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.
Green Music Fest
I’ve seen Bloodshot Recording artist Lydia Loveless perform in concert six times since March 2014 — seven if you count a brief appearance she made during a Robbie Fulks show at the Hideout. On Sunday, June 21, at Green Music Fest in Wicker Park, Loveless and her band were in good form, changing out their set list a bit from previous shows. As ever, “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud” was a highlight for me.
The Futurebirds, an alt-country band from Athens, Georgia, played Sunday, June 21, at Green Music Fest in Wicker Park, closing out a strong set with a charging cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Rocks Off.”
Here are my photos of the Orwells, the Apache Relay and Archie Powell & the Exports playing on Sunday, June 14, at Northcenter’s Ribfest Chicago. The Orwells closed out the street festival with a raucous set, finishing with a cover of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.”
The Apache Relay
Archie Powell & the Exports
Millennium Park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion began its “Downtown Sound” concert series this week — with shows on Monday and Thursday evenings. On Thursday, June 4, the Very Best gave an exuberant performance that got many audience members dancing. The group is a collaboration between Radioclit (a London-based DJ/production duo) and Esau Mwamwaya, a singer from Malawi. At times, the music sounded purely African; and at a few moments, the electronics gave it spooky textures. But more often, it came across like party tunes, replete with singalong refrains. The opening act, Chicago dance band Glass Lux, played synth pop songs that sounded straight out of the 1990s.
It’s a joy to behold what the musicians in Calexico are capable of — not just the band’s core members (singer Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino) but the whole ensemble of players they’ve brought together to realize their vision. The distinctively Southwestern group played two sold-out shows this past weekend at Lincoln Hall; I was there on Sunday night, May 31.
With a few multi-instrumentalists in the lineup, Calexico feels almost like a miniature orchestra, and the music ran the gamut from exquisite folk ballads to spiky guitar riffs. But more than anything else, Calexico’s songs, both old and new, had jumpy, lively, layered rhythms that made you want to move. The tunes from Calexico’s outstanding new album, Edge of the Sun, sounded just as good as the old ones from records including the classic 2003 album Feast of Wire. And as Calexico often does, it played a wonderful cover of Love’s “Alone Again Or.”
Thanks to my friend Paul Suwan for putting together this set list of what Calexico played on Sunday:
Falling from the Sky / Quattro (World Drifts In) / Cumbia de Donde / Splitter / Woodshed Waltz / Miles from the Sea / Coyoacán / Inspiración / Bullets and Rocks / Tapping on the Line / Woven Birds / unknown instrumental / When the Angels Played / Deep Down / Alone Again Or / Crystal Frontier / FIRST ENCORE: Beneath the City of Dreams / Guero Canelo / SECOND ENCORE: Follow the River
Gaby Moreno, a Guatemalan singer-songwriter, played a beguiling opening set, singing solo as she plucked her acoustic guitar. Later in the night, Moreno — who sings on the new Calexico album — came back onto the stage to add backup vocals during Calexico’s encore.
We haven’t heard much lately from Black Mountain. The great rock band from Vancouver, British Columbia, released three albums between 2005 and 2010, but it hasn’t had an album in five years. Later this month, the Jagjaguwar label is releasing a deluxe version of Black Mountain’s self-titled debut (adding four songs from the Druganaut EP and four previously unreleased tracks, making for a double LP).
This 10th anniversary release was as good a reason as any for Black Mountain to hit the road again, stopping in Chicago this past weekend. I saw the band’s show on Friday, May 29, at the Do Division Street Fest — a set full of Black Mountain’s best and most epic songs, including key tracks from that terrific first album; Black Mountain also played a sold-out concert on Saturday at the Empty Bottle. The loopy tune “No Hits” sounded as whacked-out as ever, its title providing an ironic theme for the band, but the most riveting moments were when guitarist Stephen McBean and his bandmates locked into a riff and played it with thunderous power. McBean swapped vocals with Amber Webber, who stood there nonchalantly, dispensing with any pretense at rock-star showmanship — until she opened her mouth and sang with an eerie grace.
Blackout Fest, an annual showcase of garage, punk and power pop music curated by Chicago’s HoZac Records, returned to the Empty Bottle May 15 and 16. It wasn’t quite as raucous as these shows have been in some past years, but both nights had solid lineups of bands both old and new.
The headliners fell into the “old” category — both were groups with cult status from the 1970s. On Friday night, it was the Real Kids, a Boston punk and power pop band led by singer-guitarist John Felice, who was also an original member of the Modern Lovers (alongside Jonathan Richman) and a Ramones roadie. Somewhat surprisingly, the Real Kids started their Blackout set with their best-known song, the super-catchy “All Kindsa Girls.” But the band had plenty of other great tunes to play during its set, including some from last year’s album Shake … Outta Control and a cover of the Beatles’ “You Can’t Do That.”
The headliners on Saturday were the Avengers, a San Francisco punk band that made its recording debut with an EP in 1978. The group didn’t last for long after that, but founding members Penelope Houston and Greg Ingraham reunited in 2004. They were in top form during their charged, energetic Blackout show.
The early acts on Friday night were Chicago’s MAMA and Milwaukee’s Platinum Boys — both playing power-pop songs with classic-rock-style guitar riffs — and Cozy, a group from Minneapolis with a giddy glam songs and a playful attitude to match.
On Saturday, the night started with another string of bands playing lively guitar rock: Gross Pointe, Thing and Nervosas, followed by Sweet Knives, a Memphis group featuring members of the Lost Sounds, a band that featured Jay Reatard, playing new versions of that group’s old songs. The riffs barely let up all weekend.
The Real Kids
My photos of Tweens playing Saturday, April 18, at Bric-a-Brac Records during Record Store Day. (For more of my Record Store Day photos, see my galleries of the Polkaholics at Laurie’s Planet of Sound and Local H as well as Lasers and Fast and Shit at the Reckless Records store on Broadway.)
My photos of Local H as well as Lasers and Fast and Shit playing Saturday, April 18, at the Reckless Records store on Broadway during Record Store Day. (For more of my Record Store Day photos, see my galleries of the Polkaholics at Laurie’s Planet of Sound and the Tweens at Bric-a-Brac.)
Lasers and Fast and Shit
My photos of the Polkaholics playing Saturday, April 18, at Laurie’s Planet of Sound during Record Store Day. (For more of my Record Store Day photos, see my galleries of Local H as well as Lasers and Fast and Shit at the Reckless Records store on Broadway, and the Tweens at Bric-a-Brac.)
Australian rock bands have been making a lot of cool records lately — maybe it’s just something I happen to be noticing rather than a trend, but in any case, I’m excited to hear all this great music from Down Under. The latest discovery for me is Twerps, a Melbourne group that played Sunday, April 12, at the Empty Bottle. The Chills and the Feelies seem to be two influences, but the alternating male and female vocals also reminded me of groups like the Essex Green. The tuneful and lively songs were so good that I felt compelled to buy Range Anxiety, Twerps’ latest album (and the band’s first for the Merge label) at the merch table. And the record is proving to be quite enjoyable. I might have bought some recordings by the opening band Coffin Ships, too — but they didn’t have anything for sale! (Here’s Sei Jin Lee’s video of Twerps playing earlier the same day at Permanent Records.)
My photos of Wand, the Los Angeles psychedelic rock band, from its performance April 5 at the Empty Bottle:
Most of the concerts at Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall are performances of classical music, and the concert on Thursday, April 9, was by a cellist — but it felt at times more like a rock concert. Maya Beiser plays the cello with plenty of sonic effects, the sort of touches you expect a guitarist in a rock band to use, as well as some of the looping methods used by artists like multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird.
I’ll venture a guess that some of the audience members at Pick-Staiger were more accustomed to seeing straightforward acoustic performances by string players on that stage, but Beiser’s virtuosity seemed to win over the crowd. It wasn’t just the special effects that made her cello sound like a modern instrument — she also devoted the first half of her concert to playing her interpretations of rock songs, accompanied by bassist Gyan Riley and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche. These weren’t straight-ahead covers, though the songs, ranging from Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” to Nirvana’s “Lithium,” were always recognizable. Evanston composer Evan Ziporyn wrote the arrangements for Beiser, sometimes deconstructing the classic tunes into their fragmentary parts and then reassembling them. Beiser sang a bit, including Laurie Anderson-like chanting of a few words from “Black Dog,” but it was her cello that really gave voice to the songs, functioning like lead singer as well as guitar soloist.
The first half of the concert also included a solo cello composition by Kotche, “Three Parts Wisdom,” which matched Beiser’s apt description of it: “Bach on steroids.” Beiser performed alone in the second half of the concert, playing two mesmerizing pieces based on sacred music, Mohammed Fairouz’s “Kol Nidrei” and Michael Gordon’s “All Vows,” followed by an epic infused with elements of Indian raga, Michael Harrison’s “Just Ancient Loops.” And then Riley and Kotche returned for the encore, Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” The room thundered with Kotche’s pounding John Bonham-style beats.
Afterward, I headed to Metro, where Foxygen was playing — part of what the band is calling its farewell tour. Like most Foxygen shows, it was unhinged and odd. As it gets ready to call it quits, the band has moved toward a more epic show, with three female singer-dancers lined up on side of the stage, giving the concert a hint of what the Flaming Lips are famous for doing. But the show also included some awkward pauses and stage banter. There were flashes of cool psychedelic songs amid the cartwheeling spectacle. The band seemed out of control — sometimes in a good way, sometimes not so good. But it was certainly entertaining.
The Elastic Arts Foundation, which has hosted many experimental and intriguing concerts and arts events over the years, has a new home. After moving out of its old space at at 2830 N. Milwaukee Ave. in November, the group is now at 3429 W. Diversey. I stopped in on Friday, March 20, and saw the set by drummer Michael Zerang and keyboardist Jim Baker, who made some really radical noise. Baker messed around with electronic equipment for most of the performance, then moved over to Elastic’s grand piano, making sonic squiggles in both formats. Zerang rarely did anything resembling traditional rhythm-rooted drumming, instead using his drum kit to make squeaks and squeals. I also caught a few minutes of the set by Perfect Villain — four musicians standing behind a table with electronic gear. It’s a cool new space for Elastic Arts, which will undoubtedly be the scene of more cutting-edge concerts.
Robyn Hitchcock took the stage at Space in Evanston on Sunday night, Feb. 22, as the Academy Awards show was playing on millions of TV screens elsewhere. He never mentioned the Oscars, but perhaps he was thinking about the movies when he chose his opening song: “Don’t Talk to Me About Gene Hackman.” That song set the tone for the evening, with its oddball, Hitchcockian sense of humor.
The English singer-songwriter played without a band, playing acoustic guitar and singing a nicely offbeat assortment of songs from his vast catalog — including tunes from my favorite period of Hitchcock music, the late 1980s, as well as a couple from his 2014 acoustic record, The Man Upstairs.
As he often is, Hitchcock was talkative in between songs, delivering the sort of absurdist humor his fans have come to expect. Here’s a sample. As he introduced the song “You and Oblivion,” Hitchcock gave the fellow working at the sound board some elaborate instructions for the sort of effects he wanted on his guitar and his voice:
“So, if you give this a little ghostly shimmer as if my voice was coming from a sentient but phantasmal pumpkin just on the edge of a wine-red lake, the bottom of which was actually not completely resting on the ground but it’s too dark to see exactly what it is, you just see the eyes and the mouth cut out from this flaming sphere, it could be a soul burning in torment or just a pumpkin lit up, guarding the geese from a farmer who always has bad ideas about what to do with poultry, mainly from his grandmother. There’s no point in blaming the dead. They can’t hear you. Blame someone who’s alive. That way, they can suffer … OK, and then put the guitar in a little bit of delay so I sound this time … as if Casimir Pulaski was remixing a track…”
That was just one of several references Hitchcock made to Casimir Pulaski, the Polish hero from the American Revolutionary War who is honored with a holiday in Chicago, which seemed to fascinate or amuse Hitchcock.
At another point, Hitchcock asked the sound man to “put a bit of Art Garfunkel on my voice. Not enough to make Paul jealous.” That reference to the singer Paul Simon reminded Hitchcock that he’d seen a highway sign in Illinois alluding to Paul Simon, so he asked the audience if it was referring to the singer. A bunch of people in the crowd shouted out that it was actually a reference to the senator from Illinois named Paul Simon. “A good senator!” a few people shouted. “Who wore a bow tie!” Sounding a bit perplexed, Hitchcock said, “A good senator named Paul Simon? Does he have a bow tie?” In response to that question, it sounded as if the whole audience said “YES!” in unison. Hitchcock looked stunned. “How did you do that?” he said. Later, after another outburst of audience members speaking nearly in sync, Hitchcock remarked, “You’re very good at that. It’s an almost telepathic shoal-like mentality.” (I transcribed that from an audience member’s video, which shows pretty much the whole concert, I think.)
This sort of banter is an essential element of Robyn Hitchcock’s charm, but of course, the music is the main attraction. And Sunday’s concert was a showcase for his singular style of songwriting and his appealing vocals. Hitchcock doesn’t get a lot of attention for his guitar playing, but he ably demonstrated how to make a solo acoustic performance interesting, with alluring melodic patterns of notes that hinted at the layers you might hear in full band arrangements.
Hitchcock’s entrancing opening act, the Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift, came onto the stage to sing harmony vocals on the final three songs of the main set as well as the three covers Hitchcock played for his encore. For the last song, the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes,” Hitchcock and Swift were joined by Yvonne, whom Hitchcock introduced as his driver and merch saleswoman. It was a cool ending to a cool night.
Don’t Talk to Me About Gene Hackman / The Cheese Alarm / Madonna of the Wasps / Bass / Chinese Bones / You and Oblivion / Trouble in Your Blood / San Francisco Patrol / I’m Only You / Adventure Rocket Ship / Queen Elvis / Nietzsche’s Way / Ole! Tarantula / ENCORE: Motion Pictures (for Carrie) (Neil Young cover) / Let It Be Me (Everly Brothers cover) / Pale Blue Eyes (Velvet Underground cover)
Quick recaps of a few concerts (and other literary musical event) I’ve seen recently:
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OLIVIA CHANEY and MARK DVORAK: The English singer Olivia Chaney was enchanting as she made her Chicago debut as a solo artist on Feb. 12 at the Old Town School of Folk Music’s Szold Hall. She alternated between piano, guitar and harmonium, with accompaniment on many songs from violinist Jordan Hunt, but the focus stayed on her dulcet voice through the show. She has the sort of voice that would lend itself well to melodramatic pop ballads, but she takes a more understated approach, passionately singing songs that are mostly rooted in the traditions of English folk music. I’m looking forward to hear debut record, The Longest River, coming in March from Nonesuch.
Chaney’s opening act was the longtime Chicago folk musician Mark Dvorak, who did a marvelous job of telling stories to set up his songs and get the audience involved in the performance. This was what folk music is all about.
SLEATER-KINNEY and LIZZO: I was just as surprised as anyone when Sleater-Kinney sneakily revealed that it had reunited and recorded a new album. I loved the last Sleater-Kinney record, The Woods, when it came out in 2005. And the four concerts I saw by this trio around that time were terrific. Back together after a decade-long hiatus, the band sounds as strong as ever. Its new album, No Cities to Love, is an early contender for the best album of 2015, and Sleater-Kinney’s Feb. 17 show at the Riviera set the bar high for concerts of the year. Corin Tucker wailed with astounding force, her voice — one of the great rock ’n’ roll voices — hitting powerful peaks. But what was truly marvelous was watching and listening as Tucker traded off vocal parts with Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss, echoing the way Tucker and Brownstein’s guitar riffs ping-ponged across the stage while Weiss pounded the drums with driving intensity. To see the set list and a nicely vivid description of the show, read Greg Kot’s review for the Tribune, which also has some cool photos by Chris Sweda. I wasn’t familiar with the opening act, hip-hop artist Lizzo, but she showed off some soulful vocals and seemed just as excited as anyone to be seeing Sleater-Kinney.
THE WESTERN ELSTONS: I’ve written about my love for the Flat Five. The Western Elstons, another great band, include three members of the Flat Five: Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall, as well as a rotating lineup of other musicians. It’s easy enough to see the Western Elstons — they regularly play free shows at Simon’s Tavern in Andersonville, usually on the third Wednesday of the month. Even though Chicago was in a deep freeze on the night of Feb. 18, I stopped into Simon’s and was delighted by the fun and virtuosic performance these boys gave in front of a small but enthusiastic crowd. A highlight for me was the cover of the Kinks’ “Picture Book.”
GREIL MARCUS with JON LANGFORD and SALLY TIMMS: The legendary rock critic Greil Marcus spoke on Feb. 19 at the Old Town School of Music about his new book, The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, with musical accompaniment by Jon Langford and Sally Timms, two members of a band he has championed over the decades, the Mekons. As Marcus explained, he insisted on avoiding obvious songs in his history of rock, focusing instead on appreciations of lesser-known classics such as “Shake Some Action” by the Flamin’ Groovies. Showing his enthusiasm for the craft of writing and recording great music — and his keen interest in the stories behind great music — Marcus offered astute observations about Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him” and Joy Division’s “Transmission” — and then Langford and Timms illustrated by playing their own versions.
SWANS and XYLOURIS WHITE: I never saw Swans when the band was together during its original era, from 1982 to 1997, but I’ve been entranced by the dark music Swans has released since leader Michael Gira reformed the group in 2010. Playing on Saturday, Feb. 21, at Thalia Hall, Swans paused only a handful of times during two hours of droning, throbbing, thrumming, pounding, chanting and arm waving. It was epic.
The opening act, Xylouris White, is a duo consisting of George Xylouris on Cretan lute and Jim White on drums. White, who has played with the Dirty Three, Nina Nastasia and Cat Power among many others, was as impressive as always, adding an edge of chaos to his circling rhythms. And he’s found a good match in Xylouris, who got his lute strings vibrating with blinding speed. Xylouris also sang a few songs. It was music that might get lumped into that amorphous category “world music,” yet it felt like a perfect fit for Swans. Both artists leaned into their songs with fierce determination.
Here, at long last, is the list of my favorite films from 2014. Or a list, anyway. I’d better post this before I change my mind again about what to put on it. It’s a mix of fiction features from the United States and other countries, along with documentaries. I included films that played in 2014 at the Chicago International Film Festival and art venues like the Gene Siskel Film Center. And of course, I didn’t see everything that’s worth seeing.
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
An exquisite jewel box of a film as well as a thrilling adventure. I recently saw it on the big screen for a second time, along with my other favorite movie of 2014, Boyhood, and my appreciation for both films only deepened as a result of those repeat viewings. I feel torn over which movie to put at No. 1, but my second watching of The Grand Budapest Hotel — when I found myself focusing on all of the intricate details, like the typefaces on every object in the background — helped me to realize just what a stunning achievement of artistry it is. I have been an unabashed fan of Wes Anderson’s movies ever since I saw Rushmore, so it’s no surprise that I fell for this one, which ranks in the top tier of his work. Even as I tried to concentrate more on the way Anderson put together this marvel, tears welled up in my eyes as I watched the friendship and bond building between the young character Zero (Tony Revolori) and his mentor M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). Like the best of his movies, it works on more than one levels: It’s highly artificial — very self-conscious of the fact that it’s a work of art — but it also resonates for me on a deeper emotional level. It turns out to be a delightful story about the power of storytelling. And now, I must really try to find the time to read the books of Stefan Zweig, the Austrian novelist whose early 20th-century stories inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Richard Linklater is another director whose films I’ve admired and enjoyed for years, especially his superb trilogy of talky romantic relationship movies: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. Watching Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play the same characters as they age over the course of those three films has been fascinating. Witnessing the passage of time is also the main attraction of Boyhood. The concept was almost ludicrously ambitious: filming a cast of actors playing a family over a dozen years. It’s amazing to watch these people (the characters as well as the actors) evolve over time. Boyhood doesn’t have the sort of plot structure that’s standard in Hollywood movies, but I found it absorbing. It unfolds in a natural way, and it feels like an authentic portrait of a boy and his family.
3. 20,000 Days on Earth
This groundbreaking movie by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard about Nick Cave is not exactly a documentary. At times, it’s more like a filmed work of performance art, with Cave participating in staged situations. But even if those scenes are depicting Cave’s real life in a cinema verite style, they do seem to capture the true charisma and searching creativity of this remarkable musician. Maybe it’s more accurate to call this movie a portrait. It’s also one of the best rock ’n’ roll films of recent vintage.
4. Ne Me Quitte Pas
Two grizzled Belgians chat as they guzzle booze in this startlingly intimate documentary, directed by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden from the Netherlands. It’s touching, humorous and sometimes unsettling. Without any voiceover or any explanation of why we’re even watching these two men, it becomes a subtle examination of alcohol’s effects on their lives, as well as a moving depiction of their friendship.
5. Winter Sleep
An engrossing character study set against a desolate but picturesque landscape. Like director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s previous masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, this film moves at its own pace and confounds our expectations about where the story’s going. Ceylan knows how to linger on a conversation between his characters, subtly revealing their histories and personalities.
6. Force Majeure
A penetrating moral drama plays out at a ski resort, where the snow itself seems sinister. Director Ruben Östlund’s previous film, Play, was equally riveting and thought-provoking; he is proving himself to be one of Sweden’s most interesting and important filmmakers.
7. Under the Skin
Freaky and marvelously weird. Even months after seeing director Jonathan Glazer’s movie, it lingers in the mind like a bad dream.
8. Only Lovers Left Alive
9. Two Days, One Night
One woman’s struggle for her livelihood and her dignity — and the latest gut-wrenching drama by Belgium’s masterful brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, a vivid and disturbing tale of Kafkaesque political corruption in a small town in Russia, where you really can’t fight city hall. Most of the recent films from Russia that I’ve seen portray the country in a similar light — for further viewing, I recommend two films by Yury Bykov, The Major and The Fool, and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s surreal trip My Joy.
Here are more 2014 films that I liked, in roughly descending order. As with any such list, my opinions are subject to change. Many of these outstanding movies might move up into my top 10 after subsequent viewings.
Parviz (Majid Barzeger, Iran)
Exhibition (Joanna Hogg)
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, France)
Selma (Ava DuVernay)
Enemy (Denis Villeneuve)
Gone Girl (David Fincher)
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
Citizenfour (Laura Poitras)
Birdman (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines)
Of Horses and Men (Benedikt Erlingsson, Iceland)
We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, Sweden)
Life Itself (Steve James)
The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher, Germany)
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)
The Fool (Yuriy Bykov, Russia)
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich)
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
The Red Army (Gabe Polsky)
Ilo Ilo (Anthony Chen, Singapore)
The Private Life of Mr. & Mrs. M (Rouhollah Hejazi, Iran)
Snow on Pines (Peyman Moaddi, Iran)
Honeymoon (Jan Hrebejk, Czech Republic)
Revenge of the Mekons (Joe Angio)
The President (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Georgia)
Mistaken for Strangers (Tom Berninger)
Hairy Who & the Chicago Imagists (Leslie Buchbinder)
The Immigrant (James Gray)
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
Algren (Michael Caplan)
Free Fall (Gyorgy Palfi, Hungary)
The Chicago group DRMWPN (pronounced “Dream Weapon”) hasn’t played for several years, which made its performance last night (Jan. 31) at the Hideout noteworthy. I wrote about DRMWPN in a 2007 article for Signal to Noise magazine about Chicago’s drone music scene. The band, if that’s what it is, does just one thing: perform a single piece of music that rises and descends like a wave. DRMWPN played the final set of the final night of Chicago Psych Fest VI, with a who’s who of great Chicago musicians assembled on the stage to find that perfect chord, and it was beautiful.
The evening started with the dreamy, reverberating keyboards and vocals of Matchess. Then came three sets heavy on the jamming, by the bands Underground Symposium, Dark Fog and Unmanned Ships. Most of these musical acts performed with trippy projections of shifting colorful shapes. But when DRMWPN played, all of the light came from the spinning appliance known as the Dream Machine. The Hideout hummed as a snowstorm began outside.
The Vaselines, who played Wednesday, Jan. 21, at the Empty Bottle, are one of the best rock-band reunions of recent years. Barely noticed outside of Scotland when they were together the first time — for a few years in the 1980s — they gained more fans when Nirvana covered three of their songs. The original duo, Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee, came back together several years ago. And by now, the reunited Vaselines have released two albums of new material, sounding very much like the Vaselines of old, except with higher production values and better-tuned guitars.
Last week at the Bottle, they played a fun set of old and new songs, plus McKee’s cheeky stage banter. She said she’s been enjoying talking with Vaselines fans at the mercy table each night during this tour. “You’re the fucking weirdest audience so far,” she told the Chicago crowd. “Well done.”
When it came time for the Vaselines to sing their most famous song, “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam,” McKee forgot a verse in the middle of the tune. Afterward, Kelly — who’d been the butt of most of McKee’s jokes all night long — said, “Jesus Christ almighty! What happened there? We beg your forgiveness!” That was the only stumble during a lively set of catchy songs. All is forgiven, guys.
2. Jack White, July 23 at the Chicago Theatre
3. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, April 11 at the Vic
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Oct. 31 at Thalia Hall
Andrew Bird, Aug. 16 at the Chicago Theatre
Patti Smith, Sept. 14 at Riot Fest in Humboldt Park
Slowdive and Low, Oct. 30 at the Vic
Robbie Fulks, Steve Dawson and Diane Christiansen, Dec. 8 at the Hideout. (The night the power went out.)
Wilco, Dec. 12 at the Riviera
Over the past year, these are the 2014 albums I’ve enjoyed the most. (And here’s a Spotify playlist with some of my favorite songs.)
1. Wussy: Attica!
Among the many terrific things about this terrific album are the words, memorable little nuggets of real life, lyrics that pull off that trick of feeling poetic without seeming to try too hard at achieving the effect. The first song, “Teenage Wasteland,” seems to be an ode to the joy of listening to rock music — in particular, that classic-rock radio standard by the Who, “Baba O’Riley.” And it deserves a spot on the list of best opening lyrics for an album:
Do you remember the moment you finally did something about it?
When the kick of the drum lined up with the beat of your heart
Stuck in the corn with only a transistor radio
Making paths with the sound waves and echoes in old Baba O oh oh…
Of course, Wussy is considerably less famous than the Who, but this little band-that-could from Cincinnati has made yet another record filled with rock songs that stand up alongside the classic stuff. Wussy is one of those groups with two lead singers, and the way Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker switch off on lead vocals is a big part of Wussy’s chemistry.
Thanks in part to the championing of legendary critic Robert Christgau, who has called Wussy “the best band in America,” the group has been getting a bit more of the attention it deserves, including a recent appearance on the CBS This Morning. I chuckled at the way CBS described Wussy: “Despite a record deal, a dedicated following and critical praise, members of the band Wussy haven’t been able to leave their day jobs.” As if that’s anything unusual! (See many of the other musicians on this list.)
2. Laura Cantrell: No Way There From Here
It has been a strong year for female singers — five of them occupy spots on my top 10 list, or 5 1/2 if you count Wussy — but Laura Cantrell’s wonderful collection of old-fashioned country and folk-rock songs went largely unnoticed. Cantrell is a low-key performer, singing her lovely melodies without any grand flourishes. That’s part of what makes her songs such perfect gems.
The key reference points on this album are the Feelies and, of course, the seminal band that influenced the Feelies and countless other bands, the Velvet Underground. That formula is well-worn but far from worn out, as this delightful record demonstrates. Released by the dependable Chicago label Trouble in Mind, it’s the debut of a London group comprising James Hoare of the band Veronica Falls and Jack Cooper of Mazes (the British group, not to be confused with the Chicago group of the same name). The bones of Ultimate Painting’s songs are bare in these recordings, which almost sound like unadorned demos — the best sort of demos, the kind that reveal all the strengths and structure of a song. These tunes don’t need anything more.
Jones has made several great albums of authentically retro soul music since the Daptone label rescued her from a career of obscurity, and this is one of her best. The presence of backup vocals by the Dapettes and the varied, colorful arrangements give the music an added urgency. Jones finished making this record just before she was diagnosed with breast cancer; she successfully battled the disease and hit the road this year for a tour (including a triumphant show April 11 at the Vic), sounding as strong and vibrant as she ever has.
First off, let’s stipulate that this recording can’t capture the full effect of hearing and seeing Become Ocean performed live — something I haven’t been lucky enough to experience. Adams, a composer who lives near Fairbanks, Alaska, writes music that evokes the natural world. And he designed Become Ocean to be performed by an orchestra spatially divided into three ensembles. Each of these groups plays slowly changing chords at its own pace. But even experienced through the two channels of a stereo recording (I haven’t heard the DVD 5.1 surround mix), it’s a beautiful and remarkable piece of music. Adams took the title from a poem that John Cage wrote about the music of Lou Harrison: “Listening to it, we become ocean.” That’s an apt description of Adams’ amorphous and oddly compelling music.
This young singer-songwriter from Columbus, Ohio, belts out her smart, catchy alt-country songs with impressive strength, packing them with yearning and spunk. And her band kicks ass. Among the many excellent tracks on this album, “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud” — a twangy Americana tune about 19th-century French poets — was my favorite song of 2014.
Joe Casey, the frontman of this Detroit group, typically performs in a professorial jacket, intoning his lyrics like a half-inebriated poet. The brooding strength of that voice comes through on record, too. Using the basic tools of a standard rock band — guitar, bass and drums — Protomartyr makes intense post-punk with unusual, distinctive sonic touches, especially those otherworldly guitar lines.
This youthful band from Chicago writes garage-rock tunes with a touch of 1970s glam, cheerfully bashing out catchy riffs and singing with what sounds like a bit of a punk sneer. This debut album isn’t quite as lo-fi as Twin Peaks’ earlier EP, but it still has the highly compressed tones of music actually recorded in someone’s garage. Thank goodness.
Annie Clark, who performs under the name St. Vincent, is an amazing talent: a highly inventive songwriter; a musician who makes daring and unusual production choices; a live performer with the flair of an actress and a dancer; and a guitarist capable of blazing solos. Other than the visual spectacle of her live shows, all of that comes through in brilliant color on her self-titled album.
On her latest record, the former Chicagoan gets more comfortable playing with her band, making music that defies genre labels. But her stunning voice is still at the center of the music — a preternatural force that conveys deep emotion even in the moments when it seems calm and placid on the surface.
With more listens, many of these records might have ended up in my top 10. And I heard another 100 or so albums that I liked — if only I’d had enough to give them more than a spin or two. These are in roughly descending order:
Chad VanGaalen: Shrink Dust
Andrew Bird: Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of…
Gord Downie & the Sadies: The Conquering Sun
Bob Mould: Beauty & Ruin
Reigning Sound: Shattered
Cousins: The Halls of Wickwire
Bry Webb: Free Will
Swans: To Be Kind
Ty Segall: Manipulator
Nude Beach: 77
Woods: With Light and With Love
Neneh Cherry: Blank Project
Sturgill Simpson: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music
Thee Oh Sees: Drop
Ausmuteants: Order of Operation
Sharon Van Etten: Are We There
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything
Jennifer Castle: Pink City
The Skygreen Leopards: Family Crimes
Richard Thompson: Acoustic Classics
Marianne Faithfull: Give My Love to London
Matt Kivel: Days of Being Wild
Mozes & the Firstborn: Mozes & the Firstborn
Outrageous Cherry: Digital Age
Ex Hex: Rips
Spoon: They Want My Soul
Beck: Morning Phase
Lykke Li: I Never Learn
Kasai Allstars: Beware the Fetish
Pink Mountaintops: Get Back
The Soft Walls: No Time
The People’s Temple: Musical Garden
Carsick Cars: 3
White Fence: For The Recently Found Innocent
Lucinda Williams: Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
My Brightest Diamond: This Is My Hand
Steve Dawson’s Funeral Bonsai Wedding
Jack White: Lazaretto
New Pornographers: Brill Bruisers
Damon Albarn: Everyday Robots
Jon Langford: Here Be Monsters
Greg Ashley: Another Generation of Slaves
John Wesley Coleman: Love That You Own
The Haden Triplets: The Haden Triplets
Paperhead: Africa Avenue
Tony Allen: Film of Life
Musee Mecanique: From Shores of Sleep
Hookworms: The Hum
Krakatau: Water Near a Bridge
Records I discovered in 2014
Honorable mention goes to a few records from previous years that I discovered in 2014. If these qualified as 2014 releases, they’d have a strong shot at my top 10:
After 17 years, 11 albums and numerous concerts, the venerable Denton, Texas, band Centro-matic is calling it quits. I’m sad to see them go. At least, we’ll still have the records, including classics like 2003’s Love You Just the Same. And we’ll surely be hearing more from the band’s singer-songwriter-guitarist, Will Johnson, as well as the other musicians who have been playing in Centro for all these years: drummer Matt Pence, keyboardist-bassist Scott Danbom and bassist-guitarist Mark Hedman. But for the foreseeable future, we won’t get another chance to see this band live.
Centro-matic’s farewell tour included a stop at Schubas on Monday, Dec. 15. Johnson told the audience that Chicago has always been one of the cities where Centro-matic felt the most welcome on its tours, ever since the band starting hitting the road in 1998. For one last time, Centro-matic delivered charged versions of its greatest “hits.” Near the end of the show — I believe it was during “Fidgeting Wildly,” a song from the first Centro-matic album, 1997’s Redo the Stacks — the band dug hard into the final chords. As Johnson kicked up a leg and Pence pounded hard on the drums, it seemed like the whole stage was shaking. A glorious moment it was. So long, Centro-matic.
After introducing the musicians in her band, Angel Olsen omitted her own name, remarking, “I’m still learning about who I am.” Maybe that’s true (as it is for most of us), but Olsen sounded completely confident in her musical identity as she performed Saturday night, Nov. 29, at Thalia Hall. As always, her voice was a wonder to behold, commanding everyone’s attention even when it was just a whisper. There’s nothing fussy or affected about the way she sings — it seems like that remarkable sound just naturally comes out of her. Her vocal style is cool, but it isn’t cold; there’s plenty of emotion pushing to break through even when her singing seems to be placid on the surface.
Her singing also has a timeless quality, with echoes of traditional English folk music and old-timey Americana as well as contemporary indie rock. As a result, Olsen’s performance on Saturday — featuring many songs from her great album from earlier this year, Burn Your Fire For No Witness — transcended genre. She played a couple of songs solo, bringing back memories of similarly intimate performances she gave a few years ago at Saki and the Burlington, back when she was still residing in Chicago.
But for most of the night, Olsen’s songs were shaped into subtle rock songs by her band: guitarist Stewart Bronaugh, bassist Emily Elhaj and drummer Josh Jaeger. For the first time, the band played a delightfully jangly cover of Jackie Deshannon’s classic 1963 song “When You Walk in the Room,” which was a hit for the Searchers in 1964. Commenting on how much she’s come to love playing with this group, Olsen said, “Basically, we’re all in a relationship now.”
The show also featured strong opening sets by the atmospheric indie-rockers Lionlimb (a band featured two members of Olsen’s group, Bronaugh and Jaeger) and the hard-riffing roots-rockers State Champion.
Bloodshot Records artist Lydia Loveless joked around in between her songs on Friday, Nov. 28, at Lincoln Hall, but she set aside her goofy playfulness when she was in the full throes of performing her music, including many songs from her outstanding 2014 album Somewhere Else. Sometimes, she took her hands off her guitar and held them to her head, gesturing like someone in pain or shouting in anger. And then at the end of the night — after a deep set of riveting, twangy country-rock with her band and a few “off-script” solo songs — she ended up sitting on the stage with her legs sprawled out as the band kept on rocking. In the final moments, she covered up her face, and then, as the song ended, slipped off the stage without a word. She’d just said good-night with the exclamation point of her music.
Before Loveless took the stage, her sister Jessica played a lively set of shaggy but upbeat rock with her own band, the Girls. Lydia joined in for one song and one sibling hug.
Late last year, it was reported that Thee Oh Sees — a fantastic and very prolific rock band — was taking a “hiatus.” It didn’t turn out to be much of a hiatus, or anything that most musicians would even call a break. Thee Oh Sees leader John Dwyer moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles and promptly released yet another great record, Drop. And he came to Chicago for shows this week at the Empty Bottle on Tuesday and Wednesday. I was at Tuesday’s concert.
But this wasn’t the same Thee Oh Sees. Other than Dwyer, the entire lineup of the group has changed. It’s now just a trio of guitar, bass and drums. Dwyer was as intense as ever, ripping through one piercing guitar riff and solo after another as he sang his catchy melodies in a floating falsetto, adding a trippy, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd vibe to his rampaging garage rock tunes. The new rhythm section was tight and hard-hitting. I did miss some elements of the old Thee Oh Sees lineup, especially Brigid Dawson’s keyboard and vocals — she used to blend her voice with Dwyer’s on practically every word of every song, a compelling and sometimes spooky part of the group’s performances. That’s gone now, but Dwyer and his new bandmates are one hell of a live act.
My Brightest Diamond, the musician also known as Shara Worden, is a crossover artist in the best sense of the term. She easily dances between the realms of rock, classical music, cabaret and art songs. She knows how to use her lovely voice as an operatic instrument, but when she plays her electric guitar and rocks, she doesn’t sound like an opera house diva trying to be a pop star. This past summer, My Brightest Diamond played a free concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, but it was called off after a few songs because of a torrential rainstorm. She was back in Chicago on Thursday, Nov. 13, playing a concert at Lincoln Hall, which she called a “rain date.”
Like the Millennium Park concert, this one featured the Chicago marching band Mucca Pazza in a prominent cameo role. After the opening set of pulsing electronic squiggles by Dosh & Ghostband, a blast of brass came from the balcony, where the members of Mucca Pazza had assembled. The band marched downstairs and played on the floor in the midst of the crowd, then came onto the stage, joining with Worden and her rhythm section in a rambunctiously fun opening number.
The rest of the concert featured just the core My Brightest Diamond trio, as Worden played several songs from her recent album, This Is My Hand, as well as songs from throughout her career. One highlight was the quiet ballad that Worden wrote for her infant son, “I Have Never Loved Someone the Way I Love You,” from her 2011 album All Things Will Unwind, which she performed solo, softly crooning the lullaby as she strummed the chords on her electric guitar. For the last song of the night, she sang a faithful rendition of Peggy Lee’s hit “Fever,” a fine demonstration of her wide-ranging interests and remarkable talent.
The Flat Five are a supergroup of the Chicago music scene, combining five terrific talents: Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall. The group plays a delightfully diverse range of cover songs, and it’s working on its first album, a collection of songs written by Ligon’s brother, Chris Ligon (longtime co-host of the Chris & Heather calendar shows at FitzGerald’s with his wife, cartoonist Heather McAdams). The Flat Five is halfway through a series of four Thursday-night shows at the Hideout. You have two more chances to catch them during this residency: Nov. 13 and 20. (I included these Flat Five shows on a list of this season’s recommended pop concerts in the Nov. 3 issue of Crain’s Chicago Business.)
Last week, the group performed on the floor of the Hideout in front of the stage, focusing on quieter songs, while the audience included people sitting on the stage. After a 90-minute set, the Flat Five took a break and then came back with a jar full of songs requested by the crowd, playing some of those for the next hour and a half.
Last month, I interviewed two members of the Flat Five, Scott Ligon and Kelly Hogan. Here’s an edited transcript of those conversations, interspersed with my photos from last week’s show.
Q: How would you explain the concept of the Flat Five?
A: We’re a bunch of friends that have played together over the years in different incarnations. And the Flat Five is an opportunity for us to all do things that we would otherwise never do in any other band. It gives us a chance to explore music that we couldn’t really do in any other band. But more than anything, it just gives us a chance to sing together, and that’s what we love to do.
When I first moved to Chicago, I came up here because I’d struck up a relationship with Kelly. The first time we ever sang together, we just had this magical experience. It was almost like we’re separated at birth or something. I actually have a recording of our first gig, which we only had one rehearsal for. It’s a show that my brother Chris and Heather were putting on at FitzGerald’s, and Kelly was supposed to do a short set with her friend Andy Hopkins. And Andy Hopkins wasn’t going to be able to make the show. And so she was thinking she wasn’t going to be able to make the show. And she was actually telling my brother Chris this while I was at his house. I had seen Kelly sing maybe one time, and I volunteered — I said, “Hey, you know what? I’ll do a set with Kelly.”
And we just started discussing some things on the phone, and discovered we had a lot of music in common. We got together the night before the show and sang together. And I swear, there’s no difference between the way we sang that night and the way we sing together now, over 10 years later. I have a recording of that night, and it sounds like we’d been singing together for years. So we did have this sort of magical connection right away.
I had been thinking about moving to New York. I was living in Peoria at the time. And my connection with Kelly made up my mind about not moving to New York and sticking with Chicago. I’d been here once before. So, I came up here and immediately started doing Thursday nights with Kelly at the Hideout and working the door on other nights. We were just doing duets at the Hideout.
At some point, she said, “I have this wonderful friend Nora who’s a fantastic singer. We should have her out some night.” And Nora just came out and sat in, and it was the same thing — it was like this magic that happened the very first time that the three of us all sang together. We all knew exactly what to do, you know? We all knew what part to take on any given song, and so then we started doing a trio thing. We had been offered a gig opening for the Blind Boys of Alabama, which seemed like an odd thing for us to do. So we decided to do some — sort of the opposite side of the coin. We decided to do some white gospel and country gospel music. None of us are particularly religious, but we like a lot of music. (Laughs.) So we were doing that for a while under the name the Lamentations. We were doing that for a little while and peppering the set with just little country music and some other oddities.
While this was going on, I had been getting to know this guy, Casey McDonough — who I was discovering I also had this strange connection with, almost separated-at-birth kind of thing. We found out that we had met one another maybe 20 years earlier, when we were kids. We were in our teens and we met at BeatleFest, apparently. So we had this Beatle connection. Casey started working with me in my country and western band, the Western Elstons. And we start developing a duet style together. And I thought, “Man, he would be perfect for this thing with me and Kelly and Nora.” So, he joined that band, and then all of a sudden we had all of this music to draw from. Because Kelly and I had our list of songs that we were performing. And we had a complete selection of tunes we were doing with Nora. And Casey and I had this whole other bag that we were doing. And we just decided to put it all together in one group and not be concerned about style, but to just be concerned about substance. And so was born the Flat Five.
Q: And you had Gerald Dowd on drums originally, and now Alex Hall.
A: Yes, Gerald Dowd was with us for two or three years. We played so infrequently. There were some conflicts when Gerald couldn’t do it, so we started using Alex. Casey and Alex and myself had developed a little trio called the Letter 3. I was playing piano, and we were mostly doing jazz and rhythm and blues and stuff like that. So it seemed to make sense to bring Alex into the band. Once again, we had a whole other group’s worth of material to add to the Flat Five’s set. So, the Flat Five is comprised of maybe five different bands, actually.
Q: How do you describe the range of music that you guys play? Is there a common thread?
A: I don’t think that musically there’s necessarily a common thread. I think the common thread is just that these songs are fantasy songs for us — songs that maybe in the past we fantasized that we wish we could do someday in a band. It gives us an opportunity. Because of the range of the band — because we’re able to cover so many different styles and we have so many singers — we are able to do things we wouldn’t be able to do in any other band. Recently we’ve been doing this song, it’s a musical version of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” which I heard 30 years ago on an old Buddy Morrow record called “Poe for Moderns.” It’s a big band arrangement of “The Raven,” and it’s just this really odd little song that I doubt any of my friends had ever heard, but it’s something that stuck with me for decades.
Q: When I was trying to figure out one of your set lists and I was Googling the various songs, I think that was the one that I couldn’t identify. Where did this come from? And part of the problem was that if you search for “The Raven,” you get all sorts of stuff about Edgar Allan Poe.
A: It’s wonderful to be able to stump the Internet. And we don’t do these things to be — we don’t do anything because people aren’t aware of it.
Q: You’re not being deliberately obscure?
A: No, I’m not. I don’t mean to speak for the others. To me, that’s just being cute, you know? That song really meant something to me.
Q: It’s jazzy, with a Manhattan Transfer or Swingle Singers sort of harmony.
A: The music itself is very challenging, and that’s part of what’s really fun. Because none of us are classically trained or anything like that. So, it gives us an opportunity to really stretch. It’s one thing to appreciate a piece of work that’s done in five-part harmony. It’s another thing to figure out how it’s done. And then figure out how to do it.
Q: So you guys are figuring this out by ear by hearing the records?
A: Exactly. That’s how we do everything. And none of us is a trained arranger. It’s just all for the love of the songs that we choose to perform.
Q: I think it’s interesting how you could step into a Flat Five gig and you guys would be doing vocal harmonies on a Hoagy Carmichael song. And at that moment, I’ll think this is a concert that jazz fans or fans of the Great American Songbook would love. And then a minute later, you’re wailing on a guitar solo and it’s suddenly more of a rock concert. And five minutes after that, now you’re doing country music. I appreciate all of that. But I wonder: Are there people here who like only one of these kinds of music — and what do they think about the rest of the show?
A: You know, that’s the thing. I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that I’m currently a member of NRBQ. That band — and some other rock ’n’ roll bands in the past were unafraid to do any kind of music. The Beatles did whatever kind of music they wanted to. And nobody said, “Oh, they’re doing all these different kinds—” It was just under the umbrella of the Beatles. Now, I’m not comparing us to the Beatles or anything like that. But NRBQ works in the same tradition. Music is music, and if it moves you, it moves you, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s about being connected to the spirit of this music. Classifying, I think, is troublesome. Because I get just as much joy out of listening to an old Hoagy Carmichael record as I do listening to the Ramones. Most of my friends, most of my musical friends, they’re the same way, you know? But people think you have to do something in order to be successful, you know? If you have to present something in a certain way in order to be successful, I don’t really want to be part of it. I just want to play music because I love it. And that’s what we do. We’re unconcerned about categories.
Q: The article in the Chicago Reader several years ago portrayed you as this great musician who wasn’t putting out a lot of recordings. And I’ve often though the same thing about Nora and Kelly — at least Kelly had a record come out on Anti- last year, but it took 10 years where she was doing all kinds of stuff: touring with Neko, playing shows at the Hideout. And the Western Elstons are playing at Simon’s. So you guys are all very busy, but if I look you guys up on allmusic.com and look at your discographies, you look like you’re not doing much. For you, is the focus just doing music in a live setting? Or have the opportunities to make records just not come along as often as they do for some people?
A: I think it’s a combination of things. First of all, I’m not going to work a regular job. I’ve been making a living playing music for 20 years now, and it’s not easy. It’s not easy to keep yourself booked all the time. It’s also not easy to make a living playing music and to continue to do things that you really love to do. Now, it’s taken me some time to get to the point where I’m comfortable with all of the different projects that I’m involved in. Currently, I’m not doing anything that I don’t really enjoy. Which is a great thing. But it takes up a lot of your time. And also, I think you could also say that maybe we’re a little lazy.
Q: But you’re keeping busy playing live shows, which isn’t a sign of laziness.
A: I don’t want to speak for Kelly and the others concerning this particular topic. But you know, I’ve had some kind of strange goals in life. All I ever wanted to do was play music and enjoy it. That’s all I ever cared about. And then you come into this thing where — well, the music business, they sort of define success for you. Well, I’m not going to let anybody define my own success for me. I’m going to do things. I’ve always been very stubborn about the way I want to live my life and the way I want to spend my time. I had sort of been chasing this (NRBQ) thing around for a long time. I saw them for the first time when I was 18, and it just changed my life. I just knew that I was somehow supposed to be connected — I was connected to this group. I was busy trying to make a living in bands, but I always had this NRBQ thing hanging around in my consciousness. Twenty years of thinking about it and feeling as though I was supposed to be involved in it — 20 years later, I ended up being in the band.
Q: That’s kind of remarkable, isn’t it?
A: It is a crazy story. I mean, it really is. It literally is a dream come true. I used to have dreams, actual dreams, that I was — “Oh my God, I’m up onstage playing in this band.” Or: “Oh my God. (NRBQ leader) Terry Adams just walked into the room while I’m playing.” Just things like that. I was pretty geeked out about that band. And it did come true. And the strange thing is, it’s not like I was really actively pursuing it, but I just always had some strange feeling about it. So, like I said, who’s to define success? In my mind, I kind of got what I wanted.
In high school, I remember counselors saying — I think they all thought I wanted to be famous. They didn’t get it. All I ever cared about was just playing good music. Because I started from a really young age, and it just got in me. I just knew from the time that I was in sixth or seventh grade that this is what I’m going to be doing. And I’m very fortunate to be able to do it and to be able to pay my bills.
Q: And now Casey has joined NRBQ, too.
A: He’s in every band that I’m in. (Laughs.)
Q: Obviously that takes up a portion of your time. But you have a pretty good balance of doing that and other things like the Flat Five and the Western Elstons?
A: It takes some doing to give each one of those things their space. But yeah, it’s all that I do. You’re constantly juggling all of these different things. And Kelly’s doing the same thing: Working with Neko and doing all of the different projects that she’s involved in. But we’ve always had this soft spot in our hearts for the Flat Five. For a time, we were doing it once year and then maybe twice a year.
Q: Was that mostly because of scheduling issues?
A: Pretty much. People were so busy. I think at the time, the Neko thing was really taking off, and Kelly is very devoted to Neko. And at the same time, the thing with NRBQ was taking off for me. So we needed that space to be able to cultivate these things.
Q: So, as you do this residency at the Hideout, you’re preparing to do an album of all covers of your brother’s songs?
A: Yeah, that’s what we’re proposing. Sort of a tribute to my brother’s music.
Q: Why don’t you describe what your brother is all about, musically?
A: I can’t describe what my brother is all about. I really can’t. To me, that music is completely singular. There’s just nothing like Chris Ligon. There’s nothing like what it is that he does.
Q: How old are you, and how old is he?
A: Well, he’s 12 years older than me. I’m 44. I grew up with his music in the house. It was great, because he always involved me in his music, from the time that he started making these weird recordings in the basement. The very first song that I ever remember him working on that he asked me to be a part of was a song called, “Your Cheeks Are Redder As Hell.” (Laughs.) And I think I might have played vacuum cleaner on that song. And he had some other really bizarre songs early on. One called, “I Guess They Call Me Butter Fingers.”
He’s a fabuloulsy original creative songwriter. He has the ability to make — he can create a song that is based on a form that is familiar. He also has the ability, I think, to create new music, which is really hard to do.
Q: You mean, new in a way that it’s different from anything else?
A: Where it’s literally not based on anything you’ve ever heard before. And that’s almost impossible. And it takes a really special person to be able to do that.
Q: If you go ahead with these plans for an album, when is that likely to happen?
A: Well, we have started. The great thing is, we’re doing this on our own time and our own money.
Q: No label involved at this point?
A: No, not at this point. So, we’re our own boss. And we’ll just do it as time allows. But it’s really exciting, because one of the things that was happening over the last couple of years was this feeling of: God, like, are we crazy? Why are we only doing this once a year? You know? It just became this thing where we’re going to be sorry if we don’t do something about this band, if we don’t document some of what we’re capable of. And you know, we really love each other. It’s a really fun thing to do. We’re hoping to be able to try to do it more often. We’ve begun doing it sort of more quarterly. Maybe four times a year instead of twice.
Q: What’s your summary of what the Flat Five is all about?
A: I was trying to explain it to my mom, because I was playing her some of our stuff we’ve been recording. I don’t know. We’re unapologetically groovy. We like it so much. It’s almost like it doesn’t matter if anybody shows up. We’re junkies, man. We just love that harmony, and, like, the harder the arrangement, the more we like it. It’s joy. All our inner-band emails, the word “joy” comes up all the time. And “groovy.” This morning, we were writing each other. I was like, “Yall, let’s just go ahead and be weird. ’Cause you know we’re already weird. Let’s be as weird as we want to be.”
Q: Is there a common thread in all of the songs that you guys do?
A: Joy? Curiosity and joy. Just trying it on. Trying on all the clothes. All the crayons. We just start throwing songs at each other. Like: “This is one I’ve always wanted to do.” And we’ll always try everybody’s baby, at least once. Some songs jibe and some don’t. Everybody brings their faves to the table.
Q: With some of these songs, are you creating three-, four- or even five-part harmonies that weren’t in the original recordings?
A: Oh, yeah, most definitely. We do that, like when we covered the Dan Wilson song, “All Kinds.” Because everybody — especially Alex, Casey and Scott — they can do everything. They play everything. Alex, our drummer, sings like a dream. So we just want to show him off. He has a nice bass voice. That’s the joy — that vibration. The harmony thing is really what’s our glue. So, why make Alex miss out? We’ll find a part for Alex. We’ve got to give him a piece of the frosting on it, too. We can’t be hoggin’ all the sugar.
Q: Scott traced the whole thing back to the first time he sang with you, as a duo. The way he remembers it, the minute he started singing with you, he could tell it was going to be a great thing having these two voices blend together — that it was very natural. Is that how you remember it?
A: It was amazing. Yeah. I know where I was sitting in my living room when we sort of looked at each other across the coffee table and were like, “Uh-huh. All right. Yeah.” Scott and I talked for, like, 10 minutes on the phone, just about what we were going to do. I got off the phone and turned to my roommate at the time and said, “Oh my God.” I looked at the set list Scott and I had made. I said, “Every band that we’re covering ends in Brothers or Sisters.” The Everly Brothers, the Davis Sisters, the Wilburn Brothers. For someone you’ve never sung with before, this is going to have to click or it’s going to be a disaster. Everything we were about to sing was super-close intuitive, blood-relation harmony. I wasn’t thinking about it when we were talking but then I was like, “Oh boy. It’s going to crash and burn.”
But then Scott came over, and as soon as we started singing together — and then, I think I mentioned Georgie Fame, and we bonded over Georgie Fame and Lou Rawls. It’s just that thing where I could start singing the first line of a song and Scott would just join in. And that’s what happens in Flat Five practices all the time. We have a hard time sometimes getting to the actual song we’re supposed to be practicing, because all of a sudden we’re doing the Guess Who. Somebody just starts humming a song, and all these guys, they just know how to do it. It’s this intuitive thing. We’re eating and sleeping and breathing music. It’s very organic.
Q: Do you feel like you have a harmony relationship with each of the different people you sing with? When you sing with Neko, there’s one thing happening, but with you sing with Scott, there’s a different thing?
A: Oh, yeah. Definitely, definitely. There’s different ways of singing. As a harmony singer, there’s this way that you — have you ever laid tile? Where you score the putty? It’s almost like you fit into it. Like it’s a different way of scoring and texturizing your voice against somewhere else’s. And that can vary from song to song. There are different colors. What’s fun with Nora and Scott and all these guys, is we can have the whole box of crayons. We can do all different types, from country harmonizing — rough, the bluegrass types of chords and intervals — and then get to the Free Design, and it’s all (sings in bright tones), “Ba Ba Ba.” Then it’s all groovy again. We can’t say no.
Q: You went for a period where you were playing one show per year. Now it’s a little more than that. Has it just come together scheduling-wise, that you’re able to do more?
A: Yeah. Well, we’ve made more of an effort. Once Scott and Casey got with NRBQ, it was even more difficult to do even the once a year. So we’ve really made a concerted effort, because we really like it. When you play once a year and you practice, you don’t want to do the same songs all the time. But everybody’s so busy. So we’ve made a concerted effort to expand our repertoire, which already has like 85 songs in it. Then, we’ve bandied the idea of doing the Chris Ligon catalogue. Scott and I have mentioned to each other for years, and then we were like: “We need to do this. We need to do this.” So we made our plan and everybody’s made their sacrifices, schedule-wise. I mean, I have to drive in from Wisconsin, so I do a lot of couch surfing and stuff. But it’s so worth it.
Q: So for people who don’t know Chris Ligon’s music: Who is he and what’s his music all about?
A: (Laughs.) Oh my God. It’s sophisticated, weird and twisted, dark and light at the same time, you know? With that sort of wry sense of humor. I don’t know. He’s loose and tight. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s happening in there. I just can’t get enough of it. Freestyle. A feral kind of thing. But very sophisticated musicality. And like, Dr. Demento’s going to have the biggest boner. That kind of thing.
Q: What do you have planned for the last two shows of the residency at the Hideout?
A: The last week (of the Hideout residency) on the 20th, Chris and Heather are going to be our co-stars. Chris Ligon is going to do his own set, Heather is going to show films. Nov. 13 is called Flat Five and Friends. Max Crawford is going to come join us and there may or may not be an entire Beach Boys album done in order.
Gerald Dowd has drummed for with a lot of different Chicago musicians over the years, rarely taking the spotlight himself. Saturday was his day, and what a remarkable feat it was. FitzGerald’s hosted daylong festival called “Day of the Dowd,” featuring 17 bands playing over the course of 13 1/2 hours. Dowd played drums for the first 16 of these bands, barely taking any breaks longer than a few minutes. And then for the finale, Dowd stepped up to the microphone with an acoustic guitar, singing and playing tuneful alt-country songs from his first album as a solo artist, Home Now.
I showed up halfway through the day, arriving in time to catch a rare performance by the great Chicago power-pop band Frisbie — which was so good that it made me hope Frisbie starts playing more shows and recording music again. The rest of an evening was a who’s who of Chicago’s alt-country and related genres. Here’s the full list of bands that played starting at 11 a.m.: Justin Roberts and the Not Ready For Naptime Players, Dave Sills, Brian Ohern’s Model Citizens Big Band, Electric Dirt, Samba Bamba, the Regulators, Nora O’Connor, the Hoyle Brothers, EXO, Dave Ramont, Frisbie, Jive Council, Kelly Hogan, Lush Budgett, Chris Mills, Robbie Fulks and Gerald Dowd and his Moral Minority.
All of these musicians gave their time to play at this event, celebrating the release of Dowd’s new album and all that he’s done for them over the years. The event also raised money for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Some singers and musicians kept turning up on the stage, performing with various groups over the course of the marathon.
Dowd started his own set with his 14-year-old son standing next to him and playing guitar. Various other musicians joined Dowd over the course of that final hour, but then it was just him standing alone on the stage for the encore, playing a beautiful acoustic ballad from Home Now. I sensed something especially heartfelt in the applause. It was astounding to think what this man had just put himself through. He was still standing as the show ended around 12:40 a.m., remarking that he was looking forward to a day without any drumming on Sunday.
My photos of Musee Mecanique from the band’s performance on Oct. 29 at the Empty Bottle. The Portland, Ore., band released a great record of dreamy folk rock called Hold this Ghost in 2008, and now it has another fine album, From Shores of Sleep. The trio’s tapestry of sounds was lovely in concert, including the closing cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.”
My photos of White Fence, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard and Ultimate Painting from their performances on Oct. 18 at Subterranean. Cate LeBon performed as a touring member of White Fence.
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
The crowd waited and waited for something spectacular to happen Saturday night, Oct. 4, on the Chicago River. But the promised spectacle — an event created by Redmoon Theater and co-sponsored by the city — proved to be a dispiriting bore. At least there were fireworks at the very end of the drawn-out debacle called the Great Chicago Fire Festival.
Redmoon has put on some wonderful shows in the past, including the outdoor spectacles “Sink, Sank, Sunk” in 2004 and “Joyous Outdoor Event” in 2010. It’s too bad that this latest show — the highest-profile thing Redmoon has ever done — was such a dud. Part of the problem was the lack of any narrative beyond a bare-bones retelling of what happened during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The show lacked characters, not having a single identifiable person in it for us to care about.
And then there were the technical difficulties. The floating houses at the center of the show were supposed to burn up, but the blazes fizzled with most of the exteriors of the structures still intact. After a long and uneventful lull, an announcer informed the crowd that something wasn’t working with the electrical system. Eventually, the announcer said the fires would be rekindled “manually.” Another long wait ensued. Finally, there were more flames, though hardly anything worthy of the title “spectacle.”
At last, there were fireworks, which were fun to watch in the midst of the Chicago skyline. But it was too little, too late.
Last year, I wrote a story for the Chicago Tribune about what happened the first time the city re-enacted the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. That was in 1903 — and while that event had its own difficulties, it sounds like it was more of a success.
My photos of tonight’s event might make it look more impressive than it actually was. Keep in mind that most of the time, what we experienced was this:
… rather than this:
Check out the Wondering Sound website for my photos and review of Gonerfest Sept. 25-28 in Memphis, Tenn. Here are some of my additional pictures from the festival, which was quite a blast.
Ty Segall played a rousing rock show Tuesday, Sept. 23, at Thalia Hall, culminating with an encore that paid tribute to David Bowie. It happened to be David Bowie Day in Chicago, with the opening of the “David Bowie Is” exhibit at the MCA, and Segall played a medley of Bowie songs, kicking off with “Ziggy Stardust.” As I predicted in my Newcity preview of the show, there was moshing. Segall’s latest album, Manipulator, is one of his best, and in concert the new songs sounded terrific, if a bit more blunt than they are in the studio version.
“David Bowie Is,” an exhibit featuring 400 artifacts from the star’s private archive, opens today at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago — the only U.S. stop for this traveling exhibit, which was organized by and displayed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. I took in the exhibit at a media preview on Sept. 19, and wrote “Five reasons to brave crowds for the David Bowie blockbuster” for the Crain’s Chicago Business website. (Spoiler alert: You really should see it.) The exhibit runs through Jan. 4. For details, visit mcachicago.org.
Here are some of the photos I took of the exhibit. (Photography is not normally allowed during the show, but it was during the press preview.) I considered adding captions to explain what some of this stuff is, but it might be more fun to make you guess…
I drove 400 miles, heading up Interstate highways from Chicago to St. Paul, Minn. Other people came from as far away as San Francisco; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Manchester, England. This was a pilgrimage. And these were Replacements fans.
The legendary, beloved 1980s rock band reunited for three shows last year, including a gig that I reviewed and photographed at Riot Fest in Chicago. A few more concerts followed this year, along with an appearance on The Tonight Show. … And now — finally! — the reunited “Mats” were playing on their home turf, the Twin Cities.
I arrived in St. Paul on Friday, Sept. 12, with a couple of friends from Chicago. Replacements tunes were blasting on the stereo in a backyard in St. Paul, where we met up with some other fans for a barbecue and party. I heard talk about people going to visit the old Stinson family house, where the Replacements once sat on a roof, posing for the cover of their album Let It Be.
At the end of the night, I stopped at the Parkway Theater in Minneapolis, where a documentary, Color Me Obsessed, had screened earlier. I got there in time to see a few local bands paying tribute to the Replacements and raising money for former Replacements guitarist Slim Dunlap, who suffered a stroke. A clearly inebriated guy in the audience enthusiastically pounded his hands on the stage to the beat.
On Saturday, the shuttle van from the motel to Midway Stadium stopped at a liquor store. And then everyone who was crammed into the van sang “Kiss Me on the Bus.” By the time we arrived in the parking lot of the minor league ballpark, it was filled with tailgate parties. Someone was flying a flannel shirt on a pole, like it was a flag for the Replacements nation. And plenty of people were wearing flannel shirts.
When the stadium opened, my friends and I happened to be standing right near some entry gates barely anyone else had noticed. We dashed through and staked out a spot about a dozen feet back from the stage. We held our spot during the enjoyable opening sets by Lucero and the Hold Steady. After the Hold Steady were done, the crowd suddenly got much tighter as people pushed forward — including a few young guys who made it clear that they were eager to mosh. “This is a punk show!” they announced to the mostly older Replacements fans.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman stepped out onto the stage and declared that it was Replacements Day in the city. A few minutes later, the Replacements made their entrance, wearing checkered suits and roaring through some of the earliest and roughest punk songs. The crowd around us erupting into spasms of waving arms, pogoing, pushing and the shouting of lyrics.
I did not take photos with my camera at the concert, but I did grab a few shots on my cellphone:
After a few songs, Replacements singer-songwriter-guitarist Paul Westerberg mumbled, “Sorry it took us so long” — seemingly offering an apology to the Twin Cities for taking so long to play a reunion show there. Or maybe more general regrets for disappearing for so many years? Bassist Tommy Stinson shot back: “No, you’re not.”
The concert was pretty similar to the other ones that the Replacements have played since reuniting, including last year’s Riot Fest show in Chicago. The band — Westerberg and Stinson, joined by two new members, drummer Josh Freese and guitarist Dave Minehan — was a bit tighter than they were last year. But not too slick, thankfully. A big part of the Replacements’ charm is the way they somehow add just enough sloppiness, just enough rough edges. It wouldn’t be so great if every note were perfect. Westerberg didn’t bother singing every word, sometimes letting the audience fill in the ones that were missing. Westerberg and Stinson smiled a lot, making it obvious that they were having fun. During “Kiss Me on the Bus,” Westerberg stepped over to Stinson and, after looking at him for a moment, grabbed him and kissed him on the mouth.
The first encore began with Westerberg playing an acoustic guitar by himself and singing “Skyway.” When the rest of the band returned, they tossed on personalized jerseys from the St. Paul Saints, the baseball team that plays in Midway Stadium. Westerberg joked about how silly it was. Then came two of the Replacements’ greatest songs, “Left of the Dial” and “Alex Chilton.”
The loud applause coaxed the band back for a second encore, with the song “Unsatisfied.” It looked like the band was ready to play one more song — probably “I.O.U.,” which was written on the set list sitting on the stage — but Westerberg was ready to call it a night. He went over to Stinson again and pulled him into a bear hug before leaving the stage. Stinson threw his bass across the stage, and a roadie grabbed it as the band departed.
This was the last event that will be held at Midway Stadium, which is scheduled for demolition. A few fans grabbed chunks of grass from the ground and took them out of the ballpark as souvenirs. This was the biggest concert the Replacements have ever played in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Who knows if they’ll ever play there again? Whatever. At least, on this one glorious night, it felt like the Replacements were the world’s greatest rock band.
Takin’ a Ride
I’m in Trouble
Don’t Ask Why
I’ll Be You
Waitress in the Sky
Tommy Got His Tonsils Out (with Jimi Hendrix’s Third Stone From the Sun)
Take Me Down to the Hospital
I Want You Back (Jackson 5 cover)
Going to New York (Jimmy Reed cover, with Tony Glover)
Color Me Impressed
Nowhere Is My Home
If Only You Were Lonely
Achin’ to Be
Kiss Me on the Bus
I Will Dare
Love You Till Friday / Maybelline (Chuck Berry cover)
Merry Go Round
Borstal Breakout (Sham 69 cover)
Love You in the Fall
Can’t Hardly Wait
I Don’t Know / Buck Hill
Bastards of Young
Left of the Dial
As I’ve said before, the Hideout Block Party is one of the Chicago outdoor concert season’s most enjoyable events. For the past few years, it has merged with the Onion/A.V. Club’s festival, and this past weekend’s lineup seemed to reflect the tastes of that publication as much as the usual fare you’d expect from the Hideout.
Friday’s shows were dampened a bit by the rain that fell early in the evening, with some occasional sprinkles throughout the night. Weather delays shortened the sets — I especially wish that the Handsome Family had been given more time, but their gothic alt-country songs were actually a perfect fit with the gloomy weather. Jon Langford presented the first gig ever by yet another Jon Langford band, the cleverly named Bad Luck Jonathan, playing songs that seemed to hark back to early rock ‘n’ roll. Walkmen lead singer Hamilton Leithauser played a solo show — or rather, a show backed by a new band, all of which sounded very much like the Walkmen. And Death Cab for Cutie closed out the night, playing for the last time (ever?) with departing lead guitarist Chris Walla.
The weather was perfect on Saturday for the festival’s second day, which kicked off with a Hideout Block Party tradition: the droning of massed guitars known as the Plastic Crimewave Vision Celestial Guitarkestra, featuring anyone who brought a guitar, all of them joining in the din from the parking lot in front of the stage. Other highlights on Saturday afternoon included the old-timey acoustic blues and gospel music of Valerie June, the electronic pop songs of Sylvan Esso, and the jamming of the Funky Meters (including a bit of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”). The appeal of Mac DeMarco escapes me, but his fans seemed to be enjoying his performance. The Dismemberment Plan is another band I don’t really get. But Saturday’s headliner, the War on Drugs, gave a strong performance, filled with electrifying guitar solos by frontman Adam Granduciel. The War on Drugs was a stripped-down trio the first time I saw the band, at Schubas in 2008; last night, Granduciel had five musicians backing him up and fleshing out the sound, but the group is still basically his voice and his guitar.
Greg Cartwright writes songs that could easily pass for classic nuggets from the era of ’60s garage bands. As the leader of Reigning Sound, he knows how to write, sing and play a tune that stomps with fierce energy, but he also has a soft touch when the moment calls for it. Reigning Sound’s records, including the outstanding new album Shattered, also include nods to soul music and string-laden pop ballads.
Cartwright (who has also played with the Oblivians, Parting Gifts and other bands) brought Reigning Sound to the Empty Bottle on Monday, Sept. 1, and the set felt like a nonstop hit parade. Fans packed the floor in front of the stage, dancing, swaying and singing along with one song after another. The Reigning Sound lineup on the new album includes Cartwright and longtime keyboardist Dave Amels, plus three newcomers, who are Amels’ bandmates in Brooklyn soul group The Jay Vons: Mike Catanese, Benny Trokan and Mikey Post. They’re a tight unit, perfect for Cartwright’s concise, subtle rockers.
There’s something matter-of-fact about the way Cartwright performs his songs in concert. There’s plenty of passion in his voice, but he doesn’t bother jumping around and making any rock-star gestures. He just delivers the songs. And what songs they are.
In the early 1990s, the California band Sleep helped to create a hard-rocking genre that came to be known as stoner rock: something that resembled heavy metal, but with a tendency toward slower, sludgier and less screamy rock. Sleep disbanded in the late 1990s, but the trio reunited a few years ago. And last week, the group played two sold-out shows at Thalia Hall. The lineup included original members Al Cisneros (bass and vocals) and Matt Pike (guitars), plus Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder. I was there on Thursday, Aug. 28, and Sleep pounded away at its repetitive riffs with just as much force and intensity as you’d expect. (From what I hear, Friday’s show was even louder.)
Dear Chicago museums and galleries:
Would one of you please show “The Clock”?
It’s hard to believe this work of art from 2010 — celebrated by critics, unbelievably ambitious and staggeringly impressive — has traveled to at least a dozen cities but has yet to appear in Chicago.
Last week, I followed the advice of the Chicago Tribune’s Christopher Borrelli and took a trip to Minneapolis, where the Walker Art Center was showing “The Clock.” Christian Marclay’s 24-hour-long video collage pulls together thousands of clips from movies throughout history, most of them showing a clock or watch displaying the same time at that very moment of the day in the world outside the video screen. In other words, if you’re watching “The Clock” at 4:05 a.m., you’ll see a scene from a movie in which it’s 4:05 a.m.
That’s the gimmick, but “The Clock” is far from gimmicky. If you saw just a few minutes of it, you might think, “Well, that’s clever.” But then, if you keep on watching, the experience becomes strangely compelling. Somehow, even though “The Clock” lacks anything resembling a traditional narrative, it keeps you glued to the screen.
After a while, it becomes deeply moving and resonant, feeling like a portrait of humanity, of people from scattered places and eras, all progressing through the rhythms of one day. And it also functions like a history of filmmaking and acting styles, a commentary on how editing plays with our perceptions — and a masterful job of editing, too.
In 2012, The New Yorker published an excellent article about Marclay and “The Clock” by Daniel Zalewski, which explains the painstaking process Marclay used to create this stunning piece.
In some cities where “The Clock” has been shown, people waited in lines to get into the screening room. There were no lines at the Walker during my three visits, though the room frequently got crowded, with people standing in the back or sitting on the floor. Shortly after arriving in Minneapolis on a Thursday, I went to the museum and watched “The Clock” from 6:22 p.m. until shortly before the museum closed for the night at 9 p.m. The following day, I returned and watched from 11:35 a.m. to 2:05 p.m. and 2:25 to 5 p.m. — when the museum closed for the night. Saturday was one of the days when the Walker kept the gallery open around the clock, so I returned around 8:30 p.m. (watching the next half-hour or so for the second time) and stayed until 1:30 a.m.
So, all together, I ended up watching slightly more than half of “The Clock.” And now I regret not staying for longer, as the film continued to reel into the early-morning hours. And I wonder: When will I get a chance to see it again?
In his Tribune story, Borrelli reported that a curator at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York, which represents Marclay, “told me there have been no serious negotiations with any local museum or gallery to bring it to Chicago.” Really? If it doesn’t come to Chicago, I hope it gets a showing in another city I can visit. How about a permanent installation somewhere?
“The Clock” is, as other critics have proclaimed, one of the most incredible works of remixed art — art that takes elements from old sources and mashes them together into something new. (A strict adherence to copyright law would make an artwork like “The Clock” impossible, though I’d argue that Marclay’s technique qualifies as fair use.)
It doesn’t seem quite correct to label “The Clock” as a film; it certainly isn’t a traditional example of a movie. But the act of watching “The Clock” inside the dark gallery is essentially a moviegoing experience. However it is categorized — as video art, an installation or as a film — “The Clock” is one of the definitive artworks and most amazing viewing experiences of our time. Do not miss it if you get the chance.
Photos from the White Cube website.
The Clean’s concert on Monday, Aug. 18, at Lincoln Hall was one of those shows that leave you scratching your head and asking: What just happened? The legendary New Zealand band doesn’t come around all that often — the last time was a show at the Bottom Lounge in 2010 — so any appearance they make in Chicago is an event.
The trio sounded a little ragged, but I enjoyed the raggedness of the jams. As the Clean took the stage, drummer Hamish Kilgour crouched down next to his drum kit, as if hiding, tapping his drumsticks at the edges of the set. As that first song, the instrumental “Fish,” progressed, he eventually took his seat behind the drums. Bassist Robert Scott nonchalantly stood, holding down the rhythm. And guitarist David Kilgour stood with his back to the crowd, leaning toward his amp. It was a good while before he showed his face to the audience for more than a few seconds. At one point early in the set, Hamish hopped up from behind his drum kit, stepped off the stage and stood in the crowd for a minute, then got back up and leaned down to put his sunglasses on the microphone in front of his bass drum.
A few of the songs ended abruptly, like tossed-off numbers at a rehearsal — which made them feel more real to me. But then, after playing just 45 minutes or so, the band bid everyone good-night and left the stage. A long, loud round of applause followed, as the Clean fans made it clear they wanted to hear more. For one thing, the band hadn’t played its most famous song, “Tally Ho.” One guy was shouting, “Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!” — apparently, as his way of saying the band should play more. Hamish Kilgour and Scott returned to the stage and seemed to be getting ready to play, then went back behind the curtain. More applause. Hamish Kilgour and Scott return again. They disappear again. They come back, again without David Kilgour. Hamish said someone from the audience would have to come onstage to make an encore happen.
A guy I know from Laurie’s Planet of Sound, Paul Nixon, climbed onto the stage and took the microphone, offering a polite and gracious message to David Kilgour: The audience wants you to come back onstage and play more. Still, no sign of Kilgour. Now, a few other audience members (including my friend Sam O’Rama) got onstage to sing “Tally Ho” while two-thirds of the Clean played two-thirds of the song. Midway through the tune, another guy from the crowd climbed up and started playing the song’s three chords on Kilgour’s guitar (and playing it pretty well). And that’s how the show ended, with this odd audience singalong and the Clean missing one of its key members.
From what I recalled, the Clean’s last Chicago show, in 2010, was longer. But looking back at what I wrote about it, I see a harbinger of last night’s events:
Guitarist David Kilgour left the stage rather abruptly at the end of the main set and then again at the end of the first encore, almost seeming to surprising his band mates, drummer Hamish Kilgour and bassist Robert Scott. It seemed that the band was calling it a night at that point and the Bottom Lounge turned on the house music. But the audience wasn’t ready to leave, giving the Clean a loud and sustained round of applause, and finally the guys came back and played one of their best-known tunes, “Tally Ho!”
At last night’s show, Hamish Kilgour’s wry stage banter included the question, “What is a rock concert?” (Or words to that effect.) What indeed? This was certainly a rock concert, but unlike any I’ve seen.
The opening band Monday at Lincoln Hall was the wonderful psychedelic Brazilian outfit called Boogarins. Given the fact that they’re from Brazil and sing in Portuguese, they are bound to remind you of the late ’60s Tropicalia movement, but singer-guitarist Benke Ferraz told the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot that music of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett was an even bigger influence on Boogarins. All of that was audible as Boogarins dug into its colorful rock symphonies on Monday night.
The Chicago Jazz Festival‘s organizers have been presenting free concerts in various spots around the city, calling the series “Neighborhood Nights.” This past Saturday, Aug. 9, the series featured the superb drummer Michael Zerang, playing in front of Logan Square’s Illinois Centennial Monument with a band called Blue Lights. This was a stellar lineup of leading jazz musicians from Chicago — reedists Mars Williams and Dave Rempis, cornetist Josh Berman and bassist Kent Kessler — and it sounded lovely in that park. The group played some original compositions, but it closed with a recognizable melody from the past, “Misirlou.”
It was cool to see bands from other parts of the world playing loud rock music last Friday night, Aug. 8, at the Hideout, as well as a couple of the Chicago bands that are regulars in the local scene. The evening started with Sultan Bathery, a group from Vicenza, Italy, who cranked out riffs like a punk version of a 1950s roadhouse band. Then came Chicago’s Uh Bones with more of a 1960s vibe. As the guys in Uh Bones started to turn off their amps, some enthusiastic fans shouted, “Play that cover! ‘Gloria’!” And so the band did an encore, playing the classic 1960s song by Van Morrison and Them, “Gloria,” which was a staple of garage-rock gigs back in that era. The song can still get a crowd going. I videotaped about a minute of it on Friday:
Next up was Make-Overs, a guitar-and-drums duo from South Africa, whose music was the most modern-sounding of anything all night, but still very rough and jagged, keeping with the spirit of things. Another guitar-and-drums duo, Chicago’s ubiquitous White Mystery, closed out the night with a typically raucous performance, their red curls flying.
A shrine to the dead
While I was at the Hideout, I snapped this shot of a memorial shrine in the front bar, with pictures of longtime Hideout patron Daniel Blue, left, and Studs Terkel.
The Baseball Project played last Thursday, Aug. 7, at the Abbey Pub. This is an indie-rock supergroup of sorts, comprising Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus 5, Peter Buck and Mike Mills of R.E.M., Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate and Linda Pitmon, who also plays in Wynn’s band, the Miracle 3. All of their songs are about baseball. Many of them are quite catchy, with an 1980s jangle-rock style. Buck did not appear in the show at the Abbey Pub, but it was a fun show, ending with Mills singing the R.E.M. classic “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville,” some of which I captured on video: