequin-like figures pulsing with pink lights, an apt image for a band that sings: "Strange things keep happening! Strange things keep happening!"
www.myspace.com/evangelicals

Photos of Evangelicals and Holiday Shores.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Meat Puppets at Schubas

I enjoyed listening to records by the Meat Puppets back in the '80s — and I regretted the fact that I never saw them in concert. A few years ago, it seemed like I might never have that chance, since the band had gone on hiatus and bassist Cris Kirkwood was reportedly suffering from some pretty serious drug problems. In 2007, Cris emerged from limbo, however, reforming the Meat Puppets with his brother, Kurt. They were back in Chicago last week, playing three nights in a row at Schubas. I caught their set on Friday night.

I haven't listened to the Meat Puppets all that much in recent years, but their old music instantly flashed back into my mind as I heard the Kirkwood brothers doing their unique combination of loopy guitar riffs, loping country rhythms and psychedelia. The music sounded heavier in concert than it does on record. In fact, this was one of the rare Schubas shows where I eventually felt compelled to move to the back of the room because of the overpowering volume. The bass and drum sounds were thumping a bit too loud in my eardrums up there by the stage.

Cris Kirkwood's face was only intermittently visible, peaking out from a tangle of hair as he pounded away on the bass. His voice still blended together with Kurt's in shaggy sibling harmony, and Kurt curled his lips as he played his guitar solos. He really seemed to relish the moment. Drummer Ted Marcus tied together the band's somewhat spacious sound with off-kilter beats. And the Meat Puppets played many of their best songs, including "Up on the Sun," "Plateau" (made famous by Nirvana) and "Backwater."

The first opening band was Atlanta's Winston Audio, which played hard rock with Southern flair and lots of hair being tossed around. The second band, Dynasty Electric, seemed like a mismatch with the rest of the bill, playing electronic pop — dance music accented with electric guitar and Theremin. They weren't really playing my kind of music, but they made for some pretty pictures.

Photos of the Meat Puppets, Winston Audio and Dynasty Electric.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Choir of Young Believers

A band from Denmark called Choir of Young Believers made one of my favorite records this year, This Is for the White in Your Eyes, and the group's music sounded just as sublime in concert the other night (Oct. 26) at Schubas. The leader of this Choir, Jannis Noya Makrigiannis, sang beautiful melodies that put most rock tunesmiths to shame. Markigiannis knows how to write (and sing) a melody that makes dramatic leaps rather than sticking with less imaginative notes.

For all intents and purposes, Markigiannis is Choir of Young Believers, but he had a solid backup group (bass, drums and cello) that did an excellent job of playing live arrangements similar to the studio recordings. I've had trouble putting my finger on exactly what Choir reminds me of. The Ghostly International label's Web site compares Choir's music with classic pop music such as Roy Orbison. I can see that — the music Markigiannis is making with Choir feels like a Scandinavian take on the epic, quasi-orchestral pop music of Phil Spector — but there's also something about it that reminds me of indie artists from the 1980s, and I hear similarities to other Scandinavian artists such as Loney Dear.

Performing the final show of Choir's U.S. tour Monday night at Schubas, Markigiannis hit all the high notes. At the end of the main set, he even let loose on guitar, flailing around with charged energy. He returned without his backup band for one solo song during the encore — a cover of the Swedish band First Floor Power's song "Goddamn Your Finger." (Choir's cover of the song appears on the various artists collection Saluting the Crunchy-Frog-a-logue.

Alas, Schubas was not nearly as crowded as it should have been for this show, although the folks who did show up clearly liked what they heard. Monday nights are always a tough night to draw a crowd, and on this Monday, these Danes were competing with a few other high-profile indie-rock shows in Chicago. The Schubas show also featured opening acts Chris Bathgate (doing some nice roots-rock with trumpet and trombone accents) and Brazil's MoMo (whom I recently saw at the Chicago World Music Festival). It was a motley but interesting mix of musical styles.

http://ghostly.com/artists/choir-of-young-believers
www.myspace.com/choirofyoungbelievers

Photos of Choir of Young Believers.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dead Man's Bones at Schubas

As I said in my recent review of the CD by Dead Man's Bones, this is one peculiar project. And so it was in concert, too. Dead Man's Bones came to Schubas Wednesday night (Oct. 21) for two sold-out shows. I think it's a fair assumption that a high percentage of the crowd turned out because the band includes film actor Ryan Gosling. And need I say that a high percentage of the crowd was female? Gosling could have doing just about anything on the stage, and a good number of these fans probably would have shown up anyway. But, given the way the crowd responded to the songs, it was also clear that these fans have been listened to the Dead Man's Bones album, which sounds a bit like Daniel Johnston teaming up with a school choir to do a musical about haunted houses. (The vocals are on key more often than Johnston's, however.)

The songs sounded much the same in the concert, with a chorus of children in white sheets and pale ghost makeup crowding onto the stage and singing many of the choruses, to the delight of the audience. One of the girls in the chorus took part into a miniature drama, involving her falling dead and then singing from behind a backlit sheet. The whole spectacle was campy and quirky to the extreme. Even the opening act, if you can call it that, was an exercise in ironic amateurism: a talent show that included an artist drawing a picture then singing, a belly dancer, and a magician.

I expect some people would find the whole Dead Man's Bones show a bit precious, but I enjoyed it from beginning to end, and unlike many of the folks in attendance, I wasn't even there to moon over Mr. Gosling. (Don't forget that he has other collaborators in this band, including another singer-songwriter, Zach Shields.) The celebratory show had some of the zany sense of humor and the "let's try something weird" attitude that animated the Flaming Lips at their best. It was certainly a very memorable night.

Photos of Dead Man's Bones.

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Elliott Brood at Schubas

The Canadian trio Elliott Brood calls its music "goth country," which is a fairly apt description. The group played Tuesday night at Schubas, combining banjo, guitar, ukulele and drums with gritty and sometimes growled singing. Despite the dark side of Elliott Brood's music, the music came across as upbeat in the live performance. The band played with its own lights, including strings of twinkly little bulbs and some spinning red ambulance lights. A big banner with the band's name hung from a frame in front of the drum kit, making the stage look like an old-fashioned carnival show. The highlight of the set came at the end, when drummer Stephen Pitkin passed out pie tins and wooden spoons to the crowd for some audience participation. And then, during the encore, opening act the Wooden Sky (who had put on a pretty good set of alt-country) joined Elliott Brood onstage for some dancing and singing along. Suddenly, the goth country tunes seemed like party music.

www.myspace.com/elliottbrood

The evening got off to a nice start with the moody songs of Chicago's Speck Mountain — another band that might qualify as goth country, but with a slower, more drawn-out beat.

Photos of Elliott Brood, the Wooden Sky and Speck Mountain.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Lincoln Hall opens

Lincoln Hall opened Friday in the same space where the 3 Penny Cinema used to show movies, on Lincoln Avenue just north of Fullerton. This is the same neighborhood where the Lounge Ax used to be one of the Chicago rock scene's beacons. And with Wax Trax Records located just a short distance away, this stretch of Lincoln was a major destination for music fans. Not much has been happening in this part of Lincoln Park lately, as far as music goes, but that's changing now with the opening of this new venue.

Run by the same fine folks who book so many great concerts over at Schubas, Lincoln Hall is three times bigger than its sister venue, holding about 500 people. I paid the place a visit for the first time on Saturday (Oct. 17) when Liam Finn was the headline act. To be honest, Lincoln Hall didn't look all that big when I was standing on the main floor. It still has the cozy feel of a small venue, and that might be because the main floor's capacity is only 169, almost exactly the size of Schubas. The difference is that there's a large balcony with lots of prime viewing space along the railing. And boy does this room have a high ceiling. The long black drapes hanging behind the stage seem like they go up and up and up. The inside of Lincoln Hall looks a bit like a small music club where the ceiling has been lifted up. The place doesn't have as much character as Schubas — at least, not yet. The place is brand spanking new after all. I appreciated the lack of posters, advertisements and decorations on the walls of the music room. With lots of stained wood and wrought-iron railings (at least, that's what they looked like), Lincoln Hall is a classy-looking place. The decor is restrained — not all that exciting, maybe, but hey, the music's what makes the excitement, right?

The sound at Saturday's show was excellent. From what I read in the Chicago Tribune, it seemed as if the owners held off for a week on their official grand opening while they work out bugs like sound quality, but I didn't see any bugs that needed to be worked out on Saturday. The sound was crystal clear. Even when I was standing near the stage, I didn't really feel much need to use earplugs. I think that's because the loudest speakers in the place were the ones hanging up on the ceiling way above my head. I did notice at one point that I was picking up too much sound from the bass amp on the stage, throwing off the balance of the mix I was hearing, but that's probably an unavoidable thing for people who stand right next to the band.

I was up in the balcony for just a few minutes at the beginning of the night, and I thought the view of the stage from up there was excellent. The views were good on the main floor, too, of course. Nice sight lines all around. I'm told that about 300 people were there for Saturday's concert, and with that many people, it was comfortable moving around. We'll see what it's like when it sells out.

At Saturday's concert, a team of employees helped the bands set up and remove their equipment in between sets. There's a sound board on the side of the stage as well as a large control station at the back of the main room. It all looks highly professional.

But... Memo to the guys running the lights: Would you mind laying off a bit on all those red lights? This is a problem that's not unique to Lincoln Hall. Lots of music venues seem to think that concerts look cool when the musicians are bathed in a red or pink haze. And I doubt if most fans think there's anything wrong with that. As a photographer, however, I hate red light. It really makes for lousy pictures. Those red lights knock out just about every other color in the spectrum, and all you're left with is an image that might as well be black and white. There were a lot of red and pink lights Saturday night, especially when Liam Finn was playing. Once in a while, there was a burst of white light, and to me it felt like: Hallelujah! At last I can take a decent picture. So, if it's not too much to ask, a little bit more of that white light would be fabulous, guys. I'm just saying...

Saturday's show started off with Greycoats, who sounded a bit like Coldplay, playing polished pop-rock. Next up was the Chicago band Unicycle Loves You, which played some pretty good power pop. Nice melodic hooks and a tight sound, though I'd like to see Unicycle scruff things up a bit more.

Headliner Liam Finn usually puts on an entertaining show, and he was in good spirits Saturday night, especially when he used his looping pedals to go a little bit nuts with guitar solos and drum solos on top of the chords he'd just been playing. His mellower ballads sounded lovely, too. Finn treated the crowd to a couple of loud and lively cover songs. Noting that his sound guy was celebrating his birthday, and that it was also the birthday of someone in the audience, Finn played a rocking version of the Beatles' "Birthday." And during the encore, he cranked out some great Neil Young riffing on "Cinnamon Girl," noting: "I wanna play in a Neil Young cover band!"

For more details on Lincoln Hall, see www.lincolnhallchicago.com

Photos of Liam Finn, Unicycle Loves You and Greycoats.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Youth Group at Schubas

After seeing the story of London's Black Plague and listening to some delightful classical music during Black Violet (see my previous post), I stopped at Schubas last night (Oct. 6) for a show by Australia's Youth Group.

I've enjoyed Youth Group's 2005 album Skeleton Jar and the group's 2006 album Casino Twilight Dogs. Both are filled with smart, melodic tunes that stick in your head. At times, Youth Group verges on the sort of mellow indie pop played by groups like Death Cab For Cutie, but there's also a quality to the guitar lines that reminds me more of '60s psychedelic rock channeled through contemporary indie rock. I'm less familiar with Youth Group's latest CD, The Night Is Ours, but those new songs sounded pretty good alongside the old ones on Tuesday night.

The heart of this band is the hirsute singer-guitarist Toby Martin, who has the sort of fine mellow voice that's perfect for carrying an anthem like "Forever Young." That voice also meshes well with the louder guitars on Youth Group songs. The band doesn't reinvent its songs in concert, but it does play them with a sort of insistent intensity. Schubas was not sold out for these musicians who'd made the trip from Sydney, but the room filled up somewhat by the time Youth Group played, and the audience showed its appreciation for what it was hearing. (I just wish the band had played one of my favorite songs off their last album, "Sorry.")

www.myspace.com/youthgroupmusic
www.youthgroup.com.au

The first act of the show was the Wiitala Brothers, who were celebrating the release of a new CD. They sounded like a pretty solid rock duo, closing their set with a couple of nice, melodic ballads. Next up was Other Girls. Not surprisingly, Other Girls was actually four guys (following the trend of all-male bands like Girls and Women). They sounded an awful lot like other recent bands such as the Walkmen, with that style of strained singing, so I can't say they were all that distinctive, but they won me over with their energy.

Photos of Youth Group, Wiitala Brothers and Other Girls.

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Rural Alberta Advantage

The Rural Alberta Advantage put out an excellent record last year called Hometowns, with a sound that reminded me of Neutral Milk Hotel. The record received more attention this year after the Saddle Creek picked it up for wider release, and the trio — Nils Edenloff, Amy Cole and Paul Banwat — came to Chicago last night (Sept. 26) for the second time in a couple of months. Their late show at Schubas sold out, so an early show was added. Clearly, more people are discovering this band, so expect them to be playing bigger venues in the future.

Edenloff, who grew up in Alberta and sings about his home province in some of the sings, is the singer-songwriter-guitarist-keyboardist at the center of the Rural Alberta Advantage. The strong melodies of his songs really came through during the early show at Schubas, with some lovely harmony vocals and glockenspiel or keyboard accents from Cole and energetic drumming by Banwat. These are songs you know you'll want to hear again. The band supplemented its set with a couple of cover tunes, both of which Edenloff played as solo acoustic numbers: "S.O.S." by ABBA (always one of the few ABBA songs I've really liked), and "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor. Man, I didn't expect them to play that song, but even that tune (which I always thought of as a cheesy cliche) came off pretty well.
www.theraa.com
www.myspace.com/theraa

The opening act Saturday at Schubas, the Love Language, also delivered a vibrant set of its songs. I saw this band in the spring at the Hideout, and they impressed me yet again this time, with catchy songs and plenty of energy.
www.myspace.com/thelovelanguage
thelovelanguage.blogspot.com

Photos of the Rural Alberta Advantage and the Love Language.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

Amazing Baby and Entrance Band

The Brooklyn band Amazing Baby came to Schubas in Chicago on Friday night, and they made Schubas look like a miniature rock arena, complete with lasers, billowing fog and strobe lights. It's good to see a band with a sense of showmanship, although I wondered at times if Amazing Baby was overdoing it. The music was pretty good, but it was overpowered by the band's attempt to present a rock spectacle on that little stage. Amazing Baby's at its best when some strong '60s-style melodies shine through the polished mix. I'd like to hear them experiment more.

The opening band, aptly named for that slot, was Entrance Band, whom I saw recently opening for Sonic Youth. This trio sounds great when it gets psychedelic. Not so great (in my opinion) when it starts to sound more like '70s hard rock. There were lots of long jams during their set Friday ... a little too long, but there were some intense moments when Entrance Band's three players really clicked together.

Photos of Amazing Baby and Entrance Band.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Lost in the Trees at Schubas

It's becoming a pretty common sight these days to see violins, violas and cellos onstage at an indie-rock concert. Both local and touring bands often seem almost like miniature orchestras or string quartets at Chicago venues such as Schubas, the Empty Bottle and the Hideout. One of the best and most sophisticated of the current orchestral rock outfits is Lost in the Trees, an ensemble from Chapel Hill, N.C.

Lost in the Trees' 2008 album All Alone in an Empty House alternates between delicate, highly melodic folk rock, which is a little reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens, and some instrumental orchestral compositions that are about the closest thing to traditional classical music that you'll hear anywhere on a rock CD today. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Ari Picker is the dominant guy in Lost in the Trees, but when the band came to Schubas last Thursday (July 9) it felt like a true ensemble. A full string section played beautiful arrangements throughout the set, supplemented by guitar, drums, mandolin, glockenspiel and horns. The strong tunes from that 2008 CD resonated in concert, affirming that this is definitely a group to watch for future releases. (And now I really want to hear the earlier Lost in the Trees releases from 2004 and 2006). Lost in the Trees finished its show by moving off the stage and onto the main floor at Schubas, playing unamplified with a bunch of fans gathered around. It was a lovely moment.
www.myspace.com/lostinthetrees
www.lostinthetrees.com/home.htm

Photos of Lost in the Trees.

The first band of the night was Halloween, Alaska, which seemed to have a fair amount of fans in attendance, including people who really recognized the songs. The band sounded too much like Death Cab For Cutie for my tastes, but I suppose that'll be a strong selling point for many folks. (And like so many bands these days, this one is named after a place where they are not from. They're actually from Minnesota, not Alaska. As a native of Alaska, I disapprove.)
www.halloweenalaska.com
www.myspace.com/halloweenalaska

The second group of the night was Box of Baby Birds, a Chicago group led by Gary Calhoun James. Box of Baby Birds plays subtle, mellow folk rock with moody textures. The group's new EP, Arboreal, is another fine recording, worth delving into, and the songs sounded beguiling at the Schubas performance. Box of Baby Birds is also playing July 23 at the Hideout on a bill with Cameron McGill. Alas, these CD release shows are also being billed as "farewell shows" for Box of Baby Birds, as James is apparently moving to Austin, Texas.
www.myspace.com/boxofbabybirds

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Concert round-up

I've posted photos from several concerts lately without any comment here. Back on June 24, Robert Gomez, a singer-songwriter from Denton, Texas, performed a nice show of melancholy folk rock with a bit of a psychedelic edge at Schubas. It was sparsely attended, but I enjoyed the intimate feeling of the show. Chicago's Rock Falls played an opening set of charming songs, including some ukulele strumming. Photos of Robert Gomez and Rock Falls.

I wrote earlier about how great the Feelies were on June 29 at Millennium Park. They were just one of three bands that I saw at the park's Pritzker Pavilion. In addition to all of the great evening concerts, the park is also hosting free performances at noon every day this summer, including some rock shows in a series called "Edible Audible." It's not always easy for me to get downtown at noon, but I was there on June 29 for a show by Black Moth Super Rainbow. Normally, I'm not too thrilled with bands that run all of their vocals through the tired electronic effect known as the Vocoder. Black Moth does this, but somehow, I like this brand of Vocoder music better than most other electronic music. I think it's because it feels trippy and psychedelic, with some catchy melodies. Photos of Black Moth Super Rainbow.

Back at the Pritzker that evening, Chicago's Icy Demons were the opening act for the Feelies. I rather like this band and the CD that it put out last year, Miami Ice. Icy Demons mix some elements from 1970 prog rock with dance rhythms. I got the feeling that the band wore out its welcome at this show, since Feelies fans were so eager for the main act, but it was still pretty enjoyable. Photos of Icy Demons.

The Chicago ensemble DRMWPN (pronounced "dream weapon") released one of my favorite records so far this year, Bright Blue Galilee, but good luck finding it. It's a very limited edition on vinyl of a concert recording from 2007. DRMWPN basically plays a droning chord for about 40 minutes at every show, creating a meditative atmosphere. The group came together July 1 for another beautiful performance at the Chopin Theatre. Ostensible leader Jim Dorling had some trouble getting the group's Dream Machine to work. That's the light with the spinning cover that sets the perfect mood at DRMWPN concerts. After a few minutes of playing with the device, he finally got it spinning, and the music began drifting into place. Photos of DRMWPN, Ultimate Vag and 500MG.

Oumou Sangaré, a singer from Mali, put on a rousing show July 2 at the Pritzker Pavilion. She came across as a vibrant personality, and her large band kept the music going at a lively pace all night. It did not take long for a large group of fans to rush to the front part of the pavilion, and after that, it was a non-stop dance party. Photos of Oumou Sangaré.

Last year, Christian Kiefer, J. Matthew Gerken, Jefferson Pitcher and assorted guest singers put out a three-CD set called Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies. It does in fact include one song for each president, and after Barack Obama won last year's election, these musicians released a follow-up song with Will Johnson of Centro-matic on lead vocals, "44. Barack Obama (Someone to Wake)." I played that song a lot last fall after the election. (You can download it for free here.) The trio of singer-songwriters who put this whole project together played July 3 at the Hideout and July 4 at Taste of Chicago. I caught the Hideout show, which featured one of the local musicians who performs on the CD — Steve Dawson of Dolly Varden signing about Lyndon B. Johnson — and several musicians doing interpretations of the songs. The Singleman Affair did great psychedelic-folk-rock versions of the songs about John Quincy Adams and Jimmy Carter. The Bitter Tears, dressed like decadent hillbillies, sang about Zachary Taylor. The Gunshy, Sin Ropas, Jeff Harms, Tim Rutili and Tim Kinsella also performed, and of course, Jon Langford was there — singing about Ronald Reagan. Hideout co-owner Tim Tuten (back in town from Washington) emceed the whole shindig, and his rambling and improvised intro to the Reagan was a humorous highlight. The concert featured about half of the songs from the 3-CD collection, ending with the soothing sing-along chorus of the Obama song: "Everything will be all right." Photos of 44 Songs for 44 Presidents.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Reviews of June 19-22 concerts

I'm not quite as swamped with concerts this week as I have been lately, but here are a few good ones that happened in recent days.

Soy Un Caballo sounds like the name for a Spanish band, or maybe a New York pretending to be a Spanish band. The group's name is Spanish for "I Am a Horse." But this male-female duo is actually Belgian, and they sing most of their songs in French. They were delightful Friday night (June 19) at Schubas, playing a set of delicate songs on guitar, bass and vibes with pretty vocal harmonies. "It's very courageous of you to take French lessons on a Friday night," one of them remarked. Courageous? Hardly! The band happens to be on a Chicago label, Minty Fresh, which has a history of finding great bands from overseas. Check out Soy Un Caballo's music at www.myspace.com/soyuncaballo.

Photos of Soy Un Caballo.

On Saturday night (June 20), the Empty Bottle had a strong, if somewhat mismatched, triple lineup. The headliners were O'Death, who got the crowd dancing like it was a real hoedown, while the band cranked out bluegrassy music with punk attitude. Ah, but a little bit of O'Death goes a long way for me. The fans loved it, anyway. The middle act on the bill, and my main reason for being there, was Tiny Vipers, the singer-songwriter also known as Jesy Fortino. She has some really nice songs, but they're very quiet songs, and alas, the Bottle crowd was really chatty, making it almost painful at times to watch Fortino straining to be heard about that din. At several points, a big "shush" went up, and people shut up for a few minutes. The acoustic guitar picking and plaintive singing sounded beautiful... whenever I could hear it. (You can hear some of it here: www.myspace.com/tinyvipersss) The first act of the night was Balmorhea, an ensemble from Austin, Texas, that plays songs falling somewhere between chamber music and rock. It was pretty and mellow, though maybe a little too mellow. Balmorhea is practically an instrumental band, with vocals on only a few songs, but it was the ending of the show, when the members all came together and sang a cappella, that really stood out for me.

Photos of O'Death, Tiny Vipers and Balmorhea.

Monday (June 22) was another night with great (and free!) live music at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. It's kind of hard to believe that Chicago city officials are cool enough to allow things like a concert by the Dirty Projectors to happen in a beautiful, world-class venue like the Pritzker. I guess that's because the city government (for all of its many faults) has a smart Cultural Affairs Department. This particular show featured those indie-rock darlings from Brooklyn, the Dirty Projectors, opening for a stalwart Chicago act, the Sea and Cake. At least in the front part of the pavilion, it was clear that most of the twentysomething fans who rushed to get seats when the gates opened were Dirty Projectors fans. I overheard some of these kids saying that they didn't even know who the Sea and Cake were, and some of them did not stick around for the headliners.

The Dirty Projectors have intrigued me on the two previous times I've seen them, but at times, their music seemed like not entirely successful experimentation. They're getting more press now, thanks in part to collaborations with Björk and David Byrne (neither of whom was present for this show, of course). And boy, the Dirty Projectors really connected this time. With an expanded lineup, the band is doing a lot more with vocal harmonies — really peculiar but very precise harmonies, with intervals, overlapping patterns and spot-on timing. It's easy to see why Björk would want to work with them. I was wowed by the sound of those voices, which seemed almost like a programmed effect than an organic piece of singing happening right in front of me. The guitar melodies were striking, too, with lots of African style skewed into strange new territory.

The Sea and Cake finished the show with a pretty good set, though as always, I find myself wishing that this band would break loose a little bit. They're very talented, and their songs are smart compositions with inventive chords, but it's always tamped down. The one thing that wasn't tamped down was drummer John McIntire, who grimaced and made all sorts of intense expressions as he hammered away.

Photos of the Dirty Projectors and the Sea and Cake.

UPDATE: I was too busy today to pay attention to Twitter or anything like that, so I overlooked the news that the Dirty Projectors had been in a car accident. Everyone is reportedly OK. http://pitchfork.com/news/35710-dirty-projectors-in-car-accident/

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hey, Chris Mills and Sally Timms

Hey, Sally Timms: When are you going to release another solo CD? I'm asking because that set you played Sunday night (June 14) at Schubas sounded awfully good. And, well, it's been a while.

Timms had a five-piece band playing behind her, with a delicate mix of banjo, mandolin, guitar, stand-up bass, clarinet, trumpet and drums, for a folky yet slightly jazzy sound. She played songs by her pal (and fellow Mekon) Jon Langford and others... even a cool version of the Mekons song "Corporal Chalkie." And, as always, she had a delightfully wry and self-deprecating sense of humor.

She was the opening act for Chris Mills, which reminds me...

Hey, Chris Mills: Could you move back to Chicago? OK, I'm sure you have your reasons for being in New York, but you're such a good singer-songwriter that I'd love to continue claiming you as one of Chicago's best. Maybe I'll continue claiming you anyway.

Mills was back in town for a one-off solo gig because he had a wedding to attend. (He played "In the Time of Cholera" at the wedding ceremony, apparently getting some puzzled looks from people unfamiliar with his music who saw that title in the program.) Mills is probably at his best when he has a full band playing him — one of the best things about this CDs is the lush and creative arrangements — but his songs also work really well as solo acoustic numbers. And that's what he delivered Sunday night, singing in full-throated gusto.

Photos of Chris Mills and Sally Timms.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

A week full of concerts

Phew! Eight concerts in the last seven days! And it's been quite a run of good shows. Summing up what I've seen the last few days...

Art Brut was in town for five straight days of concerts at Schubas. I love it when a band does an extended stand at a smaller venue rather than doing one show in a bigger room. It takes more of a commitment from the band, but the result is that more fans get to see the group up-close in an intimate space. And the guys in Art Brut are always such fun, I gladly would have seen them more than once this week if there hadn't been so many other good shows to see. I saw Art Brut on Tuesday (June 9), when the opening act was Team Band, a Chicago group trying very hard to be like Art Brut. Hey, what the heck — Art Brut leader Eddie Argos has previously suggested creating Art Brut franchises in various cities. Argos even joined Team Band onstage for one song, singing the lyrics he'd just learned a short time earlier.

At times, Art Brut has seemed almost as much of a comedy act as a rock band, thanks to Argos' cheeky, self-referential lyrics. I'm enjoying their third and latest CD, with the terrific title Art Brut Vs. Satan, and Tuesday's show was an energetic blast of very English punk rock, with a mix of catchy choruses and Argos' humorous patter in the verses. As usual, Argos kept on referring to the band in the third person — "Ready, Art Brut?" — and he was sweatily leaping around and gesturing like mad. A highlight was the moment when he used his microphone cable as a jumping rope. It was a slight disappointment not to hear full-length versions of the classic Art Brut tracks "Formed a Band" and "Top of the Pops," but Argos slyly dropped pieces of those choruses into other songs. And Argos served up not one but two songs about "D.C. Comics" — the actual song with that title, plus a completely reworked take on "Modern Art" that replaced most of the references to modern art with comic books instead. By the end of the week, Argos posted a Twitter comment about how much he was going to miss Schubas.

Photos of Art Brut and Team Band.

On Wednesday (June 10) I was at the Empty Bottle to see Pink Mountaintops, a side project by the leader of Black Mountain, Stephen McBean. Or is it fair to call it a side project? I mean, he's done three records under the Pink Mountaintops name and just two under the Black Mountain moniker. Black Mountain may be the band he's best known for, but he saves some excellent songs for Pink Mountaintops. On the previous Pink record, Axis of Evol, I had some trouble discerning exactly what the difference was between McBean's Black and Pink projects. The difference is clearer on the latest CD, Outside Love. The songs are more concise than the typical Black Mountain jam. Some of them have a hard and fuzzy sounds reminiscent of the Jesus and Mary Chain and others are more like country rock. It all sounded very nice in concert, and we were also treated to a couple of good opening bands. Quest for Fire (including a couple of musicians who also played with Pink Mountaintops) played jammy guitar rock reminiscent of Black Mountain, while Suckers played intriguing rock with a touch of glam and psychedelia.

Photos of Pink Mountaintops, Quest for Fire and Suckers.

Thursday (June 11) was a really special night at the Empty Bottle, with a great double bill of Vic Chesnutt and Jonathan Richman. Sitting alone on the stage in his wheelchair, hunched over his acoustic guitar, Chesnutt managed to get the normally chatty crowds at the Bottle to listen intently to his quirky and heartfelt songs — he did pause one song to point out some "chatties" in the crowd, joking that the young ladies were talking about how handsome he is. Chesnutt introduced a few songs by noting that he had written them recently and might forget the chords and lyrics. And he did say "sorry" a few times as he tried to find his way through the songs, starting them over again. That's the sort of uncertainty that can seem like a fault for many performers, but Chesnutt was so casual about it that it actually heightened the feeling that this was a performance akin to watching him in his living room. As he remarked at one point, "I know I'm going to fuck this one up but that hasn't stopped me yet tonight." Chesnutt said he's recorded new music with both Jonathan Richman and Silver Mt. Zion. He closed with a song that he dubbed "the epic one" — "Worst Friend in the World."

He was followed by Richman, who was — well, he was Jonathan Richman, a singular and strange guy. Very entertaining in his own way. If you go to see a Richman concert in the hope of hearing him do some of his early songs with the Modern Lovers, you're probably going to be out of luck. And I have to confess I haven't kept up with his recent records, so I wasn't that familiar with the songs he played Thursday. But his humor and earnestness are immediately accessible, whether or not you've heard the songs before. Richman sang some songs in French or Spanish, and his acoustic guitar playing all night had a Spanish flair to it. He often let the music fall into an improvised groove with drummer Tommy Larkins. As Richman noted at one point during an extended riff: "This isn't a song or anything. It's just a beat." Richman occasionally set down his guitar and picked up a cowbell or some jingle bells and pranced around on the stage, making some percussion. His eyes remained wide all night, as he seemed to be staring into the faces of individual audience members (including me)... And every few minutes, that stare would give way to a childish grin.

Photos of Jonathan Richman and Vic Chesnutt.

One more concert to report on: PJ Harvey and John Parish Friday at the Riviera. More on that later...

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Monday, June 08, 2009

Metronome, Maestro and Telekinesis

It was a busy weekend in Chicago for music and other fun cultural activities, including the Printers Row Lit Fest. (More on that later... if I get a chance to blog about it.) The weather was strangely cold and rainy, but I didn't let that stop me.

A few highlights: A new street festival called Metronome took place Saturday and Sunday on Milwaukee Avenue between Armitage and North, with an impressively eclectic lineup of music — indie rock, punk, electronic and folk, among other things. I caught the last two acts on the main stage Saturday night, as a chill wind was blowing. New York's Here We Go Magic got off to a bit of a slow start, but then the band really picked up steam with some extended jams — not jam-band-style jams, but the sort of extended grooves that the Feelies and American Analog Set used to specialize in. Here We Go Magic lived up to its name in these moments, and their song "Fangela" is really marvelous.

The last act on that stage Saturday night was John Vanderslice, a dependable singer-songwriter whose music is a little slippery to define, genre-wise. It falls under the big umbrella of indie rock, but that doesn't tell you much. It's not the acoustic or roots-based music that dominates the singer-songwriter field, though there are some touches of that. He dabbles in electronic textures, but mostly what he does is write smart and melodic songs. And then when he plays them, he knows how to have some fun, cranking out hard electric guitar chords in the right spots. A number of his songs on the new album Romanian Names stick in the mind long after you hear them.

Photos of Here We Go Magic and John Vanderslice.

On Sunday afternoon, a noteworthy reunion concert happened, but it seemed like almost no one knew about it. The only reason I heard about it was a piece that Ira Glass did on WBEZ's 848 show Friday. The stars of this affair were Maestro Subgum and the Whole, a peculiar Chicago musical collective that performed back in the early '90s. Talk about musical acts who are hard to categorize, Maestro Subgum really was an oddball outfit. If anything, the group's songs resembled musical theater or cabaret more than rock music — and fittingly enough, some of its members have gone on to perform with local theaters. This reunion show, following a concert earlier in the year at the Viaduct, was a benefit for the Curious Branch Theatre. It was wonderful to hear the group's voices belting out harmonies on catchy but quirky old songs such as "Bamboo Guru." The band's master of ceremonies, "Lefty Fizzle," seemed like a sort of old-time carnival barker, twirling his cane and prancing about in some sort of robe not normally seen outside of storage closets. And Ira Glass made a couple of appearances, talking about how much Maestro Subgum's willingness to do its thing inspired him years ago to do his thing on the radio. (I only wish Maestro Subgum would have performed my favorite one of their songs, "Prayers for the Undoing of Spells.")

Photos of Maestro Subgum and the Whole with Ira Glass.

Finally, the weekend came to a nice musical closing with three bands at Schubas. The headliners were Telekinesis, who have a very tuneful self-titled CD out on Merge Records, well worth getting. This Seattle band is somewhat unusual because the main singer and songwriter, Michael Benjamin Lerner, is a drummer. So Telekinesis plays with the drum kit right up at the front of the stage. Lerner's songs remind me a bit of old power pop. They sounded strong and catchy in concert.

The Schubas lineup also featured An Horse, a guitar-and-drums duo from Australia, who seemed to be almost as big of a draw for the local fans as Telekinesis, if not bigger. They seemed quite charming, with scrappy, fairly straightforward rock songs, a bit on the garage-rock side. The first band one of the night was Chicago's A Lull. Yes, the same band I saw less than a week ago, opening for Julie Doiron at the Empty Bottle. Once again, they sounded good, even though they'd lost the use of a computer. I liked them enough to pick up their EP at the merch table.

Photos of Telekinesis, An Horse and A Lull.

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Dent May plus cool openers

I went to Schubas on Thursday night (May 28) out of curiosity more than anything else. The headliner, Dent May, is a singer from Mississippi who plays the ukulele, an instrument you don't see onstage all that often, other than maybe a short novelty number or two in the middle of a concert. The uke is all that May plays during the course of his show, and he grimaces and rears back at times like he's wailing on an electric guitar, even though he's just plinking those little nylon strings. It made for an interesting sight, but I have to say his pop music didn't really connect with me like I'd hoped. It wasn't bad, but something about his voice and his melodies wore thin on me after a few songs. And yet, a number of people in the crowd seemed to love it, calling out requests for some of his songs, so I can see this guy may be destined to attract even more fans in the future. www.myspace.com/dentmay

I was pleasantly surprised by the two opening acts, however — both of them fledgling Chicago bands that showed a lot of promise. First up was My Gold Mask, a duo with Gretta Rochelle on vocals and drums (which she played standing up) and Jack Armondo on guitar and backing vocals. They rocked with the primitive energy you often get with guitar-and-drums duos, with a great full-on vocal attack from Rochelle on several songs. The band's debut recording is a cassette tape... Gosh, you know, I appreciate the retro technology, but I'm trying to get rid of all my old cassettes, not gather more of them, so I just bought the card to get a digital download. Check them out at www.mygoldmask.com and www.myspace.com/mygoldmask.

The middle band on the bill was Very Truly Yours, which sounded an awful lot like Camera Obscura — which is a good thing, in my book. Lead singer and vocalist Kristine Capua sings in a pretty, plaintive voice while the band plays swaying pop arrangements that sound straight of the 1960s. THe group has a nice five-song EP called Reminders. The hyperbolic (and, I hope, somewhat tongue-in-cheek) liner notes claim: "Very Truly Yours is America's leading purveyor of what will someday be called the 'time capsule sound.' It's music handcrafted in the here and now for the nostalgic daydreams we're all still working on..." In concert, the members of Very Truly Yours seemed surprised that a modest-size crowd of people was paying attention and actually clapping after the songs. "You guys are so intense!" Capua said, giving the impression that Very Truly Yours hasn't played in front of actual audiences very often so far. Based on how cool they sounded at this show, I hope they're destined for many more shows and recordings to come. Check them out at www.myspace.com/verytrulymusic

Photos of Dent May, My Gold Mask and Very Truly Yours.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Rodriguez at Schubas

Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez (full name: Sixto Diaz Rodriguez) is one of countless musicians who recorded great songs years and years ago — and then disappeared with a trace. He released just two albums: Cold Fact in 1970 and Coming From Reality in 1972, with psychedelic folk rock reminiscent of Love's Forever Changes. Those records barely sold any copies in the U.S. and Rodriguez spent the coming years as day laborer in Detroit. Then, somehow, his records caught on in Australia. And then he became a star in South Africa. He's still largely unknown in his home country, but that's starting to change, now that the Light in the Attic label has reissued his albums on CD, and Friday (May 8), he came to Chicago to play in front of an enthusiastic and largely young audience at Schubas.

By now, having played to big audiences in South Africa, Rodriguez must be getting used to hearing cheers for his songs. But on Friday he still seemed like someone who's feeling giddy at finally getting the recognition he sought four decades ago."I've seen lonelier days and lonelier nights," he said. And when the audience sang along with many of those old Rodriguez songs, the smiling singer almost seemed astonished. "Thanks for knowing the words, too," he said. "That blows me away. Those are my lines."

The three musicians playing with Rodriguez appeared to be learning some of the songs as they went along — Rodriguez had to show them the chords for a few songs, and the guitarist was using a cheat sheet with chords — but it sounded beautifully organic and remarkably close to the old recordings. Rodriguez's voice is still in excellent form, and he has a distinctive way of plucking the chords on his electric-classical guitar. Highlights included his great signature song "Sugar Man," which you can hear at myspace.com/rodriguezsugarman. The only thing lacking to keep it from being perfect were the strings and reeds heard on the original studio record. Rodriguez closed with a cover of "Shake, Rattle and Roll," incorporating bits of "Long Tally Sally" and Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues."

This was one of those special concerts where you get a real sense of the performer's personality and history.

The opening act was Vampire Hands, a much younger band playing percussion-heavy rock with some psychedelic audio effects. Sort of a weird match with Rodriguez, but in a way it seemed appropriate — two different generations of musicians coming together in front of an audience that seemed to appreciate both.

Photos of Rodriguez and Vampire Hands.

Listen to the Aug. 28, 2008, story about Rodriguez on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Bowerbirds and La Strada at Schubas


Clearly, most of the crowd at Schubas Monday night (May 4) was there to hear Bowerbirds play songs from their 2007 album Hymns for a Dark Horse. But the crowd was in for a couple of nice surprises: an excellent opening band (La Strada) and a whole batch of new songs by Bowerbirds. As it happens, I have an advance copy of the new Bowerbirds album, Upper Air, which comes out July 7 on the Dead Oceans label, and I've been listening to it quite a bit. It's a really nice record, a more-than-worthy follow-up to that debut record, which garnered some attention two years ago.

The new and old songs all sounded lovely, with Phil Moore plucking and strumming a classical guitar most of the night, giving the songs that particular sound you can only get with nylon strings. Moore's gentle voice lofted the melodies all night, with a solid assist on harmony vocals from Beth Tacular, whose accordion notes fleshed out the arrangements. The touring drummer and bassist also added some subtle layers to the sound. I got the feeling that the crowd liked the new songs, though it was obvious that people responded a bit more to some of the songs they recognized, such as "Bur Oak."
www.bowerbirds.org www.myspace.com/bowerbirds

I wonder how many of the people at Schubas knew anything about the opening band, La Strada, or had heard any of their songs before? I suspect that the group, which has just an EP out at this point, was new to most of the audience, but the applause was enthusiastic. A few people even called out for an encore when the set was over. This band played orchestral pop with smart string arrangements featuring cello and violin, plus accordion on about half the songs. La Strada reminded me a bit of the Decemberists, without feeling quite as pretentious as that band can sometimes get. It was pretty and catchy music, played with a lot of spirit. I'm a convert. I bought La Strada's self-titled EP at the merch table, and it's sounding good.
www.myspace.com/lastradanyc www.ernestjenning.com/band_lastrada.htm

Photos of Bowerbirds and La Strada.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Elvis Perkins and Other Lives

Thursday night (April 30), Schubas had a nice double bill, with Elvis Perkins in Dearland as the headliner plus an opening set by the Oklahoma band Other Lives. It was a sold-out show, which led me to wonder why the room was so empty just before the 9 p.m. starting time. Then I heard a cheer coming from the other room and remembered, "Oh, yeah, there's a Bulls playoff game." The room did eventually fill up, with a fair amount of people coming in to watch Other Lives even as the Bulls went into triple overtime.

This was my second time seeing Other Lives as an opening act at Schubas. I'd also seen them open last year for the Little Ones. By now, I've heard their cool debut record, a self-titled album that came out earlier this year. They remind me a bit of Midlake, with songs that blend a folk-rock sensibility with the intricate and delicate arrangements of art-rock. "End of the Year" is one of the standout tracks on the album, and its shifting tempos and moods sounded dramatic, almost epic, in concert. Adding a classy touch to the set list, Other Lives played a cover of Leonard Cohen's song "Partisan."

By the time Elvis Perkins and his backup band (who are collectively billed as Elvis Perkins in Dearland) took the stage, the Bulls had won their game and the room was full. Perkins is essentially a solo performer, but he clearly likes being part of a band and letting the other musicians have some moments in the spotlight. During the course of this show, the band blew on trombones and saxophones, fiddled on violins, switched off on instruments and banged on a bass drum in marching-band style. Perkins is an excellent singer with some strong songs, and he crooned to nice effect Thursday night, doing folksy ballads as well as old-fashioned rockers. The crowd responded most when he finished the encore with "While You Were Sleeping," the first track on his first album, Ash Wednesday. And then, it actually was time for sleep.

Photos of Elvis Perkins in Dearland and Other Lives.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

The Handsome Family and Marissa Nadler

The Handsome Family just keep on putting out one good record after another (and sometimes they're great). I'm just getting familiar with the latest CD, Honey Moon, but it's safe to say that Brett and Rennie Sparks are still going strong. Married 20 years? Congratulations are in order — and given just how demented and dark Rennie's lyrics have been over the years, it's interesting to hear them focus a little bit more than usual on happy love songs this time.

They put on an excellent show of new songs mixed with some of my all-time favorites from throughout their career Sunday (April 19) at Schubas. After spending much of their career playing as a duo with a drum machine, the Handsome Family has been touring lately with an actual drummer and a second guitarist, which adds considerable subtleness to the songs. Brett and Rennie haven't really changed what they do all that much — it's still gothic alt-country — but over their last few albums, they've recorded more songs with the sophisticated air of jazz standards. They played two great examples of that style Sunday night: "After We Shot the Grizzly" and "I Know You Are There." And it was cool to hear them doing "Giant of Illinois" again after hearing Andrew Bird do his cover version.

And as always, Brett and Rennie engaged in some weird and very funny stage banter. The running theme of the night was Rennie's experiments in time travel to acquire kittens from the past.

www.handsomefamily.com
www.myspace.com/thehandsomefamily

Photos of the Handsome Family.

The first act of the night was Barry McCormack, an Irish singer-songwriter who was almost as much of a raconteur as he was a musical act. Some nice songs, with good stories to introduce them. http://www.myspace.com/barrymccormack

The second act, Marissa Nadler, was almost worth the admission herself. I saw her play a couple of years ago on the concrete floor at Ronny's. Schubas is a way more appropriate venue for this folk singer with a beautiful voice and her ethereal songs. For most of her set, she was joined by the guitarist from the band Tulsa, who added subtle echoes of her own guitar playing that fleshed out the songs. Nadler joked that she also has a band called Death Machine. One audience member remarked that he'd want to hear that. Nadler's music is fragile, with her voice drenched in reverb. She commanded the audience's attention as the room fell quiet.

www.marissanadler.com
www.myspace.com/songsoftheend

Photos of Marissa Nadler and Barry McCormack.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Blind Pilot at Schubas

Blind Pilot was one of the bands I wanted to see at SXSW but missed. I heard several people giving very positive reviews of their sets in Austin, and got the sense Blind Pilot might be getting some buzz. I decided Friday afternoon to buy a ticket to that evening's show by Blind Pilot at Schubas. Maybe half an hour later, Schubas sent out a Twitter update saying that only five tickets were left for the concert. Of course, it was sold out by the 10 p.m. showtime.

It was a young crowd — a lot of people who looked about 20 — and the crowd clearly knew the songs by Blind Pilot by heart, singing along to many of the lyrics. I wondered if I had missed something. Where did the band get all these fans all of a sudden? However that happened, the band has a pleasant folk-rock sound, with nice male-female vocal harmonies and a mix of trumpet, banjo, dulcimer and stand-up bass. It's more soothing than rustic, and there's good songcraft at work. It looks like Blind Pilot is heading toward even bigger popularity.

Photos of Blind Pilot and opening acts Deanna Devore and Death Ships.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Loney Dear at Schubas

Loney Dear is one of the best musical acts out of Sweden right now, and given how much great music is coming from Sweden, that's saying a lot. Loney Dear (which is basically one guy, Emil Svanängen, with a backing band) came to Schubas Sunday night (March 1), playing a fabulous little show in the midst of a tour where most of Loney Dear's gigs have been opening for Andrew Bird.

I'm just getting familiar with the songs on the new Loney Dear album, Dear John, but they were instantly infectious when Loney Dear played them on the Schubas stage. At its core, this music is gentle and pretty folk rock, with Svanängen singing soothing and lilting melodies in a falsetto. But Loney Dear has a more expansive sound than that, mixing in some electronics and upbeat rock rhythms. A cursory listen to Loney Dear's records might lead you to expect a gossamer-thin sound, but the band was actually fairly loud and energetic Sunday night – but oh so quiet when Svanängen moved off-mike during two songs to sing and play his acoustic guitar without amplification.

The crowd sang along to the harmonies, and Svanängen was charmingly modest as he expressed his wonder at the reception his music was getting. The audience demanded two encores, and Loney Dear finished the night with "Sinister in a State of Hope," one of my favorite songs from the 2007 album Loney, Noir. It was a joyous concert, one of those beautiful nights when bards and players from some distant land alight in our fair city to strum their guitars in one of our little rooms.
www.loneydear.com / myspace.com/loneydear

It was nice to see opening act Anni Rossi again – just nine days after she opened for Deer Tick and Future Clouds and Radar at the Empty Bottle – with a more respectful audience. This time, people actually listened as she performed her quirky, uncoventional music on vocals and viola, including an Ace of Bass cover. myspace.com/annirossi

Photos of Loney Dear and Anni Rossi.

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Aqueduct and Foundry

Aqueduct headlined Friday (Feb. 27) at Schubas. I've seen this band (i.e. David Terry) three times now and listened to its/his 2007 album Or Give Me Death, and I'm still not sure exactly what to make of Aqueduct. Terry has some catchy melodies, and a good sense of humor, but he also has a tendency toward cheesiness. That's part of the humor, I guess, but I wonder what Terry would be capable of if he held back on the jokes for one night. Anyway, Aqueduct drew a very enthusiastic, young crowd Friday with a number of fans dancing wildly. So I guess he must be doing something right.

The first band of the night was Light Pollution. I see so many bands that I sometimes forget who I've seen, and Light Pollution was one band that rang a slight bell in my memory. But I couldn't quite recall whether I'd seen Light Pollution before. Later, I had to check my own blog's archive here to figure out that I'd seen Light Pollution opening for Malajube at the Empty Bottle in 2007. Seeing them again, I enjoyed their jangly sound.

Second up was the Foundry Field Recordings, from Columbia, Missouri. The main guy in this band, Billy Schuh, had a new set of backing players with him, who are also in a band called Bald Eagle (not DJ Bald Eagle, as they pointed out). I liked their music, which had a bit of a 1980s XTC feel to it.

Photos of Aqueduct, the Foundry Field Recordings and Light Pollution.

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