Best Films of 2016

1. Moonlight

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(Barry Jenkins, U.S.) — A masterpiece on many levels, the deeply engaging and empathetic Moonlight has extraordinary writing, acting, directing, cinematography, sound and music. The central character barely speaks a word at times, but the three actors playing him at various ages still manage to communicate so much with their expressions and the way they carry themselves. It’s entirely persuasive that they’re all the same person, even through major physical changes.Throughout all three chapters, Chiron’s remarkable eyes watch the world around him with a guarded, wary shyness. On one level, this is a film about an African-American’s experiences; on another, it’s a film about a gay youth’s sexual awakening. Like the best stories, it feels very specific and universal at the same time. I felt an especially strong connection to Chiron in the middle chapter, where he faces bullying as a teenager; it brought back memories of just how cruel children can be to one another. It’s also refreshing to see a movie portraying drug dealers and drug addicts as complex people who defy stereotypes. In the end, Moonlight is a beautiful portrait of a boy — and later, a man — discovering his own identity.

2. Toni Erdmann

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(Maren Ade, Germany) — Exceedingly odd and utterly original, this German comedy delivers unexpected cringes and smiles at every turn — and a few truly hilarious moments. Very few films have ever focused on the relationship between an adult woman and her father; that alone would make this intriguing. But it’s a deeper experience than that. A synopsis might read like the script for a piece of performance art, but even in its most bizarre moments, Toni Erdmann comes across as authentically human. (An American remake is in the works; why bother?)

3. Manchester by the Sea

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(Kenneth Lonergan, U.S.) — A devastating story of how to live with grief and guilt. Every moment of Lonergan’s script feels honest, and the acting is just as superb. Casey Affleck gives a subtle performance as a taciturn man who’s shielding himself from the world. The moment on the street between Affleck and Michelle Williams — when the pent-up emotions burst into plain sight — is an all-time great scene.

4. The Lobster

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(Yorgos Lanthimos, U.S.) — The Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos proved he was a master of the absurd with his great films Dogtooth and Alps. In his first English-language movie, he continues in the same disturbing and surreally humorous style, creating yet another world with its own set of demented rules. This time, his alternate reality works brilliantly as a commentary on courtship and romantic relationships in our real world.

5. I Am Not Your Negro

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(Raoul Peck, U.S.) — This thought-provoking and emotionally powerful film about race in America is an innovative variation on the documentary form. In some ways, it’s a portrait of the author James Baldwin, but it’s really more of a personal and poetic essay by Baldwin himself — brought to life on the screen with archival footage as well as actor Samuel L. Jackson reading Baldwin’s words. There’s a striking clarity to Baldwin’s thoughts, and Peck’s movie shows how relevant they remain in today’s America.

6. Tower

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(Keith Maitland, U.S.) — Another film that stretches the boundaries of the documentary form. The brilliant Tower uses animation and actors’ voices to re-create many scenes from the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas in Austin, blending those simulations with actual movies, photos and audio from the horrifying historical event. The sniper, Charles Whitman, is not the focus of Tower. Instead, the movie shows what was happening on the ground as he fired his rifle. With the terror and tragedy playing out almost in real time, stirring stories of heroism and survival emerge.

7. April and the Extraordinary World

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(Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci, France) — A delightful animated adventure, filled with memorable characters and clever visions of a steampunk world parallel to our own.

8. Sieranevada

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(Cristi Puiu, Romania) — A dysfunctional family’s gathering for a memorial service goes disastrously wrong in this claustrophobic black comedy, which screened last fall at the Chicago International Film Festival. Some viewers may find Sieranevada to be taxing and exasperating; to me, it was a mesmerizing picture of a taxing and exasperating ordeal.

9. Arrival

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(Denis Villeneuve, U.S.) — A thoughtful and emotionally engaging science-fiction drama anchored by a typically great Amy Adams performance, Arrival subverts our expectations of how time unfolds on the screen.

10. Paterson

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(Jim Jarmusch, U.S.) — A poetic film about a poet, this is an almost perfect distillation of Jarmusch’s cinematic style. Is Paterson a realistic depiction of a New Jersey community or an idealized vision of what America could be? Whatever — I feel like living inside this movie’s world.

Runners-up:

Loving (Jeff Nichols, U.S.)
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Juho Kuosmanen, Finland)
The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
Lost in Paris (Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon, Belgium/France)
Fences (Denzel Washington, U.S.)
The Garbage Helicopter (Jonas Selberg Augustsén, Sweden)
Hail, Caesar! (Ethan and Joel Coen, U.S.)
20th Century Women (Mike Mills, U.S.)
The Witch (Robert Eggers, U.S.)
Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols, U.S.)
Graduation (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)
O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, U.S.)
Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie, U.S.)
La La Land (Damien Chazelle, U.S.)
The Red Turtle (Michaël Dudok de Wit, Netherlands)
Jackie (Pablo Larraín, U.S.)
One More Time With Feeling (Andrew Domnik, U.K.)
Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke, China)
Notfilm (Ross Lipman, U.S.)
Silence (Martin Scorsese, U.S.)

Favorite Concerts of 2016

1. Bill Callahan

Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan

Sept. 26 during the Cropped Out festival at the American Turners Club in Louisville.
After 7 p.m., as the sun was going down, Callahan walked out onto the American Turner Club’s deck next to the Ohio River, where a small crowd had gathered for his performance. As Callahan played, insects along the rivers buzzed and chirped. Boats passed by on the river. Birds flying in V-shaped formations crossed the sky overheard. Throughout it all, Callahan sang with his typical poise, quirky sense of timing and wry humor. The astounding guitarist Matt Kinsey coaxed incredible sounds out of his Gibson SG electric guitar, almost like a second voice duetting with Callahan. What a transporting and unforgettable hour it was. See my blog post and photos. (Honorable mention: The Callahan concert I saw a few days later at Constellation in Chicago was also damn good.)

2. Case/Lang/Veirs

Aug. 7 at the Chicago Theatre.
Three terrific singer-songwriters — Neko Case, k.d. lang and Laura Veirs — teamed up for a album last year, and their concert was just as collaborative and warm-spirited. A special night featuring three amazing voices.

3. Ragamala

Sunrise as the Sama Venkatesaiah Balakrishna Troupe plays
Sunrise as the Sama Venkatesaiah Balakrishna Troupe plays

Sept. 9-10 at the Chicago Cultural Center.
A 15-hour concert of Indian classical music, stretching from 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 9, until 9 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 10, with sitars, tablas, flutes, violins and singers sounding all night under the magnificent Tiffany Dome in Preston Bradley Hall. The music was mesmerizing, beautiful and astonishing. Many of the pieces that were performed were intended to be heard at the specific times they were played, such as ragas for the “coming dawn,” which were heard around 4:30 a.m. The pink hues of the rising sun trickled into the grand room after 6 a.m., glinting in the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome. It was a gorgeous sight to behold, all the more so with such incredible musical accompaniment. See my blog post and photos.

4. Le Butcherettes

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March 3 at Subterranean.
Le Butcherettes’ beautiful frontwoman Teri Gender Bender (aka Teresa Suárez) strides around the stage like she owns it — rapidly changing her facial expressions from wide-mouthed, wide-eyed insanity to gentle smiles as she switched between guitar and keyboards. See my blog post and photos. See my blog post and photos.

5. Joan Shelley

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Dec. 3 at the Hideout.
Shelley’s voice was stunningly beautiful at the Hideout show, especially when she sang a cappella versions of two traditional folk songs: “Darlin’ Don’t You Know That’s Wrong” by Addie Graham and the chillingly macabre “Little Margaret,” which closes with the lyrics: “Three times he kissed her cold corpsy lips/And fell in her arms asleep.” Honorable mention goes to Shelley’s lovely set at the Cropped Out festival in Louisville. Like the set by Bill Callahan, it was performed at sunset on the banks of the Ohio River. Both times I saw Shelley in 2016, the beauty of her song “Not Over by Half” brought tears to my eyes.
See my blog post and photos.

6. LCD Soundsystem

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July 31 during Lollapalooza at Grant Park.
The crowd around me was dancing with joy at the end. See my blog post and photos.

7. Ryley Walker

 

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Aug. 25 at the Empty Bottle.
This felt like a quintessential night of live Chicago music: seeing Tortoise at Millennium Park, followed by Ryley Walker’s late concert at the Empty Bottle. (Consider the Tortoise show an honorable mention here.) Walker and his collaborators know how to stretch a song out, to revel in grooves, to explore a chord progression or melodic motif in ways that are hypnotic and enchanting. This set was a marvel. See my blog post and photos.

8. The Flat Five and Chris Ligon

Oct. 22 at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
As I wrote in my album review, the debut album by the Flat Five, It’s a World of Love and Hope, is a strange and wonderful thing. I doubt you’ll hear any other record this year that sounds anything like this. And this performance was especially great, with an opening set by Flat Five member Scott Ligon’s brother, Chris — the eccentric genius who wrote all of the songs on the album. (Honorable mention: The Flat Five also played a lovely show at the Green Mill.)

9. The Necks

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March 27 at Constellation.
The Necks’ minimalist motifs gradually transformed, growing in volume and intensity, but a steadiness remained at the heart of the music — each musician closely following the lead of the others but then pulling the trio in a slightly new direction. It was a wonder to see and hear. See my blog post and photos.

10. Reigning Sound

Reigning Sound
Reigning Sound

Sept. 29 during Goner Fest at the Hi Tone in Memphis.
The excitement of the crowd was palpable. Maybe it was because this was a hometown show for the band. Or maybe people were just thrilled to see this version of the band. People were dancing and singing along all around me, and the enthusiasm was contagious. And as Greg Cartwright sang one quick masterpiece after another, it reminded me of just how impressive those Reigning Sound albums are, with tightly wounded rock tunes reminiscent of the 1960s, packing memorable melodies into every minute. See my blog post and photos.

Special prize: Robbie Fulks

Monday-night residency at the Hideout.
So many excellent nights of music and repartee. If I had a choose a favorite from 2016, it might be Fulks’ show with Linda Gail Lewis on Aug. 29. Jerry Lee Lewis’ sister sang and played the piano very much in the style of her more famous brother — including many covers of his hits — with Fulks, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough and Alex Hall (aka those guys from the Flat Five and the Western Elstons) providing just the right accompaniment. Lewis kept smiling, and so did I.

Honorable mentions:

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Feb. 13 at Rockefeller Chapel
Neko Case and Robbie Fulks, Feb. 15 at the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove
eighth blackbird with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, March 26 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
Waco Brothers and The Sadies, May 21 at Wire in Berwyn
Savages, July 16 during the Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park
Kamasi Washington, July 17 during the Pitchfork Music Festival at Union Park
King Sunny Ade, July 18 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park
Vulgar Boatmen with Walter Salas-Humara, July 27 at Martyrs’ Radiohead, July 29 during Lollapalooza in Grant Park
Mbongwana Star, Aug. 11 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park Wilco and Twin Peaks, Aug. 21 at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park Guided By Voices, Sept. 3 at Metro Eleventh Dream Day, Sept. 10 at the Hideout
Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society + Bitchin Bajas and Emmet Kelly with Joshua Abrams Quintet, Nov. 15 at the Hideout Robyn Hitchcock and Emma Swift, Nov. 17 at City Winery
Kawabata Makoto & Tatsuya Nakatani, Nov. 29 at the Empty Bottle

Favorite Albums of 2016

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1. David Bowie: Blackstar

The year began with the sound of David Bowie, sounding as alien and inventive as he ever had. The mysterious and wondrous title track that opened his new album, “Blackstar,” arrived first in the form of a 10-minute video — a beautiful science-fiction film in miniature, really. Bowie, who was as famous for transforming his look as he was for transforming his sound, appeared in the new video with one of his most haunting guises. A swath of fabric resembling a bandage or part of a mummy’s wrapping was wound around his head, covering the eyes. Buttons substituted for the eyes, like blind dots drawn on the face of a blind man. Halfway through the epic song, Bowie sang:

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a meter and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried:
I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar…

And then of course, just two days after the album Blackstar was released, Bowie died of cancer. The news was a surprising shock, and it cast the Blackstar album in a new light. Suddenly, that record, which I’d already find beguiling, read like Bowie’s farewell note to the world. “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” he sang in another song, “Lazarus.” Bowie didn’t sound alien so much as he sounded angelic. His death — and the outpouring of grief and tributes from his fans — set the tone for a year that was filled with mourning. Many noted public figures passed away, including the musical icons Prince and Leonard Cohen as well as many other great talents — ​the death of Sharon Jones hit me particularly hard.

Truth be told, I set aside Blackstar for several months after Bowie’s death. When I returned it later in the year, it sounded otherworldly and timeless — an art-rock masterwork — but also the perfect soundtrack for this strange and unsettling year. It’s my choice for my favorite album of the year. And for once, my No. 1 album is a front-runner in the critical sweepstakes (judging from Rob Mitchum’s spreadsheet compiling various publications’ “album of the year” lists).
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2. Cate Le Bon: Crab Day

This Welsh-born singer-songwriter’s record masterfully mixes twitchy guitar riffs, herky-jerky krautrock rhythms and Kurt Weill-esque cabaret tunes into her own distinctive music. The way Le Bon sings the curious chorus “I’m a dirty attic,” it sounds like both a confession and a defiant proclamation. catelebon.com
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3. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds: Skeleton Tree

Another album of mourning, this is Cave at his most pensive and soulful, recorded as Cave wrestled with grief in the wake of his teenage son’s death. The film One More Time With Feeling showed Cave and his bandmates at work on this album, documenting its difficult birth. Through this music, Cave seems to be searching for a way to heal his sorrow. Like the best of sad music, somehow it made me feel better to hear it.
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4. PJ Harvey: The Hope Six Demolition Project

Harvey continues evolving as an artist, taking her sound in new directions as she addresses the world with socially and politically conscious lyrics inspired by trips to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington, D.C. The arrangements — recorded during a residency where visitors observed the sessions through one-way glass — sound as if they’re built around the quirky phrasings of how Harvey sings her words. And when the backup singers chime in, the tunes take on the rousing power of protest anthems and gospel numbers.
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5. Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool

It would be a strange thing for Radiohead to release an album and for me not to include it in my top 10. Simply put, Radiohead has been one of the world’s best rock bands — and one of my favorites — for many years now. I’m not sure that the group broke much new ground with this record, but it continued creating the sort of melancholic and mysterious music I’ve come to expect from Radiohead. It’s artful and haunting.
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6. The Flat Five: It’s a World of Love and Hate

One of my favorite live acts in Chicago finally got around to making a record, and it was delightfully odd — and just plain delightful. (Read my album review.)
theflatfivechicago.com
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7. Robbie Fulks: Upland Stories

This Chicago country and folk musician — so damn talented as a guitarist, singer, songwriter and raconteur — followed up his fantastic 2013 album Gone Away with another superb collection. It’s a wonderful distillation of what he does best: telling stories filled with wisdom, humor and distinct characters, each sketch just a few minutes long, but so memorable and melodic. (I was present at the Hideout when this video of “Alabama at Night” was recorded, and you can see me near the end, clapping in the audience.)
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8. Charles Bradley: Changes

This soul singer, whose success as a recording artist came late in his life, opens his latest album with a spoken monologue, calling himself “a brother that came from the hard licks of life” and proclaiming that America, for all its faults, “represents love for all humanity and the world.” That leads into a short version of “God Bless America,” setting the tone for the rest of the album. Bradley pours everything he’s got into these powerful tunes. On Oct. 4, the 67-year-old Bradley announced that doctors had discovered a cancerous tumor in his stomach, forcing him to cancel a concert tour. Let’s hope he gets the medical care he needs and keeps making music.
thecharlesbradley.com
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9. Jeff Parker: The New Breed

The rhythms, textures and arrangements on this record set it apart from the other jazz music I’ve heard. Parker, a guitarist and composer who’s also a member of the experimental rock band Tortoise, creates intriguing sonic landscapes here. The album features bassist and recording engineer Paul Bryan (known for his work with Aimee Mann), saxophonist Josh Johnson and drummer Jamire Williams, with Parker’s daughter Ruby Parker singing on one song. It feels like a story is unfolding over the course of these songs, something like the soundtrack to a film with shifting images of a city. At least, that’s what runs through my mind.
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10. Twin Peaks: Down In Heaven

These young Chicagoans are a rock band in the truest sense of the term — trading off lead vocals, piling on the guitar riffs and other musical flourishes, and writing catchy songs that hark back to the classics of the 1960s. They do it all with exuberance and smarts.
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Runners-up

Angel Olsen, My Woman
Horse Lords, Interventions
Kevin Morby, Singing Saw
Oh Boland, Spilt Milk
Teenage Fanclub, Here
Drive-By Truckers, American Band
case/lang/veirs, case/lang/veirs
Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth
Lydia Loveless, Real
Ryley Walker, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung
Wussy, Forever Sounds
Big Thief, Masterpiece
Mekons, Existentialism
Ultimate Painting, Dusk
Wilco, Schmilco
Mitski, Puberty 2
M. Ward, More Rain
Chivalrous Amoekons, Fanatic Voyage
Whitney, Light Upon the Lake
Teletype, Spontaneity
Chook Race, Around the House
Black Mountain, IV
Bonnie Prince Billy, Pond Scum
Kitchen’s Floor, Battle of Brisbane
Cross Record, Wabi-Sabi
Colin Stetson, Sorrow: A Reimagining of Góreckis 3rd Symphony
Henryk Górecki, Symphony No. 4: Tansman Episodes
Eric Bachmann, Eric Bachmann
Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker
Lucinda Williams, The Ghosts of Highway 20
The Handsome Family, Unseen
Those Pretty Wrongs, Those Pretty Wrongs
Waco Brothers, Going Down in History
Fruit Bats, Absolute Loser
Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
Savages, Adore Life
Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate
Eleanor Friedberger, New View
Freakwater, Scheherazade
Thee Oh Sees, A Weird Exits
Zerodent, Zerodent
Klaus Johann Grobe, Spagat der Liebe
Steve Gunn, Eyes on the Lines
Doug Tuttle, It Calls on Me
Bob Mould, Patch the Sky
Chance the Rapper, Coloring Book
John Prine, For Better, Or Worse
Konono N°1 and Batida, Konono N°1 meets Batida
Morgan Delt, Phase Zero
Bad Sports, Living With Secrets
Rob Mazurek & Emmett Kelly, Alien Flower Sutra
Guided By Voices, Please Be Honest

Gonerfest and Memphis

After going to Gonerfest in 2014, I knew that I’d want to come back to this annual Memphis punk and garage-rock shindig. Chicago has its share of lively mosh pits, but the Gonerfest crowd in Memphis tends to be a bit more raucous. Plus, the small-scale fest is a great excuse to visit Memphis, a city filled with musical history and fantastic barbecue.

Reigning Sound
Reigning Sound

I missed Gonerfest in 2015, but returned for this year’s festivities, which ran from Sept. 29 through Oct. 2. The highlights for me included seeing the original lineup of Reigning Sound (Greg Cartwright, Greg Roberson, Jeremy Scott and Alex Greene). I’ve seen this band several times in Chicago and enjoyed the shows, but none of them compared with this set. The excitement of the crowd was palpable. Maybe it was because this was a hometown show for the band. Or maybe people were just thrilled to see this version of the band. People were dancing and singing along all around me, and the enthusiasm was contagious. And as Cartwright sang one quick masterpiece after another, it reminded me of just how impressive those Reigning Sound albums are, with tightly wounded rock tunes reminiscent of the 1960s, packing memorable melodies into every minute.

Nots
Nots

Nots, an all-female Memphis band who are regulars in the Goner scene, knocked my socks off with their energetic late-afternoon set that served as the festival’s opening ceremonies.

Black Lips
Black Lips

Black Lips were the headliners on Night 2, whipping the crowd into a similar frenzy with their singalong rockers. The Blind Shake were even fiercer. Other bands that sparked intense moshing included Sick Thoughts.

Chook Race
Chook Race

On the lighter side, the Australian band Chook Race (which is on the Chicago label Trouble in Mind) made delightfully pretty chamber pop.

Zerodent
Zerodent

Groups from Down Under always have a strong presence at Gonerfest, and this year was no exception. During Saturday’s daytime party at Murphy’s — which has been my favorite part of the festival both times I’ve gone — I discovered a band from Perth called Zerodent, which slammed through post-punk songs in a style that reminded me of the Fall and Royal Headache.

Bloody Show
Bloody Show

Other high points on Saturday afternoon included Bloody Show, a band from Columbus, Ohio, playing noisy garage rock with swagger and flair.

Oh Boland
Oh Boland

And Oh Boland, a trio from Tuam, Ireland, blew me away with rambunctious yet tuneful songs. Later at the merch table, I bought Oh Boland’s new album, but the band hadn’t received a shipment of album covers, so the drummer drew the cover and wrote out the song titles on a blank cover.

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While I was in Memphis, I took in sights around town — you can see my photos of Memphis on Flickr. I lucked into a chance to look around Ardent Studios with none other than Big Star drummer Jody Stephens as my guide, tagging along on a private tour he had already scheduled. (Though I didn’t know it at the time, later that day, I stopped into Shangri-La Records and discovered that Stephens has a new album with his band Those Pretty Wrongs, a nice collection of ballads in the Big Star tradition.)

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Finally, on Sunday, as I prepared to head back to Chicago, I went to Al Green’s church. Read about that experience and see a video here.

My photos from Gonerfest are in several separate galleries:

Day 1 — opening ceremonies at Cooper Young Gazebo (Nots) and nighttime show at Hi Tone (emcee Jim Dandy, Hash Redactor, Chook Race, Counter Intuits, Useless Eaters, Fred & Toody, Reigning Sound)

Day 2 daytime party at Memphis Made Brewing (LSDOGS, Kool 100s, Trampoline Team, Pity)

Day 2 nighttime show at Hi Tone (Opposite Sex, Aquarian Blood, Power, Buck Biloxi, Blind Shake, Black Lips)

Day 3 daytime party at Murphy’s (Casual Burn, Bloodbags, Fire Retarded, Archie & The Bunkers, Iron Head, Zerodent, Oh Boland, Bloody Show, The World, Spray Paint)

Day 3 nighttime show at Hi Tone (emcee Tom Scharpling, Couteau Latex, Sick Thoughts, Bloodshot Bill, Control Freaks, Midnight Snaxxx, Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds)

Cropped Out: Day 2

This is my report from Saturday, Sept. 24, the second day of the 2016 Cropped Out music festival in Louisville, Kentucky. To see my report and photos from the first day, click here.

Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan

Bill Callahan’s performance was the highlight of the Cropped Out festival’s second day, Saturday, Sept. 24, in Louisville. After 7 p.m., as the sun was going down, Callahan walked out onto the American Turner Club’s deck next to the Ohio River, where a small crowd had gathered for his performance. I was sitting right in front of the stage when Callahan stepped around me, casually remarking, “Watch out. There’s a piece of cheese.” Looking down, I saw a small chunk of pizza sitting next to me. After that odd little greeting, Callahan gave a breathtakingly beautiful performance — accompanied, as he often is, by the astounding guitarist Matt Kinsey, as well as bassist Jaime Zuverza (who’d played earlier in the day with his own band, Hidden Ritual).

As they played, insects along the rivers buzzed and chirped. Boats passed by on the river. Birds flying in V-shaped formations crossed the sky overheard. Callahan remarked that the temperature was perfect. In this enchanting setting, as dusk fell, Callahan aptly sang a few songs that mentioned rivers. His set list included songs from his superb recent albums Apocalypse and Dream River, as well as covers of Grateful Dead and Carter Family songs, finishing with a few of the tunes that Callahan performed years ago under the moniker Smog. Throughout it all, Callahan sang with his typical poise, quirky sense of timing and wry humor. Kinsey coaxed incredible sounds out of his Gibson SG electric guitar, almost like a second voice duetting with Callahan.

What a transporting and unforgettable hour it was.

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Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan
Matt Kinsey, playing with Bill Callahan
Matt Kinsey, playing with Bill Callahan
Matt Kinsey, playing with Bill Callahan
Matt Kinsey, playing with Bill Callahan
Jaime Zuverza, playing with Bill Callahan
Jaime Zuverza, playing with Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan
Bill Callahan at Constellation
Bill Callahan at Constellation

SET LIST: Riding for the Feeling / Spring / America! / Easy Wind (Grateful Dead cover) / Drover / Rococo Zephyr / Walk that Lonesome Valley (Carter Family cover) / I’m New Here (Smog song) / Say Valley Maker (Smog song) / Let Me See the Colts (Smog song)

(I saw another Callahan concert two days later, the early set on Sept. 26 at Constellation in Chicago. The set list was similar, with just a few differences, and Zuverza wasn’t present. It was another wonderful performance, even if it lacked the idyllic natural environment of Callahan’s Cropped Out show.)

Cropped Out’s second day started off with an odd, jokey set by Vern — more like performance comedy art than rock concert.

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Vern
Vern
Vern
Vern
Vern
Vern

The New Zealand band Opposite Sex followed, with an intriguing performance, showing the energy of punk rock but with a variety of other influences thrown into the mix. (The group’s recent album Hamlet even includes a couple of quieter songs played on piano.)

Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex
Opposite Sex

The next band up, Felchers, hadn’t been scheduled to perform on the Spooky Beach riverside deck, but it was one of only two stages with working electricity in the early afternoon, so that’s where they ended up. This Kentucky played straight-ahead hardcore punk, growl-shouting phrases like, “Oh my, this is unsettling!”

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Felchers
Felchers
Felchers
Felchers

The Louisville band Insect Policy mixed jazzy art-rock improvisation with punk-style vocals. One of the musicians was wearing an Acid Mothers Temple T-shirt, which gave a pretty good indication of Insect Policy’s influences.

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Insect Policy
Insect Policy
Insect Policy
Insect Policy
Insect Policy
Insect Policy

Creeping Pink played dreamy shoegaze rock, with vocals that blended into the guitars. (On Facebook, the Los Angeles band calls its stuff “Tape Glam.”)

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Creeping Pink
Creeping Pink
Creeping Pink
Creeping Pink
Creeping Pink
Creeping Pink
Creeping Pink
Creeping Pink
Ancient Filth
Ancient Filth
Ancient Filth
Ancient Filth
Ancient Filth
Ancient Filth
Laffing Gas
Laffing Gas
Laffing Gas
Laffing Gas
Laffing Gas
Laffing Gas
Laffing Gas
Laffing Gas

On the Spooky Beach deck, Chicago artist Matchess (aka Whitney Johnson) performed a lovely sonic collage, with recorded sounds blending into her vocals, keyboards and violin.

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Matchess
Matchess
Matchess
Matchess
Matchess
Matchess

As I mentioned above, Bill Callahan bassist Jaime Zuverza also fronted his own band at Cropped Out — Hidden Ritual — playing dark, brooding rock that reminded me of Protomartyr and the Cure.

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Hidden Ritual
Hidden Ritual
Hidden Ritual
Hidden Ritual
Hidden Ritual
Hidden Ritual

One of my favorite bands on Saturday was Bugg, apparently from Bloomington, Indiana. Searching online, I’ve found only scant information about Bugg, other than a demo posted on YouTube. Bugg’s pop-punk was bursting with energy. At moments, the group reminded me of the Replacements, and then the guys really won me over by doing a cover of the classic Guided By Voices tune “Bulldog Skin.”

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Bugg
Bugg
Bugg
Bugg

Power, a trio from Melbourne, Australia, lived up to its name, playing metal-punk riffs with intensity and precision.

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Power
Power
Power
Power
Power
Power

After Bill Callahan’s astonishing set came a complete change of pace: the St. Louis punk band Black Panties, led by a frontman clad in a black outfit, complete with a face-obscuring mask. The crowd inside Turners Tavern went wild, setting the tone for the rest of the evening, which was marked by much moshing. All of the sets during this late portion of Cropped Out’s second day, Pissed Jeans was the most iconoclastic and unpredictable, clearly having a great deal of fun. Saturday night also featured the festival’s only hip-hop, the longtime rapper Kool Keith, who got much of the crowd dancing.

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Black Panties
Black Panties

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Black Panties
Black Panties
Black Panties
Black Panties
Kool Keith
Kool Keith
Home Blitz
Home Blitz
Lumpy and the Dumpers
Lumpy and the Dumpers
Lumpy and the Dumpers
Lumpy and the Dumpers
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans
Pissed Jeans

Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, a rock band from Columbus, Ohio, that stopped playing back in 2000, was back together at Cropped Out. I recall seeing this group open for Guided By Voices in 1997, and Saturday’s performance evoked that era of indie rock. The band sounded excellent.

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Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments
Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments
Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments
Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments
Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments
Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments
Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments
Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments

Cropped Out concluded with a strong performance by the Austin, Texas, post-punk band Spray Paint. A long two days of music came to an end with a jolt of energy.

Spray Paint
Spray Paint
Spray Paint
Spray Paint

Cropped Out: Day 1

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Cropped Out feels like a homemade music festival. The website for the annual event in Louisville, Kentucky, hasn’t been thoroughly updated for a couple of years. Although the site displays pictures of the 2016 festival lineup, if you click on the drop-down menu for “FESTIVAL,” the most recent info listed is from 2014. Ticket sales are handled through some guy’s PayPal account. ($70 for a weekend pass.) Even the description of the venue is a bit sketchy: American Turners Club? What is that exactly? So, don’t think of Cropped Out as being anything like the bigger, more commercial music festivals. This is not Lollapalooza. It’s DIY.

croppedoutposterI wasn’t sure exactly what to expect when I drove to Louisville last week for Cropped Out, but the Sept. 23-24 festival turned out to be a rather delightful experience. The American Turners Club — a German-American organization’s center with a swimming pool, boat club, gymnastics group, etc. — is a compound along the southern shore of the Ohio River. The place had a feel of a VFW hall crossed with a run-down athletic center. Glamorous, it was not, but the location near the river gave it a pastoral charm. However, the men’s room had a horror-movie vibe, with a urinal trough and blinking neon light next to an oddly vacant room containing a chair.) And the Cropped Out organizers decked out the whole venue with garish Halloween inflatable decorations, bedsheets spray-painted with the names of the various stages, and a bunch of comic-book-style drawings. (Like the one next to the bar that showed someone passed out and surrounded by emptied bottles.)

img_9579There were four stages, including one in a covered outdoor space — where a large monster with outstretched arms hung on the ceiling above the bands. Upstairs, the Turners Tavern hosted indoor performances, including several punk shows (by bands like Black Panties and Lumpy and the Dumpers) that quickly turned into wild mosh pits. My favorite spot was “Spooky Beach,” the deck near the Ohio River shore where several artists performed throughout the weekend. It was sunny and hot both days, and this little stage was an idyllic setting for beautiful performances by Bill Callahan, Joan Shelley, Matchess and others.

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The festival ran on schedule, with only a few minor hitches. (Early on Saturday, a transformer blew out, knocking out the power throughout most of the center, but there was enough electricity to run two stages. And within a couple of hours, the utility company crews had everything fixed.) I’d estimate that a few hundred people attended the festival throughout the weekend. It was always pretty easy to walk around, and to get spots close to the stages. There was no security to speak of, and fans were allowed to walk around on just about all sides of the stages.

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I didn’t get press credentials. I’m not even sure if they were offered, or who was handling publicity for the festival. I just bought a ticket, brought my camera, and took pictures as much as I desired, without anyone stopping me. (That’s the way I like it.)

img_9607The closest thing to a corporate sponsor sign was a tombstone on the roof deck, saying that Cropped Out “is survived” by sponsorship from a list local businesses. It was positioned next to an electric organ, which anyone was welcome to play.

The audience looked like the sort of people I see at indie rock and experimental music shows in Chicago, or in other cities where I’ve attended such concerts: Mostly young people, along with a few middle-aged music aficionados (gray-haired folks like myself). A lot of tattoos and long hair. A fair amount of these people seemed to be from Louisville or nearby. As one of the musicians performing at Cropped Out remarked (I’m forgetting exactly who said this), Kentucky is not just bluegrass music.

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Dry Summers
Dry Summers
Dry Summers
Dry Summers
Dry Summers
Dry Summers

Three of the bands I saw early on Friday, Sept. 23, were Louisville locals, and they offered a good sample of some of the underground music being made in the city today. Dry Summers played off-kilter rock songs with a loopy, cheerful vibe. Pleasure Boys thundered and howled its heavy psychedelic music — epic, but with a slightly goofy air about it, reminding me of early Black Mountain. And Cereal Glyphs impressed me with melodic, psychedelic tunes, a little reminiscent of the 1960s Nuggets records. Other strong performances I saw early on Friday included Paper Claw, hailing from Lafayette, Indiana, a band I definitely want to hear more from.

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Pleasure Boys
Pleasure Boys
Paper Claw
Paper Claw
Paper Claw
Paper Claw
Cereal Glyphs
Cereal Glyphs
Cereal Glyphs
Cereal Glyphs
Cereal Glyphs
Cereal Glyphs
Cereal Glyphs
Cereal Glyphs

Performing at “Spooky Beach,” Louisville experimental artist Aaron Rosenblum built a sonic landscape using birdcalls, train noises and electronics.

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Aaron Rosenblum
Aaron Rosenblum
Aaron Rosenblum
Aaron Rosenblum

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Beat Awfuls, a band from Lexington, Kentucky, played indie rock with some of the tunefulness of Guided By Voices.

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Beat Awfuls
Beat Awfuls
Beat Awfuls
Beat Awfuls
Beat Awfuls
Beat Awfuls

Giving Up from Garner, Iowa, played strange, intriguing art-punk with lots of spirit and energy.

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Giving Up
Giving Up
Giving Up
Giving Up
Giving Up
Giving Up
Giving Up
Giving Up
Giving Up
Giving Up

As I expected, Louisville singer-songwriter Joan Shelley’s performance on Friday was a highlight of Cropped Out. Adding to the beauty of her delicate folk songs — which she sang and played guitar, with perfect accompaniment by guitarist Nathan Salsburg — was the setting. Shelley performed on that deck next to the Ohio River, with the sun going down behind her. It was entrancing and exquisite.

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Joan Shelley with Nathan Salsburg
Joan Shelley with Nathan Salsburg
Joan Shelley with Nathan Salsburg
Joan Shelley with Nathan Salsburg
Joan Shelley with Nathan Salsburg
Joan Shelley with Nathan Salsburg
Joan Shelley with Nathan Salsburg
Joan Shelley with Nathan Salsburg
Joan Shelley
Joan Shelley
Joan Shelley with Nathan Salsburg
Joan Shelley with Nathan Salsburg
Joan Shelley with Nathan Salsburg
Joan Shelley with Nathan Salsburg

Here’s my video of the final song from Joan Shelley’s performance, “Not Over By Half”:

Quilt Boy
Quilt Boy

The festival included one jazz performance, by saxophonist Joe McPhee and pedal-steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. (Yes, a pedal-steel guitarist playing jazz, and in a somewhat unorthodox style — it was entrancing.)

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John McPhee
John McPhee
Susan Alcorn
Susan Alcorn
Cherry Blossoms
Cherry Blossoms
Cherry Blossoms
Cherry Blossoms
Cherry Blossoms
Cherry Blossoms

After darkness fell on Friday, Fred and Toody Cole — two-thirds of the punk band Dead Moon — performed their old songs at Spooky Beach, with a couple of bright white lights illuminating their faces amid the gloom.

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Fred and Toody Cole (of Dead Moon)
Fred and Toody Cole (of Dead Moon)
Fred and Toody Cole (of Dead Moon)
Fred and Toody Cole (of Dead Moon)
Fred and Toody Cole (of Dead Moon)
Fred and Toody Cole (of Dead Moon)
Fred Cole
Fred Cole
Toody Cole
Toody Cole
Toody Cole
Toody Cole

The Dead C, a New Zealand noise-rock band that’s been together since 1986, performed in the evening under the “Phreedom Hall” awning — or two-thirds of the group performed, anyway. Drummer Robbie Yeats wasn’t present, but guitarists Bruce Russell and Michael Morley conjured up a storm of loud, feedback-drenched textures.

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The Dead C
The Dead C
The Dead C
The Dead C
The Dead C
The Dead C
The Dead C
The Dead C
The Dead C
The Dead C
John Bellows
John Bellows

Friday’s final performance was inside Turners Tavern, where a crowd gathered around Bitchin Bajas and Bonnie “Prince” Billy as they performed mesmerizing, dream-like chants from their recent album together, Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Bitchin Bajas
Bitchin Bajas
Bonnie "Prince" Billy
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Bonnie "Prince" Billy
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Bonnie "Prince" Billy
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Bonnie "Prince" Billy
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Bitchin Bajas
Bitchin Bajas
Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Bitchin Bajas
Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Bitchin Bajas

See my blog post and photos from the second day of Cropped Out.

Ragamala

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Ragamala was an epic experience — a 15-hour concert of Indian classical music, stretching from 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 9, until 9 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 10, with sitars, tablas, flutes, violins and singers sounding all night under the magnificent Tiffany Dome in the Chicago Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall.

This was the fourth year that the Chicago Cultural Center has hosted an all-night Ragamala as part of World Music Festival Chicago. After attending a few hours of last year’s Ragamala, I decided to see the whole event this time. Learning from experience, I brought a pillow. So yes, I did doze off during a few of the performances, but I think the music still penetrated my subconscious brain.

Over the course of this Ragamala — the opening night of World Music Fest — I heard mesmerizing, beautiful and astonishing music from India’s Hindustani and Carnatic classical music traditions. Many of the pieces that were performed were intended to be heard at the specific times they were played, such as ragas for the “coming dawn,” which were heard around 4:30 a.m. Highlights for me included Partho Sarodi’s jaw-dropping performance on the sarod, a stringed instrument sounding a bit like an acoustic guitar crossed with a sitar; and the breathtaking vocals in the morning sets by the Sama Venkatesaiah Balakrishna Troupe and Manjiri Vaishampayan.

This was also a rare opportunity to stay inside the Chicago Cultural Center overnight. The lights were dimmed in the middle of the night, and then the pink hues of the rising sun trickled into the grand room after 6 a.m., glinting in the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome. It was a gorgeous sight to behold, all the more so with such incredible musical accompaniment.

Ragamala begins at 6 p.m. with Josh Feinberg (sitar) with Anindo Chatterjee (tabla)
Ragamala begins at 6 p.m. with Josh Feinberg (sitar) with Anindo Chatterjee (tabla)
Josh Feinberg (sitar) with Anindo Chatterjee (tabla)
Josh Feinberg (sitar) with Anindo Chatterjee (tabla)

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GS Rajan (flute) with M.S. Sukhi (mridangam)
GS Rajan (flute) with M.S. Sukhi (mridangam)
Partho Sarodi (sarod)
Partho Sarodi (sarod)
Partho Sarodi (sarod) with Abhijit Banerjee (tabla)
Partho Sarodi (sarod) with Abhijit Banerjee (tabla)
Aditya Prakash (vocals) Salar Nader (tabla) with Shiva Ramamurthi (violin)
Aditya Prakash (vocals) Salar Nader (tabla) with Shiva Ramamurthi (violin)
Max ZT (hammer dulcimer)
Max ZT (hammer dulcimer)
Max ZT (hammer dulcimer) with Salar Nader (tabla)
Max ZT (hammer dulcimer) with Salar Nader (tabla)
Anjna & Rajna Swaminathan (violin and mridangam)
Anjna & Rajna Swaminathan (violin and mridangam)
Lyon Leifer (bansuri) with Subhasis Mukherjee (tabla)
Lyon Leifer (bansuri) with Subhasis Mukherjee (tabla)
Lyon Leifer (bansuri) with Subhasis Mukherjee (tabla)
Lyon Leifer (bansuri) with Subhasis Mukherjee (tabla)
David Trasoff (sarod)
David Trasoff (sarod)

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Sama Venkatesaiah Balakrishna Troupe
Sama Venkatesaiah Balakrishna Troupe
Sama Venkatesaiah Balakrishna Troupe
Sama Venkatesaiah Balakrishna Troupe

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Sunrise
Sunrise
Sunrise as the Sama Venkatesaiah Balakrishna Troupe plays
Sunrise as the Sama Venkatesaiah Balakrishna Troupe plays
Sama Venkatesaiah Balakrishna Troupe
Sama Venkatesaiah Balakrishna Troupe

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Manjiri Vaishampayan (vocals)
Manjiri Vaishampayan (vocals)
with Dhananjay Kunte (tabla) and Amit Vaishampayan (harmonium)
with Dhananjay Kunte (tabla) and Amit Vaishampayan (harmonium)

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with Dhananjay Kunte (tabla) and Amit Vaishampayan (harmonium)
with Dhananjay Kunte (tabla) and Amit Vaishampayan (harmonium)
The final round of applause at 9 a.m.
The final round of applause at 9 a.m.

Radiohead at Lollapalooza

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As expected, the highlight of this year’s Lollapalooza for me was Radiohead. It was great to see the band again after an absence of several years, and the new songs sounded very strong in concert alongside a career-spanning sample of Radiohead classics. During the song “Identikit,” as Thom Yorke chanted the line, “Broken hearts make it rain,” it actually did start to rain — just a few sprinkles. And as it turned out, that was the only moment during the whole evening when I noticed any rain falling. Although the concert was supposed to end at 10 p.m., Radiohead returned for a surprise second encore, playing two oldies, “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” and “Karma Police.” Interestingly, according to setlist.fm, the band’s written set list showed “Reckoner” as an alternative song to start the second encore, followed by “Silent Night.”

SET LIST:

Burn the Witch / Daydreaming / Ful Stop / 2 + 2 = 5 / Myxomatosis / My Iron Lung / Climbing Up the Walls / No Surprises / Pyramid Song / Bloom / Identikit / The Numbers / The Gloaming / Weird Fishes/Arpeggi / Everything in Its Right Place / Idioteque / There There

FIRST ENCORE: Let Down / Present Tense / Paranoid Android / Nude / Bodysnatchers

SECOND ENCORE: Street Spirit (Fade Out) / Karma Police

See The A.V. Club for a gallery of my Lollapalooza photos. Here are some additional photos I took of Radiohead:

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