Joshua Abrams’ Hideout residency

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The masterful Chicago musician Joshua Abrams played five concerts at the Hideout in November, playing with different collaborators on each Tuesday night. The one constant was the group he calls Natural Information Society Residency — but even that ensemble has a shifting lineup. It’s essentially a setting for Abrams to play an African instrument called the gimbri (a three-stringed skin-covered bass plucked lute used by the Gnawa people of West Africa) as part of a large group of musicians improvising meditative minimalism and drones — part jazz, part rock, part world music, part experiment. Natural Information Society is one of Chicago’s best groups today, and the two shows I saw during November’s residency only confirmed how innovative and transcendent this band is.

I was there on Nov. 15, when the evening started with a set by Emmett Kelly, the multitalented musician who leads the Cairo Gang (or performs under that moniker) as well as playing guitar with numerous other bands. On this evening, however, Kelly sang cool jazz music in a style reminiscent of Chet Baker, with moody and atmospheric arrangements by the Joshua Abrams Quintet.

Then the main set featured Natural Information Society joining forces with Bitchin Bajas. Kelly joined in on guitar.

(Blog post continues below photos.)

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Nov. 22

The second show I saw was on Nov. 22, when the fabulous drummer Hamid Drake performed during both sets. During the jazzy opening set, Abrams and Drake played with Edward Wilkerson on reeds and oud and Josh Berman on cornet. Then came another mesmerizing performance by Natural Information Society.

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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.

Bitchin Bajas at the Hideout

On Tuesdays in February, the Hideout hosted a residency of concerts featuring Chicago musician Rob Frye. I was there on Feb. 23, when he performed as part of Bitchin Bajas, an instrumental drone group that also includes Cooper Crain (Frye’s fellow member in CAVE) and Dan Quinlivan. The three Bitchin Bajas set up their keyboards, drums and wind instruments on the main floor of the club and made beautiful, meditational music that lingered for a long time on single chords. (Some notable news about this band: Bitchin Bajas made a record with Bonnie “Prince” Billy called Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties, which Drag City is releasing March 18. You can see a video of their song “Your Hard Work Is About to Pay Off, Keep On Keeping On” here.)

After their set in the Hideout’s back room, the members of Bitchin Bajas and several guests (including singer Jeanine O’Toole from the 1900s and other bands) set up in the front bar, reassembling as a J.J. Cale tribute band and playing some delectably low-key guitar grooves.

Bitchin Bajas

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J.J. Cale tribute band

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Bonnie “Prince” Billy in Madison

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“I heard that Beyonce put out a record today,” singer-songwriter Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham) said during his concert Friday night, Dec. 13, at the Majestic Theatre in Madison, Wis. Noting that Beyonce had put her album out on iTunes (actually, the night before) without any advance publicity, Oldham said he’s done the same thing.

Then he wryly claimed credit for giving Beyonce the idea:

“I called her and said, ‘It’s getting to the end of the year. You should put out a record.’ She said, ‘Bonnie, what should I do?’ I said, ‘Just put it out on iTunes.’ She said, ‘That’s a good idea.'”

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Before anyone takes this too seriously, we should mention that Oldham has a sideline as a somewhat strange stand-up comedian. While it’s doubtful Beyonce has copied anything from Bonnie “Prince” Billy, it’s true that he’s taken some unusual approaches to releasing music.

Oldham has always been prolific, with so many semiofficial releases under various guises that it takes some homework to keep track of what he’s doing. The homework is worth doing — Oldham is one of the most consistently interesting songwriters of recent years. He hasn’t had a proper album of original songs since 2011, but during that time, he has released EPs, singles and collaborative projects (including an album last year with Trembling Bells and another this year with Dawn McCarthy, the wonderful Everly Brothers tribute, What the Brothers Sang).

And now he has a new album called simply Bonnie “Prince” Billy — which he is selling at the merch tables during a short concert tour, and virtually nowhere else. I snagged a copy for myself and another for a friend on Friday night. I think the guy selling records said that only 23 copies are for sale at each show (though it looked like there more than that). He said the album will come out next year with wider distribution. It’s a spare solo recording, and the only label information listed on it is a P.O. Box in Louisville. During his set, Oldham called it “the yellow record,” adding that the color came out a little greenish.

I made the drive to Madison for this concert because Bonnie “Prince” Billy didn’t include Chicago on his brief 2013 itinerary — unless you count the set he’s playing at 7 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 19, during the Second City’s annual “Letters to Santa” benefit. His other stops on this tour include St. Louis, Iowa City and Minneapolis.

Bitchin Bajas
Bitchin Bajas

After a lovely opening set of instrumental music by the Chicago group Bitchin Bajas, the stage was set for Bonnie “Prince” Billy: just a table and one microphone. It became clear that this would be a solo performance, something I’ve never seen Oldham do. He sang and played his unamplified acoustic guitar into that one mic, performing a set of more than 20 songs, including many that he recorded in his early years under the Palace Music and Palace Brothers monikers.

He opened with a song I didn’t recognize, which eventually morphed in the Palace Music track “New Partner.” Was it a medley or an extended version of that song? I’m not certain. I jotted down some of the lyrics, which seemed like Oldham’s way of introducing himself to the audience:

“I’m here to sing you songs in this room I have …
“My job is to sing these songs of questionable purpose.”

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Oldham often lifted one foot and twisted his posture as he sang, employing some of the same gestures I’ve seen him use when he’s in the full throes of a more rocking soon with a band. And as always, he bared his teeth and rolled his eyes at key moments of his songs. He was more talkative than usual in between songs.

After the first song, he asked, “Does anybody here have Black Panties?” After a woman in the crowd shouted that she did, Oldham said, “Oh, you’re wearing them? I meant the R. Kelly CD. … This next song exists only due to the inspiration of your neighbor to the south, Robert Kelly.” He then sang, “You Remind Me of Something (The Glory Goes)” — a song that doesn’t sound anything like Kelly’s music.

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At another point, Oldham played “Horses,” a song originally recorded by Sally Timms and Jon Langford of the Mekons. That prompted Oldham to tell the story of how he’d encountered Langford one time in a bar, dragging Langford out to his car to play him Oldham’s recording of the song. Oldham said Langford’s reaction seemed to be: Who the hell is this guy? “One of the high moments of my life,” Oldham said Friday, recalling that moment. An even higher moment, he said, was the time in 2007 when Oldham filled in for Tom Greenhalgh during a few songs when the Mekons played two shows in one night, at the Hideout and the Mutiny. (That was a great night for me in the audience, too.) As he remembered that night, Oldham compared it to watching Casablanca and being asked to fill in for Humphrey Bogart on the screen. Then he changed his mind, adding:

“I’d rather be Peter Lorre, actually.”

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Oldham also commented on his love of craft beer, noting: “You can’t download it.” He mentioned that during his introduction to his most famous song, “I See a Darkness.” Tired Hands Brewing Co. is making a beer named after that song. “I’ve gotten a lot of joy out of beer in my life during the last few years,” Oldham said. (Who can forget the time he interviewed a beer-brewing robot in a video for Dogfish Head Brewery?)

While he was in Madison, Oldham and his tour mates visited the Wisconsin State Capitol to get a look at Old Abe, Wisconsin’s Civil War eagle — “who flew into battle Lord of the Rings-style,” as Oldham put it. They heard a tour guide explaining how the original taxidermied Old Abe was destroyed a long time ago in a fire. “The Old Abe that’s in there is an impostor,” Oldham said. That led him into his 2011 song “Quail and Dumplings,” which he described as “my song about being disillusioned with America.” (As political protest songs go, it’s somewhat obscure.)

After an enthralling hour and a half of music and banter, Oldham closed the night with a cover of R. Kelly’s hit “The World’s Greatest,” transforming it into his own style of folk rock. The words seemed both goofy and anthemic coming out of Oldham’s mouth:

“I’m that star up in the sky
“I’m that mountain peak up high
“Hey, I made it
“I’m the world’s greatest.”

[UPDATE Dec. 18, 2013: See above.]L99A6493

SET LIST

Unknown song? / New Partner (from Palace Music’s Viva Last Blues)
You Remind Me of Something (The Glory Goes) (from Lie Down In the Light)
Black Captain (from Wolfroy Goes to Town)
The Mountain Low (from Palace Music’s Viva Last Blues)
I Heard of a Source (from Bonnie “Prince” Billy)
Wolf Among Wolves (from Master and Everyone)
Rich Wife Full of Happiness (from Ease Down the Road)
The Risen Lord (from Guarapero/Lost Blues 2)
Omaha (Everly Brothers cover from What the Brothers Sang)
Death to Everyone (from I See Darkness)
Horses (Sally Timms and Jon Langford cover from a Palace Music single)
The Brute Choir (from Viva Last Blues)
Love Comes to Me (from The Letting Go)
Quail and Dumplings (from Wolfroy Goes to Town)
(I Was Drunk at the) Pulpit (from Palace Brothers’ There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You)
I See a Darkness (from I See Darkness)

ENCORE:

The Weaker Soldier (from Palace Music’s Arise Therefore)
Gulf Shore (from Palace Music’s Lost Blues and Other Songs)
We Are Unhappy (from Wolfroy Goes to Town)
May It Always Be (from Ease Down the Road)
The World’s Greatest (R. Kelly cover from Ask Forgiveness)

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