Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham) returned to Chicago on Feb. 18, playing a concert at the Vic with the same band he played with last summer at the Old Town School of Folk Music — “The Bonny United Ensemble,” comprising Danny Kiely, Van Campbell, Roadie Rodahaffer and Drew Miller.
Oldham was in fine form, hopping around on one leg (as he is wont to do), and mixing in some interesting covers (songs by Bruce Springsteen, R. Kelly, Future Islands, and the Renderers, a New Zealand group). “Crewman/croonman” Oscar Lee Riley Parsons joined him onstage for the Buddy Holly song “Oh Boy,” and the two engaged in some odd almost vaudevillian banter.
SET LIST: New Whaling / The World’s Greatest (R. Kelly cover) / Easy Does It / Wai / Death to Everyone / For Every Field There’s a Mole / Love Comes to Me / A Dream of the Sea (Renderers cover) / Oh Boy (Buddy Holly cover) / Corner Of The Stair / Thunder Road (Bruce Springsteen cover) / Bed Is for Sleeping / So Far and Here We Are / Rubin and Cherise (Jerry Garcia Band cover) / Intentional Injury / One With The Birds / Quail and Dumplings
ENCORE: Seasons (Waiting On You) (Future Islands cover) / 2/15 > New Partner > 2/15
A nice bonus at this concert was the opening act, Maiden Radio, a trio from Oldham’s hometown, Louisville. The three women in Maiden Radio are Joan Shelley (whose solo album Over and Even was my favorite of 2015), Cheyenne Marie Mize (who made an EP of duets with Bonnie “Prince” Billy called Among the Gold in 2009) and Julia Purcell. Together, they sing traditional folk songs — which sounded delightful at the Vic. Maiden Radio also sounds lovely on its 2015 album Wolvering.
Last summer, I took a ride all the way to Bloomington, Indiana, and back just to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor perform in a fairly small rock club, the Bluebird. This month, the Montreal rock orchestra finally got around to playing in Chicago, with shows on Feb. 13 at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel and Feb. 14 at Thalia Hall. I was at the Rockefeller Chapel concert.
In some ways, the performance was similar to the remarkable one I’d witnessed last year. In their typical fashion, the musicians in GY!BE took the stage without saying a word as a single chord droned. Fragmentary films flashed on the screen. The band played epic and thunderous compositions — including a full run-through of its 2015 album Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. And then after a few more songs (each lasting around 15 minutes) the mysterious ensemble departed the stage.
But there was one significant difference between these two concerts: the setting. With its high ceiling and Gothic architecture, Rockefeller was a perfect setting for Godspeed You! Black Emperor, heightening the sense of drama. I sat about halfway back in the chapel. That was too far away to get a good look at the band, but it didn’t really matter — it was a great vantage point for taking in the majesty of the space and the music.
(Pardon my grainy little pictures from this concert — I was using my iPhone from a long distance.)
SET LIST: Hope Drone / Gathering Storm / Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’ / Lambs’ Breath / Asunder, Sweet / Piss Crowns Are Trebled / Moya / The Sad Mafioso
On Tuesdays in February, the Hideout hosted a residency of concerts featuring Chicago musician Rob Frye. I was there on Feb. 23, when he performed as part of Bitchin Bajas, an instrumental drone group that also includes Cooper Crain (Frye’s fellow member in CAVE) and Dan Quinlivan. The three Bitchin Bajas set up their keyboards, drums and wind instruments on the main floor of the club and made beautiful, meditational music that lingered for a long time on single chords. (Some notable news about this band: Bitchin Bajas made a record with Bonnie “Prince” Billy called Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties, which Drag City is releasing March 18. You can see a video of their song “Your Hard Work Is About to Pay Off, Keep On Keeping On” here.)
After their set in the Hideout’s back room, the members of Bitchin Bajas and several guests (including singer Jeanine O’Toole from the 1900s and other bands) set up in the front bar, reassembling as a J.J. Cale tribute band and playing some delectably low-key guitar grooves.
On Saturday, Feb. 20, Bric-a-Brac Records hosted another one of its fun in-store punk/garage rock performances. Chicago’s Mr. Ma’am played the first set, followed by Royal Brat from Minneapolis. The place wasn’t as crowded as it gets during some of these free shows, but it was still buzzing with energy.
Yes, it’s a short film, so few people would put in the same category with the year’s best feature films. But independent American animator Don Hertzfeldt’s 17-minute masterpiece is the most original, affecting and memorable piece of cinema I saw all year. A science fiction story about cloning and time travel, it probes that eternal question of what it means to be human. One of the things that makes it so compelling is the voice of Hertzfeldt’s 4-year-old niece Winona Mae as the film’s present-day protagonist, who is conversing with a future cloned offspring of herself, who is voiced with mechanical stiffness by Julia Pott. The interaction between the innocent girl and her almost robotic döppelganger is charming and hilarious, even when the narrative about the human race’s future takes a decidedly dark turn. Hertzfeldt’s artwork places seemingly crude stick figures into a landscape of geometric shapes, deftly showing just how much cartoon characters can communicate with the slightest movement of a dot or a line. It’s pure cinema.
2. The Look of Silence
The American-born, Denmark-based director Joshua Oppenheimer’s previous film was The Act of Killing, an astonishing 2012 documentary about the legacy of the Indonesian government’s mass killings of suspected communists in 1965-66. The Look of Silence is a companion film taking a different angle on the same topic. It focuses on Adi Rukun, whose brother was killed, confronting some of the men who were responsible for the murders — facing them as Oppenheimer films the encounters. Rukun’s courage and patient determination to find answers are astounding to behold.
This is one of the best films ever made about journalism, ranking alongside classics such as All the President’s Men, as well as a stirring demonstration of the never-ending need to investigate powerful institutions. It succeeds so well because director Tom McCarthy and his outstanding ensemble tell the story with all of the complexity and nuance it deserves — like a well-reported and written work of long-form journalism.
4. 45 Years
British director Andrew Haigh’s drama about a marriage unsettled by revelations from the distant past quietly builds to a heart-stopping final scene. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay seem utterly authentic as the troubled couple. Like the best actors, they give you the sense that their characters of years of untold history beneath the surfaces we see on the screen.
Director Grimur Hakonarson’s drama (which screened at the Chicago International Film Festival) feels quintessentially Icelandic — a story about an outbreak of a disease among the sheep in a remote area of the island nation. This agricultural crisis heightens the tensions in the rivalry between two brothers with adjacent farms, who haven’t spoken with each other in years. Told with black humor, it turns into an epic tale of human stubbornness.
6. The Forbidden Room
This is Canadian director Guy Maddin ’s Arabian Nights — or maybe it’s his Don Quixote or Saragossa Manuscript or Inception. Like those works, it’s a tapestry of interconnected and overlapping stories. Maddin continues exploring and expanding his trademark style, which stitches together elements of archaic cinema, making one of his deepest films. It’s a nightmare in which you keep thinking you’re waking up, only to discover that you’re in another nightmare.
The puppets in this stop-motion animated film by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson look almost like actual human beings — but not quite, thanks in part to some noticeable seams in their foam faces. Those seams add to the film’s unsettling, dreamlike mood, along with the fact that one actor (Tom Noonan) provides the voices for every character in the film other than the protagonist (David Thewlis) and a woman he meets in a Cincinnati hotel (Jennifer Jason Leigh). It’s a strange movie that makes you think about the way you connect with — or fail to connect with — other people.
8. A Pigeon Sat on Branch Reflecting on Existence
This is the third in what is reportedly a trilogy of films by Swedish director Roy Andersson. Like his previous movies Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007), it consists of surreal and humorous vignettes. This latest installment pushes the absurdity to even darker extremes, climaxing with some profoundly disturbing scenes showing humanity’s tendencies toward acts of inhumanity.
9. What We Do in the Shadows
The premise — a spoof of a reality-TV-style documentary about vampires — may sound unpromising. This sort of satire tends to be dumb and predictable. But a cast of New Zealand comics led by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi finds rich material in the concept, hitting all the right notes. It’s quite simply hilarious.
10. Nowhere in Moravia
Czech director Miroslav Krobot’s darkly humorous portrait of life in a rural village was one of the best movies at the Gene Siskel Film Center’s European Union Film Festival. Krobot reportedly cited Joel and Ethan Coen as one of his influences, and this tale of sexual affairs, murder and mayhem does feel a bit like an Eastern European cousin of a Coen brothers movie.
A Very Ordinary Citizen (Majid Barzegar, Iran)
Carol (Todd Haynes, U.S.)
Son of Saul (Laszlo Nemes, Hungary)
About Elly (Asghar Farhadi, Iran — 2009 film shown in the U.S. for the first time in 2015)
It Follows (David Robert, Mitchell, U.S.)
Brooklyn (John Crowley, U.S.-U.K.)
Magical Girl (Carlos Vermut, Spain)
Ex Machina (Alex Garland, U.S.)
Almost There (Dan Rybicky and Aaron Wickenden, U.S.)
Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem ( Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz, Iran)
Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania/France)
’71 (Yann Demange, U.K.)
Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Turkey-France)
The Revenant (Alejandro G. Inarritu, U.S.)
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, Australia/U.S.)
Amy (Asif Kapadia, U.K.)
Heart of a Dog (Lauire Anderson, U.S.)
The End of the Tour (James Ponsoldt, U.S.)
Victoria (Sebastian Schipper, Germany)
The Tribe (Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, Ukraine)
Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France)
The Dark Valley (Andreas Prochaska, Austria)
Sparrows (Runar Runarsson, Iceland)
Syl Johnson: Any Way the Wind Blows (Rob Hatch-Miller, U.S.)
Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand)
Slow West (John Maclean, U.K./New Zealand)
Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones, U.S.)
The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, U.K.)
What Happened, Miss Simone? (Liz Garbus, U.S.)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, U.S.)
The Chicago band Negative Scanner made one of my favorite records last year — just narrowly missing out on my top 10. Released by the top-notch local label Trouble in Mind, Negative Scanner’s self-titled album is filled with short bursts of searing punk and garage, with singer-guitarist Rebecca Valeriano-Flores spitting out the words with alarming force. This group has played a lot of shows in Chicago, but somehow I had never seen it live until Friday, Feb. 12, when Negative Scanner opened for Disappears at the Empty Bottle. The band did not disappoint, ripping through a fast set of songs from the album and cementing its place as one of my favorite bands in Chicago right now.
Disappears is another outstanding local band — and it played a really strong set to finish the night, with those guitar riffs sounding especially propulsive. The first group of the night was Hide (or maybe that should be all-caps HIDE) — who played aggressive electronic music amid strobe lights. Not exactly my sort of music, but a cool spectacle. (See the first picture below for a demonstration of what happens when you take a quick sequence of photos while strobe lights are flashing.)
Pop Waits, the title of the new show by Chicago’s Neo-Futurists, combines the names of two iconic musicians: Iggy Pop and Tom Waits. The idea of throwing them together into one work of theater might seem a bit odd, but the Neo-Futurists’ shows are always a bit odd. And in many ways, Pop Waits is the sort of show that this group is known for: a hodgepodge that mashes together wildly different subjects and styles of performance, along with a high level of self-awareness and self-reference. And staying true to the principles of the Neo-Futurists, Pop Waits features performers playing themselves, directly addressing the audience as the people they actually are, as opposed to fictional characters.
The co-creators and co-stars of this show are Malic White and Molly Brennan, who explore the way they use music as a tool for coping with depression and feeling affirmation. White’s touchstone is the music of Iggy Pop — performed during the play with a rock band — while Brennan is inspired by the songs of Tom Waits.
The Neo-Futurists ran into a hitch with their plans just a few days before opening night, however. As the program explains — and as the performers themselves explained during the show — they failed to get permission from Waits to use his songs. Their request apparently didn’t get through to Waits or Waits’ management in time. So they ended up using a few songs that Brennan herself wrote in the style of Waits, alongside the actual Iggy Pop tunes. That makes for a somewhat awkward mismatch, although it actually makes the music more personal and relevant to Brennan’s autobiographical performance. (And rather than sounding bitter about the situation, the Neo-Futurists encouraged audience members to buy Waits’ music.)
The musical performances are lively — with White diving into the role of crowd-surfing punk rocker and Brennan reveling in gravelly voiced singing. The show starts off with a fun participatory bit involving the audience helping the performers to write a new song. And it’s touching to hear White and Brennan tell the story of how they became romantic partners. It all feels cobbled together, like a rough draft, however. (For better or worse, this is true of many shows by the Neo-Futurists, who are most famous for their ever-changing collection of micro-plays, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.)
But then something remarkable happens halfway through Pop Waits: Brennan bravely reveals a painful ailment she has been fighting and the emotional toll it takes on her. Considering that she is renowned for her work on Chicago stages as an avant-garde clown, it was incredible to hear her talk about the difficulties she faces every day.
Pop Waits may not (yet) be a fully realized show, but as a mixture of rock music, clowning and real-life confession, it’s memorable and eye-opening. Watching it on opening night last week, it struck me as the sort of bold and strange show that keeps Chicago’s theater scene so exciting.
Pop Waits continues through March 12 at the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland Ave., Chicago. See neofuturists.org for details.
It’s sad to see Mary-Arrchie Theatre closing after 30 years – but the company has chosen what may be the perfect play for its farewell: David Mamet’s American Buffalo. Written in 1975, it’s one of the all-time classic plays about Chicago. And the drama’s setting — a cluttered junk shop — is a good match for Mary-Arrchie and its Angel Island venue. That’s not to say that the theater (which was doomed by redevelopment plans) is a junk shop, exactly. But it has always been one of those quintessentially Chicago theater spaces that are rough around the edges, the sort of spot that feels a little claustrophobic, crammed into rooms that weren’t designed with state-of-the-art theatrical productions in the architect’s mind. One of the most memorable Mary-Arrchie shows of recent years was a terrific 2012 production of The Glass Menagerie; the dinginess of the set and the rustic theater heightened the sense that Tennessee Williams’ characters were trapped in a world startlingly different from their visions of what it should be.
Richard Cotovsky, the guy who’s been running Mary-Arrchie for the past three decades even as he insisted on keeping his day job as a pharmacist in Rogers Park, is acting in his theater’s final show, directed by Carlos Lorenzo Garcia. Cotovsky plays Don, the somewhat taciturn guy who runs the junk shop in American Buffalo. It’s the least showy of the three roles in Mamet’s drama, and Cotovsky occupies it with a thoughtful air that hints at his character’s unspoken depths.
Rudy Galvan brings nervous eagerness and naivete to the role of Bobby, the youngster who trying to earn the respect of his elders in the junk shop — so that he can make some money from their criminal schemes. And Stephen Walker plays Teach, the most outlandish, outspoken member of this trio, playing the character with all of the tense paranoia and desperation it requires.
The escapade they’re plotting — the burglary of a coin collection — drives the drama in American Buffalo, but it’s what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin: something pursued by a story’s protagonists, which is less important than the pursuit itself. The coins are not really the point in American Buffalo. It’s more about what these characters go through as they plan out their ill-considered crime. In the explosive final scene, the junk shop’s shelves and bric-a-brac nearly come down on top of these three troubled souls. And appropriately enough, it almost feels like the actors are trashing the theater itself — like rock musicians smashing their guitars at the end of a thrilling concert.
American Buffalo continues through March 6 at Angel Island, 735 W. Sheridan Road, Chicago. See maryarrchie.com for details.
On Sunday, Jan. 31, the Chicago trio Stomatapod headlined an early show at the Empty Bottle — yes, an actual early show at the Empty Bottle, believe it or not — and it turned out to be a strong lineup of three noteworthy bands.
Thoughts Detecting Machine
The first act of the night was Thoughts Detecting Machine — a one-man band starring Rick Valentin from the great Champaign rock group the Poster Children. For this project, Valentin plays guitar and sings along with loops and backing tracks, making appealing rock songs with an electronic pulse.
The Rutabega, a duo from South Bend, Ind., that calls its music “carp rock,” played second. The group lists Built to Spill as one of its influences, but I also heard a distinct nod to the early Who — in fact, it sounded like one song was about to morph into “Happy Jack.” I liked the Rutabega enough to buy their album at the merch table.
Stomatopod (named after an order of crustaceans) is a grunge revival power trio — John Huston on guitar and vocals, Liz Bustamante on bass and Elliot Dicks on bass — slamming out hard-edged songs that occasionally reminded me of the Pixies.
For the seventh year, the Hideout hosted Chicago Psych Fest last week, with three nights of music from the more experimental, trippy end of the rock spectrum. What does “psychedelic” mean these days, anyway? This festival always offers an interesting range of answers to that question. I attended the first night of this year’s festival, on Jan. 29 — which turned out to be the Night of Flutes. Four bands played, and three of them included flute. The final group of the night, Spires That in the Sunset Rise, even had a flute duo, meaning that the overall ratio of flutes to bands was 1:1 for the night. (Oddly enough, the last band I saw in a previous show at the Hideout, Expo 76, also played flute!)
The evening started with the duo Lavasse (Whitney Allen and Mark Fragassi of Toupee) playing a sinister set that culminated with some onstage gardening. Then came the Singleman Affair, Daniel Schneider’s band, which released a great record last year called The End of the Affair. Schneider really threw himself into this performance, singing and playing with passion. The third group of the night was ADT, playing psych music closer to jazz. (But no flute!) Finally, Spires That in the Sunset Rise explored the idea of duets featuring wind instruments and vocals — and it was quite captivating.
It was nearly a decade since the last time I saw the Go! Team — when the British group played at Lollapalooza in 2006 — and that’s just too long to go without the exuberance of this delightful band. After a prolonged absence from Chicago, the Go! Team returned on Saturday, Jan. 16, playing at Lincoln Hall during the Tomorrow Never Knows Festival. It was thrilling to see this bunch cavorting with glee onstage again. Few bands I’ve ever seen look so much like they’re having fun.
As always, the Go! Team delivered a crazy mashup of musical genres — electric guitar riffs, dashes of hip-hop, melodies evoking 1970s TV theme songs, banjo and recorder. The women arrayed across the front of the stage (Ninja, Angela Mak and Cheryl Pinero) were in constant motion; Ninja beamed as she jumped and danced to the infectious beats. The enthusiastic crowd got moving, too. Ian Parton, the group’s founding mastermind, acted more like a sideman, but he came forward for the memorable harmonica melody that anchors the closing song of the first Go! Team album, “Everyone’s a V.I.P. to Someone,” and it felt like a star stepping into the spotlight.
The Go! Team’s set was somewhat abbreviated, clocking in at barely more than an hour. But what an hour it was.
The opening acts during this TNK show at Lincoln Hall were Jude Shuma — who closed with a cool cover of “All the Young Dudes,” in tribute to David Bowie — and the electronic dance duo Javelin, who were, let’s just say, not my cup of tea.
Way back on April 21, 1990, I saw the Vulgar Boatmen perform a free in-store set at the old Reckless Records store on Broadway — playing songs from their 1989 debut album, You and Your Sister. It’s an outstanding record of songs that reminded me of the folkier side of the Feelies. The simple but graceful melodies, the insistent rhythms and the simple but smart guitar riffs have stuck in my mind ever since — even when years went by without seeing the band. Many years. I’m pretty sure I saw the Vulgar Boatmen just one more time in the early 1990s — at the Cubby Bear, I think. And then I lost track of this group.
The odd thing is: The Vulgar Boatmen had two different touring lineups — one based in Indiana and one in Florida. The two main songwriters were Richard Ray in Florida and Dale Lawrence in Indiana; they collaborated on songwriting and making records, but had separate bands in concert. A version of the Indiana group — led by Lawrence — is still playing, but not all that often. In recent years, the Vulgar Boatmen have been come to Chicago every January for a show at Schubas. (Lawrence was also in the early Indiana punk band the Gizmos, who played a reunion show I saw at Gonerfest in Memphis in 2014.)
I finally got around to seeing one of those shows on Jan. 9 — as the Vulgar Boatmen celebrated a new 25th anniversary reissue of You and Your Sister. That was a great excuse for the band to play all of the great songs on that record. Even though I haven’t heard these songs much over the past 20 years, every detail remained vivid in my memory — and boy, did it feel good to hear them being performed live once again. The encores stretched the concert past the two-hour mark, with fun covers including the Velvet Underground’s “Foggy Notion” and “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow),” a Monkees song written by Neil Diamond. The rousing finale was the Replacements’ “Can’t Hardly Wait.” The show also included at least one new song by Lawrence, giving me hope that the Vulgar Boatmen will carry on with their somewhat strange career.
The opening act was a Chicago power-pop band called Mooner. I wasn’t familiar with Mooner before, but its sound was appealing — and a good fit with the Vulgar Boatmen set that was coming later.
I could say this about almost any year: I heard a lot of great music in 2015 — and I surely missed even more. As I wrestled with the decision about what to include in this list, I kept thinking, Well, that album might have made my list if I’d listened to it a few more times. And of course, this list reflects my tastes, which lean toward the stuff that generally gets called indie-rock. My biggest regrets this time are not listening to more jazz, experimental music, world music and new classical music. The records I enjoyed the most in 2015 included quite a few by female singer-songwriters and bands from Australia and New Zealand. These were my favorites.
1. Joan Shelley: Over and Even
Joan Shelley is a singer-songwriter from Kentucky making old-fashioned folk songs. Her voice is utterly gorgeous and heart-piercing, with a quality that reminds me of Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson. Her key collaborator on this second album is Nathan Salsburg, who plays intricate patterns of notes on his acoustic guitar. (The record also features subtle harmony vocals by another Kentuckyan, Will Oldham, on a few tracks, along with contributions on several instruments by that ubiquitous Chicago musician James Elkington.) This is a quiet, intimate album, with one great song after another. I never get tired of hearing it. (No Quarter) joanshelley.net
2. Twerps: Range Anxiety
This band from Melbourne, Australia, plays the sort of guitar-based rock songs I remember bands in the 1980s playing back when I thought those bands sounded like 1960s bands. Back when we talked about jangly guitars. It’s bright, spirited pop music, with smartly constructed riffs and a delightful mix of male and female vocals delivering catchy melodies. (Merge) mergerecords.com/twerps
3. Courtney Barnett: Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Of all the albums on my list, this is the one most likely to finish high on critics’ polls like Pazz & Jop. The world hardly needs me to point out that Courtney Barnett is a dynamite performer with some wonderfully witty and catchy tunes. But I will join in with that chorus of praise. In addition to all of her other talents, Barnett’s a terrific guitarist and many of the tracks really rock on her second album. (Or is it her debut, as many say? Depends on whether you count that excellent combo of her EPs that came out earlier). And the words of Barnett’s songs are remarkable — funny and insightful observations of life. (Mom+Pop) courtneybarnett.com.au
4. Joshua Abrams: Magnetoception
Like the previous albums Chicago musician Joshua Abrams recorded with his Natural Information Society group, this one — a sprawling two-record set on vinyl — might be categorized as jazz. But it feels more like Abrams’ music is in a category all its own, a hypnotic sort of experimental improvisation that draws on elements of African and Eastern music and art rock. Abrams frequently plays the guimbri, a three-stringed North African bass lute, on these tracks, collaborating with a bunch of top-notch musicians (Hamid Drake, Emmett Kelly, Jeff Parker, Lisa Alvarado and Ben Boye) as they explore every nook and cranny of their chords with probing intelligence. It all feels very organic. The instrumental tracks may seem minimalist and repetitive at first, but repeat listens reveal complex and highly compelling music. (Eremite) eremite.com/album/mte-63-64
5. Eleventh Dream Day: Works for Tomorrow
This Chicago group has been making music since the 1980s, with many fine records over the years. This ranks among its best. The core lineup recently added guitarist James Elkington, making this the first Eleventh Dream Day record since 1994 with two guitarists. That strengthens the ferocity of these performances. This is the sound of a veteran band that really knows how to play together, finding a new way to build on its time-tested formula. (Thrill Jockey) thrilljockey.com/artists/eleventh-dream-day
6. Godspeed You! Black Emperor: Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress
This Montreal collective — rock band or orchestra? — has made two albums now since reuniting in 2010 after a long hiatus. In the tradition of its best music, this is an epic symphony of guitars, violins and drums: foreboding, dark and powerful. (Constellation) cstrecords.com/cst111/
7. Laura Marling: Short Movie
Another confident record of memorable folk songs by one of today’s most talented singer-songwriter-guitarists. (Ribbon Music) lauramarling.com
8. Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love
After years apart, Sleater-Kinney came back together, sounding as brilliant and fierce as ever. A strong reunion album. (Sub Pop) sleater-kinney.com
9. Royal Headache: High
This garage band from Sydney, Australia, quickly slams out its punchy tunes, and you can almost see the sneer in those vocals. Like the best punk, it’s energetic and noisy but also damn catchy. (What’s Your Rupture?) royalheadache.com.au
10. Algiers: Algiers
Franklin James Fisher’s commanding gospel-influenced vocals emerge from a churning, dark mix of experimental rock, demanding to be heard amid the din. (Matador) algierstheband.com
In more or less descending order…
Wilco, Star Wars
The Necks, Vertigo
Ultimate Painting, Green Lanes
Salad Boys, Metalmania
Mikal Cronin, MCIII
Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color
Deaf Wish, Pain
Patty Griffin, Servant of Love
Ryley Walker, Primrose Green
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
Viet Cong, Viet Cong
Jim O’Rourke, Simple Songs
Yo La Tengo, Stuff Like That There
Calexico, Edge of the Sun
William Basinski, Cascade and The Deluge
Radioactivity, Silent Kill
Negative Scanner, Negative Scanner
The Cairo Gang, Goes Missing
Thee Oh Sees, Mutilator Defeated at Last
Richard Thompson, Still
Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free
Universal Togetherness Band, Universal Togetherness Band
Wreckless Eric, AmERICa
Drinks, Hermits on Holiday
Belle and Sebastian, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld, Never Were the Way She Was
Dick Diver, Melbourne, Florida
Titus Andronicus, The Most Lamentable Tragedy
Mekons & Robbie Fulks, Jura
Protomartyr, The Agent Intellect
Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer
Low, Ones and Sixes
The Tallest Man on Earth, Dark Bird Is Home
Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp
Bitchin Bajas and Natural Information Society, Autoimaginary
Maria Hackman, We Slept at Last
The Singleman Affair, The End of the Affair
The Chills, Silver Bullets
After the Joan Shelley-Doug Paisley show last Thursday, Nov. 5, at Szold Hall, I headed up to the Red Line Tap to catch a concert by the Thrill Jockey band White Hills (which was featured performing on screen in last year’s Jim Jarmusch film Only Lovers Left Alive). This band deserved a bigger audience than it got on this night, when just a handful of fans were watching, but that didn’t lessen the strength of the music. White Hills has included other musicians over the years, but for this show, it was down to its two core members, guitarist-vocalist Dave W. and bassist-vocalist Ego Sensation. They fleshed out their sound with keyboards and drum machines, stretching out their songs into experimental grooves.
The Louisville, Ky., singer-songwriter Joan Shelley has a strong contender for my album of the year: Over and Even, which came out in September on the No Quarter label. The beautiful folk songs from this record were breathtaking to hear in a live performance — when Shelley played on Thursday, Nov. 5, at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Szold Hall. Shelley has one of those unfussy voices that hit each note with a calm, cool precision. At the end of almost every song, audience members said, “Wow.” Meanwhile, Nathan Salsburg plucked out melodies and patterns on his guitar with highly impressive dexterity, giving the perfect accompaniment for Shelley’s vocals. The seemingly ubiquitous Chicago guitarist James Elkington, who plays on Shelley’s album and helped to record it, joined her and Salsburg for a few songs. The set included a cover of June Tabor’s “Where Are You Tonight.”
Shelley was the opening act for this concert; the headliner was another fine artist on the No Quarter label, Toronto singer-songwriter Doug Paisley. Shelley and Paisley have another thing in common: Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) has sung on records by both of them. Accompanied by Ben Whiteley on the upright bass, Paisley sang low-key country songs, revealing a wry sense of humor with his stage banter. He noted that Szold Hall — a square room with black curtains along the walls — was giving him a “Twin Peaks” vibe. During Paisley’s encore, Shelley returned to the floor and sang a couple of songs with him, bringing this enchanting evening to a lovely conclusion.
Welsh singer-songwriter-guitarist Cate Le Bon has moved way beyond her early acoustic songs. Her solo music got spikier and stranger — and then she turned up as an additional touring member of the California psychedelic band White Fence. Now, she’s taken that collaboration further, teaming up with White Fence’s Tim Presley in a side project called Drinks. (Or if we go with the all-caps style that the band seems to prefer, “DRINKS.”) The group released a cool record in August called Hermits on Holiday, and it played Oct. 23 at the Empty Bottle. Drinks combines Le Bon’s recent electric guitar riffs with the psych sounds of White Fence, adding a good dose of krautrock’s hypnotic repetition, as Presley and Le Bon trade off lead vocals. It all sounded sharp on Friday night at the Bottle.
The Ex, a Dutch art-punk band that’s been around since 1979, returned to Chicago for the first time in four years, playing on Thursday, Oct. 22, at Lincoln Hall. As a bonus, the band included one of Chicago’s leading jazz players, Ken Vandermark, on saxophone. The Ex sounded as strong as ever, with jagged chords colliding over strange rhythms. Why isn’t this band more famous?
Bric-a-Brac Records & Collectibles, a shop in Avondale just north of Logan Square, is really getting to be the go-to spot for free garage and punk rock performances. On Sunday afternoon, Oct. 11, the store hosted short, very spontaneous sets by three Chicago singer-guitarists with goofy stage names: Slushy, Pookie and Nobunny. Their fans sang along to some of the songs, and it felt like a rock concert, even without an actual stage or full bands.
Algiers — a band of Atlanta natives based in London — released a powerful self-titled debut album this summer. The music has been described as “dystopian soul,” and I can see why. Vocalist Franklin James Fisher hollers with the passion and style of a gospel or soul singer, but the musical arrangements surrounding his voice are a dark, almost art-rock mix of many varied elements. The band played Oct. 6 at the Empty Bottle, with a live sound that was pretty close to the studio recordings. At two points during the show, Fisher stepped down from the stage and sang amid the audience. He got down on his knees, almost seeming to plead as his sang his passionate, socially conscious lyrics. “You say your history’s over/All my blood’s in vain,” he implored in the song “Blood.”
The New Zealand band Salad Boys made one of my favorite recent records, the deceptively titled debut album Metalmania — which doesn’t sound the least bit like heavy metal. It’s sunny, tuneful rock with jangly guitars, occasionally slipping into rhythmic grooves. The group, whose record is on the Chicago label Trouble in Mind, began its U.S. tour on Sept. 23 at the Owl. As the three musicians began playing, I wondered if they could pull off the arrangements on the record with just one guitar, bass and drums. But guitarist-singer Joe Sampson deftly switched between the rhythmic parts, riffs and solos — and the songs were more charged than they are in the studio recordings. The trio stretched out the cycling riff at the end of “No Taste Bomber,” turning it into a Velvet Underground-style rave-up that eventually morphed into a bit of the Doors’ “L.A. Woman.”
Two Chicago bands opened for Salad Boys at the Owl: American Breakfast started off the show with some scrappy garage rock. And then Clearance celebrated the release of its Rapid Rewards LP, which sounds very much like a lost-long Pavement album — a pretty good Pavement album, though the strong similarity can be distracting. It was less noticeable when the band was playing at the Owl. It was a fun and lively set.
The Montreal musician Patrick Watson returned on Monday, Sept. 28, to Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, where I saw him perform in 2012. (I also saw him at Schubas back in 2009.) I’d overlooked his recent album Love Songs for Robots, but my initial impression is that it’s a nice extension of the beautiful orchestral pop music Watson has been making for years. And his music — both old and new — sounded as lovely and transporting as ever when he played on Monday night, with a nimble ensemble of players arrayed across the stage along with globe-shaped lights. Watson moved back and forth between his grand piano and the microphone in the center of the stage. When the band was in full flight, this was complex art rock filled with subtle, shifting layers. But there were also a couple of moments when Watson and his collaborators stood around one microphone and performed music with the utmost simplicity. Either way, it was brilliant.
It was not a fiasco this time. For the second year, Redmoon Theater created a Great Chicago Fire Festival for the city of Chicago. As I noted on my blog and in a story for the Belt website, last year’s event was a bust in many respects. For one thing, the houses that were supposed to burn — representing Chicago’s famous fire of 1871 — didn’t ignite as planned.
In spite of harsh criticism, the city decided to sponsor the event again this year. But instead of staging it again on the Chicago River in downtown, Redmoon moved it to Northerly Island. Thousands of people turned out on Saturday, Sept. 26, for the free closing ceremony of the festival — which also included artistic events in neighborhoods around the city. And this time, a house-like structure did indeed burn. The orange flames shot high into the sky, their warmth extending far into the audience area. Chicago firefighters were on hand, of course, keeping the blaze under control.
That was an impressive spectacle, and the overall event was a decent enough evening, especially for families looking for some wholesome entertainment. The worst moment came when the organizers and police abruptly told everyone who’d been sitting near the stage to move back a considerable distance — behind a roadway — for safety reasons; some advance warning might have prevented that unfortunate moment of crowd-cruncing.
Highlights included Lynne Jordan’s performance of a Nina Simone song while dangling from a crane. And it helped that the weather this year was considerably nicer. As I noted about last year’s Great Chicago Fire Festival, this event lacks the characters and plots other Redmoon spectacles have featured, making it more of a civic ceremony — with overtones of a pep rally — than a work of theater. As such, it doesn’t rank with my favorite Redmoon productions. But it was certainly more of a crowd-pleaser than that 2014 fizzle.
The great, mysterious and powerful Canadian band Godspeed You! Black Emperor is not stopping in Chicago on its current tour. This is why I decided to make the trek on Monday night, Sept. 21, all the way down to Bloomington, Ind., where GY!BE was playing at the Bluebird Nightclub. I got a ride from my friend Sei Jin Lee, and we arrived just in time. What an odd thing it is to ride for hours through Indiana, only to walk into a nightclub on a college campus as a band starts playing — not just any band, but one that is making an apocalyptic roar. Was anything else happening anywhere in Indiana — or the whole Midwest — to rival the epic, majestic noise pouring forth from the stage in that inauspicious-looking bar at that moment?
Godspeed You! Black Emperor recently released its second album since coming back from hiatus, and it’s yet another epic by this Montreal ensemble: Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. That new album made up the core of the band’s set on Monday night, and like much of this band’s music, it seemed more like a symphony than just a series of rock songs. The violin melodies are one reason why GY!BE’s music feels orchestral, but it goes beyond that. All of the instruments, including electric guitars, combine to make mountains and valleys of sounds, carefully mapped out in these compositions. The pounding, crashing chords evoked the drama of a battle or a disaster, but melodies soar out of the darkness, sounding like a triumph of the human spirit.
No one in the band said a word. As always, its music had an eerie visual companion — flashing black-and-white collages created on the spot by Karl Lemieux, who ran strips of old movies through several projectors. The pictures looked like damaged newsreel scraps, postcards and manuscripts — decaying fragments of our world.
Set list: Hope Drone /Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!’ / Lambs’ Breath/ Asunder, Sweet / Piss Crowns Are Trebled / (unknown) / Gathering Storm / (unknown) / Mladic
World Music Fest Chicago, a festival of free concerts featuring musicians from around the world, finished up tonight. The five events I attended were outstanding, making me wish I’d had a chance to experience even more. I blogged earlier about the concerts by Hailu Mergia, Mahmoud Ahmed and Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa. Here are a few more of the performances I caught:
This was the third year of Ragamala, a marathon overnight performance of Indian classical music under Preston Bradley Hall’s beautiful dome in the Chicago Cultural Center. Beginning at 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 18, musicians performed until 8 a.m. the following morning. I arrived a few minutes before midnight and stayed until 4 a.m. — longer than I’d planned. It was such an odd and beautiful experience that I wish I’d been able to be there for all 12 hours. (Maybe next time, if I plan better.) Some audience members brought pillows and blankets or even sleeping bags, resting or dozing off as the Indian musicians played their transporting melodies and drones. I nodded off a few times, but never lost contact with the lovely notes I was hearing.
When I walked in, the room was fairly crowded though not completely full. By the time I left at 4 a.m., there were about 100 people in the hall — and some new people were just showing up. I heard three sets of music: vocalist Sanhita Nandi, accompanied by Shyam Kane on tabla and Vikas Falnikar on harmonium; flutist Guruprasad Kathavate, accompanied by Sam Jeyasingham on mridangam; and vocalist Manjiri Vaishampayan, accompanied by Subhasis Mukherjee on tabla and Vikas Falnikar on harmonium. Each of these performances was delightful in its own way. Both singers had incredible voices that floated and flowed and danced through the droning harmonium chords. I didn’t know the meaning of the words, but the spirituality of it was clear. Guruprasad played flute in Indian’s Carnatic tradition, and his melodies were beguiling.
Based in Manitoba, Tanya Tagaq won Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize for her 2014 album Animism, which is filled with her weird, sometimes animalistic throat singing. Tagaq has sung with Björk, and she’s often compared with her. This Inuit singer from Canada’s Arctic north performed on Saturday, Sept. 19, at the Museum of Contemporary Art — improvising music to accompany a screening of Nanook of the North, the controversial landmark documentary from 1922 showing the same part of the world where Tagaq grew up. Violinist Jesse Zubot and drummer Jean Martin gave the music a structural foundation, while Tagaq sang, groaned and screamed with alarming ferocity. It was hard to believe she could make all of the sounds she was making. She stood still at some moments, but more often, she prowled the stage, moving like a dancer. Or an animal. She got down on her hands and knees and pulled rumbling growls somewhere from the depths of her body. It was a stunning spectacle to witness.
Zedashe Ensemble, a group of singers, dancers and musicians from the republic of Georgia, performed Sunday, Sept. 20, during a daylong series of concerts at the Chicago Cultural Center. They sing with harmonies that might sound strange to Western ears, reminiscent of the Bulgarian singers in Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares — and the effect was bracing and bold.
The new album by Low, Ones and Sixes, is something of a change for the long-running Duluth, Minn., band. The sonic textures are different this time, a bit more electronic and ambient, with some blips and beeps subtly blending into the band’s vocal harmonies and guitar chords. Low played many of the new songs on Saturday, Sept. 19, at Thalia Hall. The live versions didn’t sound drastically different from the studio recordings, but they helped to placed these songs into the context of what Low has been doing for more than 20 years: making music that’s beautiful in its serenity and spareness.
The trio (Alan Sparhawk on guitar and vocals, Mimi Parker on drums and vocals, and Steve Garrington on bass and keyboards) played several songs from other recent albums, and dug further back into its catalog for songs such as “In Metal” and one of my favorites, “Death of a Salesman.” It was a seated show, and audience members barely moved or said anything as Low performed. The band didn’t move around much, either. But as calm as it all looked, the music achieved a fierce intensity.
Mahmoud Ahmed is one of the greatest singers of Ethiopia — it may be no exaggeration to call him “one of the greatest singers in the world,” as the World Music Festival Chicago’s website asserted. Several albums in Buda Musique’s endlessly wonderful “Ethiopiques” series feature his songs, especially the recordings he made in the 1970s, when Ethiopia’s music flourished, using a scale reminiscent of Middle Eastern music, hypnotic circular rhythms and arrangements that borrowed from Western jazz and pop — making for an intoxicating, sometimes surreal mix of styles.
Ahmed gave his first public performance ever in Chicago on Sunday, Sept. 13, as part of World Music Festival Chicago, and it was a joyous occasion. The spry 71-year-old occasionally hopped and twirled as he performed on the Jay Pritzker Pavilion’s stage at Millennium Park, but what was most remarkable were the strange twists and turns his voice took. The crowd included many Chicagoans from Ethiopia and Africa, who sang along with Ahmed, danced with big smiles on their faces and waved Ethiopian flags. As much as I was enjoying the music, imagine what it was like for these immigrants to see a superstar from their homeland.
The Moroccan artist Aziz Sahmaoui opened Sunday’s concert, playing with his group University of Gnawa — singing with an alluring voice as the band wove together intricate, rhythmic layers of music. A couple of the other musicians took turns on vocals, wowing the audience with their own stirring and powerful voices.
Hailu Mergia, a keyboardist and accordion player, was a musical star in Ethiopia in the 1970s, playing in the one of the country’s best-known instrumental groups, Walias Band. He’s been living in the Washington, D.C., area for the past three decades, working as a cabdriver and playing his music at private events. But his music has attracted new attention since the Awesome Tapes From Africa label reissued a pair of his old recordings, which had been hard to find for many years. This past weekend, he played two shows in Chicago as part of World Music Festival Chicago — a wonderful series of free concerts sponsored by the city. I saw Mergia’s performance on Saturday, Sept. 12, at the Promontory in Hyde Park (getting there after Eleventh Dream Day’s show in Andersonville). Backed by bass and drums, Mergia played serpentine melodies on keyboards, accordion and melodica, his face occasionally breaking into a gentle smile as he looked out at the young people dancing in front of the stage to the trio’s lively, alluring rhythms.
Over the past 28 years, Eleventh Dream Day has consistently made good records, but its latest — Works for Tomorrow — is one of the best. The Chicago band played as a trio for many years, with Rick Rizzo on guitar and vocals, Douglas McCombs on bass and Janet Beveridge Bean on drums and vocals. Several years back, Mark Greenberg joined the lineup on keyboards, and then the band expanded yet again with James Elkington coming in as a second guitarist. The bigger lineup makes Eleventh Dream Day more versatile — and it makes an even bigger noise than before.
Eleventh Dream Day played Saturday night, Sept. 12, at the City Made Fest in Andersonville, focusing heavily on the new songs. The group didn’t even bother to play what may be its most famous song, “Testify.” (Eleventh Dream Day didn’t play it at a recent Hideout show, either.)
The new song “Go Tell It” kicked off with a long searing guitar solo by Elkington. On the chorus — “Go tell it on the mountain!” — Bean’s soulful wails joined together with Rizzo’s voice, sounding a bit like Merry Clayton’s classic duet with Mick Jagger on “Gimme Shelter.” Bean stepped out from behind the drums for the final song of the night, a cover of Judy Henske and Jerry Yester’s “Snowblind” that appears on the new album. She leaned over as she sang, as if she were squeezing every once of her strength into those vocals. As the final notes rang out, she nearly fell off the side of the stage. Decades after starting, Eleventh Dream Day sounds as vital as ever.
The British duo Ultimate Painting’s debut record came very close to being my favorite of 2014, and its second album, Green Lanes, is just about as good. Both records might seem a little languid and low-key at first, but don’t let the lack of loud feedback deceive you — there’s some great rock music happening here, with two guitars playing off each other and grooving in that classic style that goes back to the Velvet Underground. Jack Cooper and James Hoare trade off on lead vocals, often singing together in harmony, with the soft, unfussy style of English choir boys. And their melodies are just wonderful. These are some of the best-written songs of the past few years. As a live act, Ultimate Painting adds a drummer and bassist — and it also adds longer jams during some of its songs, stretching out those VU and Feelies moments. The band returned to Chicago on Thursday, Sept. 10, playing a delightful set at the Empty Bottle.
Ultimate Painting’s bassist on this tour is Anthony Cozzi, who was the leader of the Chicago band Radar Eyes, whose disbanding I lamented earlier this year. And he’s the guitarist in yet another great Chicago band, CoCoComa — which played Thursday night before Ultimate Painting. But Cozzi’s moving to the West Coast, so CoCoComa billed this as the last show it’ll play in Chicago for a long time. Two of its members, drummer-singer Bill Roe and guitarist Lisa Roe run the Trouble in Mind record label — which has been releasing garage and indie rock by many excellent bands, including Ultimate Painting. CoCoComa hasn’t been too active in the last few years, but Cozzi, the Roes and bassist Tyler J. Brock bashed out a lively bunch of songs on Thursday night for its “final-ish” gig. Don’t take your local bands for granted — you never know when they’ll call it quits or go on hiatus. I’ll miss CoCoComa, and hope they come back together eventually.
Another fine Chicago band, the Runnies, started out Thursday’s show at the Empty Bottle. After attending the earlier concert at Bohemian National Cemetery, I arrived at the Bottle just in time for the Runnies’ last few songs — fun keyboard-driven garage rock.
Out on Chicago’s Northwest Side, Bohemian National Cemetery has hosted a few concerts over the past few years, including performances by Wrekmeister Harmonies and the Silver Apples. But until this past week, I hadn’t made it out to any of these “Beyond the Gate” shows, which are presented by the Empty Bottle. I was there on Thursday, Sept. 10, for the concert by Earth, Disappears and Holy Sons, with appropriately atmospheric DJ sets by J.R. Robinson of Wrekmeister Harmonies.
The stage was next to the Marsaryk Memorial Mausoleum (No. 15 on this map), not far from the corner of Pulaski and Bryn Mawr. There aren’t any graves in that section of the cemetery, but tombstones and trees are visible off in the distance to the east.
It was still light outside as people showed up and Holy Sons (led by Emil Amos, who also plays in Grails, Om and Lilacs & Champagne) started off the show with bluesy hard rock.
It was getting dark by the time Disappears took the stage, with shimmering, clanging guitar chords ringing out across the lawn. The Chicago band’s latest album, Irreal, is another solid addition to its discography, but a couple of older tunes were the highlights for me. The set ended with Disappears locked into a Krautrock groove that gathered strength as it repeated and repeated.
As Earth played the final set of the night — slowly grinding out its thundering, mountainous instrumental music — guitarist Dylan Carlson cast huge shadows on the wall of the mausoleum behind him. I departed a bit early, just because I wanted to get to the Empty Bottle for that night’s “after show,” heading to my car on Bryn Mawr as Earth played its final song of the night. Walking on the sidewalk along the cemetery, I looked back across the rows of tombstones and heard Earth’s ethereal chords floating through the night air.
The prolific California band Thee Oh Sees released yet another fine album this year, Mutilator Defeated at Last, keeping up its run of catchy psychedelic-tinged garage rock records. Frontman John Dwyer completely changed the lineup of the band playing behind him a year ago, and the lineup had changed yet again by the time Thee Oh Sees came to Chicago for two sold-out shows this week at the Empty Bottle. The band’s current configuration has two drummers and a bassist backing up Dwyer, with the four of them arrayed across the front of the stage, Dwyer standing stage right instead of in the center, with a stack of amps behind him. As he usually does, Dwyer held his guitar high on his torso, with his eyes frequently shrouded in darkness; he stuck out his tongue and spat onto the stage many times. He sang nearly every note in reverb-drenched falsetto, and cranked out a series of searing guitar riffs. The two-drum lineup gave the music a driving intensity, especially on the last few songs, when the percussion seemed to take on more multilayered complexity. After playing more than 90 minutes — a fairly long set for Thee Oh Sees — Dwyer and his bandmates called it a night without an encore. It was a strong night from beginning to end, with noisy, energetic sets by two opening bands, the Blind Shake and Make-Overs.
When I saw Chicago singer-songwriter-guitarist Haley Fohr open for Bill Callahan in 2013, she played solo. At the time, I noted that her set “set built from droning folk songs to ear-shattering primal screams.” Then as now, Fohr performs under the name Circuit Des Yeux. But when she played Friday, Aug. 28, at the Hideout, Circuit Des Yeux was an actual band, with bass, violin and drums adding to the already-potent strength of Fohr’s music. The focus was still on Fohr’s vocals and her moody, sometimes transcendent songs, but the other musicians added more texture. Circuit Des Yeux’s latest album, In Plain Speech (Thrill Jockey), is well worth hearing. (Read the Chicago Reader’s story from May 18, 2015, about Circuit Des Yeux.)
The Hideout show also featured an engaging set of instrumental guitar music by Marisa Anderson — an idiosyncratic mix of blues and folk — as well as a strong performance by a new Chicago group called Slow Planes, whose atmospheric folk rock was a perfect complement to the rest of the night.
What a stark contrast it was on Wednesday, Aug. 19, at the Empty Bottle. On the one hand, the Australian rock band Royal Headache sounded fantastic as it ripped through one catchy song after another, including many from the fine new album, High, which comes out Friday. On the other hand, the group’s lead singer, who goes by the name Shogun, kept making self-deprecating comments, as if the concert were a disaster. “We used to be good,” he muttered at one point. Maybe it was just an act. Shogun’s vocals are a key part of what makes Royal Headache so good — I detect a bit of Robert Pollard in what he’s doing — and he spent the whole show pacing across the stage with manic energy. (Much as he did when I saw Royal Headache at the Burlington in 2012.)
This presented quite a challenge when it came to photographing Royal Headache on the Empty Bottle’s dimly lit stage, but I did what I could. It felt a bit like trying to capture a blurry, grainy image of a wild animal racing across a dark alley.
Royal Headache’s riveting show came at the end of a night filled with cool garage rock, including fun opening sets by Daylight Robbery, Storm Clouds and Sheer Mag.
Continuing its tradition of playing Chicago gigs that you might overlook if you’re not paying attention, Wussy performed Saturday, Aug. 15, at the free Glenwood Avenue Arts Fest. The Cincinnati band offered a preview of its upcoming album, playing several new songs along with past favorites.
The show is an interesting hybrid. It includes archival posters, photographs and mementos from the AACM and related jazz musicians, as well as the visual art they created. But it also features the work of contemporary artists inspired by the AACM and its legacy — such as the day-glo geometric patterns of Lisa Alvarado, an artist and musician who plays in Johsua Abrams’ Natural Information Society. Alvarado’s banners are on the band’s album covers (including the excellent recent release Magnetoception) and they hang behind the group as its performances. Also featured are some of Chicago artist Nick Cave’s Soundsuits. Highlights of the archival items include Art Ensemble of Chicago bandleader Roscoe Mitchell’s incredibly elaborate drum set.
AACM founding member Phil Cohran performed in the MCA’s fourth-floor space next to the exhibit on July 10, when the museum hosted a press opening — I am belatedly posting my photos now from that event. On the following day, July 11, the MCA opened its doors to the public for free as the exhibit opened, and several musicians performed, including Mike Reed with his group People, Places + Things. Over the next few months, the MCA will host more performances and events related to the exhibit; see the MCA’s website for details.
The last time English folk singer-songwriter-guitarist Laura Marling played in Chicago — at the Athenaeum in 2013 — she played solo. For her return show on Wednesday, July 29, at Lincoln Hall, she brought a band. But for most of the night, the bass and drums stayed in the background, adding subtle shadings to the very full sound of Marling’s voice and guitar.
Marling cast a spell with her lovely singing, alternating between chatty half-spoken lines in a low register with sweet, fully sung melodies. All the while, she deftly picked out delicate patterns on her guitars, remarking at one point that she’s been practicing the Chet Atkins style of fingerpicking, which has necessitated allowing her thumb nail to grow longer, which she keeps having to explain to people. She demonstrated that technique on a nice cover of Dolly Parton’s “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind.”
Marling opened with the medley of songs that starts her 2013 album Once I Was an Eagle, and plenty a good selection from Short Movie, the fifth and latest album — one of my favorite records of 2015. She noted that she wrote one of the songs from the new album when she was backstage at the Athenaeum in Chicago in 2013. Marling once told an audience she’d like to move to Chicago, and people have asked her since then if she actually will. “I’m not,” she said, adding, “I came here on holiday two weeks ago. I really do like it. I’m not just saying that to be charming.”
The Marling fans at this sold-out show — a predominantly 20-something crowd with more women than men — were clearly charmed. When Marling forgot some of her early lyrics, she turned to the audience members in front of her for assistance.
Marling’s opening acts, Marika Hackman and Johnny Flynn, were a wonderful match with her. Both are singer-songwriters from England, and both played engrossing solo acoustic sets, making the whole evening feel like a mini-festival of Brit folk rock. Hackman (who was playing her first concert in Chicago) hooked me from the minute I heard her voice, prompting me to pick up her album We Slept at Last at the merch table at the end of the show. Flynn was also impressive, and many of the Marling fans in attendance also knew his music. Hackman and Flynn both joined in with Marling during her set. For the final song of the night — Marling did not come out for an encore — the band played Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work,” with Marling and Hackman trading off vocals.
It’s hard to believe what Colin Stetson is able to do with the saxophone. As he performed Tuesday, July 28, at Schubas, it sounded at times like three or four instruments were playing, but he was standing alone, without any electronics gear or effects pedals to aid him. Here’s how the Constellation record label’s website explains what he does:
Colin Stetson has developed a unique and renowned voice as a performer and composer, chiefly on bass and tenor saxophones, where he rallies an array of technical strengths and innovations (circular breathing, contact micing of his own body and the body of his instrument, vocalizations through the reed) to make some of the most captivatingly organic, darkly soulful and otherworldly solo instrumental work of recent years.
The notes came sprawling out of his saxophones — including a massive bass sax that he played on several of the compositions — with one layer of tones circling around in a pattern while other layers squealed, bleated and soared on top. The force of the music was almost overwhelming at times, both because of the volume levels and the way those notes vibrated against one another. Stetson’s performance was something of an athletic feat, and he’d worked up a set by the end of an incredible hour.
Colin Stetson will also play (with the great Chicago percussionist Frank Rosaly) Thursday at Constellation.
Sleater-Kinney and Courtney Barnett were the highlights of the 2015 Pitchfork Music Festival for me — no big surprise, considering how much I’ve liked their records and past live shows. Headlining on Saturday night, Sleater-Kinney once again showed that it’s one of the most powerful rock bands playing today. And when Barnett played on Sunday afternoon, she looked like she was having a hell of a good time, cranking out some searing guitar riffs and solos even as delivered her witty observational lyrics with clarity and humor.
My assignment at this year’s Pitchfork (July 17-19 at Union Park) was taking photos for The A.V. Club. And I ended up photographing all but a few of the musical acts — which meant that I bounced around between the stages, often catching half a set here and half a set there. So it would be unfair for me to be too definitive with my reviews of all those artists.
I’ll just say I was impressed with the loping, languorous grooves of Chicago singer-guitarist Ryley Walker’s group; the ferocity of Bully; the meditative hum of Bitchin Bajas; the spirited bounce of the Julie Ruin; the arty post-punk of Viet Cong; the energy of Run the Jewels; and the range and musicality of Chance the Rapper’s hip-hop. The New Pornographers’ harmonies were as catchy as usual, despite the lack of Neko Case and Dan Bejar. Promotmartyr and Parquet Courts sound as strong as usual. I enjoyed what I heard of Steve Gunn, Iceage, Mourn and Ought, but wish I’d had to chance to hear more. I’m still not sure what to make of Ariel Pink, and Chvrches’ pop hasn’t won me over yet.
On Friday night, Wilco devoted the entire first part of its set to the group’s new album, Star Wars — which was released as a free download the previous night, surprising even Wilco fans. I’d already listened to Star Wars a few times before the concert, but the music still felt unfamiliar in concert. Not a bad thing. This certainly wasn’t a typical Wilco show, but the band played more recognizable hits in the second half of the concert.
The most memorable moment came on Saturday afternoon, in the midst of Ex Hex’s set, when a heavy downpour of rain forced Pitchfork to make the announcement that the festival was closing and everyone had to leave the park. Some confusion ensued, but a short time later, the gates reopened and most of the audience returned. The storm left puddles and mud, but by the end of the day, the weather was quite pleasant. And even though there were a few stretches of music over the weekend that I found either dull or annoying, the festival as a whole turned out to be a pretty good time.
As an easy way of supplying my photos for the A.V. Club, I posted them in these Flickr albums:
The Mekons took questions from the audience near the end of their set Monday evening at Chicago’s Poetry Foundation — which was billed as “A Quiet Night In with the Mekons: readings, writings and songs.” Someone asked what it was like being one of the last punk bands from the original 1977 era still standing. “We’ve had a long career, but it’s mostly because we haven’t thought of it as a career,” Jon Langford replied. Tom Greenhalgh observed that the music business tends to destroy bands and people. Rico Bell noted that the Mekons have stayed together for so long because they’re friends. And Lu Edmonds said, “The album that means the most to everyone in the band is the next one.”
The longevity and continued vitality of the Mekons are remarkable. This band just keeps going on and on, and I hope it never stops. Mekons tours don’t happen all that often, because the musicians are so spread out — some living in Chicago, others elsewhere in the U.S., some of them still residing in Great Britain, where the band got started. The group reconvened last week, practicing in Miller Beach, Ind., heading out on a short tour and making plans to record a new album — for the first time, making a record of new songs at a live performance. As Sally Timms explained Monday, “We’re doing to record a new record in the amount of time it takes to listen to it.”
Whenever Langford announces the band’s name and its place of origin in concert, he says, “We’re the Mekons from Leeds.” But since Langford and Timms live in Chicago, this city feels like the Mekons’ second home. And so it seemed fitting that the Mekons are playing four gigs in Chicago on this tour. I saw three of those shows: Friday, July 10, at the Square Roots Fest, a street festival in Lincoln Square; Saturday, July 11, at the Hideout; and Monday, July 13, at the aforementioned Poetry Foundation event. The Mekons are also playing another show at the Hideout on Wednesday.
All of the Mekons’ regular members were there except for bassist Sarah Corina. Dave Trumfio, who produced the Mekons’ 1994 record Retreat From Memphis, filled in on bass, with Langford introducing him as “Baron Von Trumfio.”
Mekons fans came from far and wide for these shows. On Saturday, I encountered people from St. Louis, Seattle, Austin, California and Kentucky at the Hideout. And I’ve talked with Chicago fans who are trekking to see the Mekons on Tuesday in Mineral Point, Wis., or at other shows east of Chicago. This is a band that inspires devotion from its fans — and the Mekons proved themselves worthy of such enthusiasm at their shows in Chicago over the past four days.
Even though they’re preparing to make a new record, they didn’t fill their concerts with those songs-in-progress. Instead, these were more like greatest-hits shows. On Friday, the Mekons threw down the gauntlet with their opening song, starting the show with that rampaging anthem, “Memphis, Egypt.” On Saturday, they saved that song for the end of the regular set. Both nights ended with their early punk classic, that urgent question “Where Were You?” Friday’s set included an especially lovely medley that blended the waltzes “Shanty” and “Wild and Blue.” Both nights were filled with rollicking rock, country hoedowns and plenty of choruses sung and shouted by the band’s four (or sometimes, even five) vocalists, prompting joyful singalongs and dancing in the crowd.
Greenhalgh, who’s really an essential part of this collective that lacks a single frontman, missed some Mekons concerts a few years ago. But he was back this time, and in great form, especially when he took the lead vocals on “(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian.” And it was a true pleasure to hear the Mekons delivering a charging version of another great song from the So Good It Hurts album, “Fantastic Voyage,” on both Friday and Saturday. (Saturday’s show also featured a kicking opening set by the Ungnomes, a local teen punk band led by Jon Langford’s son, Jimmy.)
Monday’s show was decidedly different, with unplugged performances of several songs as well as recitations of poetry, fiction and Mekons lyrics. The band’s lyrics, which were collected in the 2002 book Hello Cruel World, have always been highly literate. Often composed as a group effort — a process Timms discusses in a recent Poetry Magazine article — Mekons lyrics avoid feeling pretentious or stiff or overwrought, but they manage to sneak some rather sophisticated ideas and allusions worthy of academic footnotes into those rock ’n’ roll songs. And so, when the various members of the Mekons stood up on Monday to recite lyrics as if they were poems, it came off as rather impressive. And the stripped-down versions of Mekons songs were beautiful.
At all three of these shows, the Mekons were loose without being sloppy or shambolic. They flubbed a few lyrics here and there, but those moments just gave the Mekons another reason to laugh at themselves and carry on, making life-affirming music the way they’ve been doing since 1977.
The Mekons performing Friday, July 10, at the Square Roots Fest in Lincoln Square.
The Mekons performing Saturday, July 11, at the Hideout, with opening act the Ungnomes.
The Poetry Foundation
The Mekons performing Monday, July 13, at the Poetry Foundation.
Musicians thank their audiences all the time, but Jeff Tweedy did it even more than usual over the weekend at Solid Sound.
Time and again, he kept thanking his fans for allowing Solid Sound to happen. “It’s too nice of you guys to be here, to make this happen,” he said at one point. Of course, the same thing could be said of all festivals and concerts: They wouldn’t happen if nobody showed up. But it’s unusual to hear a rock star acknowledge that debt to his audience as explicitly as Tweedy did. He sounded humbled and maybe overwhelmed by the whole thing.
Tweedy’s band Wilco organizes the Solid Sound Festival every other year at Mass MoCA, aka the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, which has taken over the sprawling grounds of a 19th-century factory complex in North Adams, a town in the state’s northwest corner. That setting is one of the event’s key attractions: The surrounding landscape is bucolic, and the museum’s cleverly repurposed industrial spaces are filled with oversized, ambitious, eccentric and playful art.
Even though Wilco’s headquarters are in Chicago, North Adams is a second home of sorts for the band and its extended musical family. Solid Sound — which returned to the museum June 26-28 for its fourth edition — isn’t totally and completely about Wilco. It does feature other musicians of various genres, as well as standup comedy, films and assorted artsy happenings. But it all revolves around Wilco, and it’s designed with Wilco’s fans in mind. Would you really go to Solid Sound if you didn’t like Wilco?
This year’s festival felt even more Wilco-dominated than the previous fest, in 2013, because a couple of major musical acts, Taj Mahal and King Sunny Ade, canceled their appearances. And yet there were many sterling musical moments that had little or nothing to do with Wilco.
Luluc, a duo from Australia by way of Brooklyn, entranced with its luminous songs; singer Zoë Randell’s voice was chillingly lovely as it melded with Steve Hassett’s expressive guitar lines. After their regular set, they showed up in the museum for an unamplified “pop-up” performance, casting a spell over a small group of people sitting on the gallery floor.
Richard Thompson played his set in electric-guitar mode, focusing on songs from his new album, Still, which was recorded by Tweedy at the Wilco Loft. Perhaps he would have played more of his classics if he’d had more than an hour; he did return to the stage with his trio for a short encore: a rocking cover of the Otis Blackwell song “Daddy Rolling Stone.”
NRBQ, an old band that sounds rejuvenated with its new lineup, played the most party-inducing set of the weekend. The group’s longtime keyboardist, Terry Adams, was clearly having a blast, and Scott Ligon ripped through an extended guitar solo that was staggeringly great.
Other highlights of the weekend included Jeff Davis’ traditional folk songs; a slightly more modern take on that genre by Sam Amidon and Bill Frisell; the energetic indie rock of Speedy Ortiz and Parquet Courts, perhaps the only band all weekend that prompted anything that resembled moshing; the eloquent guitar instrumentals of William Tyler; and the placid breeziness of Real Estate — which was too mellow for many audience members, but still rather nice. (For the record, I missed the sets by the Felice Brothers, Mac DeMarco, Charles Lloyd and Cibo Matto because of schedule conflicts, and caught only a bit of Shabazz Palaces.)
The brilliant John Hodgman curated the comedy portion of Solid Sound, including hilarious improvisation by the group Superego. When Jessica Williams of The Daily Show and Phoebe Robinson took the stage, the two African-American comedians said they had a bet over how many black audience members there would be. (Robinson predicted five; Williams, seven). They asked any black people in the crowd to say “Woo!” and counted six. (Yes, it should be noted here that Solid Sound attracts an overwhelmingly white audience, though it is diverse in other ways, covering a wide age range but skewing toward middle-aged folks and families with kids.)
The weekend was filled with Wilco side projects. The band’s virtuoso guitarist, Nels Cline, showed off his art-school side with a solo set of evocative noises and textures, while the big screen behind him in the Hunter Center displayed a picture being painted and rapidly transformed by artist Norton Wisdom on the other side of the stage. Meanwhile, dancers choreographed by Sarah Elgart writhed inside colored fabric like fetuses desperate to escape the womb. This multimedia experience, called “Stained Radiance,” may sound a bit pretentious on paper, but it was an impressive and affecting spectacle.
Wilco’s remarkable drummer, Glenn Kotche, performed contemporary chamber music with former Kronos Quartet cellist Jeffrey Zeigler. It culminated with “The Immortal Flux,” a percussion piece composed by Kotche using recordings that evoke the history of the Mass MoCA building. Fifty volunteer percussionists played drums specially created for the occasion. Unfortunately, the muffled acoustics in the back of the big gallery space failed to convey all of the music’s nuances.
The Autumn Defense, the soft-rock band led by Wilco members John Stirratt and Pat Sansone, teamed up with the Australian band The Windy Hills for another unusual set. They played music composed and recorded for Spirit of Akasha, a film that celebrates an earlier surf movie with a cult following, Morning of the Earth. But this wasn’t typical surf rock. The Windy Hills’ songs, which dominated the set, were more like Crosby, Stills & Nash. Even when the Autumn Defense guys joined in for an instrumental jam, it had a hippy groove reminiscent of CSN’s “Long Time Gone.”
There was an also a museum exhibit showing an interactive Wilco timeline, with fans’ memories on Post-It notes. Elsewhere in the museum, a replica of Wilco’s stage setup gave fans a chance to see what it looks like standing by those guitars, keyboards and drums.
But of course, the main attractions were Wilco itself and Jeff Tweedy. Friday night’s headline concert was an all-acoustic show by Wilco — the first time the band has ever done a show that was unplugged from beginning to end. Some of the songs (including a couple from Tweedy’s days with Uncle Tupelo) were acoustic in the first place, but others sounded radically different in this format, with Cline’s lap steel guitar or trilling acoustic strings replacing electric riffs, as xylophone and melodica filled in for synthesizers and other layers from the full rock arrangements. This show came on the same day as the Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage, and after Wilco played “Hesitating Beauty,” Tweedy commented: “I was thinking it’s so much nicer singing that song now that everyone can get married.”
SET LIST: Misunderstood / War on War / I’m Always in Love / Company in My Back / Hummingbird / Bull Black Nova / Handshake Drugs / Hesitating Beauty / She’s a Jar / One Wing / Kamera / New Madrid / Forget the Flowers / It’s Just That Simple / Airline to Heaven / Dawned on Me / I Got You (At the End of the Century) / Passenger Side / Outta Mind (Outta Sight) / Whole Love / Jesus, Etc. / Walken / The Thanks I Get / Theologians / A Shot in the Arm / ENCORE: True Love Will Find You in the End (Daniel Johnston cover) / We’ve Been Had / Casino Queen / Hoodoo Voodoo / I’m a Wheel
Saturday ended with a more typical Wilco concert, which began an hour early because of a rainstorm predicted for later in the night. As it turned out, the rain started falling before Wilco played the first notes of “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” and it kept falling throughout the show — but it never got bad enough to cut off the music. After all of the quiet strumming and banjo plucking on Friday night, Wilco came out ready to rock on Saturday night. The set was heavy on music from the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot era, including some of Wilco’s best obscurities, and it was as solidly entertaining as any Wilco show I’ve ever seen, the rain notwithstanding.
SET LIST: I’m the Man Who Loves You / Kamera / Candyfloss / I Am Trying to Break Your Heart / Art of Almost / At Least That’s What You Said / Either Way / Pot Kettle Black / Panthers / Sunken Treasure / Secret of the Sea / Heavy Metal Drummer / Born Alone / Laminated Cat (aka Not for the Season) / Ashes of American Flags / Hotel Arizona / Box Full of Letters / Impossible Germany / A Magazine Called Sunset / Via Chicago / ENCORE: Let’s Not Get Carried Away / Dark Neon / The Late Greats / Kingpin / Monday / Outtasite (Outta Mind)
On Sunday afternoon, the festival finished up with a set by Tweedy, the band behind 2014’s Sukierae album, which includes Jeff as well as his son Spencer on drums, plus Jim Elkington on guitar, Darin Gray on bass, Liam Cunningham on keyboards, and Sima Cummingham on harmony vocals. The songs from this record aren’t radically different from the style of Jeff Tweedy’s music with Wilco, but there’s a different dynamic among these players. The band stretched out a few moments with fierce krautrock-style repetition. When someone in the crowd called out, “You’re doing a good job, Jeff,” Tweedy thanked him for the vote of confidence. He said he must have the sort of face that prompts people to feel the need to offer words of encouragement. The sky was gray and a light drizzle fell as the band played. “This is the perfect weather for these songs, I think,” Tweedy remarked.
After an hour by Tweedy the band, Jeff Tweedy played a solo acoustic set. “I’m trying to think of the happiest songs I can play, to get you guys going,” he said. Before he played the Golden Smog song “Pecan Pie,” he said, “I don’t think this song has any death in it. I never know until I start singing. There’s just so much death.” Like usual, Tweedy was self-deprecating with his stage banter. Later, when Tweedy made a slight misstep in “Summerteeth,” he commented: “I know the words and the chords. I just wanted to display a little infallibility so the weekend isn’t too perfect.”
Various musicians who’d played during the festival came out and played with Tweedy. When Cibo Matto joined with him, the opening chords on Tweedy’s acoustic guitar sounded like “All Along the Watchtower,” but it turned out to be a cover of Madonna’s “Into the Groove.” When Tweedy played “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” he dedicated it to his wife, Sue, adding: “I always dedicate this song to her, and if I ever don’t dedicate it to her, I want you to know on the record, it is dedicated to her.”
Tweedy the band returned to the stage for the final segment of the concert, which included a faithful cover of John Lennon’s “God.” “You probably thought that was going to be the last song, didn’t you?” Tweedy said afterward. “It would have made sense … John Lennon mic drop.” But he had a few more songs to go. A big crowd of musicians joined him for “Give Back the Key to My Heart” and “California Stars,” with a grinning Bill Frisell taking a guitar solo on the latter song.
SET LIST — BAND: Hazel / Fake Fur Coat / Diamond Light Pt. 1 / Flowering / World Away / New Moon / Summer Noon / Honey Combed / Desert Bell / High As Hello / Wait For Love / Love Like a Wire (Diane Izzo cover) / Low Key / Nobody Dies Anymore / SOLO: Remember the Mountain Bed / Please Tell My Brother / Summerteeth / Pecan Pie / The Ruling Class / Chinese Apple (with Glenn Kotche and Ryley Walker) / Too Far Apart / Into the Groove (Madonna cover, with Cibo Matto and Nels Cline) / Grandpa Was a Carpenter (John Prine cover, with the Felice Brothers) / Harvest Moon (Neil Young cover, with Luluc) / Be Not So Fearful (Bill Fay cover, with John Stirratt and Pat Sansone) / I’m the Man Who Loves You / BAND: You Are Not Alone / Only the Lord Knows (Mavis Staples cover) / God (John Lennon cover, with Bill Frisell) / Losing End (Neil Young cover) / Give Back the Key to My Heart (Doug Sahm cover) / California Stars
Over the course of the three nights, Wilco and Tweedy repeated only a couple of songs, showing once again how rich their repertoire is. Wilco’s a rare example of a band with the depth, talent and creativity to justify and sustain an event like Solid Sound.
Photos from the first day of the 2015 Solid Sound Festival at Mass MOCA (the Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art), in North Adams, Mass. — including an all-acoustic show by Wilco, the band curating the festival. (Also see my review of Solid Sound and my photos of Day 2 and Day 3.)
I didn’t really know a single one of the bands playing on Saturday, June 20, and Sunday, June 21, at PRFBBQ, but that alone intrigued me. As festivals go, this one seems under the radar, with some 50 bands altogether and little publicity. Amid all of the other things happening over the weekend (Green Music Fest, the opening of Moby Dick at Lookingglass, the Mikal Cronin show at Subterranean), I stopped each afternoon into PRFBBQ’s venue on Lawrence Avenue — “Borelli’s East,” an old nightclub space behind an unmarked door — and caught around a dozen bands altogether. Just a small sample of the whole festival.
Highlights for me included the the fierce post-punk bands Knife the Symphony and the Powder Room. Gay Name reminded of me PJ Harvey from the Rid of Me era, and Milwaukee’s Body Futures blended blatant pop music with British folk rock… I think. Out of the bands I saw, These Estates generated the most excitement in the room, with — well, I guess that’s the sort of bright pop-punk that gets labeled as emo, but I heard a touch of the Jam and Guided By Voices in the group’s live set.
Overall, it was a cool scene to discover. Check out the PRFBBQ website for links to the pages for all of those bands.
Mikal Cronin’s second album, MCII, was one of 2013’s best albums — and his latest, MCIII, is shaping up to be one of my favorites this year. He played Saturday, June 20, at Subterranean, and Sunday, June 21, at Green Music Fest in Wicker Park, and I could both of these outstanding shows. Cronin’s something of a one-man orchestra and recording genius in the studio, and artists like that sometimes have difficulty translating their recordings into a satisfying live act, but Cronin isn’t having any trouble with that. His terrific tunes come across with just as much vulnerability in the vocals, but with an even more urgent force, thanks to his great live band.
The highly talented Chicago guitarist-singer Emmett Kelly, who fronts his own group, the Cairo Gang, played a key role in Cronin’s band, singing harmony vocals and doubling the guitar sound. When the song “Gold” reached its crescendo and all of the instruments stopped, it was Kelly who played that Middle Eastern-sounding solo, followed by Cronin adding on another guitar line — a moment of beautiful intensity that gave me goosebumps.
But really, these shows were all about Cronin, who sang with clarity and leaned into his guitar solos with a sense of purpose.