My photos from the daytime party at Murphy’s on Oct. 1, 2016, at Gonerfest in Memphis, featuring Casual Burn, Bloodbags, Fire Retarded, Archie & The Bunkers, Iron Head, Zerodent, Oh Boland, Bloody Show, The World and Spray Paint.
My photos from the nighttime show at the Hi Tone on Sept. 30, 2016, the second day of Gonerfest in Memphis, featuring Opposite Sex, Aquarian Blood, Power, Buck Biloxi and the Fucks, the Blind Shake and Black Lips.
My photos from Sept. 29, 2016, the first day of Gonerfest in Memphis, including the opening ceremonies at Cooper Young Gazebo with Nots and the nighttime show at the Hi Tone featuring emcee Jim Dandy, Hash Redactor, Chook Race, Counter Intuits, Useless Eaters, Fred & Toody and the Reigning Sound.
After going to Gonerfest in 2014, I knew that I’d want to come back to this annual Memphis punk and garage-rock shindig. Chicago has its share of lively mosh pits, but the Gonerfest crowd in Memphis tends to be a bit more raucous. Plus, the small-scale fest is a great excuse to visit Memphis, a city filled with musical history and fantastic barbecue.
I missed Gonerfest in 2015, but returned for this year’s festivities, which ran from Sept. 29 through Oct. 2. The highlights for me included seeing the original lineup of Reigning Sound (Greg Cartwright, Greg Roberson, Jeremy Scott and Alex Greene). I’ve seen this band several times in Chicago and enjoyed the shows, but none of them compared with this set. The excitement of the crowd was palpable. Maybe it was because this was a hometown show for the band. Or maybe people were just thrilled to see this version of the band. People were dancing and singing along all around me, and the enthusiasm was contagious. And as Cartwright sang one quick masterpiece after another, it reminded me of just how impressive those Reigning Sound albums are, with tightly wounded rock tunes reminiscent of the 1960s, packing memorable melodies into every minute.
Nots, an all-female Memphis band who are regulars in the Goner scene, knocked my socks off with their energetic late-afternoon set that served as the festival’s opening ceremonies.
Black Lips were the headliners on Night 2, whipping the crowd into a similar frenzy with their singalong rockers. The Blind Shake were even fiercer. Other bands that sparked intense moshing included Sick Thoughts.
On the lighter side, the Australian band Chook Race (which is on the Chicago label Trouble in Mind) made delightfully pretty chamber pop.
Groups from Down Under always have a strong presence at Gonerfest, and this year was no exception. During Saturday’s daytime party at Murphy’s — which has been my favorite part of the festival both times I’ve gone — I discovered a band from Perth called Zerodent, which slammed through post-punk songs in a style that reminded me of the Fall and Royal Headache.
Other high points on Saturday afternoon included Bloody Show, a band from Columbus, Ohio, playing noisy garage rock with swagger and flair.
And Oh Boland, a trio from Tuam, Ireland, blew me away with rambunctious yet tuneful songs. Later at the merch table, I bought Oh Boland’s new album, but the band hadn’t received a shipment of album covers, so the drummer drew the cover and wrote out the song titles on a blank cover.
While I was in Memphis, I took in sights around town — you can see my photos of Memphis on Flickr. I lucked into a chance to look around Ardent Studios with none other than Big Star drummer Jody Stephens as my guide, tagging along on a private tour he had already scheduled. (Though I didn’t know it at the time, later that day, I stopped into Shangri-La Records and discovered that Stephens has a new album with his band Those Pretty Wrongs, a nice collection of ballads in the Big Star tradition.)
Bill Callahan’s performance was the highlight of the Cropped Out festival’s second day, Saturday, Sept. 24, in Louisville. After 7 p.m., as the sun was going down, Callahan walked out onto the American Turner Club’s deck next to the Ohio River, where a small crowd had gathered for his performance. I was sitting right in front of the stage when Callahan stepped around me, casually remarking, “Watch out. There’s a piece of cheese.” Looking down, I saw a small chunk of pizza sitting next to me. After that odd little greeting, Callahan gave a breathtakingly beautiful performance — accompanied, as he often is, by the astounding guitarist Matt Kinsey, as well as bassist Jaime Zuverza (who’d played earlier in the day with his own band, Hidden Ritual).
As they played, insects along the rivers buzzed and chirped. Boats passed by on the river. Birds flying in V-shaped formations crossed the sky overheard. Callahan remarked that the temperature was perfect. In this enchanting setting, as dusk fell, Callahan aptly sang a few songs that mentioned rivers. His set list included songs from his superb recent albums Apocalypse and Dream River, as well as covers of Grateful Dead and Carter Family songs, finishing with a few of the tunes that Callahan performed years ago under the moniker Smog. Throughout it all, Callahan sang with his typical poise, quirky sense of timing and wry humor. Kinsey coaxed incredible sounds out of his Gibson SG electric guitar, almost like a second voice duetting with Callahan.
What a transporting and unforgettable hour it was.
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SET LIST: Riding for the Feeling / Spring / America! / Easy Wind (Grateful Dead cover) / Drover / Rococo Zephyr / Walk that Lonesome Valley (Carter Family cover) / I’m New Here (Smog song) / Say Valley Maker (Smog song) / Let Me See the Colts (Smog song)
(I saw another Callahan concert two days later, the early set on Sept. 26 at Constellation in Chicago. The set list was similar, with just a few differences, and Zuverza wasn’t present. It was another wonderful performance, even if it lacked the idyllic natural environment of Callahan’s Cropped Out show.)
Cropped Out’s second day started off with an odd, jokey set by Vern — more like performance comedy art than rock concert.
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The New Zealand band Opposite Sex followed, with an intriguing performance, showing the energy of punk rock but with a variety of other influences thrown into the mix. (The group’s recent album Hamlet even includes a couple of quieter songs played on piano.)
The next band up, Felchers, hadn’t been scheduled to perform on the Spooky Beach riverside deck, but it was one of only two stages with working electricity in the early afternoon, so that’s where they ended up. This Kentucky played straight-ahead hardcore punk, growl-shouting phrases like, “Oh my, this is unsettling!”
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The Louisville band Insect Policy mixed jazzy art-rock improvisation with punk-style vocals. One of the musicians was wearing an Acid Mothers Temple T-shirt, which gave a pretty good indication of Insect Policy’s influences.
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Creeping Pink played dreamy shoegaze rock, with vocals that blended into the guitars. (On Facebook, the Los Angeles band calls its stuff “Tape Glam.”)
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On the Spooky Beach deck, Chicago artist Matchess (aka Whitney Johnson) performed a lovely sonic collage, with recorded sounds blending into her vocals, keyboards and violin.
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As I mentioned above, Bill Callahan bassist Jaime Zuverza also fronted his own band at Cropped Out — Hidden Ritual — playing dark, brooding rock that reminded me of Protomartyr and the Cure.
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One of my favorite bands on Saturday was Bugg, apparently from Bloomington, Indiana. Searching online, I’ve found only scant information about Bugg, other than a demo posted on YouTube. Bugg’s pop-punk was bursting with energy. At moments, the group reminded me of the Replacements, and then the guys really won me over by doing a cover of the classic Guided By Voices tune “Bulldog Skin.”
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Power, a trio from Melbourne, Australia, lived up to its name, playing metal-punk riffs with intensity and precision.
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After Bill Callahan’s astonishing set came a complete change of pace: the St. Louis punk band Black Panties, led by a frontman clad in a black outfit, complete with a face-obscuring mask. The crowd inside Turners Tavern went wild, setting the tone for the rest of the evening, which was marked by much moshing. All of the sets during this late portion of Cropped Out’s second day, Pissed Jeans was the most iconoclastic and unpredictable, clearly having a great deal of fun. Saturday night also featured the festival’s only hip-hop, the longtime rapper Kool Keith, who got much of the crowd dancing.
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Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, a rock band from Columbus, Ohio, that stopped playing back in 2000, was back together at Cropped Out. I recall seeing this group open for Guided By Voices in 1997, and Saturday’s performance evoked that era of indie rock. The band sounded excellent.
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Cropped Out concluded with a strong performance by the Austin, Texas, post-punk band Spray Paint. A long two days of music came to an end with a jolt of energy.
Cropped Out feels like a homemade music festival. The website for the annual event in Louisville, Kentucky, hasn’t been thoroughly updated for a couple of years. Although the site displays pictures of the 2016 festival lineup, if you click on the drop-down menu for “FESTIVAL,” the most recent info listed is from 2014. Ticket sales are handled through some guy’s PayPal account. ($70 for a weekend pass.) Even the description of the venue is a bit sketchy: American Turners Club? What is that exactly? So, don’t think of Cropped Out as being anything like the bigger, more commercial music festivals. This is not Lollapalooza. It’s DIY.
I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect when I drove to Louisville last week for Cropped Out, but the Sept. 23-24 festival turned out to be a rather delightful experience. The American Turners Club — a German-American organization’s center with a swimming pool, boat club, gymnastics group, etc. — is a compound along the southern shore of the Ohio River. The place had a feel of a VFW hall crossed with a run-down athletic center. Glamorous, it was not, but the location near the river gave it a pastoral charm. However, the men’s room had a horror-movie vibe, with a urinal trough and blinking neon light next to an oddly vacant room containing a chair.) And the Cropped Out organizers decked out the whole venue with garish Halloween inflatable decorations, bedsheets spray-painted with the names of the various stages, and a bunch of comic-book-style drawings. (Like the one next to the bar that showed someone passed out and surrounded by emptied bottles.)
There were four stages, including one in a covered outdoor space — where a large monster with outstretched arms hung on the ceiling above the bands. Upstairs, the Turners Tavern hosted indoor performances, including several punk shows (by bands like Black Panties and Lumpy and the Dumpers) that quickly turned into wild mosh pits. My favorite spot was “Spooky Beach,” the deck near the Ohio River shore where several artists performed throughout the weekend. It was sunny and hot both days, and this little stage was an idyllic setting for beautiful performances by Bill Callahan, Joan Shelley, Matchess and others.
The festival ran on schedule, with only a few minor hitches. (Early on Saturday, a transformer blew out, knocking out the power throughout most of the center, but there was enough electricity to run two stages. And within a couple of hours, the utility company crews had everything fixed.) I’d estimate that a few hundred people attended the festival throughout the weekend. It was always pretty easy to walk around, and to get spots close to the stages. There was no security to speak of, and fans were allowed to walk around on just about all sides of the stages.
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I didn’t get press credentials. I’m not even sure if they were offered, or who was handling publicity for the festival. I just bought a ticket, brought my camera, and took pictures as much as I desired, without anyone stopping me. (That’s the way I like it.)
The closest thing to a corporate sponsor sign was a tombstone on the roof deck, saying that Cropped Out “is survived” by sponsorship from a list local businesses. It was positioned next to an electric organ, which anyone was welcome to play.
The audience looked like the sort of people I see at indie rock and experimental music shows in Chicago, or in other cities where I’ve attended such concerts: Mostly young people, along with a few middle-aged music aficionados (gray-haired folks like myself). A lot of tattoos and long hair. A fair amount of these people seemed to be from Louisville or nearby. As one of the musicians performing at Cropped Out remarked (I’m forgetting exactly who said this), Kentucky is not just bluegrass music.
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Three of the bands I saw early on Friday, Sept. 23, were Louisville locals, and they offered a good sample of some of the underground music being made in the city today. Dry Summers played off-kilter rock songs with a loopy, cheerful vibe. Pleasure Boys thundered and howled its heavy psychedelic music — epic, but with a slightly goofy air about it, reminding me of early Black Mountain. And Cereal Glyphs impressed me with melodic, psychedelic tunes, a little reminiscent of the 1960s Nuggets records. Other strong performances I saw early on Friday included Paper Claw, hailing from Lafayette, Indiana, a band I definitely want to hear more from.
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Performing at “Spooky Beach,” Louisville experimental artist Aaron Rosenblum built a sonic landscape using birdcalls, train noises and electronics.
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Beat Awfuls, a band from Lexington, Kentucky, played indie rock with some of the tunefulness of Guided By Voices.
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Giving Up from Garner, Iowa, played strange, intriguing art-punk with lots of spirit and energy.
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As I expected, Louisville singer-songwriter Joan Shelley’s performance on Friday was a highlight of Cropped Out. Adding to the beauty of her delicate folk songs — which she sang and played guitar, with perfect accompaniment by guitarist Nathan Salsburg — was the setting. Shelley performed on that deck next to the Ohio River, with the sun going down behind her. It was entrancing and exquisite.
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Here’s my video of the final song from Joan Shelley’s performance, “Not Over By Half”:
The festival included one jazz performance, by saxophonist Joe McPhee and pedal-steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. (Yes, a pedal-steel guitarist playing jazz, and in a somewhat unorthodox style — it was entrancing.)
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After darkness fell on Friday, Fred and Toody Cole — two-thirds of the punk band Dead Moon — performed their old songs at Spooky Beach, with a couple of bright white lights illuminating their faces amid the gloom.
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The Dead C, a New Zealand noise-rock band that’s been together since 1986, performed in the evening under the “Phreedom Hall” awning — or two-thirds of the group performed, anyway. Drummer Robbie Yeats wasn’t present, but guitarists Bruce Russell and Michael Morley conjured up a storm of loud, feedback-drenched textures.
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Friday’s final performance was inside Turners Tavern, where a crowd gathered around Bitchin Bajas and Bonnie “Prince” Billy as they performed mesmerizing, dream-like chants from their recent album together, Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties.
The Handsome Family have a new album called Unseen, which brought them to Chicago for a concert on Sunday night at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Sadly, I missed that show, but I did see the group’s cool performance of several songs on Tuesday, Sept. 20, in an art gallery. Presented by Aron Packer Projects at the Tom Robinson Gallery, it was part of a one-night-only exhibit of paintings by Rennie Sparks, the Handsome Family’s brilliant lyricist. In addition to Rennie’s richly imaginative paintings of animals, the exhibit included a few items that weren’t for sale: a sample of her collection of dog and cat food cans from around the world, and a display case of cat whiskers she has collected. These oddities were the perfect backdrop for a short sample of Brett and Rennie Sparks’ beautiful and darkly humorous old-fashioned country and folk music. (Terry Gross’ interview of the Handsome Family this week on NPR’s Fresh Air is well worth hearing.)
The Mekons have a new record called Existentialism— a lo-fi live CD of new songs performed into one microphone, with an accompanying book — but the band played just one of those new tunes on Monday, Sept. 19, at the Hideout. Instead of promoting the new material, the band delivered a typically rollicking set filled with most of its most beloved songs. Sally Timms said the Mekons would play fewer “hits” during the following night’s show at the Hideout; Jon Langford jokingly questioned whether that would be possible.
The Handsome Family’s Brett and Rennie Sparks came onstage and sang their song “The Sad Milkman” with the Mekons. And then, finally, as the Mekons came back for a second encore, the band played one song from the new album — it wasn’t printed on the set list — “Simone on the Beach,” which is inspired by the true story of French writer Simone de Beauvoir and her love affair with Chicago author Nelson Algren. It’s also a song that happens to mention the bar where the Mekons were playing on this night: “Did they drink at the Hideout, back in 1947? The house under the highway, in bed with him as container trucks roll by.”
SET LIST: Memphis, Egypt / Beaten and Broken / Tina / Millionaire / Diamonds / Abernant 1984-85 / Heaven and Back / Fantastic Voyage / Fletcher Christian / Orpheus / Now We Have the Bomb / Last Dance / Curse / Hard to Be Human
ENCORE: Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem / The Sad Milkman / Big Zombie / Shanty / Where Were You
SECOND ENCORE: Simone on the Beach / Ghosts of American Astronauts
The Hideout, one of my favorite music venues, celebrated its 20th anniversary with a daylong mini-festival on Saturday — billed as a “20-Year Reunion.” In truth, the Hideout is much older than just two decades, as the city of Chicago’s cultural historian, Tim Samuelson, told the audience on Saturday in a short spiel about the venue’s history. He said it’s been serving alcohol since around 1919 — probably continuing as an illegal booze joint during the Prohibition Era.
But 20 years ago was when Tim Tuten and his wife, Katie, and their friends, twins Jim and Mike Hinchsliff, took over the Hideout and began transforming it into a friendly gathering place in the midst of a starkly urban landscape. (There’s a parking lot across the street filled with city garbage trucks.) In 2004, I interviewed the Tutens and the Hinchsliff brothers for a Pioneer Press feature about the Hideout. Back then, I wrote:
After eight years of running the Hideout, the owners still look on the experience like a fun adventure from their childhood days in the suburbs. “Kids used to make forts,” Tim Tuten says. “We looked at this as a fort or a clubhouse.”
That’s as true as it ever was. The Hideout is a sort of playground for musicians and their fans, and it also hosts comedy and literary events, political discussions … you name it. The genre of music most often associated with the Hideout is alt-country, but its concert schedule extends way beyond twang, including everything from experimental jazz to hard rock. And I’ve always sensed a welcoming vibe in its cozy space. Even on those rare nights when I don’t know a lot of people in the crowd, it just feels like a place where it’s easy to strike up a conversation with some of your fellow music fans.
The venue hosted an outdoor festival called the Hideout Block Party during many years, sometimes on Wabansia Street in front of the bar, sometimes taking over a bigger space in that garbage-truck parking lot. Last year, there was no Block Party. And this year’s event was pulled together somewhat belatedly. It turned out to be a smaller-scale even than the festival was in some years. There was just a small stage in front of the bar, and admission was a $20 donation. The lineup was filled with artists who have been regulars and favorites at the Hideout over the past 20 years. There was no need to bring in any additional big-name stars.
I did not see every single minute of Saturday’s party (my excuse is that I was recovering from sitting through the 15-hour Ragamala concert over the previous night). Early in the afternoon, I missed Plastic Crimewave Vision Celestial Guitarkestra, a “Late, Late Breakfast Pancake Brunch” and the Girl Talk interview show; and at the end of the night, I missed indoor performances by Devil in a Woodpile and the Lawrence Peters Outfit. But the eight hours of music I did catch were a fun time, filled with good spirit. It culminated with a lively set by Eleventh Dream Day, who closed with a cover of Lovin Spoonful’s “Summer in the City.” (See my video of the song here.)
Ragamala was an epic experience — a 15-hour concert of Indian classical music, stretching from 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 9, until 9 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 10, with sitars, tablas, flutes, violins and singers sounding all night under the magnificent Tiffany Dome in the Chicago Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall.
This was the fourth year that the Chicago Cultural Center has hosted an all-night Ragamala as part of World Music Festival Chicago. After attending a few hours of last year’s Ragamala, I decided to see the whole event this time. Learning from experience, I brought a pillow. So yes, I did doze off during a few of the performances, but I think the music still penetrated my subconscious brain.
Over the course of this Ragamala — the opening night of World Music Fest — I heard mesmerizing, beautiful and astonishing music from India’s Hindustani and Carnatic classical music traditions. Many of the pieces that were performed were intended to be heard at the specific times they were played, such as ragas for the “coming dawn,” which were heard around 4:30 a.m. Highlights for me included Partho Sarodi’s jaw-dropping performance on the sarod, a stringed instrument sounding a bit like an acoustic guitar crossed with a sitar; and the breathtaking vocals in the morning sets by the Sama Venkatesaiah Balakrishna Troupe and Manjiri Vaishampayan.
This was also a rare opportunity to stay inside the Chicago Cultural Center overnight. The lights were dimmed in the middle of the night, and then the pink hues of the rising sun trickled into the grand room after 6 a.m., glinting in the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome. It was a gorgeous sight to behold, all the more so with such incredible musical accompaniment.
The Flat Five — that wonderful Chicago group I’ve photographed and written about many times before — played three sets on Saturday, Aug. 27, at the Green Mill. As the band’s members observed, it may be the first time anyone has ever played a Hollies cover (“Carrie Anne”) at this venerable jazz club. But there’s a lot of jazz in what the Flat Five do, making this evening a real treat. The Flat Five’s long-awaited debut album, It’s a World of Love and Hope, comes out Oct. 14, featuring 12 songs written by Chris Ligon — the oddball songwriter who’s the brother of Flat Five member Scott Ligon. You can hear one song, “This Is Your Night,” on Soundcloud. Saturday’s show included songs from the new album as well as the Flat Five’s usual mix of obscure pop gems. Even though the group played from 8 p.m. to midnight (with a couple of breaks), it still played only a fraction of its vast repertoire.
Friday, Aug. 26, was another two-concert night for me. Talk about strange juxtapositions. I started out the evening by driving to Skokie for a free show by Blue Öyster Cult at the Backlot Bash street festival… which was pretty good, as far as classic rock band shows go. But alas, I missed the big finish with “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Godzilla” so I could make it to the Hideout in time for a show on the more experimental end of the spectrum…
Blue Öyster Cult
Rob Mazurek and Emmett Kelly
I got to the Hideout in time to see the record-release show for Rob Mazurek and Emmett Kelly. Mazurek is best known as a jazz musician, playing cornet as well as using electronics. Kelly is a versatile guitarist, playing with both rock and jazz groups, as well as a fine singer-songwriter in his own right, leading the Cairo Gang. On the new album Alien Flower Sutra. Kelly’s voice drifts through strange sonic landscapes sculpted by Mazurek. The music was equally strange in Friday’s live performance.
Their set was followed by Horse Lords, a band from Baltimore playing instrumental music that might get categorized as jazz — though it sounded to me more like progressive rock along the lines of King Crimson or krautrock, with guitar, sax, bass and drums locked into rigorous patterns. Whatever genre it is, it was damn impressive.
Aug. 25 felt like a quintessential night of live Chicago music: seeing Tortoise at Millennium Park, followed by Ryley Walker’s late concert at the Empty Bottle. Tortoise’s instrumental music resonated beautifully in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, with the band members constantly shifting around the instruments, playing intricate patterns with almost astonishing precision. The show also featured a nice opening by Homme (a duo I’d seen recently at the Pitchfork Music Festival).
Ryley Walker’s music seems quite different from Tortoise at first glance, and yet, there’s some similarity, especially when he is playing live with his excellent band. Like Tortoise and other Chicago bands — like Joshua Abrams and Natural Information Society — Walker and his collaborators know how to stretch a song out, to revel in grooves, to explore a chord progression or melodic motif in ways that are hypnotic and enchanting. Walker’s new album, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung, is terrific, but its jammy folk-rock songs only hint at how jammy the group gets in concert. I recommend buying the deluxe 2-LP version, which adds a record containing a 41-minute live version of “Sullen Mind,” a song that is a mere 6 1/2 minutes in its studio version.
Walker’s set on Thursday at the Empty Bottle was a marvel. And it was particularly special because it offered a rare chance to see Leroy Bach — who produced the album — sitting in with the band. And it’s uncertain how many more times we’ll get a chance to see the fantastic drummer Frank Rosaly playing with this band, as we did on Thursday; I’m told that Rosaly has moved from Chicago to Europe. That’s a loss for Chicago, but Thursday night’s wonderful sets by Tortoise and Walker showed that the city’s independent music scene — where rock, jazz, country and experimental music often overlap — is as vibrant as ever.
The Rizdales — a country band from London, Ontario — played Aug. 20 at the Hideout, apparently playing in Chicago for the first time ever. Although the group records original music by the husband-and-wife songwriting team Tom and Tara Dunphy, its most recent album is Blue Ain’t The Word: A Tribute to the Music of Ray Price, and this show was a tribute to Price and his music. Three Chicago singers joined the Rizdales onstage during the show: Jon Langford, Rachel Drew and Lawrence Peters, who also opened the concert. It made for an enjoyable night of old-fashioned country music.
I always love seeing concerts at Logan Square’s Illinois Centennial Monument — that tall column with the eagle on top — but these shows don’t happen often enough. So it was cool that Comfort Station, Maximum Pelt and Tall Pat Records teamed up for a fundraiser festival on Aug. 20. I was there for just a short time, arriving just as a brief rainstorm hit and then staying long enough to catch a playful, noisy set by Comm to Black on the outdoor stage and a meditative performance inside Comfort Station by Cinchel.
The African band Mbongwana Star got the audience dancing on Aug. 11 at Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion, playing wildly infectious beats and beguiling, highly rhythmic guitar riffs and solos. This group from the Democratic Republic of the Congo includes two singers (Yakala “Coco” Ngambali and Nsituvuidi “Theo” Nzonza,) who were also founding members of the band Staff Benda Bilili (that name means “look beyond appearances”) — paraplegic musicians from the streets of Kinshasa. Last week on the stage at Millennium Park, Ngambali and Nzonza spun around in their wheelchairs, with Nzonza especially exuberant and demonstrative, frequently lifting his arms up with an air of triumph.
The show began with a fine performance by the Chicago-based group Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta, which mixed some psychedelic and Krautrock touches into its Latin rock.
One of the main reasons to attend Lollapalooza this year was the reunion of LCD Soundsystem, and the band did not disappoint. It was blast to hear LCD’s greatest hits on the final Sunday night of Lolla (July 31), and the crowd around me was dancing with joy at the end.
As expected, the highlight of this year’s Lollapalooza for me was Radiohead. It was great to see the band again after an absence of several years, and the new songs sounded very strong in concert alongside a career-spanning sample of Radiohead classics. During the song “Identikit,” as Thom Yorke chanted the line, “Broken hearts make it rain,” it actually did start to rain — just a few sprinkles. And as it turned out, that was the only moment during the whole evening when I noticed any rain falling. Although the concert was supposed to end at 10 p.m., Radiohead returned for a surprise second encore, playing two oldies, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” and “Karma Police.” Interestingly, according to setlist.fm, the band’s written set list showed “Reckoner” as an alternative song to start the second encore, followed by “Silent Night.”
Burn the Witch / Daydreaming / Ful Stop / 2 + 2 = 5 / Myxomatosis / My Iron Lung / Climbing Up the Walls / No Surprises / Pyramid Song / Bloom / Identikit / The Numbers / The Gloaming / Weird Fishes/Arpeggi / Everything in Its Right Place / Idioteque / There There
FIRST ENCORE: Let Down / Present Tense / Paranoid Android / Nude / Bodysnatchers
SECOND ENCORE: Street Spirit (Fade Out) / Karma Police
The prolific Ty Segall has yet another new band — GØGGS, which also includes Chris Shaw from the Memphis punk band Ex-Cult and Charles Moothart of Fuzz, CFM and the Ty Segall Band. The group, which recently released its self-titled debut album on In the Red records, played its first Chicago shows last week at the Empty Bottle. I was there on the second night (Wednesday, July 20), and it was one of the more unhinged rock performances I’ve seen lately. The opening acts, Soddy Daisy and Absolutely Not, were pretty damn impressive, too, making for a fun night.
My photos from the 2016 Pitchfork Music Festival are featured on the A.V. Club website. Here are some additional pictures from Day 3, July 17. (Click here for photos from Day 1, and here for photos from Day 2.)
My photos from the 2016 Pitchfork Music Festival are featured on the A.V. Club website. Here are some additional pictures from Day 2, July 16. (Click here for photos from Day 1, and here for photos from Day 3.)
My photos from the 2016 Pitchfork Music Festival are featured on the A.V. Club website. Here are some additional pictures, starting with a gallery from Day 1, July 15. (Click here for photos from Day 2, and here for photos from Day 3.)
It had been years since the legendary Nigerian singer King Sunny Adé played in Chicago. He was scheduled to perform in Millennium Park’s concert series last summer, but then that gig got canceled. He made up for it this Monday, July 18, lighting up the Jay Pritzker Pavilion stage \with his infectious, positive vibes. Adé and his large band always kept a great groove going, with forward-pushing rhythms pulsing through even the quietest passages. And throughout the show, Adé and the singer-dancers dressed in white acted out little scenes, almost like a theatrical company or a dance troupe — such as a guitar solo that left them all staggering in a exaggerated stupor. Many audience members were on their feet by the end of the show, greeting this African hero and his glorious music with enthusiastic applause.
Ugochi & A.S.E.
Ugochi, a Nigerian-American singer based in Chicago, opened the show, performing music that she called “Afro-soul,” blending various American and African genres.
Femi Kuti‘s father, the legendary Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti, created the extraordinary and exhilarating style of music called Afrobeat. As Fela’s eldest son, Femi is carrying on the family tradition. On Monday, July 11, he performed a joyous nonstop jam with his band, The Positive Force, at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Early in the concert, Kuti told the audience: “By the end of tonight, we hope you feel the beauty of Africa through music, we hope you feel the essence of true peace.” That musical message came through loud and clear.
The Haymarket Affair — sometimes called the Haymarket Square Riot or Massacre — is one of the most famous and important chapters of Chicago’s history. The 1886 incident was a turning point for the labor movement, not just in Chicago, but in the United States and, arguably, the world. It raised questions about freedom of speech, the rights of workers in a capitalist society, conflicts between police and protesters, the use of violence as a tool of protest, the fairness of criminal trials, and the death penalty. Over the decades, the Haymarket Affair has been the subject of several nonfiction books. And now, it has inspired two new plays in Chicago.
The most noteworthy of the two is Haymarket: The Anarchist’s Songbook, a musical staged by Underscore Theatre Company with book and lyrics by Underscore’s artistic director, Alex Higgin-Houser, and music by founding ensemble member David Kornfeld. Running for one more weekend — it closes Sunday, June 12, at the Edge Theater in Edgewater — it’s an engaging ensemble show that tells the history through folk-style songs. Directed by Elizabeth Margolius, the show has its flaws, but I was impressed at how well it captures the history.
Like most fictional narratives based on true history, it condenses and gloss over some facts. Notably, it takes the eight defendants in the Haymarket trial and reduces them to five characters. And thus, it eliminates the later part of the saga, when three of the anarchists serving prison terms were pardoned by Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld. It’s understandable that such details are omitted in a work of theater — as it is, the stage was already crowded with actors, and I wondered if audience members who aren’t familiar with the history would be able to keep them all straight. But it felt to me like part of the story was missing. On the other hand, Newcity’s review suggested that the story should have been streamlined even further: “Underscore stumbles badly when they tell this story exactly as it happened, maintaining every plot point, without a well-developed Everyman character to give the audience an entry point into the action, all conveyed in a single musical idiom, no matter how appropriate.”
Also worth noting is the way this show tells the story completely from the point of view of the anarchists and labor activists who were tried in the Haymarket case. Most historical accounts view them as victims of a miscarriage of justice, and labor unions still see them as martyrs or heroes, so it makes sense to put them at the center of the drama. But as a result, the show lacks any real presence of the police, the politicians, the business owners and the average Chicagoans who got caught up in the turmoil. Of course, adding in those elements would only make the story more complicated. The song in the second act portrays the trial as a circus, and it’s really too comical for the way it handles such a serious and ultimately tragic court proceeding.
All of that being said, this Haymarket has many stirring moments, and the songs are immediately likable. The show does a superb job of using songs to depict the era’s press coverage as well as the debate among the anarchists over how to press for changes in the capitalist-dominated political system. The playwrights clearly know their history. If this musical survives beyond this initial world-premiere run — never a certainty for any musical — it may improve with revisions during future productions.
The other recent play about the events of 1886 was Bloody Haymarket, written and directed by Eric J. Coleman and David McGrath, which was performed at the Irish American Heritage Center. Unlike Underscore’s production, this was not a musical. The amateur production suffered from slow pacing (including awkwardly long transitions for scenery changes), some silly diversions (such as an anachronistic appearance by a stand-up comic) and acting performances that simply weren’t convincing. Some of the scenes hewed closely to the historical facts, while others felt absurdly contrived. Bloody Haymarket might eventually become a compelling drama, but it needs major revisions and a more persuasive production.
All storytelling involves omission. What do you leave out when you tell a story? Last September in The New Yorker, John McPhee explained how he has wrestled with this challenge in his writing. “Writing is selection,” he observed in a delightful essay titled “Omission.” McPhee went on to quote a famous comment by Ernest Hemingway:
If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.
The new play by Tracy Letts, Mary Page Marlowe, presents a narrative where the omissions are especially noticeable. We see the title character at various stages of her life, portrayed by six different actresses, with the scenes scrambled out of chronological sequence. The effect reminded me of what it’s like if you occasionally run into an acquaintance over the decades. When you see that person after a gap of several years, you notice how different her or she seems, and you may wonder what has happened in his or her life since your previous encounter. That gap is likely to remain a mystery to you.
Gaps in a fictional narrative such as Letts’ play (now in its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, deftly directed by Steppenwolf’s artistic director, Anna D. Shapiro) are mysterious, too—blank pages left for us to fill in with our imagination. In some narrative works, such omissions are frustrating. We feel cheated that key moments in a story have been withheld from us. That’s apparently how Chicago Reader critic Tony Adler felt about Mary Page Marlowe:
Letts perversely denies us the chance to share in what should be the most fascinating passages in the play—that is, in the play that hangs like a hungry spirit over this one, waiting to be written.
Each scene is superbly written, but the pieces are more satisfying than the whole.
I understand why Letts’ drama might elicit those responses, but the unseen gaps in Mary Page Marlowe’s life felt to me more like a fascinating puzzle. What exactly happened to this woman in the missing months and years in between the scenes we witness? How did her decisions—and the actions of those around her—transform her from one stage of her life to the next? We learn the basic outlines, but Letts and the stellar cast in Steppenwolf’s production don’t offer any simple explanations. We learn just enough that this woman’s transformations are plausible.
It was a shrewd decision to use six actresses to play Mary Page Marlowe (Blair Brown, Carrie Coon, Laura T. Fisher, Caroline Heffernan, Annie Munch and Rebecca Spence). They look similar enough that it’s plausible they’re all the same character, but we’re obviously aware of the fact these are different actresses. It puts an emphasis on how much this woman changes over time. Each actress makes the most of her limited time onstage, creating indelible moments. (But as Time Out Chicago’s review points out, the need for six performers in the title role plus another 13 cast members could make this a challenging play for other theaters to stage in the future — it’s a big undertaking.)
Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones gave high praise to Mary Page Marlowe, stressing the play’s theme of how choices change the course of our lives:
For any life, remarkable or otherwise, is made up only partly of the choices, often the lousy choices, that we make for ourselves. It also is a construction of the choices that others make on our behalf, especially when we are very young, and from which extrication can prove difficult, if not impossible.
But Jones did fault the ending — a final scene that seemed to leave the audience puzzled at the performance I attended, perhaps wondering for a few seconds: Is it over? But New York Times critic Charles Isherwood led off his glowing review with a quote from that last scene:
“It’s pretty fragile.” Those words, spoken by the title character in “Mary Page Marlowe,” the exquisite new play by Tracy Letts having its premiere at the Steppenwolf Theater here, refer to a quilt in need of some delicate dry cleaning. But they resonate with many meanings in Mr. Letts’s haunting, elliptical drama about the evolutions, reversals and resurrections in a woman’s life. A quilt is a clever symbol for the unusual structure of the play itself.
As Isherwood astutely observes, Mary Page Marlowe resembles a quilt. As we look at this patchwork, we’re left to imagine what we’re not seeing. What we do see is memorable and moving.
As I’ve said in previous blog posts, the Welsh-born singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon has developed into one of today’s most exciting musicians. Since her previous concert at Schubas, in January 2014, she has played in Chicago a couple of times as a touring guitarist with the West Coast psychedelic band White Fence, as well as a member of Drinks — a duo she formed with White Fence’s Tim Presley.
Now, she has an excellent new solo album called Crab Day, which finds her exploring deeper into her beguilingly strange blend of influences — British folk, European cabaret music, psychedelic flourishes, lurching rhythms with moments of Krautrock repetition and searing, jagged electric guitar riffs and solos. All of these elements were vividly on display when Le Bon and her top-notch band played on Monday, May 9, at Schubas. She played nearly every song from Crab Day, plus several from her previous album, 2013’s Mug Museum. (Nothing from her earlier recordings, however.)
The stage was dark, and she was dressed in black, with her hair frequently hanging over her face — until she shook it around during a guitar solo. That prompted one of her few onstage comments during the set: “Are there any hairdressers in the house? Well, then, see me immediately after the show.”
Le Bon’s vocals sometimes reminded me of Nico’s singing with the Velvet Underground, but Le Bon would rise above that chilly chanting style for emotional passages, revealing a wider range and more colorful palette. As with so many musicians, she also shows some Velvet Underground influence in the way she plays guitar, but that’s just one aspect of Le Bon’s wonderfully singular style.
I was unfamiliar with the opening act, Mega Bog, a Seattle group led by Erin Birgy, but I quickly found myself enchanted by the band’s jazzy folk rock. The vibe of these songs reminded me of Joni Mitchell, Bill Callahan and the Sea and Cake, and I’m eager to hear more.
In 2013, I saw a couple of concerts by Cross Record, a group led by the promising Chicago singer-songwriter Emily Cross. (See my blog posts about her shows in January 2013 at Township and in August 2013 at the Double Door.) But then she bid Chicago farewell, moving to Austin, Texas. Cross Record made a welcome return on Saturday, April 30, playing a short but haunting set of new music at Schubas. Cross’ bandmate is her husband Dan Duszynski, who played guitar and drums and other musical gear, sculpting a distinct sounds for each song. Cross Record’s new album, Wabi-Sabi, has a loose, experimental air about it, with Cross’ breathy, ethereal vocals floating through the melancholy, introspective tunes. It took just a few listens for these songs to lodge themselves in my mind and heart. The short but lovely concert at Schubas affirmed just how strong these compositions are.
The Swiss group Klaus Johann Grobe played its first U.S. show ever on Tuesday, April 26, at the Empty Bottle in Chicago. Chicago also happens to be where the group’s American record label, Trouble in Mind, is based. Klaus Johann Grobe’s new album, Spagat der Liebe, continues in the keyboard-dominated Krautrock dance style of the duo’s 2014 debut, Im Sinne der Zeit. With the addition of a bassist to the concert lineup, the group made delightful grooves with synth, organ,metronomic drum beats and German lyrics that seemed almost chanted at times — a beguiling balance between the mechanical and the organic. The opening acts were the Hecks, with impressively complex and interlocking guitar lines, and Chandeliers, playing pleasantly trance-y synth-and-drums pop.
Years have gone by since the last time when the Coke Dares played in Chicago, but the trio returned on Friday, April 22, and played two sets at Logan Arcade. As the night began, guitarist Jason Evans Groth said that the band had rehearsed 700 songs, but it was going to play only 70. That wasn’t much of an exaggeration — most of the Coke Dares’ songs are short. Very short. The band ripped through one song after another, playing just a riff, maybe a verse, maybe a chorus and then screeching to a halt as Groth either jumped into the air with his guitar or abruptly announced, “Thank you!” before proceeding to introduce the next song. It was all quite amusing, with some fun tunes crammed into those brief snippets of rock. The longest song of the night may have been a cover of Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4.” Or maybe it was the medley that closed the first set, including the commercial jingle for Juicy Fruit gum — a jingle that the Coke Dare reprised an hour later as they ended their second set.
There’s a serious and sobering story behind the band Songhoy Blues. These four musicians are in a sort of exile — as the title of their 2015 debut album, Music in Exile, suggests — having fled from northern Mali when it fell into violence and extremist rule. The quartet’s music may reflect on that backstory, but it sounds completely infectious and it’s joyful to experience, especially live. When Songhoy Blues played at Martyrs’ on Saturday, April 12, the show started off somewhat subdued, but by the second or third song, the audience was dancing, inspired by singer Aliou Touré’s own jumpy moves. Meanwhile, Garba Touré was playing some rather astounding stuff on his guitar — with touches of American blues and rock guitar solos amid the distinctively African musical motifs. As the concert grew more energetic, Songhoy Blues’ vocalist remarked that it was like a party in Africa. “We have to celebrate life, and we are going to enjoy life tonight,” he said.
The Necks have been improvising beautiful music for many years now. You might call them a jazz trio — after all, they do follow the standard lineup of instruments you’ll see in many jazz trios: piano, bass and drums. But these Australian musicians create their own distinctive sort of music, as they demonstrated Sunday, March 27, in a breathtaking performance at Constellation. They played two sets — each consisting of a single, uninterrupted piece of music that steadily built up from the smallest and quietest of musical gestures. At the very beginning, it was just Tony Buck flicking a brush on one of his drums. And then Lloyd Swanton joined in, fingering the strings of his upright bass with a rumbling musical gesture that fit in perfectly with the brushing. Finally, Chris Abrahams tenderly touched the keys of the piano, creating a circling pattern of notes. These minimalist motifs gradually transformed, growing in volume and intensity, but a steadiness remained at the heart of the music — each musician closely following the lead of the others but then pulling the trio in a slightly new direction. It was a wonder to see and hear.
Freakwater is the sound of two pining, earthy, twangy voices coming together — the voices of Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin, who formed this country-music band in Kentucky back in 1985, together with bassist Dave Gay. Nine years have gone by since the last Freakwater record, but those three core players and a stellar lineup of guest musicians have finally made another album, Scheherazade, which Bloodshot Records recently released. With Bean living in Chicago (where she plays drums for Eleventh Dream Day, among other things), this city qualifies as one of Freakwater’s hometowns, but the group saved Chicago for the final two shows of its tour — Friday and Saturday (March 18-19) at the Hideout. I was there on Saturday, and it was marvelous to hear Bean and Irwin’s voices intertwining once again as they shared all the humor and camaraderie of a tour-ending show.
The concert Wednesday, March 16, at Constellation was the first U.S. performance by Spunk, a quartet of Norwegian woman who have been improvising music under that name since 1995. Actually, as it turned out, it wasn’t quite a performance by the full group; cellist Lene Grenager wasn’t able to play due to an illness. But the rest of Spunk — Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje on voice and electronics; Kristin Andersen on trumpet, recorders and flutes; and Hild Sofie Tafjord on French horn and electronics — played as a trio, making some gloriously peculiar sounds. The absence of cello may have caused the mix to lean more heavily toward electronics, but it was really all about the way all of the noises blended together into shapes and textures. Bassoonist-composer Katherine Young opened the concert with similarly strange explorations of imaginative soundscapes.
The great Cincinnati rock band Wussy has a new album out, Forever Sounds — an outstanding follow-up to its 2014 album Attica! — and the group returned last week to its usual Chicago venue, the Red Line Tape, for two shows. I was there on Saturday, March 12, and it was another loose and lively set by Wussy, with old and new songs — even including one song that’s newer than the new album (“In the Tall Weeds”). Watch for details of another Chicago concert by Wussy (apparently at a different venue) coming up in late June. And you can see video of Wussy’s KEXP performance this week here.
SET LIST: Little Paper Birds / She’s Killed Hundreds / Gone / Maglite / To the Lightning / Hello I’m a Ghost / Pizza King / Better Days / Teenage Wasteland / In the Tall Weeds / Pulverized / Sidewalk / Aliens in Our Midst (originally by The Twinkeyz) / Dropping Houses / Beautiful ENCORE: Majestic-12 / Ceremony / Rigor Mortis
Some audience gasped as the ragtime pianist Reginald R. Robinson made an announcement at the beginning of his concert Saturday, March 12, at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago: This would be one of his last concerts, he said. “I’m going to retire from public performance next year,” said Robinson, a winner of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant” who may be the most prominent ragtime composer and performer today.
Robinson offered a little more explanation about his future plans during a question-and-answer session with the audience after the concert. “I’m moving to another stage of my life,” he said. “It’s an extension of what I’ve been doing. … I love playing for audiences, but I realized I’ve been doing this for 20 years.”
He said he plans to embark on a new artistic project, but he declined to say exactly what it will be. “I’m not going to say what it is,” he said. “I don’t want to jinx it. … It’s not a bad thing. It’ll be good. In fact, it’ll be great.”
So, it sounds like we’ll be hearing more from Robinson, but we may be running out of chances to see the sort of performance he gave on Saturday as part of the Chi-Town Jazz Festival.
He began with two of the most famous pieces by the composer known as the King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin: “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag.” He noted that he likes to play “The Entertainer” at a quick tempo, unlike the more stately style some pianists prefer. “People were dancing to it,” he said. “You have to swing it.”
Robinson then played several of his own compositions, telling the audience a bit of the story behind each piece. His playing stumbled in one passage of his 2013 composition, “Doing the Sugar Heel,” after he’d warned the audience that he didn’t have the sheet music for it and might have trouble remembering it all. He quickly recovered, and his playing was close to flawless in the hour that followed, with his fingers dancing across the piano keys in intricate patterns. The rhythms were often rollicking, and the melodies were lyrical, with beautiful touches of yearning.
SET LIST: The Entertainer (Joplin) / Maple Leaf Rag (Joplin) / Doing the Sugar Heel / Eternal Love of Ankhesenpaaton & Tutankhaton / So Deeply / Mr. Murphy’s Blues / Esperanza / Monkey Business / Swampy Lee / Footloose
Le Butcherettes, the Mexican garage punk band led by the phenomenal Teri Gender Bender (aka Teresa Suárez), returned to Chicago on Thursday, March 3, for a show at Subterranean. I saw this group at the same club in 2011 and at Do Division Fest in 2012. Le Butcherettes’ beautiful frontwoman strides around the stage like she owns it — rapidly changing her facial expressions from wide-mouthed, wide-eyed insanity to gentle smiles as she switched between guitar and keyboards. Le Butcherettes now have three albums — Sin Sin Sin (2011), Cry Is for the Flies (2014) and A Raw Youth (2015) — and it’s a strong collection of bracing rock song. But the live act is truly something to behold.
For the last three years, the Empty Bottle has hosted an outdoor winter concert called “Music Frozen Dancing.” It’s a somewhat ridiculous idea, but the free event has drawn fairly big crowds even when the weather is inhospitable. It feels like one of those things where people want to be able to brag about doing something outrageous — “I stood outside in freezing temperatures and saw a punk-rock show on a street in February.” The event returned on Saturday, Feb. 28, but for better or worse, it was unseasonably warm, with temps in the 50s. That made it more tolerable for me, and I caught three of the four bands: Meat Wave, the Spits and the Black Lips. A mosh pit raged at a few points during the afternoon, but as night fell and temperatures dropped, it felt like most audience members were ready to go back inside.
“New music” seems to be catching on lately as a label for the stuff that we used to call “20th-century music.” Neither label really works, but what else should we call the new music composed for classically trained musicians? Whatever you call it, it’s thriving in Chicago these days, with a slew of talented ensembles, musicians and composers.
The Frequency Series, curated by Chicago Reader music critic Peter Margasak, has been presenting concerts of new music on Sundays at Constellation in 2013. Last week, Frequency went a step further, with the first Festival of Chicago New Music. I attended two of the concerts:
Flutist Claire Chase performed Saturday, Feb. 27, at Constellation — but billing her just as a “flutist” is hardly adequate to describe the scope of what she does. Chase, who is a founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble, began this concert standing on a ladder. Over the course of the show, she crawled, jumped and slithered around on the floor, coaxing unexpected sounds from her flutes — including an enormous contrabass flute (pictured below). She also spoke, reciting verse and text, making the whole performance feel like a blend of music and performance art, reminiscent of artists like Laurie Anderson.
This was the latest iteration of “Density 2036,” a 22-year project she launched in 2014 to commission an entirely new body of repertory for solo flute each year until the 100th Anniversary of Edgard Varèse’s groundbreaking 1936 flute solo, “Density 21.5.” Each season between 2014 and 2036, Chase will premiere a new 60-minute program of solo flute work commissioned that year. This concert included the titular work by Varese alongside new pieces by Dai Fujikura, Francesca Verunelli, Nathan Davis, Jason Eckardt and Pauline Oliveros. It was a strange and impressive spectacle.
The Spektral Quartet played Sunday, Feb. 28, at Fullerton Hall in the Art Institute of Chicago, performing two compositions that tested how far musicians can go with the idea of playing string instruments as quietly as possible. The first half of the concert was the premiere of Bagatellen, a sequence of nine short movements by German-born Chicago resident Hans Thomalla. Thomalla’s concept was to take musical fragments and use them as the germinative seeds for each of this pieces. Frankly, I’m not sure how much different that is from the typical way pieces of music originate. But whatever the theory is behind Bagatellen, it was a mesmerizing suite, with some passages so quiet that you had to strain to hear slight tones hiding inside the clicks, buzzes and hums of fingers and bows touching the instruments.
The second half of the concert was Austro-Swiss composer Beat Furrer’s String Quartet No. 3, which employed a similar dynamic range. I had trouble grasping what was going on in this composition. Spektral’s players showed virtuosity, but the music itself left me cold. As with so much “new music” — especially music without traditional melody, harmony and rhythm — it might take many listens to reach a fuller appreciation.
Members of the Spektral Quartet introduced the music with helpful explanations — even demonstrating some of the ideas with brief snippets on their instruments. And at the end of the concert, they sat down along with Hans Thomalla to answer audience questions.
Neko Case said she was playing “deep cuts” at her concert Feb. 25 at the Tivoli Theatre, a grand old cinema in suburban Downers Grove. And indeed, Case performed several obscure tracks from her catalog, which is brimming over with so many shining gems of songwriting, singing and instrumental arrangement. The selections at this show even included a couple of songs from Case’s Canadian Amp EP.
Case is touring to support the recent boxed set that colects all of her albums into one deluxe package — Truckdriver, Gladiator, Mule — so this felt like an opportunity for her to dig through her repertoire.
She played with her longtime musicians Jon Rauhouse (on guitar and pedal steel) and Tom Ray (on upright bass), along with guitarist Eric Bachmann (the lead singer of Crooked Fingers and Archers of Loaf, who has been a member of Case’s touring band for a few years now). And of course, harmony vocalist extraordinaire Kelly Hogan, along with a few appearances by Nora O’Connor. But no drummer — just tambourine shakes and other minimal touches of percussion. That gave the performances a loose, unplugged feeling at times.
Case’s sense of humor was as charming and off-beat as it’s ever been. Indeed, I wondered if any audience members who weren’t accustomed to her stage banter knew what to make of it at times, especially when got amusingly scatological. For my part, it was a confirmation that this is the same delightful eccentric I first saw performing onstage at FitzGerald’s back in 2000.
The concert came to a breathtaking end with the second encore. Case and Hogan walked back out onto the stage and sang the a cappella duet “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.” It was nearly ruined by the inappropriate laughter of a few audience members reacting to the vulgarity in the lyrics — the line where Case and Hogan sing, “Get the fuck away from me!” That might seem amusing if you don’t know that the song is about a mother yelling that at her young child. But then the rest of the song silenced the crowd, as Case delivered those beautiful final words directed at the child she’d seen: “But don’t you ever shut up please/Kid, have your say/’Cause I still love you/Even if I don’t see you again.” It was a goose-bumps-raising moment.
SET LIST: Outro With Bees / Hold On, Hold On / Bought and Sold /
Man / Vengeance Is Sleeping / Ghost Wiring / This Tornado Loves You / Look for Me (I’ll Be Around) / Nothing to Remember / Andy / Blacklisted / I’m From Nowhere / Night Still Comes / At Last / City Swans /
Duchess / The Needle Has Landed / Middle Cyclone / Maybe Sparrow
FIRST ENCORE: Fox Confessor Brings the Flood / Sleep All Summer (Crooked Fingers cover, duet with Eric Bachmann) / Lady Pilot / Margaret vs. Pauline / Knock Loud / SECOND ENCORE: Nearly Midnight, Honolulu
Another thing that made this evening special was the opening act, Robbie Fulks. Yes, I have seen Fulks a ton of times — probably more than any other performer — largely because of the shows he’s been playing at the Hideout on most Monday nights for the past six years. So it was nothing novel for me to see him performing yet again. But it was great to hear Fulks playing the songs from his forthcoming album, Upland Stories, with a full band (including Nora O’Connor’s singing on several songs). I’ve heard Fulks’ new records, and it’s one of his best. His singing at the Tivoli Theatre show was especially impressive, showing a wide range from subtle quiet turns of phrase to long, sustained country hollers.
I also saw Fulks signing several of the new songs in a session Monday, Feb. 29, at the Hideout, which was filmed for a video. Later the same night, Fulks performed a fun tribute show to Alex Chilton, playing with Liam Davis, Casey McDonough and Gerald Dowd.
Eleanor Friedberger, who plays in the Fiery Furnaces with her brother, Matthew Friedberger, has also made three solo albums — including a fine new one called New View. She performed her solo music Feb. 24 at the Empty Bottle, backed by one of her opening acts, the California group Icewater. Like she does with the Fiery Furnaces, Friedberger performed in a cool, understated style, singing dense lyrics. How the heck does she remember so many words without showing the slightest hesitation? The highlight for me was the encore, which began with Friedberger standing alone on the stage, singing with just her acoustic guitar as accompaniment, before the rest of the band returned.
At one point during the concert, Friedberger told the audience about her day, including a visit to her old hometown, Oak Park. She said her high school softball coach had shown up earlier at the Empty Bottle, telling her that she still holds a school record — for her 19-game hitting streak! Further proof that she’s a winner.